Thanks to Sunil Iyengar for suggesting today's poem
(Poem #604) Euclid Alone Has Looked On Beauty Bare
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare. Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace, And lay them prone upon the earth and cease To ponder on themselves, the while they stare At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release From dusty bondage into luminous air. O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day, When first the shaft into his vision shone Of light anatomized! Euclid alone Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they Who, though once only and then but far away, Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
I'm afraid that this is not one of my favourite Millay poems - much as I usually love her work, I feel that she has failed to do the subject justice (or, perhaps, that the matter doesn't really suit her style; either way, it lacks the feel of her really great pieces). However, it does fit very neatly into the theme, and is worth a read, if as much for its symbolism as for the actual poem. The comparison of mathematical insight to a divine revelation, for instance, is a rather standard image, but one that springs naturally to mind, for reasons not too hard to see - most of the universe can be explained using a judicious combination of mathematics and religion :). Also very interesting is the parallel drawn between the transcendence into beauty and the transition from sound to light. Mathematics seems to have associated with it a certain abstract purity that finds its closest reflection in our images of space and light, or perhaps light comes closest to the geometric ideal of a straight line (one of the cornerstones of practically all mathematics, and certainly one of the key tools in its development). And of course, there is the obvious reference back to the light/revelation image, The basic form is Petrarchan, with a slightly unusual rhyme scheme in the sestet (though see http://www.sonnets.org/basicforms.htm - the sestet had a pretty flexible rhyme scheme). Notable is the fairly heavy use of alliteration, which adds to the poem's somewhat 'weighty' feel. As an afterthought, this heaviness is probably my main objection to the poem - Millay has tried to capture both the majesty and the ethereal nature of mathematics, but has associated with the former a weight that is quite at variance with the latter. Note: Euclid is probably one of the most famous, and certainly one of the most influential mathematicians of all time; his 'Elements', a massive compilation of the mathematical knowledge of time time revolutionised the field, setting the standard for rigour that even now characterises mathematics. Almost from the time of its writing and lasting almost to the present, the Elements has exerted a continuous and major influence on human affairs. It was the primary source of geometric reasoning, theorems, and methods at least until the advent of non-Euclidean geometry in the 19th century. It is sometimes said that, next to the Bible, the Elements may be the most translated, published, and studied of all the books produced in the Western world. Euclid may not have been a first-class mathematician. He certainly was, however, a first-class teacher of mathematics, inasmuch as his textbook has remained in use practically unchanged for more than 2,000 years. -- EB I could go on about Euclid for several pages; however, inasmuch as this is a poetry list I'll leave you to explore the several excellent books and webpages about him and his work yourselves <g>. Links: Here's a biography of Millay: poem #34 And two of Euclid: [broken link] http://www.treasure-troves.com/bios/Euclid.html http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Euclid.html And here is one of his more celebrated theorems - 'beauty bare' indeed! [broken link] http://www.math.umd.edu/~krc/numbers/infitude.html -martin