History topic:

We invite research students to the staff Coffee Room in the Mathematical Institute at the University of St Andrews on Friday afternoons for tea/coffee and biscuits. For a while the tradition was to send round an email invitation in the form of a poem. Recently we talked about reviving the tradition of "Friday poetry" and it made me [EFR] think I should write an article on "Mathematics and Poetry". However, as a first step, I have collected some "Isaac Newton poetry". Certainly in the English language there seem to be more poetic references to Newton than other mathematicians/scientists. Many contemporary poets treated Newton as god-like and praised him accordingly. Others used him to write rather nationalistic pro-English rants. Over the years, of course, there have been poets who have considered Newton to have destroyed the poetic view of the world. For example, John Keats often proposed the toast, "Newton's health, and confusion to mathematics". Others have chosen to write anti-Newton poetry for religious reasons or because they supported Leibniz. Here are some examples of "Isaac Newton poetry", presented in chronological order beginning with the earliest:

1. Edmond Halley: For the Principia (1687).

Had it not been for Halley, Newton's masterpiece, The Principia, may never have been written. Originally Halley's poem was written in Latin for The Principia, and was published as a Preface to the first edition. The poem has been translated from Latin to English by Otto Steinmayer:

Behold! You grasp the Science of the Pole,
Earth's wondrous Mass, how pois'd the mighty Whole,
Jove's Reckoning, the Laws, when first he made
All Things' Beginnings, by his Will obey'd,
Those the Creator as the World's Foundations laid.
The secret Chambers of the conquer'd Skies
Open to View. Hidden no longer lies
What binds the World's Frame, and the constant Force
Which rolls the farthest Planet in his Course.
Sol seated on the Throne commands that all
In Curves tendant to him shall ever fall,
Nor does he suffer the remoter Stars
Through the vast Void direct to urge their Cars;

But by Attraction seiz'd the Atoms run
In Gyres predestin'd to the central Sun.
Known now th' Ellipse that horrid Comets tread
We fear no more to see the streaming Head;
Hence we discover why her monthly Race
Phoebe performs with so unequal Pace,
And why to no Astronomer subject
Before, when she did Number's Rein reject.
We learn why the four Seasons cycling move,
But, still advancing, th' Equinoxes rove;
With what Pow'r wand'ring Cynthia compels
The Ebb and Flow of restless Ocean's Swells:
She draws slack Water from the marshy Land,
Then Ships beware the treach'rous shoaling Sand;
When changing Phase her roundest Light restores,
The Waves surge foaming to the furthest Shores.
What often rack'd the ancient Sophist's Brain,
What vex'd the loud-disputing Schools, in vain,
We see as clear before us in the Road,
When Mathematics drove away the Cloud.
No longer doubting in the Mists we stray;
Genius' high Summit grants to us the Way
To reach the blessed Gods' Abodes and pierce
The lofty Limits of the Universe.

Mortals arise! Put earthly Cares behind
And know the Pow'rs of the heav'n-born Mind!
That Mind, whose Nature is so far preferr'd
Above the mute Life of the grazing Herd.
Who Murder, Theft, and Perjury did cause
To cease by the Commands of public Laws,
Who wand'ring Peoples taught no more to roam,
But settle, and build Walls about their Home,
Who bless'd Mankind with Gift of Ceres' Grain,
Or from the Grape press'd Remedy for Pain,
Or who th' Employment first of Nile's Reed found,
To write, and show the eyes a painted Sound,
These less rais'd human Life: for they but sought
Few Things to ease th' unhappy mortal Lot.
We banquet with the Gods, permitted now
The Poles' Laws, the fixt Scheme of Things to know.
The Secrets sunk in dark Earth are reveal'd,
And what past Ages of the World conceal'd.
The Man who shows such Wonders, help me praise,
You who with Nectar pass your careless Days,

Newton unlocking Truth's close-fasten'd Chest,
Newton dear to the Muse, in whose pure Breast
Phoebus is present, and whose Mind inspires
With all of his divine, prophetic Fires.
Sing him, ye Muses, for Right can approve,
No Mortal nearer touch the Gods above.

