Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On the boulevard of broken dreams

I seem to remember that it was Lawrence Durrell, somewhere in the Alexandrian Quartet, who said: "Science is the poetry of the intellect, and poetry is the science of the heart.” Or something to that effect.

That line has stuck in my head for thirty or forty years, without ever quite knowing what to make of it. Maybe it's time to wonder if it's saying anything meaningful.

Certainly, science is the work of the intellect. One can feel a heartfelt passion while doing science, and one can experience a throb or two when observing science, but the intellect is in the driver's seat. There is no place for soulful sentiment in a science journal or textbook.

But is science poetry? Not in any sense that would satisfy the Literature Department. But, yes, in the way we might use the phrase "poetry in motion." Or Sidney's "sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge." How many times have we heard said of a scientific theory: "It is so beautiful, it must be true." If there can be poetry in motion, there can also be poetry in a mathematical equation. Or in the exquisite pas de deux of the unwinding double helix of the DNA. The intellect is in the driver's seat, but poetry goes along for the ride.

And what about "poetry is the science of the heart"? Can that mean anything at all?

We know what we mean by heart -- that rush of inchoate feeling that sweeps us off our feet. Poetry takes the unspeakable and speaks it, in rhyme and meter, in sound and syntax. Only love can break a heart and only love can mend it, but poetry can supply the lyrics. And in that it is like science, wrestling chaos into cadence.

And with those inchoate thoughts, we'll lay Mr. Durrell to rest.