So James Clerk Maxwell was one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 19th century, even perhaps the greatest. He is most famous for compiling a system of equations in the 1860s that describe the interactions of electricity and magnetism, and showed that these equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves. He then boldly — and correctly — went on to hypothesize that these electromagnetic waves include visible light. (We would later find that Maxwell’s theory unified a whole family of rays and waves, all seemingly different: light, infrared, ultraviolet, radio, X-rays and gamma rays are all electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths.) The equations he formulated are now known as Maxwell’s equations.
Maxwell also did pioneering work in the kinetic theory of gases, did studies of color vision, and produced the first durable color photographs — in 1861! He also did some of the earliest scientific work to try to understand how a cat lands on its feet when it is dropped, a subject I have studied somewhat extensively.
What I did not know, until recently, is that Maxwell was also a poet! Not only that, but he wrote one poem in his youth about a “vampyre.” Maxwell is another scientist who I can add to my list of science-horror connections.
This was a purely serendipitous discovery. I have been finishing up my next book project, on the history and physics of invisibility, and decided to browse through an excellent Dover book on Scientific Romances of the 1800s to see if I had missed any good invisibility references. This book contained, as one of its examples of “Scientific Romances,” the poem “A paradoxical ode, after Shelley.” This poem turns out to have been a somewhat sarcastic criticism of some musings on theology and science by a colleague.
But this led me to wonder if there might be some poem excerpt that I could use as an introduction to my book chapter on Maxwell? This in turn led me to the website “My Poetic Side,” which has text of all of Maxwell’s surviving poems.
These poems were published in 1882 in The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, compiled by his friends Lewis Campbell and William Garnett. The book can be read for free online.
My favorite, of course, is his horror poem The Vampyre, written in 1845, when he was 15 years old! I include the full text here because it is too delightful not to share.
Thair is a knichte rydis through the wood,
And a doughty knichte is tree,
And sure hee is on a message sent,
He rydis see hastilie.
Hee passit the aik, and hee passit the birk,
And hee passit monie a tre,
Bot plesant to him was the saugh sae slim,
For beneath it hee did see
The boniest ladye that ever he saw,
Scho was see schyn and fair.
And there scho sat, beneath the saugh,
Kaiming hir gowden hair.
And then the knichte—”Oh ladye brichte,
What chance hes brought you here,
But say the word, and ye schall gang
Back to your kindred dear.”
Then up and spok the Ladye fair—
“I have nae friends or kin,
Bot in a littel boat I live,
Amidst the waves’ loud din.”
Then answered thus the douchty knichte—
“I’ll follow you through all,
For gin ye bee in a littel boat,
The world to it seemis small.”
They gaed through the wood, and through the wood
To the end of the wood they came:
And when they came to the end of the wood
They saw the salt sea faem.
And then they saw the wee, wee boat,
That daunced on the top of the wave,
And first got in the ladye fair,
And then the knichte sae brave;
They got into the wee, wee boat,
And rowed wi’ a’ their micht;
When the knichte sae brave, he turnit about,
And lookit at the ladye bricht;
He lookit at her bonie cheik,
And hee lookit at hir twa bricht eyne,
Bot hir rosie cheik growe ghaistly pale,
And scho seymit as scho deid had been.
The fause fause knichte growe pale wi frichte,
And his hair rose up on end,
For gane-by days cam to his mynde,
And his former luve he kenned.
Then spake the ladye,—”Thou, fause knichte,
Hast done to mee much ill,
Thou didst forsake me long ago,
Bot I am constant still;
For though I ligg in the woods sae cald,
At rest I canna bee
Until I sucke the gude lyfe blude
Of the man that gart me dee.”
Hee saw hir lipps were wet wi’ blude,
And hee saw hir lyfelesse eyne,
And loud hee cry’d, “Get frae my syde,
Thou vampyr corps uncleane!”
Bot no, hee is in hir magic boat,
And on the wyde wyde sea;
And the vampyr suckis his gude lyfe blude,
Sho suckis hym till hee dee.
So now beware, whoe’re you are,
That walkis in this lone wood;
Beware of that deceitfull spright,
The ghaist that suckle the blude.
Curiously, it occurs to me that Maxwell was likely inspired by an even more famous “Vampyre” story, by John Polidori. In a story that is now well-known, in June of 1816 an eclectic group gathered for a holiday in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The group included Lord Byron, his mistress Jane Clairmont, her step-sister Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The weather ended up being horrible, due to the massive eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, which had spewed tons of ash into the atmosphere, and the party challenged each other to write horror stories. Mary Wollstonecraft, of course, wrote Frankenstein, simultaneously ushering in a new era of science fiction and horror. The only other person to finish a story was John Polidori, who wrote The Vampyre, which was published in 1819.
I can’t help but suspect that Maxwell was inspired by Polidori’s work when he wrote his Vampyre poem; his other poems show that he was clearly familiar with the poems of Shelley, so it’s not hard to imagine that he was familiar with Polidori as well. Maxwell is in good company — Polidori’s story also influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula! But Maxwell took his inspiration in a different direction, and made a woman vampire — he would anticipate Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire tale Carmilla!
This little blog post is one of the reasons I love studying history — historical figures can surprise you!
PS I did find a poetry excerpt to use in my book! You’ll have to wait for the book to find out which one.