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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare [Sub-post title: mathematical musings with my son]

Sonnet from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems

by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1923)



Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.

Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,

And lay them prone upon the earth and cease

To ponder on themselves, the while they stare

At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere

In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese

Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release

From dusty bondage into luminous air.

O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,

When first the shaft into his vision shone

Of light anatomized! Euclid alone

Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they

Who, though once only and then but far away,

Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.


I started my day with a long chat with my son about mathematical concepts. What I mean is that he proposed mathematical truths and then carefully framed them in terminology I could comprehend. Through the course of the chat, he sent a link to that poem, asking if I had seen it before. What a sweet thing to say to a mother. It has the implied, “of course you read ancient, heady poetry about mathematics all the time, so it is completely reasonable to ask this.” I really like the poem, but it will take many times through before I have a snowball’s chance in the eternal flames of getting any part of it. He gave a bit of an explanation:

I don't understand all the allusions.

But the central idea, in the title, is that in pure geometry you have beauty in it's pure form.

Bare, meaning not clothed in art or music or whatever.

It probably ties into the Greek concept of ideal forms.

He doesn’t understand all the allusions. Snow ball is getting smaller. Then…

Him: I like the imagery with the geese.

lol...I just noticed something.

"Heroes seek release from dust and bondage into luminous air."

That's a quote from the poem.

Here's another quote:

"Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter."

Who said that?

Me: ?

Him: Yoda.

Me: Funny. I should have been able to tell from the sentence structure. :)

I love my math man.


P.S. When getting permission to quote him, we had this additional interaction.

Him: That's fine, but I find it interesting you consider  a poem written in 1923 ancient.

Me. I know. I knew that would get a reaction from most readers.

Him: Also, it’s entirely possible the first time I saw that poem was in a literature book in high school

What this means: I was his literature teacher. He is the math guy. The poem made a lasting impression on him. It went right over my head.

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