Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 5

In my own library this next poem is found (untitled) in Collected Sonnets by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950),  but it also is found online at various sites. The first line of the sonnet, which announces Euclid as its subject, is well-known to most mathematicians; enjoy here all fourteeen lines.


Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

It may be that in every era people imagine that earlier times were less frenetic and closer to visions of perfection. The narrator in Millay's poem seems to envy (and perhaps also to admire) the Greek mathematician, Euclid, who is considered fortunate in his opportunity to see Beauty with an original purity. Is it our fault, or are we vicitims of being in later times, that we ponder merely ourselves and stare at nothing?  Millay's poem goes on to note that a few later ones--perhaps we might include the poet, herself, among them--have had the good fortune, just once and at a distance, to have heard the footfall of Beauty's sandal.

What a poem assumes can be as important what the poem says.  In the background seems an assumption that the mathematician (here, Euclid) is the one whose gaze at beauty is most worthy of note.  Mathematics is the language of precise description.   Pure mathematics is a language of beauty.

In contrast to Millay's external view of the mathematician as a privileged observer, David St John, in his poem "Two Sorrows," looks inside the mind of a mathematician and sees a tug-of-war between the life of mathematical discovery and the surrounding human world.

Two Sorrows

He had lived for the sorrow of numbers
& this had made his mind beautiful
& also pure
Like a globe of red ink held up
In a beaker before the light of the setting
Sun by a woman in a white smock who
Without question desires him
If there is any

Equation he cannot yet complete

It may be that of red ink ≠ blood
Thought it may also concern the ellipsis of
Sweat along her lips

Beading a bit like the light in the beaker

As he puts his hand around hers for only
A moment & the liquid swirls a little
In the bottom of its glass bulb
& he awakens quite suddenly beyond his dream
Of riverbeds erased by snow
An ostrich at her egg
A boy asleep in the high heavenly forest

Of innumerable & open arms

David St John teaches at the University of Southern California. "Two Sorrows" first appeared in the American Poetry Review.  

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