Werner’s Nemenclature of Colours: An Inspiration

I’d forgotten about it, this slim volume, until the spine on my bookshelf caught my eye: Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, whose title extends, in that florid 19th century way, to Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts. First published in 1814 and in a second edition in 1821, Werner’s Nomenclature is one of the world’s first systematic taxonomy of colors. Charles Darwin took this book with him on the HMS Beagle to infuse his writing with precision and lyricism. In a mere fifty-one pages, Edinburgh flower painter and art teacher Patrick Syme (1774–1845) drew upon the work of mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817) to describe and depict thirteen suites of colors and their tints, matching each one to its correspondences in the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral worlds. How wonderful it is, that Reddish White, for example, is composed of snow white, with a very minute portion of crimson red and ash grey, and corresponds to the egg of a grey linnet, the back of the Christmas rose, and porcelain earth!

Orange chart

Blue chart

Poetry quickens language by bringing particularity to description, by “showing” rather than by “telling.” Such that instead of saying, A bird landed on a branch, it’s better to name a particular bird: titmouse, sparrow, kingfisher. A poet might write that the walls of the room were blue, but when revising the poem, she could describe them, with the help of Werner’s Nomenclature, as Prussian blue, which is Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue. Which, by the way, corresponds to the Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake, the Stamina of Bluish-Purple Anemone, and to Blue Copper Ore.

As for using colors in a poem, without any help from Werner, I’m wowed by Evie Shockley’s “color bleeding,”

while indigo held fast, /
the daily news tattooed azure to my back. 

If you can write like Shockley, you don’t need Werner’s Nomenclature. But if you’d like a little inspiration, this is a book for the poet’s heart and for her poetry tool kit. I once read somewhere that art was more closely related to science, and music to mathematics. Although these alliances at first seemed strange to me, I’ve come to appreciate their logic. My daughter transferred in 4th grade to a school that fostered creativity. The first week she was there, she brought home a magnificent, hand-colored three-dimensional graph. “Wow,” I asked, “did you do this in art class?” “No,” she replied, “This was science.” The class was studying the Boston harbor, and students had drawn and illustrated a graph of daily fish catches.

Using language precisely, whether as poet or scientist, is a practice of paying attention and to truth telling. I believe in poetry. I believe in science and in today’s scientists’ fact-based warnings about our increasingly endangered planet.

Here’s a poem of mine inspired by Werner’s little book:


Love Poem on Exactness

For example: the thickness of the carpet

of deciduous leaves measured precisely

at 3:00 pm on February 1st, predicting when

spring is to arrive. Because it’s nice to count

on something. Church bells tolling at noon.

Flying across the Russian super-state,

knowing which of eleven time zones

you’re actually in. Songbirds returning

year after year to the same branch

on the same tree in the same yard.

In Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,

knowing Ultramarine Blue is a mixture

of equal parts Berlin and azure, which

corresponds to the upper side

of the wings of the small blue

heath butterfly. Also to borage

and lapis lazuli. The comfort

of reportage—the number

of right whales entangled

last year in fishing lines.

The nearly certain

evidence it will take

merely twenty years

for the right whale

to become extinct

Leave a Comment