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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Poetry, technology, science


Those hells upon earth, since the Steam King's birth

Have scatter'd around despair;

For the human mind for heav'n design'd,

With the body, is murdered there.

Edward P. Mead, “The Steam King”

A sad astrology, the boundless plan

That makes you tyrants in your iron skies,

Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes,

Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand

His nothingness into man.

Tennyson, Maud (1855), 1.634–8

From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God –

Rudyard Kipling, “McAndrew's Hymn”

(Scribner's Magazine [December, 1894]), 3

Marshall Berman's characterization of modernity aptly encapsulates the Victorian experience of confronting rapid technological development and scientific breakthroughs: “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” For engineers, capitalists, and middle-class employees, technology was an engine of profit; new machines also benefited writers and readers, distributing print nationwide in mere hours and lowering printing costs until anyone with a penny could purchase hours of reading. McAndrew, the Scottish engineer and servant of empire in Kipling's “Hymn,” even sees God's providence in his steamship's machinery. But to workers harnessed to and sometimes mauled by machines, whose wages were kept low by the same economic system that spurred development, new technologies were a harrowing source of misery.