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James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode


I.

              1I come from fields of fractured ice,
              2    Whose wounds are cured by squeezing,
              3Melting they cool, but in a trice,
              4    Get warm again by freezing.
              5Here, in the frosty air, the sprays
              6    With fernlike hoar-frost bristle,
              7There, liquid stars their watery rays
              8    Shoot through the solid crystal.

II.

              9I come from empyrean fires --
            10    From microscopic spaces,
            11Where molecules with fierce desires,
            12    Shiver in hot embraces.
            13The atoms clash, the spectra flash,
            14    Projected on the screen,
            15The double D, magnesian b,
            16    And Thallium's living green.

III.

            17We place our eye where these dark rays
            18    Unite in this dark focus,
            19Right on the source of power we gaze,
            20    Without a screen to cloak us.
            21Then where the eye was placed at first,
            22    We place a disc of platinum,
            23It glows, it puckers! will it burst?
            24    How ever shall we flatten him!

IV.

            25This crystal tube the electric ray
            26    Shows optically clean,
            27No dust or haze within, but stay!
            28    All has not yet been seen.
            29What gleams are these of heavenly blue?
            30    What air-drawn form appearing,
            31What mystic fish, that, ghostlike, through
            32    The empty space is steering?

V.

            33I light this sympathetic flame,
            34    My faintest wish that answers,
            35I sing, it sweetly sings the same,
            36    It dances with the dancers.
            37I shout, I whistle, clap my hands,
            38    And stamp upon the platform,
            39The flame responds to my commands,
            40    In this form and in that form.

VI.

            41What means that thrilling, drilling scream,
            42    Protect me! 'tis the siren:
            43Her heart is fire, her breath is steam,
            44    Her larynx is of iron.
            45Sun! dart thy beams! in tepid streams,
            46    Rise, viewless exhalations!
            47And lap me round, that no rude sound
            48    May max my meditations.

VII.

            49Here let me pause. -- These transient facts,
            50    These fugitive impressions,
            51Must be transformed by mental acts,
            52    To permanent possessions.
            53Then summon up your grasp of mind,
            54    Your fancy scientific,
            55Till sights and sounds with thought combined,
            56    Become of truth prolific.

VIII.

            57Go to! prepare your mental bricks,
            58    Fetch them from every quarter,
            59Firm on the sand your basement fix
            60    With best sensation mortar.
            61The top shall rise to heaven on high --
            62    Or such an elevation,
            63That the swift whirl with which we fly
            64    Shall conquer gravitation.

Notes

1] Tyndallic: John Tyndall (1820-1893), physicist, F.R.S., D.C.L. Oxon., LL.D. Cantab., F.C.P.S., and professor of natural philosophy in the Royal Institution. Maxwell plays on the well-known Pindaric ode, which imitates the passionate manner of Pindar, a Greek poet (ca. 552-442 B.C.).
"Nabla was the name of an Assyrian harp of the shape Δ. Δ is a quaternion operator ( i[*]d/dx + j[*]d/dx + k[*]d/dx ) invented by Sir W. P. Hamilton, whose use and properties were first fully discussed by Professor Tait, who is therefore called the `Chief Musician upon Nabla.'" (Note by Campbell.) Maxwell alludes to Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901).

3] Melting: v.r. They melt. (Note by Campbell.)

4] Get: v.r. Grow. (Note by Campbell.)

15] The double D: the operation of nabla, "iddx + jddy + kddz" (OED, "nabla") uses the double-d symbol.
Magnesian b: having magnesia.

16] Thallium, a rare metal discovered in 1861: "I [Crookes] have thought..to propose for it the provisional name of Thallium, from the Greek qalloj, or Latin thallus, a budding twig which I have chosen as the green line which it communicates to the spectrum recals with peculiar vividness the fresh colour of vegetation at the present time" (OED).

22] disc: v.r. dish. (Note by Campbell.)

23] will it: v.r. like to. (Note by Campbell.)

24] How ever shall we: v.r. By Jove, I'll have to. (Note by Campbell.)

31] v.r. What fish, what whale is this, that through. (Note by Campbell.)

32] empty: v.r. vacuous. (Note by Campbell.)

38] And v.r. I. (Note by Campbell.)
upon: v.r. about. (Note by Campbell.)

39] responds: v.r. bows down. (Note by Campbell.)

55] Till: v.r. That. (Note by Campbell.)

56] Become: v.r. May be. (Note by Campbell.)

61] top: v.r. tower. (Note by Campbell.)


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): 634-36. QC 16 M4C3 Gerstein Library
First publication date: 1882
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2001
Recent editing: 1:2002/10/5

Rhyme: ababcdcd


Other poems by James Clerk Maxwell