If I saw farther, 'twas because I stood
On giant shoulders," wrote the king of thought,
Too proud of his great line to slight the toils
Of his forebears. He turned to their dim past,
Their fading victories and their fond defeats,
And knelt as at an altar, drawing all
Their strengths into his own; and so went forth
With all their glory shining in his face,
To win new victories for the age to come.
So, where Copernicus had destroyed the dream
We called our world; where Galileo watched
Those ancient firmaments melt, a thin blue smoke
Into a vaster night; where Kepler heard
Only stray fragments, isolated chords
Of that tremendous music which should bind
All things anew in one, Newton arose
And carried on their fire.
Around him reeled
Through lingering fumes of hate and clouds of doubt,
Lit by the afterglow of the Civil War,
The dissolute throngs of that Walpurgis night
Where all the cynical spirits that deny
Danced with the vicious lusts that drown the soul
In flesh too gross for Circe or her swine.
But, in his heart, he heard one instant voice.
"On with the torch once more, make all things new,
Build the new heaven and earth, and save the world."
Ah, but the infinite patience, the long months
Lavished on tasks that, to the common eye,
Were insignificant, never to be crowned
With great results, or even with earth's rewards.
Could Rembrandt but have painted him, in those hours
Making his first analysis of light
Alone, there, in his darkened Cambridge room
At Trinity! Could he have painted, too,
The secret glow, the mystery, and the power,
The sense of all the thoughts and unseen spires
That soared to heaven around him!
He stood there,
Obscure, unknown, the shadow of a man
In darkness, like a grey dishevelled ghost,
--Bare-throated, down at heel, his last night's supper
Littering his desk, untouched; his glimmering face,
Under his tangled hair, intent and still,--
Preparing our new universe.
The sunbeam striking through that bullet-hole
In his closed shutter--a round white spot of light
Upon a small dark screen.
A prism of glass. He saw the sunbeam break
And spread upon the screen its rainbow band
Of disentangled colours, all in scale
Like notes in music; first, the violet ray,
Then indigo, trembling softly into blue;
Then green and yellow, quivering side by side;
Then orange, mellowing richly into red.
Then, in the screen, he made a small, round hole
Like to the first; and through it passed once more
Each separate coloured ray. He let it strike
Another prism of glass, and saw each hue
Bent at a different angle from its path,
The red the least, the violet ray the most;
But all in scale and order, all precise
As notes in music. Last, he took a lens,
And, passing through it all those coloured rays,
Drew them together again, remerging all
On that dark screen, in one white spot of light.
So, watching, testing, proving, he resolved
The seeming random glories of our day
Into a constant harmony, and found
How in the whiteness of the sunlight sleep
Compounded, all the colours of the world.
He saw how raindrops in the clouds of heaven
Breaking the light, revealed that sevenfold arch
Of colours, ranged as on his own dark screen,
Though now they spanned the mountains and wild seas.
Then, where that old-world order had gone down
Beneath a darker deluge, he beheld
Gleams of the great new order and recalled
--Fraught with new meaning and a deeper hope--
That covenant which God made with all mankind
Throughout all generations: I will set
My bow in the cloud, that henceforth ye may know
How deeper than the wreckage of your dreams
Abides My law, in beauty and in power.
Yet for that exquisite balance of the mind,
He, too, must pay the price. He stood alone
Bewildered, at the sudden assault of fools
On this, his first discovery.
"I have lost
The most substantial blessing of my quiet
To follow a vain shadow.
I would fain
Attempt no more. So few can understand,
Or read one thought. So many are ready at once
To swoop and sting. Indeed I would withdraw
For ever from philosophy." So he wrote
In grief, the mightiest mind of that new age.
Let those who'd stone the Roman Curia
For all the griefs that Galileo knew
Remember the dark hours that well-nigh quenched
The splendour of that spirit. He could not sleep.
Yet, with that patience of the God in man
That still must seek the Splendour whence it came,
Through midnight hours of mockery and defeat,
In loneliness and hopelessness and tears,
He laboured on. He had no power to see
How, after many years, when he was dead,
Out of this new discovery men should make
An instrument to explore the farthest stars
And, delicately dividing their white rays,
Divine what metals in their beauty burned,
Extort red secrets from the heart of Mars,
Or measure the molten iron in the sun.
