Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Oh For A Muse Of Fire


The man of learning and science had found a quiet place in the orchard of Woolsthorpe Manor, deep in the rolling country, where he could exercise his mind at leisure about matters beyond the ordinary business of his life. The nights were lengthening, and despite the warmth of the day and the dryness of weather, still he had begun to feel the dampness of the evenings, a sign of impending middle age. It was a reminder of what he should do, and he was glad to put aside the calling that had embraced him for so long. The pestilence in Cambridge had given him the opportunity for escape and time for contemplation. A new beginning must be made, for many years now he had earned little profit but a great deal of anxiety. Years of his life spent, never to be reclaimed, poring over ill written books, preparing ink to be spilt in useless words and symbols on dusty paper, trying to comprehend the gibbering of madmen and fools, in the dirt, foul habits, and smell of academia. Whenever he had tried to bring a new proposition forward he had brought down on his head a tirade of abuse and criticism. They were a precious, insufferable, mean minded group of men, the scholars, the scientists and the pretended logical mathematicians, and he wanted no more of them.

As for most of those who pretended to an interest in science, all they ever wanted to know was when lead might be made into gold or some distant light in the sky would bring them a rich widow. If he found the one, within a year all the church roofs would be stripped, and if the other, even more men of property would be found dead in their beds by a pillow dampened by the last breaths. He would be blamed by a howling mob and cast into The Fleet for necromancy and the casting of spells. The Royal Society were the worst asking for alchemists tricks to exclaim at, pretty light shows to gape at, or mountebanks’ surprises for their wonder. Show them the elegance of mathematics and the purity of reason and they could but sneer and sniff at their snuff. Hooke was everywhere, feeding their prejudices with his own puerile proofs, and having always visited the unknown before any other man.

Isaac knew he had many talents, and with the premium that poetry could command, never mind the Royal favours, the ladies with low d├ęcolletage, and all the personal adulation, he had arrived at the conclusion by a priori reasoning that it was time to make a little money. The difficulty was gauging and attracting the notice of the great persons of the Court. Rochester had risen in this way, and had died full of fame and respect. An end from well earned pox and drink in the fullness of life was inestimably better than one with a sermon and but a disputed calculation to leave as a memory. A shadow crossed his line of sight and he held his breath, waiting for the insult or the idiocy. “You be sitting on damp grass, good sir. You know the old saying, wet on the buttocks means rot in your futtocks.” Phoebe Langsdale waved a finger at her master and moved on, easing the basket of apples on the top of her well-fleshed thigh. Her family had come with the manor and the warning that a curse would fall on the owner who sent them packing. It must have been a most dreadful malediction to exceed the horrors of having Phoebe for a servant. She called over her shoulder, “And a hot day for the head means a chill night for your ears, shall I warm your night-cap?”

Isaac Newton banged the back of his head on the tree trunk to ease the anguish in his mind, and heard the rustle of leaves. Hell would be a room full of Phoebe’s chattering for eternity. He began to scribble, “I call upon thee! And compel! Thyself to be thy proper Hell!” He reflected, perhaps it was too pessimistic for the modern mind, and Phoebe would take some explaining, he would not want her to be mistaken for a lady close to his heart and body. Her voice floated from the kitchen, “When the nights be getting long, then old bones be not so strong.” Yes, it was autumn; Newton wrote again, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and then considered; after a few seconds he scratched it out. It was obvious and trite, and not worthy poetry. His mind began to form an idea about something for publication in the next spring, when the times would be better. He thoughts of daffodils and began to tease out the possibilities. “Cloud? Vales, hills? When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Lake, trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” He looked at the paper, dear lord, this was dreadful stuff, and a reader would roll on the floor with mirth. The raucous cracked voice of the maid of all work again came to his ears. Oh mercy, she was singing “Greensleeves” again. It was a song of long ago; perhaps an ancient tale in verse would be a success. “The way was long, the wind was cold. The minstrel was infirm and old.” But where was the man, what was he doing, what was it all going to be about, could a poem of past times really begin in such a mundane way. Would any one of sense ever read on?

It was thanks to Phoebe that his latest attempt at publication had attracted such widespread criticism and anger. Had her voice and clumsy way of working had not so distracted him, the mathematics would not have contained such a simple and vital error. It was not that which had caused the trouble; it might soon have been rectified, along with other changes in the proof of the book. It was the loon Thomas Beverley who had read the script without his consent, perceived in his algebra that the world would expire in the coming January, and had rushed out a tract on the streets using Newton’s name to make his sales.

Every time Newton had entered hall at Trinity College thereafter, some drunken divine would call, “Still here, eh, Newton?” A great many of the pamphlets had been sold in taverns and amongst the dissenting sects, so almost the entire population of London had migrated to Hampstead, been frozen stiff and covered with a light dusting of snow. They were still burning effigies of Newton at crossroads in the revenge of those who cannot forget.

