This paper explores how the chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) fashioned himself as, what he called in his poetry, a “true philosopher.” He defined the “true philosopher” as someone who eschewed monetary gain for his scientific work, preferring instead to give knowledge freely for the public good, and as someone working at a higher level than the mere experimentalist. Specifically, Davy presented himself as using the method of analogy to reach his discoveries and emphasised that he understood the “principle” behind his findings. He portrayed himself as one who perceived analogies because he had a wider perspective on the world than many others in his society. The poem in which he describes the “true philosopher” offers us Davy’s private view of this character; the paper demonstrates how Davy attempted to depict his own character in this way during critical moments in his career.
Sharon Ruston is Professor in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her main research interests are in the relations between the literature, science and medicine of the Romantic period, 1780-1820. Her first book, Shelley and Vitality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), explored the medical and scientific contexts which inform Shelley's concept of vitality in his major poetry. Her most recent book, Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science, and Medicine of the 1790s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) has chapters on Mary Wollstonecraft's interest in natural history, William Godwin's interest in mesmerism, and Humphry Davy’s writings on the sublime. She is currently co-editing the Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy and his Circle, to be published in four volumes by OUP in 2018.