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James Thomson (1700-1748)

A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton


              1Shall the great soul of Newton quit this earth,
              2To mingle with his stars; and every muse,
              3Astonish'd into silence, shun the weight
              4Of honours due to his illustrious name?
              5But what can man?--Even now the sons of light,
              6In strains high-warbled to seraphic lyre,
              7Hail his arrival on the coast of bliss.
              8Yet am not I deterr'd, though high the theme,
              9And sung to harps of angels, for with you,
            10Ethereal flames! ambitious, I aspire
            11In Nature's general symphony to join.

            12     And what new wonders can ye show your guest!
            13Who, while on this dim spot, where mortals toil
            14Clouded in dust, from motion's simple laws,
            15Could trace the secret hand of Providence,
            16Wide-working through this universal frame.

            17     Have ye not listen'd while he bound the suns
            18And planets to their spheres! th' unequal task
            19Of humankind till then. Oft had they roll'd
            20O'er erring man the year, and oft disgrac'd
            21The pride of schools, before their course was known
            22Full in its causes and effects to him,
            23All-piercing sage! who sat not down and dream'd
            24Romantic schemes, defended by the din
            25Of specious words, and tyranny of names;
            26But, bidding his amazing mind attend,
            27And with heroic patience years on years
            28Deep-searching, saw at last the system dawn,
            29And shine, of all his race, on him alone.

            30     What were his raptures then! how pure! how strong!
            31And what the triumphs of old Greece and Rome,
            32By his diminish'd, but the pride of boys
            33In some small fray victorious! when instead
            34Of shatter'd parcels of this earth usurp'd
            35By violence unmanly, and sore deeds
            36Of cruelty and blood, Nature herself
            37Stood all subdu'd by him, and open laid
            38Her every latent glory to his view.

            39     All intellectual eye, our solar-round
            40First gazing through, he by the blended power
            41Of gravitation and projection saw
            42The whole in silent harmony revolve.
            43From unassisted vision hid, the moons
            44To cheer remoter planets numerous pour'd,
            45By him in all their mingled tracts were seen.
            46He also fix'd the wandering Queen of Night,
            47Whether she wanes into a scanty orb,
            48Or, waxing broad, with her pale shadowy light,
            49In a soft deluge overflows the sky.
            50Her every motion clear-discerning, he
            51Adjusted to the mutual main, and taught
            52Why now the mighty mass of water swells
            53Resistless, heaving on the broken rocks,
            54And the full river turning; till again
            55The tide revertive, unattracted, leaves
            56A yellow waste of idle sands behind.

            57     Then breaking hence, he took his ardent flight
            58Through the blue infinite; and every star,
            59Which the clear concave of a winter's night
            60Pours on the eye, or astronomic tube,
            61Far-stretching, snatches from the dark abyss,
            62Or such as farther in successive skies
            63To fancy shine alone, at his approach
            64Blaz'd into suns, the living centre each
            65Of an harmonious system: all combin'd,
            66And rul'd unerring by that single power,
            67Which draws the stone projected to the ground.

            68     O unprofuse magnificence divine!
            69O wisdom truly perfect! thus to call
            70From a few causes such a scheme of things,
            71Effects so various, beautiful, and great,
            72An universe complete! and O belov'd
            73Of Heaven! whose well-purg'd penetrative eye,
            74The mystic veil transpiercing, inly scann'd
            75The rising, moving, wide-establish'd frame.

            76     He, first of men, with awful wing pursu'd
            77The comet through the long elliptic curve,
            78As round innumerous worlds he wound his way,
            79Till, to the forehead of our evening sky
            80Return'd, the blazing wonder glares anew,
            81And o'er the trembling nations shakes dismay.

            82     The heavens are all his own, from the wild rule
            83Of whirling vortices and circling spheres
            84To their first great simplicity restor'd.
            85The schools astonish'd stood; but found it vain
            86To keep at odds with demonstration strong,
            87And, unawaken'd, dream beneath the blaze
            88Of truth. At once their pleasing visions fled,
            89With the gay shadows of the morning mix'd,
            90When Newton rose, our philosophic sun!
            91Th' aërial flow of sound was known to him,
            92From whence it first in wavy circles breaks,
            93Till the touch'd organ takes the message in.
            94Nor could the darting beam of speed immense
            95Escape his swift pursuit and measuring eye.
            96Ev'n Light itself, which every thing displays,
            97Shone undiscover'd, till his brighter mind
            98Untwisted all the shining robe of day;
            99And, from the whitening undistinguish'd blaze,
          100Collecting every ray into his kind,
          101To the charm'd eye educ'd the gorgeous train
          102Of parent colours. First the flaming red
          103Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next;
          104And next delicious yellow; by whose side
          105Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
          106Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies
          107Ethereal played; and then, of sadder hue,
          108Emerg'd the deepen'd indigo, as when
          109The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;
          110While the last gleamings of refracted light
          111Died in the fainting violet away.
          112These, when the clouds distil the rosy shower,
          113Shine out distinct adown the wat'ry bow;
          114While o'er our heads the dewy vision bends
          115Delightful, melting on the fields beneath.
          116Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,
          117And myriads still remain--infinite source
          118Of beauty, ever flushing, ever new.

          119     Did ever poet image aught so fair,
          120Dreaming in whisp'ring groves by the hoarse brook?
          121Or prophet, to whose rapture heaven descends?
          122Ev'n now the setting sun and shifting clouds,
          123Seen, Greenwich, from thy lovely heights, declare
          124How just, how beauteous the refractive law.

