Poetry: A Vision of a Wrangler, of a University, of Pedantry, and of Philosophy by James Clerk Maxwell

Deep St. Mary’s bell had sounded,
And the twelve notes gently rounded
Endless chimneys that surrounded
My abode in Trinity.
(Letter G, Old Court, South Attics),
I shut up my mathematics,
That confounded hydrostatics—
Sink it in the deepest sea!

In the grate the flickering embers
Served to show how dull November’s
Fogs had stamped my torpid members,
Like a plucked and skinny goose.
And as I prepared for bed, I
Asked myself with voice unsteady,
If of all the stuff I read, I
Ever made the slightest use.

Late to bed and early rising,
Ever luxury despising,
Ever training, never “sizing,”
I have suffered with the rest.
Yellow cheek and forehead ruddy,
Memory confused and muddy,
These are the effects of study
Of a subject so unblest.

Look beyond, and see the wrangler,
Now become a College dangler,
Court some spiritual angler,
Nibbling at his golden bait.
Hear him silence restive Reason,
Her advice is out of season,
While her lord is plotting treason
Gainst himself, and Church or State.

See him next with place and pension,
And the very best intention
Of upholding that Convention
Under which his fortunes rose.
Every scruple is rejected,
With his cherished schemes connected,
“Higher Powers may be neglected—
His result no further goes.”

Much he lauds the education
Which has raised to lofty station,
Men, whose powers of calculation
Calculation’s self defied.
How the learned fool would wonder
Were he now to see his blunder,
When he put his reason under
The control of worldly Pride.

Thus I muttered, very seedy,
Husky was my throat, and reedy;
And no wonder, for indeed I
Now had caught a dreadful cold.
Thickest fog had settled slowly
Round the candle, burning lowly,
Round the fire, where melancholy
Traced retreating hills of gold.

Still those papers lay before me—
Problems made express to bore me,
When a silent change came o’er me,
In my hard uneasy chair.
Fire and fog, and candle faded,
Spectral forms the room invaded,
Little creatures, that paraded
On the problems lying there.

Fathers there, of every college,
Led the glorious ranks of knowledge,
Men, whose virtues all acknowledge
Levied the proctorial fines;
There the modest Moderators,
Set apart as arbitrators
’Twixt contending calculators,
Scrutinised the trembling lines.

All the costly apparatus,
That is meant to elevate us
To the intellectual status
Necessary for degrees—
College tutors—private coaches—
Line the Senate-house approaches.
If our Alma Mater dote, she’s
Taken care of well by these.

Much I doubted if the vision
Were the simple repetition
Of the statements of Commission,
Strangely jumbled, oddly placed.
When an awful form ascended,
And with cruel words defended
Those abuses that offended
My unsanctioned private taste.

Angular in form and feature,
Unlike any earthly creature,
She had properties to meet your
Eye whatever you might view.
Hair of pens and skin of paper;
Breath, not breath but chemic vapour;
Dress,—such dress as College Draper
Fashions with precision due.

Eyes of glass, with optic axes
Twisting rays of light as flax is
Twisted, while the Parallax is
Made to show the real size.
Primary and secondary
Focal lines in planes contrary,
Sum up all that’s known to vary
In those dull, unmeaning eyes.

Such the eyes, through which all Nature
Seems reduced to meaner stature.
If you had them you would hate your
Symbolising sense of sight.
Seeing planets in their courses
Thick beset with arrowy “forces,”
While the common eye no more sees
Than their mild and quiet light.

“Son,” she said (what could be queerer
Than thus tête-a -tête to hear her
Talk, in tones approaching nearer
To a saw’s than aught beside?
For the voice the spectre spoke in
Might be known by many a token
To proceed from metal, broken
When acoustic tricks were tried.

Little pleased to hear the Siren
“Own” me thus with voice of iron,
I had thoughts of just retiring
From a mother such a fright).
“No,” she said, “the time is pressing,
So before I give my blessing,
I’ll excuse you from confessing
What you thought of me to-night.

“Powers!” she cried, with hoarse devotion,
“Give my son the clearest notion
How to compass sure promotion,
And take care of Number One.
Let his college course be pleasant,
Let him ever, as at present,
Seem to have read what he hasn’t,
And to do what can’t be done.

Of the Philosophic Spirit
Richly may my son inherit;
As for Poetry, inter it
With the myths of other days.
Cut the thing entirely, lest yon
College Don should put the question,
Why not stick to what you’re best on?
Mathematics always pays.”

As the Hag was thus proceeding
To prescribe my course of reading,
And as I was faintly pleading,
Hardly knowing what to say,
Suddenly, my head inclining
I beheld a light form shining;
And the withered beldam, whining,
Saw the same and slunk away.

Then the vision, growing brighter,
Seemed to make my garret lighter;
As when noisome fogs of night are
Scattered by the rising sun.
Nearer still it grew and nearer,
Till my straining eyes caught clearer
Glimpses of a being dearer,
Dearer still than Number One.

In that well-remembered Vision
I was led to the decision
Still to hold in calm derision
Pedantry, however draped;
Since that artificial spectre
Proved a paltry sub-collector,
And had nothing to connect her
With the being whom she aped.

