Date of release: Friday, February 28, 2014

Romantics and the Northern LightsThe Romantics' surprisingly scientific approach to understanding nature forms the basis of the second University of Greenwich History Papers talk this year. The talk will be held at the Greenwich Heritage Centre, in Artillery Square, Woolwich, on Wednesday 5 March.

Lecturer Dr Angela Byrne will be considering 18th and early 19th century narratives of exploration in the Northwest Passage, in Arctic Canada, as travellers tried to understand the nature of the far north.

Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in late 18th century Europe in reaction to an increasingly industrial, rationalized world. It valued intense emotion, the power of the imagination, and the aesthetic appreciation of nature.   Famous Romantics include Lord Byron and Wordsworth, Beethoven, and the scientist Sir Humphry Davy. Travelling into new landscapes was a natural result of the movement's ideals.

However, Angela says that Romantic explorers were in search of more than just beauty and emotion. "The Romantics had a complex attitude towards nature, combining science, poetry and aesthetics" she explains, "but direct experience was considered essential in exploratory science. The narratives are detailed accounts that shed new light both on the history of science, and the values of the time."

The extremes of the Northwest Passage also provided fantastical stories. Intense, unusual experiences such as the midnight sun and aurora borealis (the 'northern lights') were popular with a Romantic readership, as exploratory science pushed forward. However, these narratives show not just the scientific need to understand, but aesthetic considerations that explain the movement's name.

"They were still Romantics," Angela points out, "It was not enough for them to understand the northern lights; they also had to appreciate its unique beauty."

The University of Greenwich History Papers talks are free and open to all. Doors open at 6pm for a 6.30pm start and refreshments will be provided.

Upcoming topics in the series include British imperial power, the history of the Medway Towns, and the Women's Voluntary Service in the Second World War.

To find out more about studying history at the University of Greenwich, go to

Story by Public Relations