Poetry in Motion


When he wasn’t taming electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell wrote verse. Here’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” composed in 1854:

An inextensible heavy chain
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K.

Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
Of which for the present we’ve only to think;
Let T be the tension, and T + dT
The same for the end that is nearest to B.
Let a be put, by a common convention,
For the angle at M ‘twixt OX and the tension;
Let Vt and Vn be ds‘s velocities,
Of which Vt along and Vn across it is;
Then Vn/Vt the tangent will equal,
Of the angle of starting worked out in the sequel.

In working the problem the first thing of course is
To equate the impressed and effectual forces.
K is tugged by two tensions, whose difference dT
Must equal the element’s mass into Vt.
Vn must be due to the force perpendicular
To ds‘s direction, which shows the particular
Advantage of using da to serve at your
Pleasure to estimate ds‘s curvature.
For Vn into mass of a unit of chain
Must equal the curvature into the strain.

Thus managing cause and effect to discriminate,
The student must fruitlessly try to eliminate,
And painfully learn, that in order to do it, he
Must find the Equation of Continuity.
The reason is this, that the tough little element,
Which the force of impulsion to beat to a jelly meant,
Was endowed with a property incomprehensible,
And was “given,” in the language of Shop, “inextensible.”
It therefore with such pertinacity odd defied
The force which the length of the chain should have modified,
That its stubborn example may possibly yet recall
These overgrown rhymes to their prosody metrical.
The condition is got by resolving again,
According to axes assumed in the plane.
If then you reduce to the tangent and normal,
You will find the equation more neat tho’ less formal.
The condition thus found after these preparations,
When duly combined with the former equations,
Will give you another, in which differentials
(When the chain forms a circle), become in essentials
No harder than those that we easily solve
In the time a T totum would take to revolve.

Now joyfully leaving ds to itself, a-
Ttend to the values of T and of a.
The chain undergoes a distorting convulsion,
Produced first at A by the force of impulsion.
In magnitude R, in direction tangential,
Equating this R to the form exponential,
Obtained for the tension when a is zero,
It will measure the tug, such a tug as the “hero
Plume-waving” experienced, tied to the chariot.
But when dragged by the heels his grim head could not carry aught,
So give a its due at the end of the chain,
And the tension ought there to be zero again.
From these two conditions we get three equations,
Which serve to determine the proper relations
Between the first impulse and each coefficient
In the form for the tension, and this is sufficient
To work out the problem, and then, if you choose,
You may turn it and twist it the Dons to amuse.

Spoon River

“Lines by an Oxford Don,” from the Globe, June 1805:

My brain was filled with rests of thought,
No more by currying wares distraught,
As lazing dreamily I lay
In my Canoodian canay.

Ah me, methought, how leef were swite
If men could neither wreak nor spite;
No erring bloomers, no more slang,
No tungles then to trip the tang!

No more the undergraddering tits
Would exercise their woolish fits
With tidal ales (and false, I wis)
Of my fame-farred tamethesis!

A sentence that makes equal sense when spoonerized: “I must brush my hat, for it is pouring with rain.”

When George S. Kaufman’s daughter told him a friend had eloped from Vassar, he said, “Ah! She put her heart before the course.”

A Three-Toed Tree Toad’s Ode

Image: Flickr

A he-toad loved a she-toad
That lived high in a tree.
She was a two-toed tree toad
But a three-toed toad was he.

The three-toed tree toad tried to win
The she-toad’s nuptial nod,
For the three-toed tree toad loved the road
The two-toed tree toad trod.

Hard as the three-toed tree toad tried,
He could not reach her limb.
From her tree-toad bower, with her V-toe power
The she-toad vetoed him.

— Anonymous

Time Is Money


Claude Sanguin, a French poet, who died at the close of the last century, having had his house consumed by lightning, sent the following ingenious card to Louis XIV on the occasion. The monarch at once felt the delicacy of the poet’s verses, and the distress of his situation, and cheerfully ordered him the one thousand crowns which were the object of his demand.

To engage in your matters belongs not to me,
This, Sire, inexcusable freedom would be;
But yet, when reviewing my miseries past,
Of your majesty’s income the total I cast;
All counted, (I’ve still the remembrance quite clear,)
Your revenue’s one hundred millions a year;
Hence one hundred thousand per day in your pow’r,
Divided, brings four thousand crowns to each hour,
To answer the calls of my present distress,
Which lightning has caused in my country recess,
May I be allow’d to request, noble Sire,
Of your time fifteen minutes, before I expire?

— I.J. Reeve, The Wild Garland; or, Curiosities of Poetry, 1866

“Power of Short Words”

Bible scholar J. Addison Alexander was once asked whether one could write as forcibly in monosyllables as in long words. He responded with a poem:

Think not that strength lies in the big round word,
Or that the brief and plain must needs be weak.
To whom can this be true who once has heard
The cry of help, the words that all men speak
When want or woe or fear is in the throat,
So that each word is gasped out like a shriek
Pressed from the sore heart, or a strange wild note,
Sung by some fay or fiend? There is a strength
Which dies if stretched too far or spun too fine,
Which has more height than breadth, more depth than length.
Let but this force of thought and speech be mine,
And he that will may take the sleek fat phrase,
Which glows and burns not, though it gleam and shine–
Light but not heat–a flash, but not a blaze!
Nor is it mere strength that the short word boasts;
It serves far more than wind or storm can tell.
Or roar of waves that clash on rock-bound coasts,
The crash of tall trees when the wild winds swell,
The roar of guns, the groans of men that die
On blood-stained fields. It has a voice as well
For them that far off on their sick-beds lie;
For them that weep, for them that mourn the dead;
For them that dance and laugh and clap the hand
To joy’s quick step, as well as grief’s slow tread;
The sweet plain words we learn at first keep time,
And though the theme be sad, or gay, or grand,
With each, with all, these may be made to chime,
In thought, or speech, or song, or prose, or rhyme.

Thou Whoreson Zed!

What’s unique about this poem?

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

It’s the only one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet.

What Is It?

Here’s one of the most beautiful riddles in the English language. It’s commonly attributed to Byron, but it was composed in 1814 by Catherine Maria Fanshawe, the daughter of a Surrey squire:

‘Twas whispered in heaven, ’twas muttered in hell,
And echo caught faintly the sound as it fell;
On the confines of earth ’twas permitted to rest,
And the depths of the ocean its presence confessed.
‘Twill be found in the sphere when ’tis riven asunder;
‘Tis seen in the lightning, and heard in the thunder.
‘Twas allotted to man from his earliest breath;
It assists at his birth, and attends him in death;
It presides o’er his happiness, honour, and health;
Is the prop of his house, and the end of his wealth.
In the heap of the miser ’tis hoarded with care,
But is sure to be lost in his prodigal heir.
It begins every hope, every wish it must bound,
It prays with the hermit, with monarchs is crowned.
Without it the soldier and seaman may roam,
But woe to the wretch who expels it from home.
In the whispers of conscience ’tis sure to be found;
Nor e’en in the whirlwind of passion is drowned.
‘Twill soften the heart, and though deaf to the ear,
‘Twill make it acutely and constantly hear.
But, in short, let it rest like a beautiful flower;
Oh, breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour.

What is it?

Click for Answer