He bent himself to nearer, lowlier, tasks;
And seeing, first, that those deflected rays,
Though it were only by the faintest bloom
Of colour, imperceptible to our eyes,
Must dim the vision of Galileo's glass,
He made his own new weapon of the sky,--
That first reflecting telescope which should hold
In its deep mirror, as in a breathless pool
The undistorted image of a star.
In that deep night where Galileo groped
Like a blind giant in dreams to find what power
Held moons and planets to their constant road
Through vastness, ordered like a moving fleet;
What law so married them that they could not clash
Or sunder, but still kept their rhythmic pace
As if those ancient tales indeed were true
And some great angel helmed each gliding sphere;
Many had sought an answer. Many had caught
Gleams of the truth; and yet, as when a torch
Is waved above a multitude at night,
And shows wild streams of faces, all confused,
But not the single law that knits them all
Into an ordered nation, so our skies
For all those fragmentary glimpses, whirled
In chaos, till one eagle-spirit soared,
Found the one law that bound them all in one,
And through that awful unity upraised
The soul to That which made and guides them all.
Did Newton, dreaming in his orchard there
Beside the dreaming Witham, see the moon
Burn like a huge gold apple in the boughs
And wonder why should moons not fall like fruit?
Or did he see as those old tales declare
(Those fairy-tales that gather form and fire
Till, in one jewel, they pack the whole bright world)
A ripe fruit fall from some immortal tree
Of knowledge, while he wondered at what height
Would this earth-magnet lose its darkling power?
Would not the fruit fall earthward, though it grew
High o'er the hills as yonder brightening cloud?
Would not the selfsame power that plucked the fruit
Draw the white moon, then, sailing in the blue?
Then, in one flash, as light and song are born,
And the soul wakes, he saw it--this dark earth
Holding the moon that else would fly through space
To her sure orbit, as a stone is held
In a whirled sling; and, by the selfsame power,
Her sister planets guiding all their moons;
While, exquisitely balanced and controlled
In one vast system, moons and planets wheeled
Around one sovran majesty, the sun.
Light and more light! The spark from heaven was there,
The flash of that reintegrating fire
Flung from heaven's altars, where all light is born,
To feed the imagination of mankind
With vision, and reveal all worlds in one.
But let no dreamer dream that his great work
Sprang, armed, like Pallas from the Thunderer's brain.
With infinite patience he must test and prove
His vision now, in those clear courts of Truth
Whose absolute laws (bemocked by shallower minds
As less than dreams, less than the faithless faith
That fears the Truth, lest Truth should slay the dream)
Are man's one guide to his transcendent heaven;
For there's no wandering splendour in the soul,
But in the highest heaven of all is one
With absolute reality. None can climb
Back to that Fount of Beauty but through pain.
Long, long he toiled, comparing first the curves
Traced by the cannon-ball as it soared and fell
With that great curving road across the sky
Traced by the sailing moon.
Was earth a loadstone
Holding them to their paths by that dark force
Whose mystery men have cloaked beneath a name?
Yet, when he came to test and prove, he found
That all the great deflections of the moon,
Her shining cadences from the path direct,
Were utterly inharmonious with the law
Of that dark force, at such a distance acting,
Measured from earth's own centre....
For three long years, Newton withheld his hope
Until that day when light was brought from France,
New light, new hope, in one small glistening fact,
Clear-cut as any diamond; and to him
Loaded with all significance, like the point
Of light that shows where constellations burn.
Picard in France--all glory to her name
Who is herself a light among all lands--
Had measured earth's diameter once more
With exquisite precision.
To the throng,
Those few corrected ciphers, his results,
Were less than nothing; yet they changed the world.
For Newton seized them and, with trembling hands,
Began to work his problem out anew.
Then, then, as on the page those figures turned
To hieroglyphs of heaven, and he beheld
The moving moon, with awful cadences
Falling into the path his law ordained,
Even to the foot and second, his hand shook
And dropped the pencil.
"Work it out for me,"
He cried to those around him; for the weight
Of that celestial music overwhelmed him;
And, on his page, those burning hieroglyphs
Were Thrones and Principalities and Powers...
