“The Mathematician in Love,” by Scottish mechanical engineer William Rankine (1820-1872):

A mathematician fell madly in love
With a lady, young, handsome, and charming:
By angles and ratios harmonic he strove
Her curves and proportions all faultless to prove
As he scrawled hieroglyphics alarming.

He measured with care, from the ends of a base,
The arcs which her features subtended:
Then he framed transcendental equations, to trace
The flowing outlines of her figure and face,
And thought the result very splendid.

He studied (since music has charms for the fair)
The theory of fiddles and whistles,–
Then composed, by acoustic equations, an air,
Which, when ’twas performed, made the lady’s long hair
Stand on end, like a porcupine’s bristles.

The lady loved dancing:–he therefore applied,
To the polka and waltz, an equation;
But when to rotate on his axis he tried,
His centre of gravity swayed to one side,
And he fell, by the earth’s gravitation.

No doubts of the fate of his suit made him pause,
For he proved, to his own satisfaction,
That the fair one returned his affection;–“because,
“As every one knows, by mechanical laws,
“Re-action is equal to action.”

“Let x denote beauty,–y, manners well-bred,–
z, Fortune,–(this last is essential),–
“Let L stand for love”–our philosopher said,–
“Then L is a function of x, y, and z,
“Of the kind which is known as potential.”

“Now integrate L with respect to d t,
“(t standing for time and persuasion);
“Then, between proper limits, ’tis easy to see,
“The definite integral Marriage must be:–
“(A very concise demonstration).”

Said he–“If the wandering course of the moon
“By Algebra can be predicted,
“The female affections must yield to it soon”–
–But the lady ran off with a dashing dragoon,
And left him amazed and afflicted.


Rhymes for unrhymable words, by Willard R. Espy:

It is unth-
inkable to find
A rhyme for month
Except this special kind.

The four eng-
Wore orange

Love’s lost its glow?
No need to lie; j-
ust tell me “go!”
And I’ll oblige.

(From his entertaining rhyming dictionary.)

Wings of Song

In his 1922 book Songs of the Birds, Oxford zoologist Walter Garstang set out to record birdsongs as musical compositions:

The peculiar quality or timbre of each bird’s voice and the resonance of each sound have been imitated as closely as possible by a selection of human consonants; the composition of the song has been represented by the appropriate repetition, modification, or contrast of selected syllables; the syllabic rendering has been cast in a corresponding rhythm; and round this chosen sequence of syllables a song has been woven to capture something, if possible, of the joy or of the attendant circumstances which form the natural setting of his song.

“I fell in love with my models,” he wrote, “and could not content myself with a purely scientific account of their performances.” He was similarly enraptured by amphibians — the 1951 book Larval Forms collects his poems about marine larvae:

Amblystoma’s a giant newt who rears in swampy waters,
As other newts are wont to do, a lot of fishy daughters:
These Axolotls, having gills, pursue a life aquatic,
But, when they should transform to newts, are naughty and erratic.

His colleague Alister Hardy wrote, “I certainly believe that he gets his ideas across with much greater felicity in these sparkling rhymes than he has done in all his more carefully calculated prose.”

See Bird Songs.


In 1949 English physician Zachary Cope published The Diagnosis of the Acute Abdomen in Rhyme:

The muscles of the bowel-wall are strong
And by their strength they force the food along;
In rhythmic waves contractions come and go
Making the intestinal contents flow;
So if through any kind of morbid state
A bit of bowell wall invaginate
The muscle-wall may force it on and on
Until far down the lumen it has gone.
The gut below Dilates for its reception
And thus you get what’s called intussusception.

He dedicated the 100-page work to his students. The preface to the fifth edition reads:

I thank those readers who oft write to me
Suggesting things with which I oft agree
But most of all I thank the youth who said
‘I always keep a copy by me bed.’

About Time,_Prague..jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Korf’s Clock

Korf’s clock is of a novel sort
In which two pairs of hands are used:
One pair points forwards as it ought,
The other backwards a la Proust.

When it says eight it’s also four,
When it says nine it’s also three;
A single glance and you no more
Need fear the ancient Enemy.

For with this wondrous clock you’ll find
As, Janus-like, it turns about
(To such an end it was designed)
Time simply cancels itself out.

Palmström’s Clock

But Palmström’s clock has a “higher” power,
Balanced as lightly as a flower.

Scorning a set pedestrian pace,
It keeps time with a certain grace

And will, in answer to a prayer,
Go en retard, en arriéré.

One hour, two hours, three hours indeed,
Sympathizing with our need!

Though clockwork in its outward part
It hides within — a tender heart.

— Christian Morgenstern

Above: Built in 1586, the town hall in the old Jewish ghetto of Prague bears two clocks: a traditional clock tower with four faces bearing Roman numerals and a second clock bearing Hebrew numerals. The hands on the conventional clocks turn clockwise; those on the Hebrew clock turn counterclockwise. (Thanks, Danesh.)

Say It With Flowers

The lost art of floriography assigned meanings to flowers so that lovers could exchange messages with “talking bouquets.” In his 1839 Language of Flowers, English journalist Frederic Shoberl rendered an entire verse by French poet Évariste de Parny as the combination of 16 flowers:

Aimer est un destin charmant,
C’est un bonheur qui nous enivre,
Et qui produit l’enchantement.
Avoir aimé, c’est ne plus vivre,
Hélas! c’est avoir acheté
Cette accablante vérité,
Que les serments sont un mensonge,
Que l’amour trompe tôt ou tard,
Que l’innocence n’est qu’un art,
Et que le bonheur n’est qu’un songe.

