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Selected Poetry of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

from Representative Poetry On-line
Prepared by members of the Department of English at the University of Toronto
from 1912 to the present and published by the University of Toronto Press from 1912 to 1967.
RPO Edited by Ian Lancashire
A UTEL (University of Toronto English Library) Edition
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries
© 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto

Image of James Clerk Maxwell

Index to poems

As for Poetry, inter it
With the myths of other days.
Cut the thing entirely, lest yon
College Don should put the question,
Why not stick to what you're best on?
Mathematics always pays.
        (A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy, 139-144)
  1. In Memory of Edward Wilson, Who Repented of what was in his Mind to Write after Section
  2. Lectures to Women on Physical Science
  3. Lines written under the conviction that it is not wise to read Mathematics in November after one’s fire is out
  4. Molecular Evolution
  5. To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode
  6. A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy

Notes on Life and Works

James Clerk Maxwell was born on Nov. 13, 1831, at 14 India St., Edinburgh, to John Clerk Maxwell and Frances Cay. The family home to which he would at last retire was at Glenlair, but after his mother's death young James was sent to Edinburgh for schooling at the Edinburgh Academy, from 1840 to 1847. He excelled at both English and mathematics. His education continued at the University of Edinburgh (1847-50) and Peterhouse College in the University of Cambridge (1850-54), which graduated him as Second Wrangler. After several years as a fellow at Trinity College Cambridge, lecturing on hydrostatics and optics, Maxwell took a position as Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, for two years (1856-57). Katherine Mary Dewar and he wed there in June 1858, and then Maxwell became Professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College, London. They lived at 8 Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington. He retired to Glenlair from 1866 to 1870 after suffering from erysipelas, but returned to academe on March 8, 1871, when he assumed the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge. Here Maxwell brought out his greatest works, Theory of Heat (1871), Electricity and Magnetism (1873), and Matter and Motion (1876), but he also helped design and supervised the erection of the Cavendish Laboratory. Throughout his life, Maxwell loved English poetry and committed much of it to memory. He wrote poems himself, which were collected and published by his friend Lewis Campbell in 1882. He evidently sang the most well-known, his homage to Burns' "Comin thro' the Rye," while playing a guitar. The scientist who created one of the most famous of thought experiments, "Maxwell's demon" (which made entropy understandable to the un-numbered), died a Christian on Nov. 5, 1879.

Biographical information

Given name: James Clerk
Family name: Maxwell
Birth date: 13 November 1831
Death date: 5 November 1879
Nationality: English
Family relations
          father: John Clerk Maxwell
          mother: Frances Cay Maxwell
          wife: Katherine Mary Dewar Maxwell
          Edinburgh Academy: 1840 to 1847
          University of Edinburgh: 1847 to 1850
          Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge: 1850 to 1854
Religion: Anglican
Literary period: Victorian
          Professor: 1856 to 1879
          Edinburgh, Scotland (14 India Street): 1831 to 1850
          Cambridge, England: 1850 to 1854
          Aberdeen, Scotland: 1856 to 1857
          Kensington, London (8 Palace Gardens Terrace): 1858 to 1866
          Glenlair, Scotland: 1866 to 1870
          Cambridge, England: 1870 to 1879
Illness: erysipelas
First RPO edition: 2001