For far beyond, immeasurably far
Beyond our sun, he saw that river of suns
We call the Milky Way, that glittering host
Powdering the night, each grain of solar blaze
Divided from its neighbour by a gulf
Too wide for thought to measure; each a sun
Huger than ours, with its own fleet of worlds,
Visible and invisible. Those bright throngs
That seemed dispersed like a defeated host
Through blindly wandering skies, now, at the word
Of one great dreamer, height o'er height revealed
Hints of a vaster order, and moved on
In boundless intricacies of harmony
Around one centre, deeper than all suns,
The burning throne of God.
He could not sleep. That intellect, whose wings
Dared the cold ultimate heights of Space and Time
Sank, like a wounded eagle, with dazed eyes
Back, headlong through the clouds to throb on earth.
What shaft had pierced him? That which also pierced
His great forebears--the hate of little men.
They flocked around him, and they flung their dust
Into the sensitive eyes and laughed to see
How dust could blind them.
If one prickling grain
Could so put out his vision and so torment
That delicate brain, what weakness! How the mind
That seemed to dwarf us, dwindles! Is he mad?
So buzzed the fools, whose ponderous mental wheels
Nor dust, nor grit, nor stones, nor rocks could irk
Even for an instant.
Newton could not sleep,
But all that careful malice could design
Was blindly fostered by well-meaning folly,
And great sane folk like Mr. Samuel Pepys
Canvassed his weakness and slept sound all night.
For little Samuel with his rosy face
Came chirping into a coffee-house one day
Like a plump robin, "Sir, the unhappy state
Of Mr. Isaac Newton grieves me much.
Last week I had a letter from him, filled
With strange complainings, very curious hints,
Such as, I grieve to say, are common signs
--I have observed it often--of worse to come.
He said that he could neither eat nor sleep
Because of all the embroilments he was in,
Hinting at nameless enemies. Then he begged
My pardon, very strangely. I believe
Physicians would confirm me in my fears.
'Tis very sad.... Only last night, I found
Among my papers certain lines composed
By--whom d'you think?--My lord of Halifax
(Or so dear Mrs. Porterhouse assured me)
Expressing, sir, the uttermost satisfaction
In Mr. Newton's talent. Sir, he wrote
Answering the charge that science would put out
The light of beauty, these very handsome lines:
'When Newton walked by Witham stream
There fell no chilling shade
To blight the drifting naiad's dream
Or make her garland fade.
The mist of sun was not less bright
That crowned Urania's hair.
He robbed it of its colder light,
But left the rainbow there.'
They are very neat and handsome, you'll agree.
Solid in sense as Dryden at his best,
And smooth as Waller, but with something more,--
That touch of grace, that airier elegance
Which only rank can give.
'Tis very sad
That one so nobly praised should--well, no matter!--
I am told, sir, that these troubles all began
At Cambridge, when his manuscripts were burned.
He had been working, in his curious way,
All through the night; and, in the morning greyness
Went down to chapel, leaving on his desk
A lighted candle. You can imagine it,--
A sadly sloven altar to his Muse,
Littered with papers, cups, and greasy plates
Of untouched food. I am told that he would eat
His Monday's breakfast, sir, on Tuesday morning,
Such was his absent way!
When he returned,
He found that Diamond (his little dog
Named Diamond, for a black patch near his tail)
Had overturned the candle. All his work
Was burned to ashes.
It struck him to the quick,
Though, when his terrier fawned about his feet,
He showed no anger. He was heard to say,
'O Diamond, Diamond, little do you know...'
But, from that hour, ah well, we'll say no more."
Halley was there that day, and spoke up sharply,
"Sir, there are hints and hints! Do you mean more?"
--"I do, sir," chirruped Samuel, mightily pleased
To find all eyes, for once, on his fat face.
"I fear his intellects are disordered, sir."
--"Good! That's an answer! I can deal with that.
But tell me first," quoth Halley, "why he wrote
That letter, a week ago, to Mr. Pepys."
--"Why, sir," piped Samuel, innocent of the trap,
"I had an argument in this coffee-house
Last week, with certain gentlemen, on the laws
Of chance, and what fair hopes a man might have
Of throwing six at dice. I happened to say
That Mr. Isaac Newton was my friend,
And promised I would sound him."
