The Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep

July 19, 2023

Agricultural scientist Keith Davies writes about his forthcoming book on Blake, science and the imagination.

I work as an agricultural scientist at the University of Hertfordshire where I am an Associate Professor. At the end of July my book, William Blake, the Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep: A History of Science, Poetry and Progress will be published by Routledge. One of the major factors influencing my choice in becoming a scientist was Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man TV series, but I had grown up in a household full of my mother’s poetry books and therefore also had an interest in the arts. One day as an undergraduate and browsing in the college bookshop, at the then Hatfield Polytechnic, I came across a paperback of William Blake’s poems edited and introduced by Bronowski. At the time I did not know Bronowski also had an interest in the arts, and indeed had written an influential book about William Blake. I naturally bought a copy of the paperback, which I still possess. As a biology student in the 1970s I had grown up reading the books of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and I had become a card-carrying atheist, but Blake’s poems continued to haunt me.

Several years later I read Kathleen Raine’s book, Golgonooza – City of Imagination, in which she states, ‘William Blake is the only English poet whose central theme is the confrontation of science and imagination.’ This statement brought into perspective why, as a practicing scientist, I had always been haunted by William Blake. Shortly after this insight, and while the debate around genetic modification was raging, I wrote an article that was published in the journal Nature as a millennium essay, entitled ‘Creative tension: What links Aristotle, William Blake, Darwin and GM crops?’ In the current book, which I wrote during the various Covid-19 lockdowns, I unpack the philosophic ideas behind my essay by unravelling the tensions behind Raine’s statement about the confrontation between science and the imagination.  

In 1956, the day after I was born, CP Snow had an article published in the New Statesman (6 October) entitled ‘The Two Cultures’, which he subsequently delivered as The Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1959. In this lecture, published the same year as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Snow compares the educational systems of England with those of America and Russia, and makes a comment to the effect that the intellectual life of western society is increasingly split between those who have had a scientific education and those who have followed the arts. These two groups of people, Snow maintains, can no longer communicate nor understand one another.

In my book I argue that CP Snow’s Two Cultures debate hinges on the profound issue regarding the nature of scientific knowledge, of which I think Blake was thoroughly aware when he wrote to Thomas Butts:

Now I a fourfold vision see,

And a fourfold vision is given to me

Tis fourfold in my supreme delight

And three fold in soft Beulahs night

And twofold Always. May God us keep

From Single vision & Newtons sleep

I believe the Two Cultures problem can be traced back to the philosopher David Hume and his removal of imagination from our linking of causes to their effects. This, I argue, has led to the pressing problems of planetary climate change and the situation in which Newton’s sleep should be awoken. Imagination needs to be reinstated as fundamental to all our knowledge, bringing the arts together with sciences.

William Blake, the Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep: A History of Science, Poetry and Progress is available in hardback and as an eBook from Routledge, published on 27 July 2023.