Shadows of Everlastingness: Henry Vaughan and the poetics of infinity

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This essay is about the relationship of poetry to the language of science, two forms or modes of language which are far more interconnected than we tend to believe. It is also just a start, a beginning to a topic that no doubt can sustain considerably more development; I hope it will. For in part, this paper is a con- tained response to a frustration I have felt for many years with the growing trend toward positivist forms of literary criticism: linking brain scans to literary responses, tying evolution – which is itself only understood through metaphor – to both reader response and (astoundingly) to narrative content – plot, and so on. What I don’t want to do is spend time examining what seem obvious flaws in these approaches in my profession or, indeed, the thinly veiled political agendas that they advance, for better or worse. It was merely a joke, I recall, about a decade ago that I suggested to a sympathetic colleague that I should, in response, start a school of ‘atomic’ or even ‘quantum literary criticism’. It seemed strangely satisfying to tie these hard, materialist sciences to the ‘fluffy’ subjectivity of read- ing pleasure and interpretation. Yet, the joke never quite left my mind. Indeed, it seemed weirdly to intensify as I would read with wonder about the discoveries in the far reaches of the universe or the gradual unveiling of nano secrets within the atom: all of those uncertainties and, as a result, all of those metaphors employed to explain them. For what I believe this paper is really about is the in- separable necessity of poetry to scientific enquiry. Poetry in its met- onymic character and its allusiveness is the language of uncertainty, of probing and possibility, where all shades and forms of metaphor become the building blocks of thought.1 Where algebra can make use of symbolic placeholders to illustrate a relationship, so poetry through metaphor, symbol, analogy, or merely through rhythm and rhyme, can hold or illuminate a possibility, a momentary tentative understanding, perhaps to be quickly erased or developed, but at least recorded in the moment. Poetry is the language of wonder.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163
Number of pages173
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Henry Vaughan
  • Carl Sagan
  • Poetry


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  • The Vaughan Association

    Sterrett, J. W., Thomas, P. & Wilcox, H.

    22/04/2011 → …

    Project: Research

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