"Sir," said Halley,
"You'll pardon me, but I forgot to tell you
I heard, a minute since, outside these doors,
A very modish woman of the town,
Or else a most delicious lady of fashion,
A melting creature with a bold black eye,
A bosom like twin doves; and, sir, a mouth
Like a Turk's dream of Paradise. She cooed,
'Is Mr. Pepys within?' I greatly fear
That they denied you to her!"
Off ran Pepys!
"A hint's a hint," laughed Halley, "and so to bed.
But, as for Isaac Newton, let me say,
Whatever his embroilments were, he solved
With just one hour of thought, not long ago
The problem set by Leibnitz as a challenge
To all of Europe. He published his result
Anonymously, but Leibnitz, when he saw it,
Cried out, at once, old enemy as he was,
'That's Newton, none but Newton! From this claw
I know the old lion, in his midnight lair.'"
(Sir Isaac Newton writes to Mrs. Vincent at Woolthorpe.)
Your letter, on my eightieth birthday, wakes
Memories, like violets, in this London gloom.
You have never failed, for more than three-score years
To send these annual greetings from the haunts
Where you and I were boy and girl together.
A day must come-it cannot now be far--
When I shall have no power to thank you for them,
So let me tell you now that, all my life,
They have come to me with healing in their wings
Like birds from home, birds from the happy woods
Above the Witham, where you walked with me
When you and I were young.
Do you remember
Old Barley--how he tried to teach us drawing?
He found some promise, I believe, in you,
But quite despaired of me.
I treasure all
Those little sketches that you sent to me
Each Christmas, carrying each some glimpse of home.
There's one I love that shows the narrow lane
Behind the schoolhouse, where I had that bout
Of schoolboy fisticuffs. I have never known
More pleasure, I believe, than when I beat
That black-haired bully and won, for my reward,
Those April smiles from you.
I see you still
Standing among the fox-gloves in the hedge;
And just behind you, in the field, I know
There was a patch of aromatic flowers,--
Rest-harrow, was it? Yes; their tangled roots
Pluck at the harrow; halt the sharp harrow of thought,
Even in old age. I never breathe their scent
But I am back in boyhood, dreaming there
Over some book, among the diligent bees,
Until you join me, and we dream together.
They called me lazy, then. Oddly enough
It was that fight that stirred my mind to beat
My bully at his books, and head the school;
Blind rivalry, at first. By such fond tricks
The invisible Power that shapes us--not ourselves--
Punishes, teaches, leads us gently on
Like children, all our lives, until we grasp
A sudden meaning and are born, through death
Into full knowledge that our Guide was Love.
Another picture shows those woods of ours,
Around whose warm dark edges in the spring
Primroses, knots of living sunlight, woke;
And, always, you, their radiant shepherdess
From Elfland, lead them rambling back for me,
The dew still clinging to their golden fleece,
Through these grey memory-mists.
My old sun-dial. You say that it is known
As "Isaac's dial" still. I took great pains
To set it rightly. If it has not shifted
'Twill mark the time long after I am gone;
Not like those curious water-clocks I made.
Do you remember? They worked well at first;
But the least particles in the water clogged
The holes through which it dripped; and so, one day,
We two came home so late that we were sent
Supperless to our beds; and suffered much
From the world's harshness, as we thought it then.
Would God that we might taste that harshness now.
I cannot send you what you've sent to me;
And so I wish you'll never thank me more
For those poor gifts I have sent from year to year.
I send another, and hope that you can use it
To buy yourself those comforts which you need
How strange it is to wake
And find that half a century has gone by,
With all our endless youth.
They talk to me
Of my discoveries, prate of undying fame
Too late to help me. Anything I achieved
Was done through work and patience; and the men
Who sought quick roads to glory for themselves
Were capable of neither. So I won
Their hatred, and it often hampered me,
Because it vexed my mind.
This world of ours
Would give me all, now I have ceased to want it;
For I sit here, alone, a sad old man,
Sipping his orange-water, nodding to sleep,
Not caring any more for aught they say,
Not caring any more for praise or blame;
But dreaming-things we dreamed of, long ago,
You and I had laughed away
That boy and girl affair. We were too poor
For anything but laughter.
I am old;
And you, twice wedded and twice widowed, still
Retain, through all your nearer joys and griefs,
The old affection. Vaguely our blind old hands
Grope for each other in this growing dark
And deepening loneliness,--to say "good-bye."
