Euclid, Archimedes and Poetry


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Having made a collection of poems which were about, or mentioned, Isaac Newton, I [EFR] looked for poems which were about, or mentioned, Euclid and Archimedes. I found considerably fewer such poems but I still found an interesting collection which I give below.

We begin with "Euclid poems", presented in roughly chronological order.

1. Anonymous: 10th Century.

This is interesting since, provided the dating is correct, it shows that Euclid was being taught in England in the 10th Century:

The clerk Euclide on this wyse hit fonde
Thys craft of gemetry yn Egypte londe
Yn Egypte he tawghte hyt ful wyde,
In dyvers londe on every syde.
Mony erys afterwarde y understonde
Yer that the craft com ynto thys londe.
Thys craft com into England, as y yow say,
Yn tyme of good Kyng Adelstone's day

2. Robert Burns (1759-1796): Caledonia - A Ballad.

Burns writes of his beloved Scotland. This verse is the final verse of the poem:

Thus bold, independent, unconquer'd, and free,
Her bright course of glory for ever shall run:
For brave Caledonia immortal must be;
I'll prove it from Euclid as clear as the sun:
Rectangle-triangle, the figure we'll chuse:
The upright is Chance, and old Time is the base;
But brave Caledonia's the hypothenuse;
Then, ergo, she'll match them, and match them always.

3. William Wordsworth (1770-1850): The Prelude (1850).

This is an autobiographical poem. The following extract mentions Euclid's Elements:

I looked and looked, self-questioned what this freight
Which the new-comer carried through the waste
Could mean, the Arab told me that the stone
(To give it in the language of the dream)
Was "Euclid's Elements,"

4. Rudolph Chambers Lehmann (1856-1929): The Death Of Euclid.

A threnody for Euclid! This is he
Who with his learning made our youth a waste,
Holding our souls in fee;
A god whose high-set crystal throne was based
Beyond the reach of tears,
Deeper than time and his relentless years!

Come then, ye Angle-Nymphs, and make lament;
Ye little Postulates, and all the throng
Of Definitions, with your heads besprent
In funeral ashes, ye who long
Worshipped the King and followed in his train;
For he is dead and cannot rise again.

Then from the shapes that beat their breasts and wept,
Soft to the light a gentle Problem stepped,
And, lo, her clinging robe she swiftly loosed
And with majestic hands her side produced:

'Sweet Theorem,' she said, and called her mate,
'Sweet Theorem, be with me at this hour.
How oft together in a dear debate
We two bore witness to our Sovereign's power.
But he is dead and henceforth all our days
Are wrapped in gloom,
And we who never ceased to sing his praise
May weep our lord, but cannot call him from his tomb.'

And, as they bowed their heads and to and fro
Wove in a mournful gait their web of woe,
Two sentinels forth came,
Their hearts aflame,
And moved behind the pair:
'Warders we are,' they cried,
'Of these two sisters who were once so fair,
So joyous in their pride.'
And now their massy shields they lifted high,
Embossed with letters three,
And, though a mist of tears bedimmed each eye,
The sorrowing Nymphs could see
Q., E. and F. on one, and on the other Q. E. D.

But on a sudden, with a hideous noise
Of joy and laughter rushed a rout of boys;
And all the mourners in affright
Scattered to left and right.
Problems and Theorems and Angles too,
Postulates, Definitions, Circles, Planes,
A jibbering crew,
With all their hoary gains
Of knowledge, from their monarch dead
Into the outer darkness shrieking fled.

And now with festal dance and laughter loud
Broke in the boyish and intruding crowd;
Nor did they fail,
Seeing that all the painful throng was sped,
To let high mirth prevail,
And raise the song of joy for Euclid dead.

5. Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931): Euclid.

Vachel Lindsay was an American poet. He loved to recite his own poems in a highly rhythmic fashion with dramatic hand gestures:

Old Euclid drew a circle
On a sand-beach long ago.
He bounded and enclosed it
With angles thus and so.
His set of solemn greybeards
Nodded and argued much
Of arc and circumference,
Diameter and such.
A silent child stood by them
From morning until noon
Because they drew such charming
Round pictures of the moon.

6. Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950): Euclid alone.

An American poet and dramatist famed for her highly lyrical verse:

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Finally we give two "Archimedes poems".

7. Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805): Archimedes.

Von Schiller was a German poet and dramatist. The poem was originally written in German and translated into English:

To Archimedes once a scholar came,
"Teach me," he said, "the art that won thy fame; -
The godlike art which gives such boons to toil,
And showers such fruit upon thy native soil; -
The godlike art that girt the town when all
Rome's vengeance burst in thunder on the wall!"
"Thou call'st art godlike - it is so, in truth,
And was," replied the master to the youth,
"Ere yet its secrets were applied to use -
Ere yet it served beleaguered Syracuse: -
Ask'st thou from art, but what the art is worth?
The fruit? - for fruit go cultivate the earth. -
He who the goddess would aspire unto,
Must not the goddess as the woman woo!"

8. William Wordsworth (1770-1850): The Excursion.

This extract is from the Eighth Book: The Parsonage. Wordsworth is the only poet in our collection who mentions Newton, Euclid and Archimedes in poems. Perhaps the fact that he was a friend of Sir William Hamilton may explain the frequent mathematical references! Hamilton fancied himself as a poet and Wordsworth is famed for his sensible advice that Hamilton concentrate on his mathematics:

Call Archimedes from his buried tomb
Upon the plain of vanished Syracuse,
And feelingly the Sage shall make report
How insecure, how baseless in itself,
Is the Philosophy, whose sway depends
On mere material instruments; - how weak
Those arts, and high inventions, if unpropped
By virtue. - He, sighing with pensive grief,
Amid his calm abstractions, would admit
That not the slender privilege is theirs
To save themselves from blank forgetfulness!

Reference (One book/article)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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JOC/EFR January 2012

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