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Short poem

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Lines written under the conviction that it is not wise to read Mathematics in November after one’s fire is out

              1In the sad November time,
              2When the leaf has left the lime,
              3And the Cam, with sludge and slime,
              4    Plasters his ugly channel,
              5While, with sober step and slow,
              6Round about the marshes low,
              7Stiffening students stumping go
              8    Shivering through their flannel.

              9Then to me in doleful mood
            10Rises up a question rude,
            11Asking what sufficient good
            12    Comes of this mode of living?
            13Moping on from day to day,
            14Grinding up what will not "pay,"
            15Till the jaded brain gives way
            16    Under its own misgiving.

            17Why should wretched Man employ
            18Years which Nature meant for joy,
            19Striving vainly to destroy
            20    Freedom of thought and feeling?
            21Still the injured powers remain
            22Endless stores of hopeless pain,
            23When at last the vanquished brain
            24    Languishes past all healing.

            25Where is then his wealth of mind --
            26All the schemes that Hope designed?
            27Gone, like spring, to leave behind
            28    Indolent melancholy.
            29Thus he ends his helpless days,
            30Vex’t with thoughts of former praise --
            31Tell me, how are Wisdom’s ways
            32    Better than senseless Folly?

            33Happier those whom trifles please,
            34Dreaming out a life of ease,
            35Sinking by unfelt degrees
            36    Into annihilation.
            37Or the slave, to labour born,
            38Heedless of the freeman’s scorn,
            39Destined to be slowly worn
            40    Down to the brute creation.

            41Thus a tempting spirit spoke,
            42As from troubled sleep I woke
            43To a morning thick with smoke,
            44    Sunless and damp and chilly.
            45Then to sleep I turned once more,
            46Eyes inflamed and windpipe sore,
            47Dreaming dreams I dreamt before,
            48    Only not quite so silly.

            49In my dream methought I strayed
            50Where a learned-looking maid
            51Stores of flimsy goods displayed,
            52    Articles not worth wearing.
            53"These," she said, with solemn air,
            54"Are the robes that sages wear,
            55Warranted, when kept with care,
            56    Never to need repairing."

            57Then unnumbered witlings, caught
            58By her wiles, the trappings bought,
            59And by labour, not by thought,
            60    Honour and fame were earning.
            61While the men of wiser mind
            62Passed for blind among the blind;
            63Pedants left them far behind
            64    In the career of learning.

            65"Those that fix their eager eyes
            66Ever on the nearest prize
            67Well may venture to despise
            68    Loftier aspirations.
            69Pedantry is in demand!
            70Buy it up at second-hand,
            71Seek no more to understand
            72    Profitless speculations."

            73Thus the gaudy gowns were sold,
            74Cast off sloughs of pedants old;
            75Proudly marched the students bold
            76    Through the domain of error,
            77Till their trappings, false though fair,
            78Mouldered off and left them bare,
            79Clustering close in blank despair,
            80    Nakedness, cold, and terror.

            81Then, I said, "These haughty Schools
            82Boast that by their formal rules
            83They produce more learned fools
            84    Than could be well expected.
            85Learned fools they are indeed,
            86Learned in the books they read;
            87Fools whene’er they come to need
            88    Wisdom, too long neglected.

            89"Oh! that men indeed were wise,
            90And would raise their purblind eyes
            91To the opening mysteries
            92    Scattered around them ever.
            93Truth should spring from sterile ground,
            94Beauty beam from all around,
            95Right should then at last be found
            96    Joining what none may sever."


3] Cam: river running through Cambridge.

57] witlings: small wits.

90] purblind: partly blind.

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): 622-25. 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: 10 November 1853
Rhyme: aaabcccb

Other poems by James Clerk Maxwell