Would that my words could tell you all my heart;
But even my words grow old.
Perhaps these lines,
Written not long ago, may tell you more.
I have no skill in verse, despite the praise
Your kindness gave me, once; but since I wrote
Thinking of you, among the woods of home,
My heart was in them. Let them turn to yours:
Give me, for friends, my own true folk
Who kept the very word they spoke;
Whose quiet prayers, from day to day,
Have brought the heavens about my way.
Not those whose intellectual pride
Would quench the only lights that guide;
Confuse the lines 'twixt good and ill
Then throne their own capricious will;
Not those whose eyes in mockery scan
The simpler hopes and dreams of man;
Not those keen wits, so quick to hurt,
So swift to trip you in the dirt.
Not those who'd pluck your mystery out,
Yet never saw your last redoubt;
Whose cleverness would kill the song
Dead at your heart, then prove you wrong.
Give me those eyes I used to know
Where thoughts like angels come and go;
--Not glittering eyes, nor dimmed by books,
But eyes through which the deep soul looks.
Give me the quiet hands and face
That never strove for fame and place;
The soul whose love, so many a day
Has brought the heavens about my way.
Was it a dream, that low dim-lighted room
With that dark periwigged phantom of Dean Swift
Writing, beside a fire, to one he loved,--
Beautiful Catherine Barton, once the light
Of Newton's house, and his half-sister's child?
Yes, Catherine Barton, I am brave enough
To face this pale, unhappy, wistful ghost
Of our departed friendship.
It was I
Savage and mad, a snarling kennel of sins,
"Your Holiness," as you called me, with that smile
Which even your ghost would quietly turn on me--
Who raised it up. It has no terrors, dear.
And I shall never lay it while I live.
You write to me. You think I have the power
To shield the fame of Newton from a lie.
Poor little ghost! You think I hold the keys
Not only of Parnassus, then, but hell.
There is a tale abroad that Newton owed
His public office to Lord Halifax,
Your secret lover. Coarseness, as you know,
Is my peculiar privilege. I'll be plain,
And let them wince who are whispering in the dark.
They are hinting that he gained his public post
Through you, his flesh and blood; and that he knew
You were his patron's mistress!
Yes, I know
The coffee-house that hatched it--to be scotched,
Nay, killed, before one snuff-box could say "snap,"
Had not one cold malevolent face been there
Listening,--that crystal-minded lover of truth,
That lucid enemy of all lies,--Voltaire.
I am told he is doing much to spread the light
Of Newton's great discoveries, there, in France.
There's little fear that France, whose clear keen eyes
Have missed no morning in the realm of thought,
Would fail to see it; and smaller need to lift
A brand from hell to illume the light from heaven.
You fear he'll print his lie. No doubt of that.
I can foresee the phrase, as Halley saw
The advent of his comet,--jolie niece,
Assez amiable, ... then he'll give your name
As Madame Conduit, adding just that spice
Of infidelity that the dates admit
To none but these truth-lovers. It will be best
Not to enlighten him, or he'll change his tale
And make an answer difficult. Let him print
This truth as he conceives it, and you'll need
No more defence.
All history then shall damn his death-cold lie
And show you for the laughing child you were
When Newton won his office.
You say you have no fear. Your only thought
Is that they'll soil his fame. Ah yes, they'll try,
But they'll not hurt it. For all time to come
It stands there, firm as marble and as pure.
They can do nothing that the sun and rain
Will not erase at last. Not even Voltaire
Can hurt that noble memory. Think of him
As of a viper writhing at the base
Of some great statue. Let the venomous tongue
Flicker against that marble as it may
It cannot wound it.
I am far more grieved
For you, who sit there wondering now, too late,
If it were some suspicion, some dark hint
Newton had heard that robbed him of his sleep,
And almost broke his mind up. I recall
How the town buzzed that Newton had gone mad.
You copy me that sad letter which he wrote
To Locke, wherein he begs him to forgive
The hard words he had spoken, thinking Locke
Had tried to embroil him, as he says, with women;
A piteous, humble letter.
Had he heard
Some hint of scandal that he could not breathe
To you, because he honoured you too well?
I cannot tell. His mind was greatly troubled
With other things. At least, you need not fear
That Newton thought it true. He walked aloof,
Treading a deeper stranger world than ours.
