On 'Peter Guthrie Tate, Topologist'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901) was a famous nineteenth-century mathematician, who moved to Edinburgh when he was still young, entering Edinburgh Academy when he was ten; there he excelled in mathematics. The study of topology is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as "the study of geometrical properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures". Tait was one of the first to make a serious attempt at knot theory, fuelled by the ideas of Thomson, who claimed that knot theory was a way into understanding the problem of atoms. This idea was quite wrong, but Tait made a considerable contribution to knot theory, and it is here that Morgan's poem takes off.
He imagines Tait's awakening interest as he strolls along the docks of Leith, the port for Edinburgh. The ropes on the ships, and the sailors tying and untying the freight (l. 4) capture his imagination, and "[the] mathematics [...] uncoiled its waiting elegances". The language of the sonnet is complicated, meant to make the structure suit the subject matter: the poem itself is a knot that needs unravelling (note Morgan's play with "ravelling plot"). Especially from l. 8 to the final line, it becomes very complicated. What "clutched hot / as caustic on Tait's brain", are "[old] liquid chains that strung the gorgeous tot / God spliced the mainbrace with", which are also "put on the slate". A "tot" is a dram of liquor, and in this context it is probably an extra tot of rum, issued by God ("spliced the mainbrace with"), which is strung together by "liquid chains", which are probably the stars. In other words, the tot of rum is a metaphor for the earth, tied up by strings of stars. The idea of the earth being an extra dram of rum for God, put on a bill, is of course amusing, but also quite disturbing; however, Tait is concerned only with the beauty of how well the "fire" is knotted, and how the stars provide safe journeying by navigation for the "mate", who because of this certainty can "whistle to his stormy lot". It is unclear what exactly it is that creation was sent staggering from in line ten. Perhaps issuing an extra tot of rum implies that God has consumed several already, but it was the earth that sent the rest of "creation reeling". Or, humans were sent reeling because of the impact of creation. However, this appears not to be the most important point of the poem, and it will remain an unravelled knot. It is wonderful how Morgan makes Tait move from a view of the microcosm to that of a macrocosm, and ties that together with the same kind of imagery. What comes out most strongly from the poem is Tait's attempt to explain the world and the mystery of creation in terms of mathematics.


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