2. Samuel Bowden: On the new method of treating physic (1726).

Samuel Bowden was a physician and poet who published two volumes of poetry in 1733-35. Little is known of his life:

Sages now trust to Fairy Scenes no more,
Nor venture farther, than they see the Shore:
They build on Sense, then reason from th' Effect,
On well establish'd Truths their Schemes erect;
By these some new Phaenomena explain;
And Light divine in ev'ry Process gain.

Such was the Path immortal Newton trod,
He form'd the wondrous Plan, and mark'd the Road;
Led by this Clue he travel'd o'er the Sky,
And marshal'd all the shining Worlds on high,
Pursu'd the Comets, where they farthest run,
And brought them back obsequious to the Sun.
Mature in Thought, you Newton's Laws reduce
To nobler Ends, and more important Use.
You show, how heav'nly Orbs affect our Frame,
And raise, or sink by Turns the vital Flame:
How Moons alternate in their changing Sphere
Impress their Force, and agitate the Air;
How as without successive Tides advance,
While Cynthia pale pursues her silent Dance,
So does the refluent Blood her Influence know,
And Tides within roll high, or creep on slow.

3. James Thomson: A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (1727).

James Thomson (1700-1748) was a Scottish poet who is, perhaps, best known for writing the words of "Rule, Britannia!". He had studied physics as well as literature at Edinburgh University, then went to London where he taught at William Watt's Academy. This Academy was a "Newtonian Institution" and Thomson's poems contain many references to Newton. We quote from several below. A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton was written within weeks of Newton's death while Thomson was teaching at Watt's Academy:

Shall the great soul of Newton quit this earth,
To mingle with his stars; and every muse,
Astonish'd into silence, shun the weight
Of honours due to his illustrious name?
But what can man? - Even now the sons of light,
In strains high-warbled to seraphic lyre,
Hail his arrival on the coast of bliss.
Yet am not I deterr'd, though high the theme,
And sung to harps of angels, for with you,
Ethereal flames! ambitious, I aspire
In Nature's general symphony to join.

And what new wonders can ye show your guest!
Who, while on this dim spot, where mortals toil
Clouded in dust, from motion's simple laws,
Could trace the secret hand of Providence,
Wide-working through this universal frame.

Have ye not listen'd while he bound the suns
And planets to their spheres! th' unequal task
Of humankind till then. Oft had they roll'd
O'er erring man the year, and oft disgrac'd
The pride of schools, before their course was known
Full in its causes and effects to him,
All-piercing sage! who sat not down and dream'd
Romantic schemes, defended by the din
Of specious words, and tyranny of names;
But, bidding his amazing mind attend,
And with heroic patience years on years
Deep-searching, saw at last the system dawn,
And shine, of all his race, on him alone.

What were his raptures then! how pure! how strong!
And what the triumphs of old Greece and Rome,
By his diminish'd, but the pride of boys
In some small fray victorious! when instead
Of shatter'd parcels of this earth usurp'd
By violence unmanly, and sore deeds
Of cruelty and blood, Nature herself
Stood all subdu'd by him, and open laid
Her every latent glory to his view.

All intellectual eye, our solar-round
First gazing through, he by the blended power
Of gravitation and projection saw
The whole in silent harmony revolve.
From unassisted vision hid, the moons
To cheer remoter planets numerous pour'd,
By him in all their mingled tracts were seen.
He also fix'd the wandering Queen of Night,
Whether she wanes into a scanty orb,
Or, waxing broad, with her pale shadowy light,
In a soft deluge overflows the sky.
Her every motion clear-discerning, he
Adjusted to the mutual main, and taught
Why now the mighty mass of water swells
Resistless, heaving on the broken rocks,
And the full river turning; till again
The tide revertive, unattracted, leaves
A yellow waste of idle sands behind.

Then breaking hence, he took his ardent flight
Through the blue infinite; and every star,
Which the clear concave of a winter's night
Pours on the eye, or astronomic tube,
Far-stretching, snatches from the dark abyss,
Or such as farther in successive skies
To fancy shine alone, at his approach
Blaz'd into suns, the living centre each
Of an harmonious system: all combin'd,
And rul'd unerring by that single power,
Which draws the stone projected to the ground.

