A Manifesto Against Specialization: Experiment (1928-31)

2 August 2021

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham

We at Cambridge, at that time, thought of physics as an activity as natural as breathing or writing poetry.[1]

The intellectual atmosphere of 1920s Cambridge was under the constant impress of science. The British poet and critic Kathleen Raine describes how she and her peers were ‘under the spell of the new scientific universe’, feeling an impetus to integrate and respond to the developing scientific landscape.[2] The same was true of the faculty, with I. A. Richards’s scientifically-inflected formalisation of literary criticism shaping the English department.[3] The Cavendish Laboratory boasted some of the period’s most influential physicists and science popularizers, including J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford, and students of all stripes enjoyed regular guest lectures from eminent scientists like Paul Dirac, J. B. S. Haldane, Arthur Eddington, and Albert Einstein.[4] For some, their breathtaking discoveries gestured to new applications; for Raine and her contemporaries, they inspired the ‘excitement, illumination, or whatever that quickening of the pulse may be that tells the poet here is the matter for poetry’.[5]‘The scientists of the Cavendish Laboratory’ she says, ‘had set the problem the poets must resolve as best they could: to discover the qualitative implications of their new modelled universe.’[6] In November 1928, those poets responded with a wave of experimental writing to fill the pages of a new student-run magazine: Experiment.

Experiment was a ‘rather remarkable name for a literary magazine’.[7] Like its more conservative rival at Cambridge, The Venture (1928-30), the title suggested innovation, but the innovations implied by ‘experiment’ are of a very particular kind, evoking the precise, scientific methodology of the laboratory. Katy Price suggests two forms of experimentation were at play: the formal, boundary-pushing experimentation associated with Modernism, but also the methodological experimentation of scientific enquiry.[8] Experiment intentionally ‘blurs this distinction between literary and scientific experiment’.[9] The magazine drew a group of editors (William Empson, Jacob Bronowski, Hugh Sykes Davies, Humphrey Jennings, and William Hare) and contributors (including among others Basil Wright, T.H. White, Richard Eberhart, and Raine) from a wide range of disciplines.[10] Promoting the idea that science was as relevant to aesthetics, literary criticism, and poetry as its own areas of inquiry, Experimentsought work that would be ‘stimulating and lively and take a strong line’, hoping to provoke conversations across field boundaries.[11] Indeed, the magazine acted as a poly-vocal platform directly challenging specialization in the university. It welcomed interdisciplinary submissions not ‘confine[d] to the work of English students’ but concerned with ‘all the interests of undergraduates’.11 Nevertheless, the works put forward in Experiment’s first issues demonstrate a clear coherence of interests: for its contributors, ideas of motion and stasis, geometry, the ‘scientific attitude’, and re-orientating the Arts in an atmosphere saturated with scientific thought, were key.

In Experiment’s poems, scientific principles were stretched and tested, their consequences and contradictions explored in a form not beholden to practicability or even scientific accuracy. Foremost among these poems were those of the magazine’s editor, and later New Critic, William Empson. His poem ‘Letter’ is the first in a series of love poems addressed to his fellow student Desmond Lee, which take science as a starting point for the imagination– a springboard for playful and punning speculation – embracing then-impossible conditions (such as travel to the edge of the universe, light-speed travel, or radio communication between stars).[12] The application of an experimental framework to poetry, in addition to the scientific imagery, makes it impossible to understand poems like Empson’s ‘Letter’ without a grounding not only in contemporary scientific ideas, but in the[1] [2]  scientific method. As is the case with many of the pieces in Experiment, Empson’s poems are not about science, but rather turn scientific methodologies and materials toward the description of social and philosophical subjects; interdisciplinarity, therefore, served an important critical and artistic function.

