Archive for Poetry

A Man’s a Man for a’ that – Robert Burns

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on January 25, 2018 by telescoper

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

by Robert Burns (1759-1796)



Hamiltonian Poetry

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 8, 2018 by telescoper

I posted a couple of items last week inspired by thoughts of the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton. Another thing I thought I might mention about Hamilton is that he also wrote poetry, and since both science and poetry feature quite regularly on this blog I thought I’d share an example.

In fact during the `Romantic Era‘ (in which Hamilton lived) many scientists wrote poetry related either to their work or to nature generally. One of the most accomplished of these scientist-poets was chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems throughout his life. Others to do likewise were: physician Erasmus Darwin; and astronomer William Herschel (who was also a noted musician and composer),

William Rowan Hamilton interests me because seems to have been a very colourful character as well as a superb mathematician, and because his work relates directly to physics and is still widely used today. Interestingly, he was a very close friend of William Wordsworth, to whom he often sent poems with requests for comments and feedback. In the subsequent correspondence, Wordsworth was usually not very complimentary, even to the extent of telling Hamilton to stick to his day job (or words to that effect). What I didn’t know was that Hamilton regarded himself as a poet first and a mathematician second. That just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a man’s judgement when he applies it to himself.

Here’s an example of Hamilton’s verse – a poem written to honour Joseph Fourier, another scientist whose work is still widely used today:

Hamilton-for Fourier

If that’s one of his better poems, then I think Wordsworth may have had a point!

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. It is often argued that romanticism is responsible for the rise of antiscience. I’m not really qualified to comment on that but I don’t see any conflict at all between science and romanticism. I certainly don’t see Wordsworth’s poetry as anti-scientific. I just find it inspirational:

I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

Love in the Asylum

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on January 2, 2018 by telescoper

A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds

Bolting the night of the door with her arm her plume.
Strait in the mazed bed
She deludes the heaven-proof house with entering clouds

Yet she deludes with walking the nightmarish room,
At large as the dead,
Or rides the imagined oceans of the male wards.

She has come possessed
Who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall,
Possessed by the skies

She sleeps in the narrow trough yet she walks the dust
Yet raves at her will
On the madhouse boards worn thin by my walking tears.

And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last
I may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.

by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)


Gravity begins at home

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on November 30, 2017 by telescoper



The Stare’s Nest

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on November 28, 2017 by telescoper

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no cleat fact to be discerned:
Come build in he empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


I Grant You Ample Leave

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 28, 2017 by telescoper

“I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time–
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments?–“

by George Eliot (1819-1880)



Nothing, by Basil Bunting

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by telescoper

I spent this weekend catching up with some old friends in London, and making the most of the opportunity to behave as a tourist. Most of my visits to the Capital are on business so it was nice to have the chance to wander around aimlessly. Anyway, when I got to Charing Cross I suddenly remembered I had a half-spent book token in my wallet, so popped into Foyles and bought this hefty tome, which had been on my list since I read about it when it was reviewed in TLS.

Basil Bunting was born in 1900 in the Scotswood area of Newcastle upon Tyne (i.e. not in the Midlands). His life story is fascinating. Imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War 1, Bunting worked for the intelligence services in Persia during World War 2, after which he remained as the Times Correspondent in Iran. Eventually, after much travelling, he returned to England, winding up as a journalist working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Largely through a very long poem called Briggflats Bunting established a reputation as a very important modernist poet who some felt was a worthy successor to T.S. Eliot, though Eliot did not rate his work particularly highly and Bunting’s main poetic influence was clearly Ezra Pound.

One thing I particularly like about the poems of Basil Bunting is that they sound so great when read out loud. `Compose aloud. Poetry is a sound.’ is a famous quotation of his. Unlike many poets he was utterly compelling when reading his own work ; see here for an excerpt of him reading Briggflats. He has a wonderful voice, and there’s music in the way he speaks.

Briggflats  is too long to reproduce here, so here’s a shorter one called Nothing:

substance utters or time
stills and restrains
joins design and

supple measure deftly
as thought’s intricate polyphonic
score dovetails with the tread
sensuous things
keep in our consciousness.

Celebrate man’s craft
and the word spoken in shapeless night, the
sharp tool paring away
waste and the forms
cut out of mystery!

When taut string’s note
passes ears’ reach or red rays or violet
fade, strong over unseen
forces the word
ranks and enumerates…

mimes clouds condensed
and hewn hills and bristling forests,
steadfast corn in its season
and the seasons
in their due array,

life of man’s own body
and death…
The sound thins into melody,
discourse narrowing, craft
failing, design
petering out.

Ears heavy to breeze of speech and
thud of the ictus.


by Basil Bunting (1900-85).