O unprofuse magnificence divine!
O wisdom truly perfect! thus to call
From a few causes such a scheme of things,
Effects so various, beautiful, and great,
An universe complete! and O belov'd
Of Heaven! whose well-purg'd penetrative eye,
The mystic veil transpiercing, inly scann'd
The rising, moving, wide-establish'd frame.

He, first of men, with awful wing pursu'd
The comet through the long elliptic curve,
As round innumerous worlds he wound his way,
Till, to the forehead of our evening sky
Return'd, the blazing wonder glares anew,
And o'er the trembling nations shakes dismay.

The heavens are all his own, from the wild rule
Of whirling vortices and circling spheres
To their first great simplicity restor'd.
The schools astonish'd stood; but found it vain
To keep at odds with demonstration strong,
And, unawaken'd, dream beneath the blaze
Of truth. At once their pleasing visions fled,
With the gay shadows of the morning mix'd,
When Newton rose, our philosophic sun!
Th' aerial flow of sound was known to him,
From whence it first in wavy circles breaks,
Till the touch'd organ takes the message in.
Nor could the darting beam of speed immense
Escape his swift pursuit and measuring eye.
Ev'n Light itself, which every thing displays,
Shone undiscover'd, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robe of day;
And, from the whitening undistinguish'd blaze,
Collecting every ray into his kind,
To the charm'd eye educ'd the gorgeous train
Of parent colours. First the flaming red
Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next;
And next delicious yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies
Ethereal played; and then, of sadder hue,
Emerg'd the deepen'd indigo, as when
The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;
While the last gleamings of refracted light
Died in the fainting violet away.
These, when the clouds distil the rosy shower,
Shine out distinct adown the wat'ry bow;
While o'er our heads the dewy vision bends
Delightful, melting on the fields beneath.
Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,
And myriads still remain - infinite source
Of beauty, ever flushing, ever new.

Did ever poet image aught so fair,
Dreaming in whisp'ring groves by the hoarse brook?
Or prophet, to whose rapture heaven descends?
Ev'n now the setting sun and shifting clouds,
Seen, Greenwich, from thy lovely heights, declare
How just, how beauteous the refractive law.

The noiseless tide of time, all bearing down
To vast eternity's unbounded sea,
Where the green islands of the happy shine,
He stemm'd alone; and, to the source (involv'd
Deep in primeval gloom) ascending, rais'd
His lights at equal distances, to guide
Historian wilder'd on his darksome way.

But who can number up his labours? who
His high discoveries sing? When but a few
Of the deep-studying race can stretch their minds
To what he knew - in fancy's lighter thought
How shall the muse then grasp the mighty theme?

What wonder thence that his devotion swell'd
Responsive to his knowledge? For could he,
Whose piercing mental eye diffusive saw
The finish'd university of things
In all its order, magnitude, and parts,
Forbear incessant to adore that Power
Who fills, sustains, and actuates the whole?

4. James Thomson: extract from Summer (1727).

See earlier comments about James Thomson:

Let Newton, pure intelligence, whom God
To mortals lent to trace his boundless works
From laws sublimely simple, speak thy fame
In all philosophy.

5. David Mallet: The Excursion (1728).

David Mallet was a friend of James Thomson. The Excursion is a poem in 2 Books. Below is an extract concerning Newton:

