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Short poem

Selected Poetry of James Joseph Sylvester (1814-1897)

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 Joseph Sylvester

Index to poems

So gushes from affection bruised
Ambition's purple tide,
And steadfast faith unkindly used
Hardens to stubborn pride.
        (Kepler's Apostrophe, 45-48)
  1. Kepler's Apostrophe
  2. Remonstrance

Notes on Life and Works

James Joseph was born on Sept. 3, 1814, to Abraham Joseph Sylvester and was a Jew. Educated at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, he proceeded to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he earned the coveted Second Wrangler in mathematics in 1837. Unable to swear to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church, however, Sylvester was barred from obtaining a degree. Still, he earned the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at University College, London, on Nov. 25, 1837. Single all his life, and dedicated more to public research than to regular teaching, Sylvester led a restless academic life. Appointed as Professor of Mathematics, University of Virginia, 1841, the year he obtained an M.A. degree from the University of Dublin, he resigned soon after, in March 1842, evidently because of an altercation with a student who had insulted him, and returned to England to work at Equity and Law Life Assurance Company from 1845 to 1855. He was called to the Bar in 1850. His next post was as Professor of Mathematics, Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from 1855 to 1870. During this stint he became President of the London Mathematical Society and of the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association. Sylvester again left academe, this time with just one book to his name, The Laws of Verse (1870), which he practiced with as marked originality and flare as he did the analysis of numbers. His finest poem, "Kepler's Apostrophe," movingly expresses the fierce unrepentance of any free-thinking researcher. Sylvester lived unemployed in London until 1877, when Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore engaged him as Professor of Mathematics. In America he founded the American Journal of Mathematics. By 1883 he left Baltimore to become Savilian Professor of Geometry at New College, Oxford University, until his retirement in 1894. Among the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century, Sylvester founded invariant algebra. He died on March 15, 1897, and was interred in the Jewish Cemetery, Ball's Pond, London.

Biographical information

Given name: James Joseph
Family name: Sylvester
Honorific: Professor
Birth date: 3 September 1814
Death date: 15 March 1897
Nationality: English
Ethnicity: Jewish
Family relations
          father: Abraham Joseph Sylvester
          Royal Institution School, Liverpool, Lancashire
          St. John's College, University of Cambridge
Religion: Jewish
Literary period: Victorian
          Professor: 1837 to 1894
          Equity and Law Life Assurance Co., England: 1845 to 1855
          Cambridge, Cambridgesgire, England
          Liverpool, Lancashire, England
          London: 1837 to 1941
          Virginia, USA: 1841 to 1842
          London, England: 1842 to 1877
          Baltimore, Maryland, USA: 1877 to 1883
          Oxford, Oxfordshire, England: 1883 to 1894
Buried at: Jewish Cemetery, Ball's Pond, London
First RPO edition: 2001