The end of November, 1807. He’d been writing like a man possessed. He’d seen into the nature of Nature! The element, Potassium. Sodium too. Neither of which had been isolated before Humphry Davy, our man of the hour, jolted a bit of potash with a few determined volts.
Davy was an amateur in the classic sense—a lover of a great many things. Among his affinities were electricity (first and foremost), geology, agriculture, natural philosophy, chemistry, and (as his good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge eagerly testified time and again) poetry.
In his frenzy to finish his paper on the experiment, Davy took ill. It was touch and go for a while, and even when Death gave Davy back his coat, the sickbed held him captive for months. It was during this illness that Davy finished a poem he’d started some years before, a poem now given the title, “Written after Recovery from a Dangerous Illness.”
For photographer Brenton Hamilton, the poem “was a revelation.” “Davy is one of the figures I have great affiliation with,” Hamilton says. That unfettered, indiscriminate spirit of the amateur, the spirit that drove Davy to science, is the same that drives Hamilton to the image. But even encyclopedic enthusiasms have their limits. In that relentless need to experience the new, the artist (warns Adam Phillips in his book Unforbidden Pleasures) must be careful not to become what he or she isn’t—not to step into the void.
Almost every image in this feature is on the verge of becoming what isn’t, but at that edge, Hamilton discovers a deeper sense of what is: the human imagination and the natural world, each in its perpetual quest to reinvent the other. The branch of a tree elongates the human mandible; a mastodon’s heart beats freely in the broken marble: “the renovated forms,” as Davy says, “of long-forgotten things arise again.”
Selected Stanzas from “Written After Recovery from a Dangerous Illness”
by Sir Humphry Davy
All speaks of change: the renovated forms
Of long-forgotten things arise again;
The light of suns, the breath of angry storms,
The everlasting motions of the main.
These are but engines of the Eternal will,
The One Intelligence, whose potent sway
Has ever acted, and is acting still
Whilst stars, and worlds, and systems all obey;
Without whose power, the whole of mortal things
Were dull, inert, an unharmonious band,
Silent as are the harp’s untuned strings
Without the touches of the poet’s hand.
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