Revolve harmonious, world attracting world
With mutual love, and to their central sun
All gravitating; now with quicken'd pace
Descending tow'rd the primal orb, and now
Receding slow, excursive from his bounds.
This spring of motion, this hid power infus'd
Through universal nature, first was known
To thee, great Newton! Britain's justest pride,
The boast of human race; whose towering thought,
In her amazing progress unconfin'd,
From truth to truth ascending, gain'd the height
Of science, whither mankind from afar
Gaze up astonish'd. Now beyond that height
By death from frail mortality set free,
A pure intelligence he wings his way
Through wondrous scenes, new-open'd in the world
Invisible, amid the general quire
Of saints and angels, rapt with joy divine,
Which fills, o'erflows, and ravishes the soul!
His mind's clear vision from all darkness purg'd,
For God himself shines forth immediate there,
Through those eternal climes, the frame of things,
In its ideal harmony, to him
Stands all reveal'd. - But how shall mortal wing
Attempt this blue profundity of Heaven,
Unfathomable, endless of extent!
Where unknown suns to unknown systems rise,
Whose numbers who shall tell? stupendous host!
In flaming millions through the vacant hung,
Sun beyond sun, and world to world unseen,
Measureless distance, unconceiv'd by thought!

6. Alexander Pope: Epitaph intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey (1730).

The following couplet may be the best-known of all the poetry associated with Newton:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.

7. Anonymous: published in London Medley (1731).

Newton arose; show'd how each planet moved ...
He was the first that could unerring trace
Each orbit thro' th' immense expanded space:
Fathom'd the depth of heav'n, and reach'd the height,
Where comets thro' the void revolving flow,
Their course oblique and settled period know;
Guided by him when we survey the whole,
Worlds beyond worlds that by him measur'd roll,
And with the vast idea fill the soul;
What is the point of earth, this mortal seat,
How little all appears, and He how great!

8. Richard Lovatt: published in The Ladies Dairy (1733).

Nothing seems to be known about Richard Lovatt:

When mighty Newton the foundations laid,
Of his Mysterious Art; none cou'd invade
Nor take from him the honour which was due;
Great Britain's sons will long his works pursue.
By curious Theorems he the Moon cou'd trace
And her true Motion give in every Place;
The greatest areas he with ease cou'd show;
It is from him alone the art we know;
And to confirm the fame, let us suppose
The greatest area that we can inclose
In four right lines, such as the margin shows.
He that a theorem gives, shall have his name
Recorded in the ladies book of fame.

9. James Thomson: extract from The Rainbow (1735).

See earlier comments about James Thomson:

Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.

10. Samuel Bowden: A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (1735).

Samuel Bowden was a physician and poet who published two volumes of poetry in 1733-35. Little is known of his life:

Who to creation's distant regions soar'd,
And wonders hid from human eyes explor'd;
Did nature's deep recesses open lay,
Dispel the gloom, and spread immortal day.

11. Jane Brereton: Merlin (1735).

Jane Brereton (1685-1740) was an English poet and frequent contributor to The Gentleman's Magazine:

Surprising scenes! by Heav'n reserv'd in store
For its own fav'rite Newton to explore.
With faculties enlarg'd he's gone to prove
The laws and motions of yon worlds above;
And the vast circuits of th' Expanse survey
View solar systems in the Milky Way.

12. Jane Brereton: On the Bustoes in the Royal Hermitage (1735).

Jane Brereton (1685-1740) was an English poet and frequent contributor to The Gentleman's Magazine:

Newton, th' All-wise Creator's works explores,
Sublimely, on the wings of knowledge, soars;
Th' establish'd order, of each orb, unfolds,
And th' omnipresent God, in all, beholds:
If to the dark abyss, or bright abode,
He points; the view still terminates in God.

13. John Brown: Honour: a Poem (1743).

A biography reads: John Brown, D.D., a native of Rothbury, in Northumberland, was educated at St John's Colllege, Cambridge; obtained the living of Great Horkesley, Essex, 1754; Vicar of St Nicholas, Newcastle, about 1758; committed suicide, when insane, 1766. Honour: a Poem is considered his best work. Here is a short extract referring to Newton:

See Newton chase conjecture's twilight ray,
And light up nature into certain day!
He wide creation's trackless mazes trod;
And in each atom found the ruling God.

14. Cardinal Melchior de Polignac: Anti-Lucretius (1745).

Originally published in Latin, this poem was translated into English by George Canning and published in 1766. De Polignac, a Jesuit, argues for divine providence and against Newton's ideas. Here is an extract:

Nor does the great Newton's famous system stand,
On one compact foundation, simply plann'd:
No: every new ph'nomenon must cause
Some variation in his fickle laws:
This one defect beyond a doubt refutes
His doctrine's claim, and closes all disputes.

