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James Clerk Maxwell

(13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879 / Edinburgh, Scotland)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the Philosophic Spirit
Richly may my son inherit;
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."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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