Jessica Goodfellow


By his fifth decade Lagrange no longer
reckoned celestial mechanics.
Already he'd wrestled the moon's libration,
why it veils but one face to show earth,
and "The Problem of Three Bodies,"
the lover's triangle on which teeters
the earth, moon and sun.

Lagrange courted equations, shunned intuition.
The slip of liquids, the shove of solids
he would not differentiate
choosing the dry elegance of algebra
over the earth's crude beauty.
Fluxion he distrusted;
only finite quantities spoke to him.
In his version of the calculus
the concept of vanishing vanished,
till there remained nowhere to hide.
Lagrange put down his pen.

Renouncing his efforts to quantify the night,
Lagrange edged into unknown variables.
All of France mourned. Marie Herself Antoinette
couldn't compel the sad genius to calculate.
The planets were no more and no less
perturbed in the slide of their orbits.

Of knowing, there is no end.
Or, there is an end.
One curse and its opposite,
also a curse.
Reasons to pray are the same
as reasons to forsake praying.

Happily the war summoned Lagrange,
duty over disgust.
For the first time in years
from his vast empty desk
he lifted his head and from his left ear
out tumbled le système métrique.
Thus the earth's disinherited
could measure, at last, their losses
in tenths, and tens, and powers of ten.



This poem is based on the life of mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813). His work in many diverse fields of mathematics might have allowed him to be numbered with the greatest mathematicians of all time, had melancholy not derailed his brilliant career on several occasions. My interest in the dichotomy of the heightened rational and the irrepressible emotional was what brought about this poem. Plus I really like math.