He picked up the pen again, “This the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” No, his mind must be tiring. Phoebe’s voice trilled again, amusing her small niece, “Ladies go nym. nym, nym; doctors go trot, trot, trot; butchers go galloper, galloper, galloper.” Newton shook his head. The pen moved again, another attempt, “Cast a cold eye On Life, on death. Horseman, pass by!” No, it implied a disrespect of faith, and the English was poor. Again came Phoebe’s counterpoint, “Ollie Cromwell, with an axe, hit Whining Wentworth forty whacks. When he saw what he had done, he hit King Charlie forty-one!” He felt a pang of pity for the niece, more of that and she would have a troubled life. But he shouted to Phoebe to have a care, these were difficult times. Silly sayings and malicious evidence could have a man sent to Hell or Connaught, or even worse Trinity at Dublin, where the drunkenness and excrescences defied even those of his own college.

Newton wrote, “As our life is very short, so it is very miserable, and therefore it is as well it is short.” Again it was wrong, he could not see, for example, the good people of Uppingham liking such a sentiment. But they did not matter in his schemes. They had only scraps of silver to offer. Newton wanted newly minted money, warm from the die, bags of it, spices, fat meats, the delights of the tropics, silks, and cushions for his seats, all the flattery and deference he could command with the full fruits of arrogance and power. All that would matter would be the celebration of his name.

Phoebe had fallen over the cat, and was beating it with a broom, another of its nine lives gone. Another beginning, “For he who lives more lives than one, More deaths than one must die.” This was ridiculous, a complete absence of wit or style. He was now at a loss. Along the lane Tom the Tranter was passing, a man capable of distracting even those who lay in the Churchyard and Newton heard the shouted proposition he made to Phoebe. He judged that if that was his appetite, then the tranter had been spending too much time with his horse. “You put your money where your mouth is!” was Phoebe’s rejoinder, confident that Tom was not a paying man.

Newton thought for a moment, money, he had to think of those who had it, there was the path to the garnering of wealth, something to appeal to the aristocracy; those beings who dictated success in all the arts; and in literature by their patronage. “”The Stately Homes of England, How beautiful they stand, To prove the Upper Classes, Have still the upper hand.” At last, the words of truth and understanding had come, he could see his way forward.

Phoebe stood over him again, “Well?” “We need a long talk about the housekeeping, master, I was three farthings short this week and…?” She talked for some time. He struggled with his jacket to pull out the purse while she rattled on, unceasingly. He stood, found the purse and thrust several pence into her hand. “Oh, not that much, master.” she said, giving him back some of the coin, and counting it three times. He sat down, picked up the pencil and paper again, shivered as he tried to concentrate, and realised that the trickle of consciousness had been lost. What was it to be; a great ducal palace he would call Xanadu, pleasure domes, walls and towers, a mighty fountain? All gone; flown from memory. The immortal verse that was to bring him fortune had been lost in the thickets of Phoebe’s tangled arithmetic. He banged the back of his head against the tree, and as he sat stiff, felt the blow of a large apple that had detached itself on his encouragement. It hit the crown of his head and added a sharp physical pain to the mental torment.

Newton stifled the scream of rage that was rising from his gorge. As her plump body lumbered its way towards the house he rose, picked up the apple, and threw it as hard as he could. He was never a sporting man, and he was well wide of the mark. The apple curved over her head and went out of sight beyond the hedge and into the rutted road. A moment later there was shouting and a red burned dirty face appeared through the branches of hornbeam. It was Tom the Tranter, returning from his errand, who waved his fist and swore at Phoebe. She shook hers back and pointed towards Newton. “One sin shall destroy a sinner!” she shouted, which only served to make Tom angrier and more obscene. Newton attempted to quiet him with humour, “What goes up must come down!” he cried with a forced laugh that was as ugly as his mood.

It was another error of judgment to add to the many he made in his dealings with the lower orders. This triggered a richer volley of abuse, for Tom was very angry. “Why should an honest work man be a thing for a rich man’s jest? Is not my life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short enough for you? For a man of quality you be a damned fool and may you rot in hell.” Newton tried to make his peace, but did not altogether succeed. Tom though, did remember that he had trade from Newton in the past and might need more in the future, there were few enough men with any coin in this part of the country, and withdrew muttering and cursing his way down the road to Stainby.

Phoebe turned to Newton, “What goes up must come down, indeed!” She rubbed her hands fiercely on her apron. “My old dad, he says that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Phoebe sniffed with righteousness, and returned to her kitchen. Newton made his way back to the tree. He slumped back hard, causing the branches to sway and crackle. He picked up his pencil and paper again; now it was becoming late for poetry, mystery, and the beauty of language. The second apple hit him on the same part of the head as the first, and to mock him a shower of others bounced off his limbs.

Newton spent some minutes rehearsing Tom’s range of invective and embroidering it into his hatred for Phoebe. The vision of her became a pasty wobbling moon that obliterated the sun and the heavens from his mind. Her last mouthing was far, far, beyond the realms of madness and nonsense, and triggered the most powerful anger his temper could command. The whirl of his mind made him tremble that the universe would collapse in a blinding flash. Isaac relapsed into stilled silence for a full five minutes. Then, he began to doodle calculations below the scribbled and defaced words.

1 comment: