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James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy


              1Deep St. Mary's bell had sounded,
              2And the twelve notes gently rounded
              3Endless chimneys that surrounded
              4    My abode in Trinity.
              5(Letter G, Old Court, South Attics),
              6I shut up my mathematics,
              7That confounded hydrostatics --
              8    Sink it in the deepest sea!

              9In the grate the flickering embers
            10Served to show how dull November’s
            11Fogs had stamped my torpid members,
            12    Like a plucked and skinny goose.
            13And as I prepared for bed, I
            14Asked myself with voice unsteady,
            15If of all the stuff I read, I
            16    Ever made the slightest use.

            17Late to bed and early rising,
            18Ever luxury despising,
            19Ever training, never "sizing,"
            20    I have suffered with the rest.
            21Yellow cheek and forehead ruddy,
            22Memory confused and muddy,
            23These are the effects of study
            24    Of a subject so unblest.

            25Look beyond, and see the wrangler,
            26Now become a College dangler,
            27Court some spiritual angler,
            28    Nibbling at his golden bait.
            29Hear him silence restive Reason,
            30Her advice is out of season,
            31While her lord is plotting treason
            32    Gainst himself, and Church or State.

            33See him next with place and pension,
            34And the very best intention
            35Of upholding that Convention
            36    Under which his fortunes rose.
            37Every scruple is rejected,
            38With his cherished schemes connected,
            39"Higher Powers may be neglected --
            40    His result no further goes."

            41Much he lauds the education
            42Which has raised to lofty station,
            43Men, whose powers of calculation
            44    Calculation’s self defied.
            45How the learned fool would wonder
            46Were he now to see his blunder,
            47When he put his reason under
            48    The control of worldly Pride.

            49Thus I muttered, very seedy,
            50Husky was my throat, and reedy;
            51And no wonder, for indeed I
            52    Now had caught a dreadful cold.
            53Thickest fog had settled slowly
            54Round the candle, burning lowly,
            55Round the fire, where melancholy
            56    Traced retreating hills of gold.

            57Still those papers lay before me --
            58Problems made express to bore me,
            59When a silent change came o’er me,
            60    In my hard uneasy chair.
            61Fire and fog, and candle faded,
            62Spectral forms the room invaded,
            63Little creatures, that paraded
            64    On the problems lying there.

            65Fathers there, of every college,
            66Led the glorious ranks of knowledge,
            67Men, whose virtues all acknowledge
            68    Levied the proctorial fines;
            69There the modest Moderators,
            70Set apart as arbitrators
            71’Twixt contending calculators,
            72    Scrutinised the trembling lines.

            73All the costly apparatus,
            74That is meant to elevate us
            75To the intellectual status
            76    Necessary for degrees --
            77College tutors -- private coaches --
            78Line the Senate-house approaches.
            79If our Alma Mater dote, she’s
            80    Taken care of well by these.

            81Much I doubted if the vision
            82Were the simple repetition
            83Of the statements of Commission,
            84    Strangely jumbled, oddly placed.
            85When an awful form ascended,
            86And with cruel words defended
            87Those abuses that offended
            88    My unsanctioned private taste.

            89Angular in form and feature,
            90Unlike any earthly creature,
            91She had properties to meet your
            92    Eye whatever you might view.
            93Hair of pens and skin of paper;
            94Breath, not breath but chemic vapour;
            95Dress, -- such dress as College Draper
            96    Fashions with precision due.

            97Eyes of glass, with optic axes
            98Twisting rays of light as flax is
            99Twisted, while the Parallax is
          100    Made to show the real size.
          101Primary and secondary
          102Focal lines in planes contrary,
          103Sum up all that's known to vary
          104    In those dull, unmeaning eyes.

          105Such the eyes, through which all Nature
          106Seems reduced to meaner stature.
          107If you had them you would hate your
          108    Symbolising sense of sight.
          109Seeing planets in their courses
          110Thick beset with arrowy "forces,"
          111While the common eye no more sees
          112    Than their mild and quiet light.

          113"Son," she said (what could be queerer
          114Than thus tête-à-tête to hear her
          115Talk, in tones approaching nearer
          116    To a saw's than aught beside?
          117For the voice the spectre spoke in
          118Might be known by many a token
          119To proceed from metal, broken
          120    When acoustic tricks were tried.