I could never finish telling
You of her that has her dwelling
Where those springs of truth are welling,
Whence all streams of beauty run.
She has taught me that creation
Bears the test of calculation,
But that Man forgets his station
If he stops when that is done.

Is our algebra the measure
Of that unexhausted treasure
That affords the purest pleasure,
Ever found when it is sought?
Let us rather, realising
The conclusions thence arising
Nature more than symbols prizing,
Learn to worship as we ought.

Worship? Yes, what worship better
Than when free’d from every fetter
That the uninforming letter
Rivets on the tortured mind,
Man, with silent admiration
Sees the glories of Creation,
And, in holy contemplation,
Leaves the learned crowd behind!

News Reporting: Negativity is conditioning us to only be negative!

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend about the way news is reported in Australia, and more broadly, and the conclusion that was reached around the dinner table was that news reporting has become so negative on the free to air TV in Australia that we have become so conditioned to the negative things reported that:

a) Nothing really surprises us anymore; and
b) We expect negativity and thus, by extension, are becoming more and more negative.

It is difficult to believe, for example, that the Columbine High School massacre was only 15 years ago and that our reaction, in Australia, to that massacre was, as I recall it, nothing short of hysteria (and rightly so). Now, in the shadows of similar events seemingly occurring on an, if not monthly, then bi-annual basis we seem to react in a way that it almost dismissive. What I mean is that we, as a body of individuals, seem to simply accept what has happened without demur and get on with life rather than react with a level of sorry that is appropriate to the horror of the news we are hearing.

Another news story of late goes to the question of negativity: the recent kidnapping of a 3 year old girl in Childers was a horrific story. Did anyone who heard that story not immediately think the worst: that the young girl had been murdered? And then when the young girl was found did anyone who heard that story not immediately think that something “fishy” was going on? Rather than be overjoyed for the family of the young girl, our thoughts immediately went to the negative.

If all one hears and sees is the negative then of course one starts to become conditioned to the negativity and not respond to it. Now I concede that there are some horrid things that go on in the world from time to time AND we need to know about them. However, there are a significant number of positive and local stories that we do not hear about or see simply because there is so much negativity to report that it gets lost in the rush to be negative.

I am a vociferous reader of news: there is no newspaper, online paper or blog that I will not read assuming it is within the ares that interest me. I do not watch news broadcasts on TV nor do I read, bizarrely, much of the locally produced newspapers. The balance of those programs lost me some time ago. I have found that as I have picked what I read and focused on reading what I enjoy, that I am reading much less negative news.

The focus on negative news is detrimental to not only the adults in our community but also the children. I have a number of friends with children who comment when asked that they do not listen to the news much nor watch the news with their children any more because it is so negative and, in some cases, so graphic that they will not put them through it. This is a travesty: how does a child learn about the world around them without seeing what is going on in said world.

I think we would all be much better off if the focus of our news services and free to air tabloids was on the positives in the world rather than the negatives. Positivity does not sell papers nor attract more viewers so the said news services / tabloids will never change their focus. That is saddening but reality. I hope a day never comes when we are so disassociated from what is horrific that we are no longer empathetic to those suffering. Then again, I am left to wonder if we are not already there.

Poetry: Cacoethes Scribendi By Oliver Wendell Holmes

If all the trees in all the woods were men;
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all earth’s living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write, and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.

Mental Health and Holidays: When Inactivity is not a Positive

We have just finished another Easter long weekend and have an ANZAC Day weekend looming next weekend. This weekend just gone I had some time to reflect on the time spent on holidays or long weekends and consider what correlation there is between those times of rest and impacts on mental health.

It struck me that often my most negative or down of times occurred when I had nothing to do. Put a different way: having pushed myself hard for weeks and sometimes months on end, down time that came from holidays or long weekend left me anxious that I was not doing anything or that there was something that I had not done that I should have been doing.

Despite having family that loved me and wanted to spend time with me I often eschewed their attentions and spent time either alone in my home worrying or I would go into my office and sit there and procrastinate.

Inactivity at times of rest used to cripple me. I could not be positive about that times, rather I saw them as an imposition on my work. Part of my problem, of course, was that my whole identity was focused on my work and I did not identify anything positive with doing things other than working.

Over time, I have come to embrace times of rest like those given to us by virtue of long weekends and holidays. It has not been without significant effort (I know this all sounds bizarre but you have to remember where I used to be mentally) and making sure I do these things when I have downtime:

1. Organising as many “events” as I can during the down times to ensure that I am still busy but not tempted to fall back into bad habits. Seeing family, hitting golf balls and doing work in the yard are all things I put on my agenda.
2. Doing things that I enjoy always distract me: during periods of downtime I read as much as I can because I enjoy reading.
3. If I can not organise to see them then at least I make time to talk to my family.
4. I sleep as much as possible: working in a high pressure environment often means sleep deprivation can arise so I use down time from holidays to sleep as much as I can possibly do.

Downtime can be difficult and can lead to the return to old and bad habits. Ensuring that I do things that lead to my down time actually being busy helps me avoid those habits and, by extension, negativity and anxiety that comes from those bad habits.

Now I can not wait for the next public holiday / long weekend / holiday I have: these are times to refresh and enjoy rather than procrastinate and regret. I am sad it took me so long to realise that but I intend to make the most of any downtime in the future.


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