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A Paradoxical Ode [After Shelley] (1878) by James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell
To Hermann Stoffkraft, Ph.D.
A Paradoxical Ode [After Shelley] (1878)

I
My soul’s an amphicheiral knot
Upon a liquid vortex wrought
By Intellect in the Unseen residing,
While thou dost like a convict sit
With marlinspike untwisting it
Only to find my knottiness abiding,
Since all the tools for my untying
In four-dimensioned space are lying,
Where playful fancy intersperses,
Whole avenues of universes;
Where Klein and Clifford fill the void
With one unbounded, finite homaloid,
Whereby the Infinite is hopelessly destroyed.

II
But when thy Science lifts her pinions
In Speculation’s wild dominions,
I treasure every dictum thou emittest;
While down the stream of Evolution
We drift, and look for no solution
But that of survival of the fittest,
Till in that twilight of the gods
When earth and sun are frozen clods,
When, all its matter degraded,
Matter in aether shall have faded,
We, that is, all the work we’ve done,
As waves in aether, shall for ever run
In swift expanding spheres, through heavens beyond the sun.

III
Great Principle of all we see,
Thou endless Continuity!
By thee are all our angles gently rounded,
Our misfits are by thee adjusted,
And as I still in thee have trusted,
So let my methods never be confounded!
O never may direct Creation
Breach in upon my contemplation,
Still may the causal chain ascending,
Appear unbroken and unending,
And where the chain is best to sight
Let viewless fancies guide my darkling flight
Through aeon-haunted worlds, in order infinite.

A Paradoxical Ode is Clerk Maxwell’s comic response to his friend Peter Guthrie Tait, co-author of the popular science books The Unseen Universe and its sequel Paradoxical Philosophy, an imagined dialogue between Christian scientists and a German materialist, the Hermann Stoffkraft to whom Maxwell’s poem is addressed. Tait and co-author Balfour Stewart had developed a Theory of Continuity to counter Tyndall’s Belfast Address assertion that God had no place in science, and it was in these two texts that they presented it to the public. While no absolute materialist himself, Maxwell was less than taken with his friend’s attempted reconciliation of religion and science, and as a persistent scribbler of humorous verse pastiched Prometheus Unbound here to address some of the science Tait co-opted into his theory.

It is densely packed with the stuff (the matter?) of late-nineteenth century physics. The first verse is best dealt with by outlining the two connected concepts with which it is concerned. The first of these is the knot theory developed by Tait. Tait had begun mapping the crossings of close-space curves, or closed knots, and following William Thomson’s speculation that atoms might be vortices in the ether, this work had gained new impetus: Tait wondered if he was in fact compiling an atomic table of knots. As had been demonstrated by the topologist Felix Klein, however, such knots could be undone if one allowed for a fourth dimension of space (as did Tait and Stewart in The Unseen Universe). If one also allowed for the curvature of space as suggested by non-Euclidean geometry, then perhaps a curved 3-space existed within 4-space. Such a ‘homoloid’ had been speculated by William Kingdon Clifford.

Verse two doffs its cap to the progressive force of evolution, the thermodynamically counteractive drag of entropy and the perfect medium of the aether. We are getting a sense of the paradoxes inherent on the physics of the age and the structuring counter-balances of Maxwell’s verse. The lines ‘By thee are all our angles gently rounded, Our misfits are by thee adjusted’ in the final verse seem to anticipate the geometrical satire of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1882), and it is perhaps worth noting that Maxwell’s assistant William Garnett had been Abbott’s headboy only a few year’s previously.

This playful and slightly cryptic satire gets us some way towards Maxwell’s own philosophy of science. Most clearly we sense that he disapproves of any over-reaching Theory, of Continuity or otherwise, and certainly would not allow any such ‘viewless fancies’ to cloud his method. He takes swipes, too, at vortex atom theory, and sniffs at speculation. He is keenly aware of the messiness and incomplete nature of theoretical physics and resistant to unifying it with religious faith.

As to his acknowledged poetic forebear, Shelley’s poem tells of Prometheus’s resistance to omnipotent Jupiter and his freedom from captivity through ‘Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance’. Shelley, the atheist, elevated the Titan; the theft of fire and liberation of mankind from the domininion of the Gods has gone before. Does science liberate us from Gods? Does Maxwell believe this?

A lot to unpack, and a lot more work required!

Post by Mark Blacklock (Birkbeck College, London)

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