Following the Science!

Newsletter 44 (14 June 2020)

In our bathroom, at about 8:30 in the morning, the sun streams in the roof window, hits the bevelled edges of a mirror, and showers small rainbows over the white tiles and the bath. Not exactly rainbows, as they are all straight, but if there is a word for these spectral bars, then I have not discovered it. Little bits of found beauty have come to the fore lately. After the departure of all the spring wildflowers on our walks I have been enjoying the endurance of the birds-foot trefoil (aka ‘eggs and bacon’) in the scrappy bit of verge where I found the beer bottle in the last newsletter.

    The rainbow has become a current symbol of hope, visible in so many windows of houses where children have been cooped up. Spurred on by seeing so many rainbows, I decided to rework some ideas from my past; or in fact rediscover the topic afresh (I could find no trace of whatever ideas I had arrived at before, on paper or in my computer).

    As everyone knows, for the centuries after Christianity attached the Old Testament to its new doctrines, and for Judaism before that, the rainbow had one central meaning:

Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said: “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations. I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis, 11–13).

 Then came the Enlightenment; in Pope’s trite couplet:

Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night: 
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light!

After Newton’s Opticks: or, A Treatise of the

Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light, appeared in 1704 the rainbow could never be viewed again in quite the same way. In the ‘Spring’ section of The Seasons (1728) the Scottish poet James Thomson writes with some enthusiasm about the new science:  

Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds    
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;    
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold    
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed    
From the white mingling maze.

The so-called Romantic poets wanted to retrieve the rainbow for a different kind of writing. Wordsworth’s famous poem is almost a manifesto for a simpler, even childlike vision: ‘My heart leaps up when I behold/ A rainbow in the sky.’ The painter Benjamin Haydon describes in his diary of 1817 an ‘immortal dinner’ where Wordsworth was a guest: ‘Keats lightheartedly said Newton “has destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours.” He then proposed a toast to “Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics” to the amusement of all.’

   In Lamia Keats writes that ‘Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings… Unweave a rainbow…’ And at this point in my putting things together, I discovered something unknown to me before, and that brought me to a halt: Richard Dawkins in 1978 used this idea in the title of his study Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, where he argues that science itself is sufficiently full of wonders to fulfil any such appetite. Dawkins is the well-known Oxford evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer with a nifty taste in book titles, such as The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

   Now the rainbow has been adopted world-wide as a symbol of hope. I cannot fathom to what extent this is connected in people’s minds with Judy Garland’s song in The Wizard of Oz. Look up ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ online and you will see that nearly every songster of the last half century has a version of this anthem of sentimentality. But what a simple, resilient tune – and perhaps banal – it is. I can’t really describe it musically, but to me it sounds like this: statement (balancing long and short notes), inversion, repetition, second statement, repetition, conclusion.

   For me there is one special rendition of this song that is unforgettable (except at the moment I seem to be able to forget anything). An old friend in Tuscany died some years ago now, and we went to his funeral. These affairs in Italy are usually quite perfunctory: a Catholic service followed by a solemn walk to the cemetery, the crowd standing back while a pair of grave-diggers, male and female, both sporting tattoos and orange hi-viz jerkins, get on with their job. But Beppe’s daughter Sandra had returned from Paris to organise something more memorable. There were eulogies by some of his many friends, who dwelt on his cheerful generosity and hospitality – of which we had been frequently the recipients – and on his almost uncanny talent for grafting vines and trees, for which he was known far and wide. Beppe had played the clarinet in the Montalcino town band, and sometimes after a long Sunday lunch he would pull one out from the cupboard where he kept his guns, and deafen us all with a few blasts of half-remembered tunes. After the speeches, moving and interesting as they were, came something entirely unexpected. Somewhere from the side of the packed church came the sound of a clarinet. It was breathy, hesitant, slow, carefully finding its way into a tune that soon became recognizable. It was not a virtuoso performance; one almost wondered at every turn whether it would stumble, or fail or go astray, but it arrived at the end of the song without a mistake; and it was entirely beautiful.

   Until recently Sandra has been in lock-down with her mother, who is cruelly reduced physically and mentally by a stroke. Several times every year, except this one, driving between Camigliano and Montalcino we make sure we spot one of Beppe’s last fruit tree grafts by the side of the road, that he made a few days before he died. We happened to drive past while he was perched up a ladder at work, with a small group of elderly men watching.

    Am I right in thinking that The Wizard of Oz starts in monochrome and then miraculously becomes technicolour before our eyes? I don’t think I can be bothered to watch it again to find out, having seen it over the shoulders of children and grandchildren at a number of Christmases. But what a strange parable of hope, fortitude and lost illusions that film is, with the ‘wonderful wizard’, who was supposed to solve everyone’s problems, turning out to be a noisy charlatan with a megaphone. But all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and Dorothy’s and her friends’ problems turn out to have dissolved without the wizard’s help.

   In Italy the children’s rainbows are usually accompanied by a naked expression of optimism, andrà tutto bene, ‘all will go well’ or ‘everything will be alright’, an empty enough catchphrase for strange and precarious times, but something that we all hope will prove to be true.

From The Seasons by James Thomson (1730) ‘Spring’, first published 1728, lines 203–217

Among many other poems, short and long, Thomson wrote ‘In memory of Newton’ (1727) and the ode ‘Rule Britannia’, part of The Masque of Alfred, co-written with poet and dramatist Edward Mallet, and performed before the Prince of Wales at Cliveden in 1740, with music by Thomas Arne.

Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud, 
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds, 
In fair proportion running from the red 
To where the violet fades into the sky. 
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the swain;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend
Delightful o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly
Then vanish quite away.

Wordsworth: ‘My Heart Leaps up’ (1806)

My heart leaps up when I behold    
A rainbow in the sky: 
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die! 
The Child is father of the Man; 
And I could wish my days to be 
Bound each to each by natural piety.

From Lamia by John Keats (1820)

This long poem is the tale of Lycius, who falls in love with a beautiful woman. At his wedding, she is revealed to be a snake by ‘the bald-head philosopher’ Apollonius.

Early in the poem is a description of Lamia, in her original form, which is included for its gaudy colour.

Part I, lines 45–56

          …a palpitating snake,
Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;  
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,       
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,       
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed         
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—    
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,       
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.

Part II, lines 229–238

                              Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

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