But chief, thou nurse of the didactic Muse,Yesterday I offered a microscopic analysis of a tiny poem; today a macroscopic view of a longer one. This piece, which in its entirely consists of two fragments of a suggested epic, was written in parody of Erasmus Darwin's The Loves of the Plants, a didactic epic in swollen Augustan couplets; it is taken from the satiric Tory weekly The Anti-Jacobin, which, following Edmund Burke, attacked the revolutionary principles stirred up in England by the French Revolution. The poets, including the future Prime Minister (April 10-August 8, 1827) George Canning, presented their work as written by a burlesque figure named Higgins, a stuffy London moralist who admits himself "persuaded that there is no science, however abstruse, nay, no trade nor manufacture, which may not be taught by a didactic poem."
Divine Nonsensia, all thy sense infuse;
The charms of secants and of tangents tell,
How loves and graces in an angle dwell;
How slow progressive points protract the line,
As pendant spiders spin the filmy twine;
How lengthened lines, impetuous sweeping round,
Spread the wide plane, and mark its circling bound;
How planes, their substance with their motion grown,
Form the huge cube, the cylinder, the cone.
— John Hookham Frere and George Canning, 'The Loves of the Triangles: a mathematical and philosophical poem', The Anti-Jacobin, April 16-23, 1798, lines 35-44.
The work purports to describe principles from Euclid's Elements (still a popular school textbook at the time, though a standard English edition would not arrive until Thomas Heath's version in 1908) in poetic form, just as Darwin had attempted to put Linnaean botany into verse with his own work. In reality, however, 'The Loves of the Triangles' ends up as a farrago of popular allusions and concept-games. The lines quoted above are alleged to render the "Theory of Fluxions", already an archaic, Newtonian expression for differential calculus in 1798. Higgins imagines points drawing out into a line, the line sweeping out into a plane, and the plane growing out into a cube, cylinder, cone. True, the whole point of calculus is to bridge the finite and the infinitesimal (for instance determining an extended rate of change as the limit of averaged momentary states)—but what Higgins is in fact imagining goes back to an older, theological concept: the mathematical generation of reality. In fact, an extended footnote burlesques the cosmogonies of Pythagoras and the Timaeus, where the universe is created by patterns and proportionals of square and cubic numbers, or the related theology of Robert Grosseteste's 1235 De Luce, in which a dimensionless point of light extends by infinite multiplication to form a dimensional universe.
Higgins exposes the silliness of his own idea with references to the "primeval point" of the universe, moving forward "in a right line, ad infinitum, till it grew tired", and later becoming "conscious of its own existence". The idea of the mathematical point growing tired, or of having any self-consciousness, is hilarious, the anthropomorphising of abstract concepts taken to its most absurd limit. What Frere and Canning are here attacking is not Romantic politics but the Enlightenment attempt to valorise poetry by the application of science. In his 1820 'The Four Ages of Poetry', Thomas Love Peacock would note that
This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid's demonstrations.I don't know if Peacock had read 'The Loves of the Triangles', but we will better understand the significance of the Romantic movement when we see it against a general anxiety among the literati that science was making poetry obsolete. Unlike Ali's 'mi: wi:', the present poem doesn't compress possible and genuine doctrines into a casual scrap of rhyme; it has no value as ideology. Rather, its worth is documentary: by savaging spurious doctrines with cut-throat imitation, it casts an oblique light upon key intellectual conflicts at a time of peculiar turbulence in our history.