Archive for the Literature Category

The Arrival of the Bee Box

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on January 9, 2019 by telescoper

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)



The Book Cover Challenge

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2019 by telescoper

Over the past week I’ve been participating in the Book Cover Challenge on Twitter, in which you are invited to post every day for a week an image of the cover of a book you love without any further comment or explanation. I’ve now finished the challenge and I thought I’d put the seven books I selected up here.

Since the challenge is over I am absolved of the requirement not to add comments, so I’ll make a few brief observations here. One is that I found it very hard to select just seven books. I love far too many books to do this in any systematic way. The seven picked are just meant to be vaguely representative of the sort of books I read, but they are not really the seven I definitely consider the best. On a different day I could easily have picked a completely different seven.

Anyway, here are some comment on my selections.


Book 1 is A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. I read this as a teenager, and it had a profound effect on me. It’s the story of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his sexuality in the American mid-West during the 1950s. It is as frank about the description of gay sex as it is truthful about the confusion that goes with being a teenager. When I bought it I didn’t realize it was going to be so sexually explicit or so unflinching in its description of the selfishness of the central character.

Book 2 is a collection of poems by R.S. Thomas. I had to include at least one book of poetry and found it hard to select which. I feel a bit ashamed to have omitted T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, but there you go. I only discovered R.S. Thomas when I moved to Wales in 2007, and still cannot understand why his poetry is not appreciated more widely, and I included this collection to encourage more people to explore his verse.

Book 3 is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I bought this soon after it came out in 1993 and although it is almost 1500 pages long I devoured it very quickly. The novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centres on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to the `suitable boy’ of the title.  Lata is a 19-year-old university student who refuses to be influenced by her domineering mother or opinionated brother, Arun. It’s beautifully written, weaving together the protagonists stories against a vividly painted backdrop of post-Partition India.

Books 4 & 5 are both from the Golden Age of detective fiction, but from either side of the Atlantic.  I’ve cheated a bit with Book 4, as it is actually 4 novels in one book but I had to have something by the greatest American writer of the period, Dashiell Hammett. By contrast I have also included a fine example of the English detective novel, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Both Hammett and Sayers managed to transcend the genre of crime fiction and produce genuine works of literature. The Nine Tailors, has an extraordinary sense of detail and atmosphere and a wonderfully imaginative ending. Among the many ingenious features of this novel is the very prominent central theme of bell-ringing (campanology).


Book 6 is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. This book describes the scientific discoveries of the polymaths of the late eighteenth century, and describes how this period formed the basis for modern scientific discoveries. It focuses particularly on the lives and works of such characters as Sir Joseph Banks, the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and chemist Humphry Davy and also explores the interaction between science and the art and literature of the period, especially poetry. It covers a lot of ground but it’s very wittily done and never gets bogged down.

Book 7, my last choice, is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. You would probably describe this as True Crime, a genre that is generally typified by crudely sensationalistic works of very little literary (or other) merit. This one is in a very different league, and some regard it as the first ever non-Fiction novel. Based on the real-life murders of four members of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith (for which they were later executed), In Cold Blood has been lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as well as the complex relationship that existed between them during and after the murders. Not a comfortable read by any means, but a masterpiece by any standards.

A Christmas Carol, by William Topaz McGonagall

Posted in Poetry with tags , on December 23, 2018 by telescoper

Welcome, sweet Christmas, blest be the morn
That Christ our Saviour was born!
Earth’s Redeemer, to save us from all danger,
And, as the Holy Record tells, born in a manger.

Then ring, ring, Christmas bells,
Till your sweet music o’er the kingdom swells,
To warn the people to respect the morn
That Christ their Saviour was born.

The snow was on the ground when Christ was born,
And the Virgin Mary His mother felt very forlorn
As she lay in a horse’s stall at a roadside inn,
Till Christ our Saviour was born to free us from sin.

Oh! think of the Virgin Mary as she lay
In a lowly stable on a bed of hay,
And angels watching O’er her till Christ was born,
Therefore all the people should respect Christmas morn.

The way to respect Christmas time
Is not by drinking whisky or wine,
But to sing praises to God on Christmas morn,
The time that Jesus Christ His Son was born;

Whom He sent into the world to save sinners from hell
And by believing in Him in heaven we’ll dwell;
Then blest be the morn that Christ was born,
Who can save us from hell, death, and scorn.

Then he warned, and respect the Saviour dear,
And treat with less respect the New Year,
And respect always the blessed morn
That Christ our Saviour was born.

For each new morn to the Christian is dear,
As well as the morn of the New Year,
And he thanks God for the light of each new morn.
Especially the morn that Christ was born.

Therefore, good people, be warned in time,
And on Christmas morn don’t get drunk with wine
But praise God above on Christmas morn,
Who sent His Son to save us from hell and scorn.

There the heavenly babe He lay
In a stall among a lot of hay,
While the Angel Host by Bethlehem
Sang a beautiful and heavenly anthem.

Christmas time ought to be held most dear,
Much more so than the New Year,
Because that’s the time that Christ was born,
Therefore respect Christmas morn.

And let the rich be kind to the poor,
And think of the hardships they do endure,
Who are neither clothed nor fed,
And Many without a blanket to their bed.

by William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902)

Fourier, Hamilton and Ptolemy

Posted in History, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by telescoper

As we stagger into the last week of term I find myself with just two lectures to give in my second-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series. I didn’t want to present the two topics mentioned in the title as disconnected, so I linked them in a lecture in which I used the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Fourier’s work was so influential and widely admired that it inspired a famous Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton to write the following poem:

Hamilton-for Fourier

The serious thing that strikes me is not the quality of the verse, but how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation and how many poets of the time were also interested in science.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about Astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

Winter Garden, by Patrick Kavanagh

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

No flowers are here
No middle-class vanities –
Only the decapitated shanks
Of cabbages
And prostrate
On a miserable ridge

by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)


Fintan O’Toole on “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain”

Posted in Literature, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on December 6, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a tea break and a quick post about a very interesting event this afternoon at Maynooth featuring renowned Irish journalist and author Fintan O’Toole (whose regular columns in the Irish Times I read with great interest).

This event saw John O’Brennan, Director of the Centre for European and Eurasian Studies in Maynooth in conversation with Fintan on his new book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. The book deals with the Brexit referendum, the chaos it unleashed in British politics and the challenges posed to the island of Ireland by a ‘No Deal Brexit’. In particular the book examines how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatization that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name. He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

The discussion was so interesting – and Fintan O’Toole was so eloquent and amusing –  that I bought the book. The author was kind enough to sign it for me too!

There’s an extract printed on the cover that will give you a taste, but if you want more you’ll have to buy the book:

Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be on our own…Only alone can we surrender completely to it and immerse ourselves in the steaming bath of hurt, outrage and tender regard for our terribly wronged selves. Brexit therefore makes sense of a nation that feels sorry for itself. The mystery, though, is how Britain, or more precisely England, came not to just experience this delightful sentiment but to define itself through it.

I only bought the book today so haven’t read it yet, but I will endeavour to write a review when I have.

Now back to the writing of lecture notes…

A Book of Note

Posted in Literature with tags , on November 28, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been too busy today to do a proper blog, but I did pop out at lunchtime to buy the above book (for the princely sum of €3). I can’t believe I haven’t read it before now, but I am definitely looking forward to it and will be making a start at the weekend!