Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Whewell and Found Poetry

Found poetry, of course, is language that was not intended to be poetry but nonetheless bears the marks of it. William Whewell, whom I talk about quite a bit here, is actually the source of one of the most famous examples of it. In his 1819 work An Elementary Treatise of Mechanics, he wrote the following sentence (on p. 44, in the middle of a discussion of the equilibrium of forces on a point): "Hence no force however great can stretch a cord however fine into an horizontal line which is accurately straight: there will always be a bending downwards." Adam Sedgwick, the famous geologist, with a sharp eye recognized what happens if you rearrange it, like this:

No force however great
can stretch a cord however fine
into an horizontal line
which is accurately straight.

Apparently he quoted it when giving a speech at a dinner. I don't know what Whewell's immediate reaction was. The sentence doesn't appear in later editions, but he reworked the whole chapter in which it was found, so that perhaps had nothing to do with the sentence itself. However, if Whewell was embarrassed by it, it was too late. John Radford Young's The Elements of Mechanics (1834) quotes it in a similar discussion; it was given out to the public in magazines like Notes and Queries and Van Nostrand's Eclectic Engineering Magazine; everyone talking about involuntary versification from then on out has used it as an example; and, to take the cake, the Church of Christ, Scientist will be reading it for all time, because Mary Baker Eddy quotes it in Science and Health (attributing it to a "humorous poet" and using it as a metaphor for the relation between matter and spirit).* Whewell wrote serious poetry -- he has several volumes of it, including translations of German poetry, at which he was actually quite good -- but the poem people most associate with him is this one. People are tickled at the idea of a dignified philosopher, discussing a problem in physics, suddenly bursting out, quite by accident, in doggerel verse.

* ADDED LATER: Actually I find that I need to qualify this. Eddy did quote Whewell in Science and Health (Chapter 10), but the book went through many revisions between the first edition in 1875 and Eddy's death in 1910, and the lines don't seem to have lasted past the edition of 1889. But the metaphor, which originally was based on Whewell's sentence, still remains.

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