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Edmund Halley, 1740

Author(s): 
Andrew Wynn Owen (University of Oxford)

Editor's note: Science is a recurring theme in the work of award-winning poet Andrew Wynn Owen. He has won prizes for poems titled The Centrifuge, Telescope, and The Astronomer (to read the latter two poems, scroll down the linked page). About his poem presented below, Owen wrote, "This piece was written as a dramatic monologue in the voice of an 84-year-old Edmund Halley reminiscing about one incident of great significance from his life and work."

Edmund Halley, 1740

By Andrew Wynn Owen

A bet began it. Hooke had made the boast
He’d found a certain proof for Kepler’s rules
Of planetary motion. Wren and I
Were sceptical and, when he failed to bring
The necessary, we leaned back in our chairs
And set about our hobby, ribbing him:
‘High Tinker, Grand Woolgatherer, Panjandrum
Of Mites in Cheese’ – he took it fine because
We were his fellows, arm-in-arm Laputans,
Our sympathy assumed. But no, when Shadwell
Assailed him with the same– well, you have heard
Of Hooke. It’s no surprise his heart seized up.
We drained our coffee, sighed, and filtered out
From Garraway’s to the Exchange, with Wren
Arhapsodizing as the sun went down
Of Brunelleschi and his baffling dome.

The matter might have ended there, but I
Was keen to delve. I have a searching streak.
It chanced that Newton had it too – and more!
I met him in his nutshell of an office
With papers scattered ankle-deep and tools
Designed for calculations no one else
But Leibniz, at that time, might have attempted.
I asked, ‘What orbit does a planet make
About the sun, assuming its attraction
Is governed by an inverse law of squares?’
He frowned and answered it was an ellipse
But, naturally, he’d lost the paperwork.
I waited and his proof emerged: De Motu
Enshrined, at last, the truth of Kepler’s laws
And so began a cogitation-spree
That culminated in his masterwork.
Yes, there you see it: his Principia
By all acknowledged, lodged in libraries
From Gottingen to Oxford. It’s a law,
As sure as planets orbit, Newton’s fame
Will grow. What nudged him on? Hypothesis
Non fingo – no, a supposition though:
Had I, wool-mantled, scarved against the cold,
Not hackneyed up to Cambridge (such a trek)
To check if Hooke was fooling, would the world
Have known so soon, or known at all – have gazed,
Astonished, on its own machinery
With such precision, such unparalleled
Applicability to– anything?
True universal gravity. To think
The love that moves the sun and other stars
Is moving, by some miracle, in us!
We have discerned the clockwork of the planets:
Celestial mechanics mapped on Earth,
Explained in terms that, equally, describe
Those rules of motion every child intuits
By piling stacks of bricks or rolling hoops
About a sunny lawn. ‘The world,’ you claim,
‘Has changed’ – no, we have changed. I skip a stone
Across a pond that sits below the old
Observatory at Greenwich with the same
Angle my arm perfected when King Charles,
The Merry Monarch, held our throne; the same
Deft flick of wrist, perhaps, that Tycho Brahe
Mustered to skim the mere near Elsinore.
What’s changed is that we hone our calculations
And dare to know and, knowing more, to dare
Find everything we had held dear redundant.
I don’t regret, except that I’ll not live
To see an age I know impends, when fierce
Discovery will prove itself a match
For mystery and humankind will grow
Conversant with a theory that unites
The telescope and microscope, bound in
Encyclopaedia, index, and concordance.

So imperceptible the line of chance –
‘Is this the best of worlds?’ Perhaps. I’ve been
At best a brave appendix to events,
But feel that chance and choice affect our view.
The Earth revolves more understandably,
Descanting on old music. Hear it hum:
Ideas, ideas, indelible ideas–
Continuous, pervasive, circumscribing
Discovery shall measure all. It can.

About the Author

Andrew Wynn Owen earned the BA degree in English Language and Literature from Magdalen College, University of Oxford, England, in 2015. He is now a Fellow by Examination of All Souls College, Oxford, working toward a DPhil on epic poetry of the Romantic era. In 2014, Owen was awarded two prizes by the Oxford English faculty, the Newdigate Prize for his poem, "The Centrifuge," and the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize for a section from his epic poem, "The Adventures of Elmó Elmínus." He previously won the Richard Selig Prize (2013) for his poem, "Telescope." His collection of poems, Raspberries for the Ferry, was published by The Emma Press in 2014; the same press published his AWOL, a joint collection with poet John Fuller, in 2015.

Acknowledgment

The editor thanks Andrew Wynn Owen for allowing Convergence to publish his poem and Thomas Drucker for communicating it to us.

Andrew Wynn Owen (University of Oxford), "Edmund Halley, 1740," Convergence (December 2015), DOI:10.4169/convergence20151203

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