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Hall and Knight -- E V Rieu

In a somewhat lighter vein...
(Poem #601) Hall and Knight
or 'z + b + x = y + b + z'

 When he was young his cousins used to say of Mr Knight:
 'This boy will write an algebra - or looks as if he might.'
 And sure enough, when Mr Knight had grown to be a man,
 He purchased pen and paper and an inkpot, and began.

 But he very soon discovered that he couldn't write at all,
 And his heart was filled with yearnings for a certain Mr Hall;
 Till, after many years of doubt, he sent his friend a card:
 'Have tried to write an Algebra, but find it very hard.'

 Now Mr Hall himself had tried to write a book for schools,
 But suffered from a handicap: he didn't know the rules.
 So when he heard from Mr Knight and understood his gist,
 He answered him by telegram: 'Delighted to assist.'

 So Mr Hall and Mr Knight they took a house together,
 And they worked away at algebra in any kind of weather,
 Determined not to give up until they had evolved
 A problem so constructed that it never could be solved.

 'How hard it is', said Mr Knight, 'to hide the fact from youth
 That x and y are equal: it is such an obvious truth!'
 'It is', said Mr Hall, 'but if we gave a b to each,
 We'd put the problem well beyond our little victims' reach.

 'Or are you anxious, Mr Knight, lest any boy should see
 The utter superfluity of this repeated b?'
 'I scarcely fear it', he replied, and scratched this grizzled head,
 'But perhaps it would be safer if to b we added z.'

 'A brilliant stroke!', said Hall, and added z to either side;
 Then looked at his accomplice with a flush of happy pride.
 And Knight, he winked at Hall (a very pardonable lapse).
 And they printed off the Algebra and sold it to the chaps.
-- E V Rieu
A hilarious poem - if poets and writers can be immortalised in verse, why
not those old tormentors of many a student, Hall and Knight? Commentary is
almost superfluous - suffice it to say that I loved the poem, and that
'accomplice' is as perfect a choice of words as any I've seen.


  Hall and Knight's "Higher Algebra" is surely one of the most famous (I
  will not speak for 'best-loved' <g>) mathematics textbooks of all time,
  second perhaps only to Euclid's Elements in its ubiquity[1]. First
  published in 1887, it is, as far as I know, still in print (at least in
  India, where it is published by Deepa and Company [2][3]; I could not find
  a copy on any of the major book sites). The book is a bit dated today, but
  still well worth a look if only for its historical value.

  The poem, though, more likely refers to their earlier 'Elementary Algebra
  for Schools', to which the more famous book was a sequel.

  'z' is, of course, pronounced 'zed' throughout.

[1] Both Joyce and Wodehouse, for instance, mention it.
[2] [broken link]
[3] and where it is still popular as an excellent source of problems


Couldn't find a proper biography of Rieu online - here're a few snippets I
managed to dig up:

- He was the founder editor of the Penguin Classics

    During the blitz in 1940 a Dr E V. Rieu started a new translation on the
    Homer's Odyssey. This appeared in 1946 as the first Penguin Classic, and
    enabled those in education to pass examinations and enlightentened those
    who read for shear pleasure.

 -- [broken link]

- He was a translator of some note (Homer's 'Odyssey', Virgil's 'Ecologues',
  Apollonius of Rhodes' 'The Voyage of Argo').

  Patrick Kavanagh has written a poem titled "On Looking into E. V. Rieu's
  Homer" - see [broken link]

- He was a friend of the great science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon

   The preface to Waking World reveals that Stapledon could accept criticism
   and was willing to rewrite when necessary, for he twice refers to a
   rejected earlier version of the book and credits five people for helping
   him revise it into acceptable shape: these included his wife Agnes; E.V.
   Rieu, a long-time friend and an editor at Methuen; and Professor L.C.
   Martin of Liverpool University.

     -- [broken link]

- An sf/f piece, 'The Paint Box' appeared in an anthology titled 'The
  Unicorn Treasury' - see [broken link]


Here's another poem by Rieu: [broken link]

And as for Messrs. Hall and Knight, I was amazed at the sheer lack of
webpages devoted to them and their minor classic. Even the Britannica is
uncharacteristically silent on the subject.

Here are a couple I did manage to find:

  [broken link]'s_article.html makes
  an interesting read, especially if you're mathematically inclined.
  (Warning - the page displays all the equations as gifs, and takes forever
  to load)

  [broken link]
  has a passing reference to an entire course at Princeton (in the 1930s)
  being based on Hall and Knight.

Today's poem forms part of the Mathematical Poetry theme, which began with
  poem #599


43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Frank said...

Oh joy!

I remember slogging over hall and knights' elementary algebra at school in
the late '70s (how can one ever forget that experience!!!?)
Minstrel, at 4 o'clock on a chill November morning,thou hast brought me, and
other fellow victims of yon two gentlemen sweet poetic revenge.
thou hast warmed the cockles of my heart.
frank krishner

Sonia Lynch said...

E.V. Rieu wrote the most wonderful children's poetry book "Cuckoo Calling":
Methuen & Co. Ltd, 36 Essex Street London, WC, October 5 1933, 2nd Ed 1933.
I want to know where I can get another copy. 'Tony the Turtle', 'Portrait
of a House', 'The Flattered Flying-Fish', 'The Unicorn', 'Hall and Knight',
etc, etc, are included. If anyone wants to know more, or can tell me where
I can get a copy, e-mail me at Thanks, I'm excitedly
awaiting news.

Sonia Lynch said...

My e-mail address has changed, just in case someone is interested in 'Cuckoo
Calling' or other Rieu masterpieces:is where you can find me.

Fiona Anderson said...


It was lovely to find this. Dr Rieu was my Great Uncle - a very amusing, educated and literary man of whom I have fond memories.

His translations of Homer are well known, but perhaps not so well known are his versions of the gospels. He translated them from the "original" as far as anything is original, into modern idiomatic English. For instance the "Den of thieves" became "a Gangsters hideout" his version, which did not go down very well with the established Church at the time!!! I saw him on television being interviewed years ago, and he was extremely amusing.

Fiona Anderson

Saiyid Mustafa K said...

Growing up in Pakistan, I studied Hall and Knight' s algebra textbook in
high school. I also remember a friend reciting this particular poem by
E.V. Rieu. Thanks for sharing it on a website.

Henry Ward said...

Flann O'Brien speaks of Hall and Knight in his
wonderful 'The Third Policeman'.

Jeff Cummins said...


I was looking for bio on E.V. Rieu and found a site showing that you are a relation. Could you tell me what Christian denomination he was and what Church he may have attended? I was wondering if you knew of a site on the internet that had more information about him. May I ask what relation you are to him?

Thank you so very much for your time.


Martina Drewett said...

Just brousing on the internet trying to find the words to E V Rieu's The Green Train. Can you help please?

Craig Herbertson said...

Your Great uncle was a wonderful translator. Gave me a lot of pleasure


Anonymous said...

Wow this pome was very hard to read but I tried but when I did the words just spoke to me like i was there WOW GREAT POME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Luigi said...

I believe that this is the same dr. Rieu that, according to martin gardner in the annotated alice, coined what was in my opinion the best answer to the mad hatters riddle, because there is a b in both.

Luigi said...

I believe that this is the same dr. Rieu that, according to martin gardner in the annotated alice, coined what was in my opinion the best answer to the mad hatters riddle, because there is a b in both.

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