Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 1

This is the first in a series of postings involving poems in which the principal subject is a mathematician.

     In “The Ideal Mathematician,” an essay in The Mathematical Experience, authors Philip Davis, Reuben Hersh, and Elena Marchisotto endeavor to describe the most mathematician-like mathematician:  He rests his faith on rigorous proof ...  He is labeled by his field, by how much he publishes . . .   He finds it difficult to establish meaningful conversation with that large portion of humanity that has never heard of [his research topic] ...  His writing follows an unbreakable convention:  to conceal any sign that the author or the intended reader is a human being ....

     This characterization is echoed in lines by William Benjamin Smith -- scholar, poet, and mathematician --who wrote "The Merman and the Seraph," a poem that won the Poet Lore competition of 1906.  The lines sing sadly of the separation between the Merman -- like the ideal mathematician, isolated in his sterile world of thought, separated from beauty, feeling, and desire -- and an angel or Seraph, who represents the world of whatsoever is good.  Here are the opening stanzas of Smith's poem.


Deep the sunless seas amid,
Far from Man, from Angel hid,
Where the soundless tides are rolled
Over Ocean's treasure-hold,
With dragon eye and heart of stone,
The ancient Merman mused alone.

And aye his arrowed Thought he wings
Straight at the inmost core of things--
As mirrored in his Magic glass
The lightning-footed Ages pass,--
And knows nor joy nor earth's distress,
But broods on Everlastingness.

"Thoughts that love not, thoughts that hate not,
Thoughts that Age and Change await not,
All unfeeling,
All revealing,
Scorning height's and depth's concealing, 
These be mine—and these alone!"--
Saith the Merman's heart of stone.

As the poem unfolds, the Merman dreams of a beautiful angel who visits him, mantled with love and all that is good.  Too soon she retreats, leaving him in his dark world of sterile thought.

The full text for "The Merman and the Seraph" is found in Library of Southern literature, Volume 11 (The Martin and Hoyt Company, 1909).

1 comment:

  1. JoAnn, love this -- -- does it ever capture the apparent sterility of mathematical thought constrained to the inanimate.

    The saving grace is the soaring imagination that pure math develops. When it's applied to the things of life it can add much along an imaginary plane -- -- just like the imaginary numbers broarden the domain of real numbers.