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James Clerk Maxwell

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

Lines written under the Conviction That It Is Not Wise to Read Mathematics in November after One’s Fire Is Out


In the sad November time,
When the leaf has left the lime,
And the Cam, with sludge and slime,
Plasters his ugly channel,
While, with sober step and slow,
Round about the marshes low,
Stiffening students stumping go
Shivering through their flannel.

Then to me in doleful mood
Rises up a question rude,
Asking what sufficient good
Comes of this mode of living?
Moping on from day to day,
Grinding up what will not "pay,"
Till the jaded brain gives way
Under its own misgiving.

Why should wretched Man employ
Years which Nature meant for joy,
Striving vainly to destroy
Freedom of thought and feeling?
Still the injured powers remain
Endless stores of hopeless pain,
When at last the vanquished brain
Languishes past all healing.

Where is then his wealth of mind --
All the schemes that Hope designed?
Gone, like spring, to leave behind
Indolent melancholy.
Thus he ends his helpless days,
Vex’t with thoughts of former praise --
Tell me, how are Wisdom’s ways
Better than senseless Folly?

Happier those whom trifles please,
Dreaming out a life of ease,
Sinking by unfelt degrees
Into annihilation.
Or the slave, to labour born,
Heedless of the freeman’s scorn,
Destined to be slowly worn
Down to the brute creation.

Thus a tempting spirit spoke,
As from troubled sleep I woke
To a morning thick with smoke,
Sunless and damp and chilly.
Then to sleep I turned once more,
Eyes inflamed and windpipe sore,
Dreaming dreams I dreamt before,
Only not quite so silly.

In my dream methought I strayed
Where a learned-looking maid
Stores of flimsy goods displayed,
Articles not worth wearing.
"These," she said, with solemn air,
"Are the robes that sages wear,
Warranted, when kept with care,
Never to need repairing."

Then unnumbered witlings, caught
By her wiles, the trappings bought,
And by labour, not by thought,
Honour and fame were earning.
While the men of wiser mind
Passed for blind among the blind;
Pedants left them far behind
In the career of learning.

"Those that fix their eager eyes
Ever on the nearest prize
Well may venture to despise
Loftier aspirations.
Pedantry is in demand!
Buy it up at second-hand,
Seek no more to understand
Profitless speculations."

Thus the gaudy gowns were sold,
Cast off sloughs of pedants old;
Proudly marched the students bold
Through the domain of error,
Till their trappings, false though fair,
Mouldered off and left them bare,
Clustering close in blank despair,
Nakedness, cold, and terror.

Then, I said, "These haughty Schools
Boast that by their formal rules
They produce more learned fools
Than could be well expected.
Learned fools they are indeed,
Learned in the books they read;
Fools whene’er they come to need
Wisdom, too long neglected.

"Oh! that men indeed were wise,
And would raise their purblind eyes
To the opening mysteries
Scattered around them ever.
Truth should spring from sterile ground,
Beauty beam from all around,
Right should then at last be found
Joining what none may sever."

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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