Ian Ramsey Centre

“The Holy Matrimony of the Modern Poet and Scientist” - Emily Dumler-Winckler

What is a Poet? This is Wordsworth’s question in the second edition of the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1802), one he answers by comparing the poet with the modern scientist in a light favourable to both, and suggesting for them a shared aim. At a time when the divorce between poetry and science was beginning to appear all but settled — poetry understood as an aesthetic language-without-truth, science as an objective truth-without-language — Wordsworth and Sir Humphrey Davy officiate a holy matrimony between the two by seeing the likeness of each in the other, by understanding one another as smitten interpreters of the Book of Nature. Despite the increasingly widespread belief in the finality of the divorce, Davy and Wordsworth cleared the way for a distinguished legacy of poets, philosophers, and scientists, including the likes of William Whewell, Charles Darwin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to avoid this mistaken view and effect the happy partnership in their own time. With this marriage, Wordsworth, Emerson, and their fellow trans-Atlantic Romanticists resist the disenchanted view that there is no aspect of nature not subsumed by modern science, that there is in the world no enchantment, no value, however sacred or secular. That is, they resist the modern dichotomy of naturalism versus supernaturalism, and not only by way of a natural supernaturalism. They were eager to understand and adopt the insights of modern science. Nonetheless, they were keenly aware of the limitations and dangers that attend certain modern scientific practices and Enlightenment views of nature, disenchanted views that tend to alienate us from God, nature, one another, and ultimately from our own agency. This paper demonstrates that the happy marriage of the poet and scientist is crucial if we are to make a shared home of the modern world we inhabit.

EMILY DUMLER-WINCKLER is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame in the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing. She earned her M.Div., Th.M. and Ph.D from Princeton Theological Seminary. She specialises in moral theology (historical, doctrinal, and systematic) with a particular interest in virtue, moral philosophy and psychology, aesthetics, politics, science, and social change in the modern era. Her research brings ancient and medieval thought to bear on modern and contemporary debates in religious ethics. Her dissertation, “Modern Virtue: Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft and a Tradition of Dissent,” challenges the narrative of the virtue’s modern demise by offering an account of modern virtue, specifically the virtues of democratic social criticism and friendship. In her work with the Center, she is developing a theology of home-making, which examines how the practices of modern science and religion have shaped our relationship to the natural world for better and worse. This project considers the virtues needed to perfect these practices and so make a home of the shared world we inhabit.

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