Science in poetry

Sidereus Nuncius*

I have seen two-horned Venus

Travelling gently in the sky.

I have seen valleys and mountains on the Moon,

Saturn with its three bodies;

I, Galileo, first among humans,

Have seen four stars circle around Jupiter,

The Milky Way split into

Countless legions of new worlds.

I have seen, unbelieved, ominous spots

Foul the Sun’s face.

The spyglass was made by me,

A man of learning but with clever hands;

I’ve polished its lenses, aimed it at the Heavens

As you would aim a bombard.

I am the one who broke open the Sky

Before the Sun burned my eyes.

Before the Sun burned my eyes

I had to stoop to saying

I did not see what I saw.

The one who bound me to the earth

Did not unleash earthquakes or lightning.

His voice was subdued and smooth;

He had the face of everyman.

The vulture that gnaws me every evening

Has everyman’s face.

Primo Levi (1919-1987)

11  April 1984

*The Starry Messenger (Latin)


A letter from Marie Curie

The girl dying in New Jersey

barely glances at the foreign words

but she likes the stamp.

It is a kind of pale blue

she hasn’t seen much of.

The lawyer who brought the letter

talks of a famous scientist

who found the magic ingredient

that made the clockfaces she painted

shine in the dark. He doesn’t say

that each lick of the brush

took a little more radium

into her bones, that in

sixteen hundred years

if anything remained of her

it would still be half as radioactive

as the girl is now,

thumbing through the atlas

she asked her sister to borrow.

He explains that Marie Curie

is anaemic too, but the girl

isn’t listening. She’s found France;

it’s not so big. The lawyer shrugs:

She says to eat plenty of raw calves’ liver.

Lavinia Greenlaw


In the microscope

Here too are dreaming landscapes,

lunar, derelict.

Here too are the masses,

tillers of the soil.

And cells, fighters

who lay down their lives

for a song.


Here too are cemeteries,

Fame and snow.

And I hear murmuring,

The revolt of immense estates.

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998)


from Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake (1757-1827)


Who has seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you:

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.


Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I:

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)


More Funny Ideas About Grandeur

(Down House 1844)

‘To Emma, in case of my sudden death.

I have just finished this sketch

of my species theory. If true, as I believe,

it will be a considerable step

in science. My most solemn last request

is that you devote 400 pounds to its publication.’


‘There is a grandeur if you look

at every organic being

as the lineal successor to some other form,

now buried under thousands of feet of rock.

Or else as a co-descendant, with that buried form,

from some other inhabitant of this world

more ancient still, now lost.


Out of famine, death and struggle for existence,

comes the most exalted end

we’re capable of conceiving: creation

of the highest animals!

Our first impulse is to disbelieve –

how could any secondary law

produce organic beings, infinitely numerous,


characterized by most exquisite

workmanship and adaptation?

Easier to say, a Creator designed each.

But there is a simpler grandeur in this view –

that life, with its power to grow, to reach, feel,

reproduce, diverge, was breathed

into matter in a few forms first


and maybe only one. To say that while this planet

has gone cycling on

according to fixed laws of gravity,

from so simple an origin, through selection

Of infinitesimal varieties, endless forms

most beautiful and wonderful

have been, and are being, evolved.’

Ruth Padel


When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


These poems are all related to science in some way.

What does each poem mean to you?

Do you feel the poetic form has enhanced your appreciation of the science?

More science in poetry from the Poetry Archive


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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