March / April 2007
William Wells, this is to tell you that the morning wet
Still beads the leaves with precision and abandon.
Comes now your beloved creeping damp, even as I write.
What possessed you, William Wells, what iridescent hypothesis
Sent you out like a serial phantom into London’s clammy lanes?
What gists did you distill from the droplet’s hieroglyphics?
Doctor, your undertaking absorbs me when I’m up late.
There’s a touch of the sublime in your arcane fixation.
I can almost picture you eyeballing pearly spider’s lace…
But alas, posterity wipes the slate. Your “Essay on Dew,”
Admired in its day, has gone the way of all condensation.
You’re a footnote if you’re lucky: foreshadower of Darwin.
Royal Society regular, expatriate physician from the States
With a bent for natural philosophy, a minor evolutionist.
Your proofs are lost on us. Your opus molders in the stacks.
And how on earth could be otherwise? Your chosen field
Was any garden margin at its peak of superficial glister.
Your realm of inquiry could only prove demonstrably ephemeral.
William Wells, you are obscure – you’ve turned to mist.
So humor my surmises in these small hours. Hear me out:
Each grass spear in my side yard bears your watermark;
The morning glories I’m letting have their way this year
Batten the pickets in soaking tangles, a diorama in your honor,
Everywhere I look the undergrowth jewels up and there you are.
William Wells, transpire what may before I’m dust,
Let me take a leaf from you: ardent and intent
On noting well what burns away, what cannot last.
Note: William Charles Wells (1757-1817) published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. Loren Eiseley, Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It (New York: Anchor Books, 1961).
David Barber, Visiting Lecturer in Writing this spring, is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His most recent collection of poetry is Wonder Cabinet (2006), from which the poem above is reprinted.
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