Twentieth-century poetry and science : science in the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, Judith Wright, Edwin Morgan, and Miroslav Holub
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The aim of this thesis is to arrive at a characterisation of twentieth century poetry and science by means of a detailed study of the work of four poets who engaged extensively with science and whose writing lives spanned the greater part of the period. The study of science in the work of the four chosen poets, Hugh MacDiarmid (1892 – 1978), Judith Wright (1915 – 2000), Edwin Morgan (1920 – 2010), and Miroslav Holub (1923 – 1998), is preceded by a literature survey and an initial theoretical chapter. This initial part of the thesis outlines the interdisciplinary history of the academic subject of poetry and science, addressing, amongst other things, the challenges presented by the episodes known as the ‘two cultures’ and the ‘science wars’. Seeking to offer a perspective on poetry and science more aligned to scientific materialism than is typical in the interdiscipline, a systemic challenge to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is put forward in the first chapter. Additionally, the founding work of poetry and science, I. A. Richards’s Science and Poetry (1926), is assessed both in the context in which it was written, and from a contemporary viewpoint; and, as one way to understand science in poetry, a theory of the creative misreading of science is developed, loosely based on Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973). The detailed study of science in poetry commences in Chapter II with Hugh MacDiarmid’s late work in English, dating from his period on the Shetland Island of Whalsay (1933 – 1941). The thesis in this chapter is that this work can be seen as a radical integration of poetry and science; this concept is considered in a variety of ways including through a computational model, originally suggested by Robert Crawford. The Australian poet Judith Wright, the subject of Chapter III, is less well known to poetry and science, but a detailed engagement with physics can be identified, including her use of four-dimensional imagery, which has considerable support from background evidence. Biology in her poetry is also studied in the light of recent work by John Holmes. In Chapter IV, science in the poetry of Edwin Morgan is discussed in terms of its origin and development, from the perspective of the mythologised science in his science fiction poetry, and from the ‘hard’ technological perspective of his computer poems. Morgan’s work is cast in relief by readings which are against the grain of some but not all of his published comments. The thesis rounds on its theme of materialism with the fifth and final chapter which studies the work of Miroslav Holub, a poet and practising scientist in communist-era Prague. Holub’s work, it is argued, represents a rare and important literary expression of scientific materialism. The focus on materialism in the thesis is not mechanistic, nor exclusive of the domain of the imagination; instead it frames the contrast between the original science and the transformed poetic version. The thesis is drawn together in a short conclusion.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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