15. Henry Jones: Philosophy: a Poem address'd to the Ladies who attend Mr Booth's Lectures (1746).

Henry Jones (1721-1770) was an Irish poet and dramatist who lived in London for much of his life. Here is a "Newton extract":

Contracted here by wondrous art is seen
A boundless system in a small machine;
Here human skill to proud perfection brought,
The mortal mimic of omnific thought,
Th' Almighty's model to the mind conveys,
The universe, and all its pow'rs displays;
How wander planets, how revolves the year,
The moon how changes, and how comets glare.
Whose pow'rful fiat, whose creative will
First founded nature, and supports her still.
Here godlike Newton's all capacious mind
(The glory and the guide of human kind)
Shows wedded worlds far distant worlds embrace
With mutual bands, yet keep their destin'd space,
Roll endless measures through th' etherial plain,
Link'd by the social strong attractive chain,
Whose latent springs exert all nature's force,
Inwrap the poles, and point the stars their course.

16. Anonymous: A Philosophic Ode on the Sun and the Universe (1750).

This 20 page book was printed for J Payne, and J Bouquet:

Newton, immortal Newton rose;
This mighty frame, its order, laws,
His piercing eyes beheld:
That Sun of Science pour'd his streams,
All darkness fled before his beams,
And Nature stood reveal'd.
Though Newton's genius cloudless shone,
Discover'd truths before unknown,
By none before believ'd;
That time will come when such shall know
Much more than Newton ever knew,
Than fancy e'er conceiv'd.

17. Anonymous: The Vanity of Philsophick Systems: a Poem addressed to the Royal Society (1761).

The author is not known, but some suggest it was written by George Berkeley. It contains 19 pages and was printed for A Miller, London. Here is a short "Newton extract":

Sagacious Newton lost with pond'ring thought
To mathematick rules a system brought;
God as an Eastern monarch, left for show;
His viceroy, Gravity, the God below.

18. William Blake: You don't believe (1800-10).

Blake is famed, of course, for his famous painting "Newton", 1795:

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye.
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on, sleep on, while in your pleasant dreams
Of reason you may drink of life's clear streams
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things,
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says 'Miracle', Newton says 'Doubt'.
Aye, that's the way to make all Nature out:
Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment.
That is the very thing that Jesus meant
When he said: "Only believe." Believe and try,
Try, try, and never mind the reason why.

19. William Blake: Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-20).

The following extract is taken from the First Chapter of Jerusalem:

I turn my eyes to the schools & universities of Europe
And there behold the loom of Locke whose woof rages dire,
Washed by the water-wheels of Newton. Black the cloth
In heavy wreaths folds over every nation; cruel works
Of many wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden, which
Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve, in harmony & peace.

20. Percy Bysshe Shelley: Queen Mab: A philosophical poem (1813).

The poem is in nine parts. This "Newton extract" is from Part V:

How many a Newton, to whose passive ken
Those mighty spheres that gem infinity
Were only specks of tinsel in heaven
To light the midnights of his native town!

21. Lord Byron: Don Juan (1819-24).

This satirical poem by Byron contains over sixteen thousand individual lines of verse and is considered his greatest masterpiece. Here is an extract referring to Newton:

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation -
'Tis said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation) -
A mode of proving that the Earth turned round
In a most natural whirl, called "gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam - with a fall - or with an apple.

Man fell with apples, and with apples
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes;
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the Moon.

22. John Keats: Lamia (1820).

In this poem, Keats laments Newton having destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to decomposed white light. Keats is said to have often proposed a toast, " Confusion to the memory of Newton". When asked to explain, he said, "Because Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism? Ah, my dear old friend, you and I shall never see such days again!":

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow

23. William Wordsworth: The Prelude (1850).

This is an autobiographical poem. The following extract is from Book III, Residence at Cambridge where Wordsworth looks at Newton's statue at Trinity College:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

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

January 2012

MacTutor History of Mathematics