A Poem, a Microscope and what we cannot always see.
9th November 2011
Here is a wonderful piece of verse that encapsulates a whole lot of Eastern and Western mysticism, philosophy and religion - and all in just a few short lines.
Little fly, Thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand Has brushed away.
Am not I A fly like thee? Or art not thou A man like me?
For I dance And drink and sing, Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life And strength and breath, And the want Of thought is death,
Then am I A happy fly, If I live, Or if I die.
Entitled 'The Fly', it was written by William Blake (1757–1827). Blake was not only a poet and graphic artist, but also an engraver and a visionary. He was fortunate in being able to see angels and spiritual creatures of all shapes and sizes who regularly appeared to him and inspired his work. Much has been written about his poetry and about this little piece as well, but one aspect that has been overlooked is the influence of another graphic artist of the previous century, namely that of Robert Hooke and whose work, and particularly the engravings of his work, Blake would have known very well.
Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was a polymath, a man skilled in all manner of scientific knowledge and practical experimentation. We do not have a portrait of Hooke that has survived, but for decades he was the 'nuts-and-bolts' genius behind much of the experimental work of the Royal Society in London - and he remains to this day rather an unsung hero, possibly due to the overbearing influence of his contemporary and, some say, rival, Isaac Newton. He was highly skilled at making fine drawings at the microscope and in 1665 he published his masterpiece of microscopic observations, the revolutionary and at the time utterly sensational Micrographia, a large book which was celebrated for its intricate copperplate engravings of the world of the small, particularly its fold-out plates of insects. Here is an example ... of a fly, as it happens.
The extract below from Micrographia demonstrates Hooke's perspective on how the microscope was used to enhance our vision of the unseen ...
'In the collection of most of which I made use of microscopes and some other glasses and instruments that improve the senses... only to promote the use of mechanical helps for the Senses, both in the surveying the already visible World, and for the discovery of many others hitherto unknown.'
Diagram of Hooke's own 17th-century microscope.
In other words, just because you cannot see it, it doesn't mean to say it doesn't exist. It is perhaps as true of the wings of an angel as it is with the eye of a fly. Both Hooke and Blake wrote about these things in their own way, based on observations that each had experienced for themselves.