Matthew Francis on the inspiration of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

Robert Hooke's flea from his Micrographia,1665.
Robert Hooke’s flea from his Micrographia,1665.

For several years now I have been fascinated by the seventeenth century, the period when so many of our current intellectual preoccupations first took shape. The young scientist Robert Hooke published his Micrographia, an illustrated account of the things he observed through the microscope, in 1665, to great acclaim: Samuel Pepys called it “the most ingenious book I ever read in my life”. Hooke describes the edge of a razor, the point of a needle, the cell structure of cork and the six-armed form of the snowflake, as well as a rich assortment of plant and insect life. There are monstrous pictures of a flea, bristling with weaponry, and of a louse, its hooked feet gripping a human hair that seems as thick as a cable. He is interested in everything: how a fly is able to walk upside-down on the ceiling, how the reflective surfaces of a peacock’s feather create the effect of colour without being coloured themselves, whether moss grows from seed or is a spontaneous product of decay. In his speculations we can watch modern science coming into being, but I am also intrigued by the differences. Hooke reveals his personality in a way we don’t always associate with scientists when he expresses his pleasure in an observation and his awe at nature’s complexity. Sometimes he even ventures a joke.

Matthew Francis’s poem, ‘Ant’, was first published in Poetry Review, 103:4, Winter 2013.