Have you not told me how he would forget
Even to eat and drink, when he was wrapt
In those miraculous new discoveries
And, under this wild maze of shadow and sun
Beheld--though not the Master Player's hand--
The keys from which His organ music rolls,
Those visible symphonies of wild cloud and light
Which clothe the invisible world for mortal eyes.
I have heard that Leibnitz whispered to the court
That Newton was an "atheist." Leibnitz knew
His audience. He could stoop to it.
Fools have said
That knowledge drives out wonder from the world;
They'll say it still, though all the dust's ablaze
With miracles at their feet; while Newton's laws
Foretell that knowledge one day shall be song,
And those whom Truth has taken to her heart
Find that it beats in music.
Even this age
Has glimmerings of it. Newton never saw
His own full victory; but at least he knew
That all the world was linked in one again;
And, if men found new worlds in years to come,
These too must join the universal song.
That's why true poets love him; and you'll find
Their love will cancel all that hate can do.
They are the sentinels of the House of Fame;
And that quick challenging couplet from the pen
Of Alexander Pope is answer enough
To all those whisperers round the outer doors.
There's Addison, too. The very spirit and thought
Of Newton moved to music when he wrote
The Spacious Firmament. Some keen-eyed age to come
Will say, though Newton seldom wrote a verse,
That music was his own and speaks his faith.
And, last, for those who doubt his faith in God
And man's immortal destiny, there remains
The granite monument of his own great work,
That dark cathedral of man's intellect,
The vast "Principia," pointing to the skies,
Wherein our intellectual king proclaimed
The task of science,--through this wilderness
Of Time and Space and false appearances,
To make the path straight from effect to cause,
Until we come to that First Cause of all,
The Power, above, beyond the blind machine,
The Primal Power, the originating Power,
Which cannot be mechanical. He affirmed it
With absolute certainty. Whence arises all
This order, this unbroken chain of law,
This human will, this death-defying love?
Whence, but from some divine transcendent Power,
Not less, but infinitely more than these,
Because it is their Fountain and their Guide.
Fools in their hearts have said, "Whence comes this Power,
Why throw the riddle back this one stage more?"
And Newton, from a height above all worlds
Answered and answers still:
Exists, and by that one impossible fact
Declares itself a miracle; postulates
An infinite Power within itself, a Whole
Greater than any part, a Unity
Sustaining all, binding all worlds in one.
This is the mystery, palpable here and now.
'Tis not the lack of links within the chain
From cause to cause, but that the chain exists.
That's the unfathomable mystery,
The one unquestioned miracle that we know,
Implying every attribute of God,
The ultimate, absolute, omnipresent Power,
In its own being, deep and high as heaven.
But men still trace the greater to the less,
Account for soul with flesh and dreams with dust,
Forgetting in their manifold world the One,
In whom for every splendour shining here
Abides an equal power behind the veil.
Was the eye contrived by blindly moving atoms,
Or the still-listening ear fulfilled with music
By forces without knowledge of sweet sounds?
Are nerves and brain so sensitively fashioned
That they convey these pictures of the world
Into the very substance of our life,
While That from which we came, the Power that made us,
Is drowned in blank unconsciousness of all?
Does it not from the things we know appear
That there exists a Being, incorporeal,
Living, intelligent, who in infinite space,
As in His infinite sensory, perceives
Things in themselves, by His immediate presence
Everywhere? Of which things, we see no more
Than images only, flashed through nerves and brain
To our small sensories?
What is all science then
But pure religion, seeking everywhere
The true commandments, and through many forms
The eternal power that binds all worlds in one?
It is man's age-long struggle to draw near
His Maker, learn His thoughts, discern His law,--
A boundless task, in whose infinitude,
As in the unfolding light and law of love.
Abides our hope, and our eternal joy.
I know not how my work may seem to others--"
So wrote our mightiest mind--"But to myself
I seem a child that wandering all day long
Upon the sea-shore, gathers here a shell,
And there a pebble, coloured by the wave,
While the great ocean of truth, from sky to sky
Stretches before him, boundless, unexplored."
He has explored it now, and needs of me
Neither defence nor tribute. His own work
Remains his monument He rose at last so near
The Power divine that none can nearer go;
None in this age! To carry on his fire
We must await a mightier age to come.