24 February, 2006

Long poem: Frere and Canning

But chief, thou nurse of the didactic Muse,
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.
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."

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.


Sir G said...

hey, hey, glad you posted yourself to valve -- so that I can read you for one. btw, what is "wet"?

Sir G said...

Ps Gamelan? You hang in Indo? I'm off to the Bali festival in june -- lots of gamelan there -- all day in fact, though the Baliense play it a little differently, its more dense if anything

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hello Gawain; thanks for your interest. I was only kidding: 'wet', ie. profusive, florid.

Gamelan: I played very casually with a couple of amateur groups in York, UK, and Tempe, USA (the former with the great Neil Sorrell); I enjoyed playing the Javanese, though I prefer listening to the explosive Balinese--that would be much too complex for me to play, having no proper musical training, despite being pretty good at hand-drumming, purely from tapping on tables my whole life.

Sir G said...

Hello Conrad:

I am not "academic type" -- meaning that my interest in literature is not moulded by academia (there is something extaordinarily dull and pedantic about all the discussion of "theory" and everything else the academics seem to discuss; in fact, i think, dullness and ant-f*ing (as they call it in dutch, meaning intense interest in completely irrelevant stuff)) is what the academia tries to induce: boring writing is supposed to be a measure of "scientific" purpose), so i dont know what "internal" and "external" analysis are. but i like the post: it does three things i like: a. it provides an antiquarian interest b. it is well written and c. it stimulates thought. thank you. you have earned a link and i am giving you one right now. and i will be back for more. i can imagine worse ways of starting the day than reading your "effusions".

Do tell me more about Gamelan playing in the west -- or where i can read about it. i was completely unaware white people beat gongs.

Check this out:


They play the gamelan ALL day (from 10 am) for a whole damn month. And dance. i cant wait.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you. I dislike academic lit crit too, as parasitic and largely pointless. I did not mean anything technical by 'internal'/'external', just that the first post on Muhammad Ali analysed the meaning of two words on their own terms, whereas the post on Frere/Canning largely looks at its relation to an external intellectual context.

Gamelan: I don't know where one can read about it. It is quite popular, here at Arizona State it is popular with undergrads who want an easy A, but more generally gamelan is surprisingly popular, and there are small ensembles throughout the UK and the USA (I don't know about other Western countries). Both the groups I played for have used genuine Indonesian instruments (fine looking things), and we play simple pieces like 'Ricik Ricik', 'Ladrang Pangkur', 'Eling Eling' and other pieces I don't remember. I'll write more on another occasion. I'm glad you like what you see, anyway.

Sir G said...

I do.