          121Little pleased to hear the Siren
          122"Own" me thus with voice of iron,
          123I had thoughts of just retiring
          124    From a mother such a fright).
          125"No," she said, "the time is pressing,
          126So before I give my blessing,
          127I’ll excuse you from confessing
          128    What you thought of me to-night.

          129"Powers!" she cried, with hoarse devotion,
          130"Give my son the clearest notion
          131How to compass sure promotion,
          132    And take care of Number One.
          133Let his college course be pleasant,
          134Let him ever, as at present,
          135Seem to have read what he hasn't,
          136    And to do what can’t be done.

          137Of the Philosophic Spirit
          138Richly may my son inherit;
          139As for Poetry, inter it
          140    With the myths of other days.
          141Cut the thing entirely, lest yon
          142College Don should put the question,
          143Why not stick to what you're best on?
          144    Mathematics always pays."

          145As the Hag was thus proceeding
          146To prescribe my course of reading,
          147And as I was faintly pleading,
          148    Hardly knowing what to say,
          149Suddenly, my head inclining
          150I beheld a light form shining;
          151And the withered beldam, whining,
          152    Saw the same and slunk away.

          153Then the vision, growing brighter,
          154Seemed to make my garret lighter;
          155As when noisome fogs of night are
          156    Scattered by the rising sun.
          157Nearer still it grew and nearer,
          158Till my straining eyes caught clearer
          159Glimpses of a being dearer,
          160    Dearer still than Number One.

          161In that well-remembered Vision
          162I was led to the decision
          163Still to hold in calm derision
          164    Pedantry, however draped;
          165Since that artificial spectre
          166Proved a paltry sub-collector,
          167And had nothing to connect her
          168    With the being whom she aped.

          169I could never finish telling
          170You of her that has her dwelling
          171Where those springs of truth are welling,
          172    Whence all streams of beauty run.
          173She has taught me that creation
          174Bears the test of calculation,
          175But that Man forgets his station
          176    If he stops when that is done.

          177Is our algebra the measure
          178Of that unexhausted treasure
          179That affords the purest pleasure,
          180    Ever found when it is sought?
          181Let us rather, realising
          182The conclusions thence arising
          183Nature more than symbols prizing,
          184    Learn to worship as we ought.

          185Worship? Yes, what worship better
          186Than when free'd from every fetter
          187That the uninforming letter
          188    Rivets on the tortured mind,
          189Man, with silent admiration
          190Sees the glories of Creation,
          191And, in holy contemplation,
          192    Leaves the learned crowd behind!

Notes

1] St. Mary's: St Mary the Great with St Michael, Cambridge, the University of Cambridge Church, whose belfry rang out from the late 16th century onward, though Maxwell has in mind here the so-called "new clock" from Thwaites of London, set in place in 1793 with chimes devised by the Reverend Dr. Joseph Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law.

7] hydrostatics: the study of the pressure and equilibrium of liquids at rest.

19] "sizing": getting suppers from the college kitchen.

25] wrangler: the "name for each of the candidates who have been placed in the first class in the mathematical tripos at Cambridge University" (OED).

26] dangler: ineffectual courter of women or positions.

35] Convention: out-of-term session of the Cambridge University Senate.

68] proctorial fines: proctors are, "at Oxford and Cambridge, each of two officers appointed annually to discharge various functions in connexion with the meetings of the University and its various Boards, the examinations and conferment of degrees, and the like; they are also charged with the discipline of all persons in statu pupillari, and the summary punishment of minor offences" (OED, "proctor" sb. 1, 3b).

69] Moderators: "at Cambridge, one of two officers, appointed annually, who preside over and are responsible for the proper conduct of the examination for the Mathematical Tripos" (OED).

79] Alma Mater: "bounteous mother," a phrase for the school, college, and university from which one has graduated.

83] Commission: the official charge or instructions for one undertaking a public office.

99] Parallax: "the angular amount of such displacement or difference of position, being the angle contained between the two straight lines drawn to the object from the two different points of view, and constituting a measure of the distance of the object" (OED).

132] Number One: oneself, one's own interests.

166] sub-collector: deputy or assistant.


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): 612-17. 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 1852
Rhyme: aaabcccb


Other poems by James Clerk Maxwell