Alongside ‘Letter’ appears an untitled poem by George Reavey which presents a distinctly modern, geometrical image of urban space that renders the forms of the modern city into ‘straight lines’ and ‘perpendiculars’ which ‘meet and diverge’ in the blur of stasis and motion.[13] If ‘Letter’ interrogates the cosmic void between stars, Reavey’s poem suggests a void much closer to home: a landscape which, despite being man-made, is clinical and detached from human emotion. Geometrical analysis dissects the city, plotting its movements through mathematical terms to give a dissociated and clinical view of the modern world. The faceless urbanites are defined only by their movement. This focus is interestingly paralleled in Giršavičius’s essay on ‘Biochemistry’ a few pages later, wherehe argues that ‘the organism must be considered not as a static structure but as a dynamic mechanism.’[14]

Similarly, Arthur Tillotson’s ‘Movement Two-Dimensional’ reduces human bodies to matter:

I sit behind my body’s mass

And neutral watch more bodies pass,

Alike in shape and shoes but not

Alike in purposing or lot.[15]

The speaker sits at a ‘neutral’ distance, dissociated from his own body and dehumanizing those around him; bodies are differentiated only by the vectors of purpose and movement they follow. As Giršavičius notes:

When the scientist observes the moving spectacle of people and things, he sees — not, this unique man or woman […] but, instead, a member of a certain species, genus, family, order, class, division, in the immense system of knowledge. He substitutes for the particular object in all its variety and unicity a general idea or concept.[16]

Reavey and Tillotson treat their subjects from the standpoint of the scientific observer, collecting and presenting observations in a way that feels much more clinical than Empson’s approach to similar subjects; here there are no wry jokes or puns, but rather a sober acceptance or resignation to the modern condition.

‘Movement Two-Dimensional’ shares this ambivalence towards the world it describes. ‘Let pattern come as pattern may’, says Tillotson, because man is too dull to the world beyond himself to act against it:

Even surface thoughts can hide

In skins by use devitrified;

Antennae man needs not, since he

Is dull to all but privacy.[17]

Tillotson’s syntax twists to conform to the rhyme, giving a sense of his subjects’ ignorance to the patterns not only of science but to the potential of human connection in the world around them. The poem is dotted with scientific diction: chemical devitrification, referring to the crystallisation of glass; the images of mixing ‘at boiling heat’; and time as a Darwinian ‘ducted tree’. In each of these poems, differences in or ignorance of methods, mind-sets, or physical paths, precludes emotional resolution.

As modernist studies continue to become more interdisciplinary, student magazines like this provide a vibrant source for inquiry, both as sites of diverse formal and theoretical experimentation and as examples of the cultural pressure-points that shape editorial choices. A glance over the pages of Experiment might suggest that the fervour for science in Cambridge during the 1920s provided its contributors with a unified ‘attitude’ through which to resolve the conditions of the modern world. However, a closer inspection shows a more nuanced use of science as an innovative approach to traditional themes, scientific language as a means of formal experimentation, and a broad attempt to tackle contradictions in a wide variety of fields through a scientific lens. At its heart, however, Experiment was a space in which the scientist-poet could thrive, performing his verse thought-experiments as part of a unified — though experimental — resistance to specialization in the academy.


Sources:

[1] Jacob Bronowski, ‘[Dr Jacob Bronowski]’, BBC Sound Archives MT39688, 0:00:44-0:01:15, Recording 

(1973).

[2] Raine, Kathleen, Autobiographies, (London: Skoob Books, 1991), p. 141.

[3] Richards’ works from the 1920s, in particular The Meaning of Meaning (1923), Principles of Literary 

Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929) were highly influential in formalizing the field of literary criticism; these were part of a prolific string of works including an aptly titled monograph Science and Poetry (1926).

[4] Bronowski (1973).

[5] Raine, p.140.

[6] Raine, p.140.

[7] Bronowski (1973).

[8] Katy Price, ‘Finite But Unbounded: Experiment magazine, Cambridge, England, 1928-31’, Jacket, 20 

(December 2002) <http://jacketmagazine.com/20/price-expe.html&gt; [Accessed 4 June 2021].

[9] Price.

[10] Bronowski (1973).

[11] Experiment, 1 (November 1928), p.1.

[12] William Empson, ‘Letter’, Experiment 1 (1928), p.1.

[13] G. Reavey, ‘Poem’, Experiment 1 (November 1928), p. 4.

[14] J. O. Giršavičius, ‘Biochemistry’, Experiment 1 (November 1928), p.33.

[15] Arthur Tillotson, ‘Movement Two-Dimensional’, Experiment 2 (February 1929), p. 31.

[16] Giršavičius, p. 8.

[17] Tillotson, p. 31.

Cover image: Cavendish Laboratory, source <https://history.aip.org/exhibits/rutherford/sections/atop-physics-wave.html&gt;

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started