“It may be thus rendered: ‘To love is a pleasure, a happiness, which intoxicates; to love no longer, is to live no longer; it is to have bought this sad truth, that innocence is falsehood, that love is an art, and that happiness is a dream.'”

Pillow Verse

English textile designer William Morris always said he wanted to dream a poem. When he finally did and was asked whether he could remember it, he said, “Only the first line, and it went like this: The moonlight slept on a treacle sea.

Archbishop Edward Benson told Edmund Gosse that he dreamed he had been appointed poet laureate and found himself reciting this couplet to the queen:

Your latest atmosphere device
Is all composed of dust and lice.

And Sir John Squire confessed that when he dreamed the following lines they seemed impressive until he woke up:

There was a boy grew twenty inch, yes,
Twenty inch a year,
It might have made his mother flinch, but
She was quite a dear;
Yes, she was excellent,
And she was well content
To watch her offspring forge ahead in his
Peculiar sphere.

(From Stephen Brook, ed., The Oxford Book of Dreams, 1983. See Night Work.)

In Brief

In 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt endorsed a plan to simplify the spelling of difficult words, Englishman Harry Graham offered a scheme of his own:

When Theo: Roos: unfurled his bann:
As Pres: of an immense Repub:
And sought to manufact: a plan
For saving people troub:
His mode of spelling (termed phonet:)
Affec: my brain like an emet:

And I evolved a scheme (pro tem.)
To simplify my mother-tongue,
That so in fame I might resem:
Upt: Sinc:, who wrote “The Jung:”
And rouse an interest enorm:
In conversational reform.

I grudge the time my fellows waste
Completing words that are so comm:
Wherever peop: of cult: and taste
Habitually predom:
‘Twould surely tend to simpli: life
Could they but be curtailed a trif:

For is not “Brev: the soul of Wit”?
(Inscribe this mott: upon your badge)
The sense will never suff: a bit,
If left to the imag:
Since any pers: can see what’s meant
By words so simp: as “husb:” or “gent:”

When at some meal (at dinn: for inst:)
You hand your unc: an empty plate,
Or ask your aunt (that charming spinst:)
To pass you the potat:,
They have too much sagac:, I trust,
To give you sug: or pepp: or must:

If you require a slice of mutt:
You’ll find the selfsame princ: hold good,
Nor get, instead of bread and butt:,
Some tapioca pudd:,
Nor vainly bid some boon-compan:
Replen: with Burg: his vacant can.

At golf, if your oppon: should ask
Why in a haz: your nib: is sunk,
And you explain your fav’rite Hask:
Lies buried in a bunk:,
He cannot very well misund:
That you (poor fooz:) have made a blund:

If this is prob: — nay, even cert: —
My scheme at once becomes attrac:
And I (pray pard: a litt: impert:)
A public benefac:
Who saves his fellow-man and neighb:
A deal of quite unnecess: lab:

Gent: Reader, if to me you’ll list:
And not be irritab: or peev:,
You’ll find it of tremend: assist:
This habit of abbrev:,
Which grows like some infec: disease,
Like chron: paral: or German meas:

And ev’ry living human bipe:
Will feel his heart grow grate: and warm
As he becomes the loy: discip:
Of my partic: reform,
(Which don’t confuse with that, I beg,
Of Brander Matth: or And: Carneg:)

“”T is not in mort: to comm: success,”
As Shakes: remarked; but if my meth:
Does something to dimin: or less:
The expend: of public breath,
My country, overcome with grat:,
Should in my hon: erect a stat:

My bust by Rod: (what matt: the cost?)
Shall be exhib:, devoid of charge,
With (in the Public Lib: at Bost:)
My full-length port: by Sarge:
That thous: from Pitts: or Wash: may swarm
To worsh: the Found: of this Reform.

Meanwhile I seek with some avid:
The fav: of your polite consid:


I just ran across this in Hurd and Hurd’s Treasury of Great American Letters, from 1961 — kept from home on his daughter’s 10th birthday, Ogden Nash left her this poem:

My sweet, although you were divine
When you were just a child of nine,
I’d be the happiest of men
If I could see you change to 10.
I do not like to be away
On such a stupendiferous day.
Now that you’re old enough to caddie
I’m a very happy daddy.
Many happy returns and
I love you.


Ogden Nash’s 1975 poetry collection I Wouldn’t Have Missed It contains an intriguing index of last lines:

A weirdo of fifty, 347
Alone, in the dusk, with the cleaning fluid, 239
And bring me half a dozen smelts, 193
And jam the bloody airwaves on the Seventeenth of March, 199
And join that lama, 217
And leave casements to Keats and me, 332
And the hell with the first fourteen, 346
And Zeus said, Yes, I’m an atheist, 351
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage, 100
But the sensible fish swims down, 28
But you need an orgy, once in a while, 56
Fell through the parlor floor today, 214
He counted them while being digested, 379
How old is Spring, Miranda?, 103
I wish the kipper had a zipper, 321
Is hoping to outwit a duck, 221
It’s kind of fun to be extinct, 265
Kek kek kek, whoosh, kek kek kek, whoosh!, 327
Of deathless celluloid vowels, 192
The proper size for a child, 95
Thus saving the price of a bugle, 63
To tell a lizard from a skunk, 190
We can cling to our fleece, Hot Cha!, 52
Why, they’re crazy, 144

The longest is “That Man has to go continually to the dentist to keep his teeth in good condition when the chief reason he wants his teeth in good condition is so that he won’t have to go to the dentist, 154.”