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Short poem

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Lectures to Women on Physical Science


PLACE. -- A small alcove with dark curtains.
The class consists of one member.
      *SUBJECT. -- Thomson’s Mirror Galvanometer.

              1    The lamp-light falls on blackened walls,
              2        And streams through narrow perforations,
              3    The long beam trails o’er pasteboard scales,
              4        With slow-decaying oscillations.
              5Flow, current, flow, set the quick light-spot flying,
              6Flow current, answer light-spot, flashing, quivering, dying,

              7    O look! how queer! how thin and clear,
              8        And thinner, clearer, sharper growing
              9    The gliding fire! with central wire,
            10        The fine degrees distinctly showing.
            11Swing, magnet, swing, advancing and receding,
            12Swing magnet! Answer dearest, What's your final reading?

            13    O love! you fail to read the scale
            14        Correct to tenths of a division.
            15    To mirror heaven those eyes were given,
            16        And not for methods of precision.
            17Break contact, break, set the free light-spot flying;
            18Break contact, rest thee, magnet, swinging, creeping, dying.


Professor Chrschtschonovitsch, Ph.D., "On the C. G. S. system of Units."
      *Remarks submitted to the Lecturer by a student.

            19Prim Doctor of Philosophy
            20    Front academic Heidelberg!
            21Your sum of vital energy
            22    Is not the millionth of an erg.
            23Your liveliest motion might be reckoned
            24At one Tenth-metre in a second.

            25"The air," you said, in language fine,
            26    Which scientific thought expresses,
            27"The air -- which with a megadyne,
            28    On each square centimetre presses --
            29The air, and I may add the ocean,
            30Are nought but molecules in motion."

            31Atoms, you told me, were discrete,
            32    Than you they could not be discreter,
            33Who know how many Millions meet
            34    Within a cubic millimetre.
            35They clash together as they fly,
            36But you! -- you cannot tell me why.

            37And when in tuning my guitar
            38    The interval would not come right,
            39"This string," you said, "is strained too far,
            40    ’Tis forty dynes, at least too tight!"
            41And then you told me, as I sang,
            42What overtones were in my clang.

            43You gabbled on, but every phrase
            44    Was stiff with scientific shoddy,
            45The only song you deigned to praise
            46    Was "Gin a body meet a body,"
            47"And even there," you said, "collision
            48Was not described with due precision."

            49"In the invariable plane,"
            50    You told me, "lay the impulsive couple."
            51You seized my hand -- you gave me pain,
            52    By torsion of a wrist so supple;
            53You told me what that wrench would do, --
            54"’Twould set me twisting round a screw."

            55Were every hair of every tress
            56    (Which you, no doubt, imagine mine),
            57Drawn towards you with its breaking stress --
            58    A stress, say, of a megadyne,
            59That tension I would sooner suffer
            60Than meet again with such a duffer!n meet again with such a duffer!


] Professor (Sir) William Thomson, inventor of a sensitive device that detects and characterizes an electric current by its intensity and direction.

1] A poem imitating Tennyson's " The splendour falls on castle walls."

] "C.G.S. system -- the system of units founded on the centimetre, gramme, and second. See report of Committee on units. Brit. Ass. Report for 1873, p. 222." (Note by Maxwell.)

22] "Erg -- the energy communicated by a dyne, acting through a centimetre" (note by Maxwell).

24] "Tenth-metre = 1 metre X 10 -10" (note by Maxwell).

27] "Megadyne = 1 dyne X 106. It is somewhat more than the weight of a kilogramme" (note by Maxwell).

40] "Dyne -- the force which, acting on a gramme for a second, would give a velocity of a centimetre per second. The weight of a gramme is about 980 dynes" (note by Maxwell).

42] "See Sound and Music, by Sedley Taylor, p. 89" (note by Maxwell).

44] shoddy: "Worthless material made to look like what is of superior quality" (OED).

46] Maxwell's homage to Robert Burns' poem, "Comin thro' the Rye."

50] "See Poinset, Théorie nouvelle de la rotation des corps" (note by Maxwell).

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: Lewis Campbell, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, with a selection from his correspondence and occasional writings and a sketch of his contributions to science (London: Macmillan, 1882): 631-33. QC 16 M4C3 Gerstein Library
First publication date: 1882
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2001
Recent editing: 1:2002/10/5

Composition date: July 1874
Rhyme: ababcc

Other poems by James Clerk Maxwell