To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode

Original Text: 
Lewis Campbell, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, with a selection from his correspondence and occasional writings and a sketch of his contributions to science (London: Macmillan, 1882): 634-36. QC 16 M4C3 Gerstein Library
2    Whose wounds are cured by squeezing,
5Here, in the frosty air, the sprays
6    With fernlike hoar-frost bristle,
7There, liquid stars their watery rays
8    Shoot through the solid crystal.
9I come from empyrean fires --
10    From microscopic spaces,
11Where molecules with fierce desires,
12    Shiver in hot embraces.
13The atoms clash, the spectra flash,
14    Projected on the screen,
17We place our eye where these dark rays
18    Unite in this dark focus,
19Right on the source of power we gaze,
20    Without a screen to cloak us.
21Then where the eye was placed at first,
25This crystal tube the electric ray
26    Shows optically clean,
27No dust or haze within, but stay!
28    All has not yet been seen.
29What gleams are these of heavenly blue?
30    What air-drawn form appearing,
33I light this sympathetic flame,
34    My faintest wish that answers,
35I sing, it sweetly sings the same,
36    It dances with the dancers.
37I shout, I whistle, clap my hands,
40    In this form and in that form.
41What means that thrilling, drilling scream,
42    Protect me! 'tis the siren:
43Her heart is fire, her breath is steam,
44    Her larynx is of iron.
45Sun! dart thy beams! in tepid streams,
46    Rise, viewless exhalations!
47And lap me round, that no rude sound
48    May max my meditations.
49Here let me pause. -- These transient facts,
50    These fugitive impressions,
51Must be transformed by mental acts,
52    To permanent possessions.
53Then summon up your grasp of mind,
54    Your fancy scientific,
57Go to! prepare your mental bricks,
58    Fetch them from every quarter,
59Firm on the sand your basement fix
60    With best sensation mortar.
62    Or such an elevation,
63That the swift whirl with which we fly
64    Shall conquer gravitation.


1] Tyndallic: John Tyndall (1820-1893), physicist, F.R.S., D.C.L. Oxon., LL.D. Cantab., F.C.P.S., and professor of natural philosophy in the Royal Institution. Maxwell plays on the well-known Pindaric ode, which imitates the passionate manner of Pindar, a Greek poet (ca. 552-442 B.C.).
"Nabla was the name of an Assyrian harp of the shape Δ. Δ is a quaternion operator ( i[*]d/dx + j[*]d/dx + k[*]d/dx ) invented by Sir W. P. Hamilton, whose use and properties were first fully discussed by Professor Tait, who is therefore called the `Chief Musician upon Nabla.'" (Note by Campbell.) Maxwell alludes to Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901). Back to Line
3] Melting: v.r. They melt. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
4] Get: v.r. Grow. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
15] The double D: the operation of nabla, "iddx + jddy + kddz" (OED, "nabla") uses the double-d symbol.
Magnesian b: having magnesia. Back to Line
16] Thallium, a rare metal discovered in 1861: "I [Crookes] have propose for it the provisional name of Thallium, from the Greek qalloj, or Latin thallus, a budding twig which I have chosen as the green line which it communicates to the spectrum recals with peculiar vividness the fresh colour of vegetation at the present time" (OED). Back to Line
22] disc: v.r. dish. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
23] will it: v.r. like to. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
24] How ever shall we: v.r. By Jove, I'll have to. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
31] v.r. What fish, what whale is this, that through. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
32] empty: v.r. vacuous. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
38] And v.r. I. (Note by Campbell.)
upon: v.r. about. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
39] responds: v.r. bows down. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
55] Till: v.r. That. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
56] Become: v.r. May be. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
61] top: v.r. tower. (Note by Campbell.) Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: