Applied Imagination and Reason

In the Lab with the Poets

Once upon a time poetry and science were one, and its name was Magic. Magic, for our earliest ancestors, was the most effective way of understanding nature and their fellow-men, and of gaining power over them. It was not till some three centuries ago that science finally broke away from magic: the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century withdrew from the 'supernatural' as a field of study; and if science since then has led to other varieties of superstition, we must blame, not the scientists, but the layman, who finds superstition a difficult thing to live without. The course of poetry has been different. If the first great pre-scientific method was imitation, then poetry, in so far as it still rests upon imitation and animism, must seem a very primitive procedure.

Nevertheless, I believe poetry to be a possible way of gaining and imparting knowledge — a son of the same father as science: the brothers may quarrel from time to time, but each in his own field they are working towards compatible ends. To define the field of poetry should make it clear in what sense we may claim that poetry is concerned with knowledge. This I shall try to do. And I shall also suggest that there are remarkable affinities between the method of the scientist and the method of the poet — between the ways their minds work, particularly at one crucial stage of their investigations.


The poet, on the other hand, must not only imagine but reason — that is to say, he must exercise a great deal of consciously directed thought in the selection and rejection of his data: there is technical logic, a poetic reason in in his choice of the words, rhythms and images by which a poem's coherence is achieved.
From C. Day Lewis The Poets Way of Knowledge 1957 [The Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture, delivered in Newnham College, Cambridge, 1956]

And so for day 2326