From Sappho to Babbage

The English mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed and built the first programmable calculating machine, wrote to the (then) young poet Tennyson, whose poem The Vision of Sin he had recently read:

BabbageToTennyson

I like to think Babbage was having a laugh with Tennyson here, rather than expressing a view that poetry should be taken so literally, but you never know..

Anyway, I was reminded of the above letter by the much-hyped recent story of the alleged astronomical “dating” of this ancient poem (actually just a fragment) by Sappho:

Tonight I’ve watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

It is a trivial piece of astronomical work to decuded that if the “Pleiades” does indeed refer to the constellation and “the night is now half-gone” means sometime around midnight, then the scene described in the fragment happened, if it happened at all, between January and March. However, as an excellent rebuttal piece by Darin Hayton points out, the assumptions needed to arrive at a specific date are all questionable.

More important, poetry is not and never has been intended for such superficial interpretation.  That goes for modern works, but is even more true for ancient verse. Who knows what the imagery and allusions in the text would have meant to an audience when it was composed, over 2500 years ago, but which are lost on a modern reader?

I’m not so much saddened that someone thought to study the possible astronomical interpretation an ancient text, even if they didn’t do a very thorough job of it. At least that means they are interested in poetry, although I doubt they were joking as Babbage may have been.

What does sadden me, however, is the ludicrous hype generated by the University of Texas publicity machine. There’s far too much of that about, and it’s getting worse.

 

 

7 Responses to “From Sappho to Babbage”

  1. There is something wrong with the link in this sentence: However, as an excellent rebuttal piece by Darin Hayton points out, the assumptions needed to arrive at a specific date are all questionable.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    The Pleiades a constellation?

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