          125     The noiseless tide of time, all bearing down
          126To vast eternity's unbounded sea,
          127Where the green islands of the happy shine,
          128He stemm'd alone; and, to the source (involv'd
          129Deep in primeval gloom) ascending, rais'd
          130His lights at equal distances, to guide
          131Historian wilder'd on his darksome way.

          132     But who can number up his labours? who
          133His high discoveries sing? When but a few
          134Of the deep-studying race can stretch their minds
          135To what he knew--in fancy's lighter thought
          136How shall the muse then grasp the mighty theme?

          137     What wonder thence that his devotion swell'd
          138Responsive to his knowledge? For could he,
          139Whose piercing mental eye diffusive saw
          140The finish'd university of things
          141In all its order, magnitude, and parts,
          142Forbear incessant to adore that Power
          143Who fills, sustains, and actuates the whole?

          144     Say, ye who best can tell, ye happy few,
          145Who saw him in the softest lights of life,
          146All unwithheld, indulging to his friends
          147The vast unborrow'd treasures of his mind,
          148oh, speak the wondrous man! how mild, how calr
          149How greatly humble, how divinely good,
          150How firm establish'd on eternal truth;
          151Fervent in doing well, with every nerve
          152Still pressing on, forgetful of the past,
          153And panting for perfection; far above
          154Those little cares and visionary joys
          155That so perplex the fond impassion'd heart
          156Of ever-cheated, ever-trusting man.
          157This, Conduitt, from thy rural hours we hope;
          158As through the pleasing shade where nature pours
          159Her every sweet in studious ease you walk,
          160The social passions smiling at thy heart
          161That glows with all the recollected sage.

          162     And you, ye hopeless gloomy-minded tribe,
          163You who, unconscious of those nobler flights
          164That reach impatient at immortal life,
          165Against the prime endearing privilege
          166Of being dare contend,--say, can a soul
          167Of such extensive, deep, tremendous powers,
          168Enlarging still, be but a finer breath
          169Of spirits dancing through their tubes awhile,
          170And then for ever lost in vacant air?

          171     But hark! methinks I hear a warning voice,
          172Solemn as when some awful change is come,
          173Sound through the world--" 'Tis done!--the measure's full;
          174And I resign my charge."--Ye mouldering stones
          175That build the towering pyramid, the proud
          176Triumphal arch, the monument effac'd
          177By ruthless ruin, and whate'er supports
          178The worship'd name of hoar antiquity--
          179Down to the dust! What grandeur can ye boast
          180While Newton lifts his column to the skies,
          181Beyond the waste of time. Let no weak drop
          182Be shed for him. The virgin in her bloom
          183Cut off, the joyous youth, and darling child--
          184These are the tombs that claim the tender tear
          185And elegiac song. But Newton calls
          186For other notes of gratulation high,
          187That now he wanders through those endless worlds
          188He here so well descried, and wondering talks,
          189And hymns their Author with his glad compeers.

          190     O Britain's boast! whether with angels thou
          191Sittest in dread discourse, or fellow-blest,
          192Who joy to see the honour of their kind;
          193Or whether, mounted on cherubic wing,
          194Thy swift career is with the whirling orbs,
          195Comparing things with things, in rapture lost,
          196And grateful adoration for that light
          197So plenteous ray'd into thy mind below
          198From Light Himself; oh, look with pity down
          199On humankind, a frail erroneous race!
          200Exalt the spirit of a downward world!
          201O'er thy dejected country chief preside,
          202And be her Genius call'd! her studies raise,
          203Correct her manners, and inspire her youth;
          204For, though deprav'd and sunk, she brought thee forth,
          205And glories in thy name! she points thee out
          206To all her sons, and bids them eye thy star:
          207While, in expectance of the second life,
          208When time shall be no more, thy sacred dust
          209Sleeps with her kings, and dignifies the scene.

Notes

1] First published in June 1727, three months after Newton's death. "The enthusiasm of the early eighteenth century over Newton's discoveries and ideas was intense and widespread, and this poem of Thomson is a representative expression. Newton had rectified what seemed to be the old errors of the scholastic approach to nature (ll. 19-29, 82-90). He had reduced to terms of gravitation and projection not only the motions of the solar system (ll. 39-42) but those also of all other visible bodies in the universe (ll. 57-67). Besides, he had given man, through his statement of the laws of optics, a fresh guide to the beauties of nature, these beauties emanating specifically from perception of phenomena in the light of natural law (ll. 91 ff.; for an instance of 'Newtonian' beauty in nature, see ll. 119-24). Such discoveries seemed evidence, not only of a perfect order in the universe, but of God's wisdom in the creation of such an order and of His constant presence as a guiding force (1. 138). As a matter of fact, Newton himself took this view of his work (see ll. 137-43)." (R. S. Crane).

83] vortices: The allusion is to Descartes' theory of vortices according to which the particles of the universe moved in vortices of varied sizes and velocities. spheres: reference to the classical (Ptolemaic) system of astronomy, based upon the belief that the heavenly bodies moved as spheres in irregular orbits about the earth, the centre of the celestial universe. The Ptolemaic system was discredited in the late Renaissance by the discoveries of Copernicus.

157] Conduitt. John Conduitt, married to Newton's niece, wrote a biographical sketch of the great scientist, but a larger biography which he had projected was never completed.

209] The body of Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: James Thomson, A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (London: J. Millan, 1727). 3rd edn. E-10 5269 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1727
RPO poem editor: G. G. Falle
RP edition: 3RP 2.196.
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/8

Rhyme: unrhyming


Other poems by James Thomson