Graduation Address: Professor Nicholas Roe, School of English

Graduation Office
Tuesday 11 June 2024

Tuesday 11 June 2024 – morning ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues, and graduates… everyone.

It is an honour and a pleasure to address you on this most memorable day, and to join in helping us all celebrate your graduation after years of intensive and, above all, enjoyable study in the Schools of English and Mathematics.

With literature I may have some expertise after some years exploring poems, novels, and plays. In mathematics, I regret I have not made much progress and am limited to counting on my fingers before I resort to the calculator on my iPhone. Still, I will try to do what I can.

It might seem that the two disciplines of English and Mathematics belong in different universes, although in St Andrews, English on The Scores and Mathematics on the North Haugh are not so widely separated. And actually, the two subjects have much in common – notably, numbers – that is, in a word, units of measure.

When Albert Einstein was working out the mathematics that led to his famous equation E=mc2 he didn’t know in advance where his mathematics might lead; equally, when William Wordsworth began his poem Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, he didn’t know where his composition would lead or what form his poem would take when completed. The mathematical and poetic processes are, I think, essentially the same – creative experiment.

In 1755 Dr Samuel Johnson, poet and lexicographer, published his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language. A few years later, Dr Johnson was here in St Andrews visiting the University on his pioneering tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. He stayed close to where Janetta’s ice-cream parlour is now situated and recalled being ‘gratified by every mode of kindness, and entertained [at the University] with all the elegance of lettered hospitality’.

With some foresight he noted that ‘St. Andrews seems to be a place eminently adapted to study and education’ – as I am sure you will all agree. I think Dr Johnson would have enjoyed Jannettas’ ‘timeless  vanilla … with a pistachio and almond biscuit and dark chocolate’.

Johnson’s Dictionary defines Mathematics as a ‘science which contemplates whatever is capable of being numbered or measured’.

Johnson also tells us that one definition of ‘numbers’ is ‘verses [and] poetry’, and he gives a quote from his friend, the poet Alexander Pope:

‘the muses bid my numbers roll
Strong as their charms’

Poetry is made up of numbers or measures of verse – the simplest of these in English is the iambic measure, a light stress followed by a heavy stress, as in the opening line of John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale:

‘a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk

So poetic measures are the mathematics of verse, and the seventeen-year-old John Ruskin had fun with this idea in a Rhyming Letter he wrote to a University friend:

‘Believe me, sir, it made me quite ecstatical
To hear you had become so mathematical’

The contemporary Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, who read at the first St Andrews Poetry Festival back in 1987, has a brilliant phrase in her poem The Sundial, when she refers to a sundial as ‘the mathematics of sunshine’.

As well as a sundial, this could refer to the great mathematician Isaac Newton’s experiments with sunlight and glass prisms. A prism, as you will know, distinguishes the different colours of sunlight according to a mathematical refractive index. Keats was cross about this, claiming that Newton’s mathematics had ‘destroyed the Poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism’.

The ‘poetry of the rainbow’ that Keats had in mind was William Wordsworth’s lyric My heart leaps up:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old…

Keats knew and mostly admired Wordsworth. What he did not know was that, at university, Wordsworth’s undergraduate subject was in fact mathematics, and that Wordsworth wrote some marvellous lines of poetry about seeing a statue of Isaac Newton:

Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

There is an element of self-recognition in those three lines, a sense that Newton the great mathematician and the poet who evoked his voyage ‘through strange seas of thought’ were in some ways embarked on the same enterprise.

So, all of you mathematicians, in years to come perhaps you may number something like…

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Ten thousand saw I at a glance.

And you scholars of literature, perhaps you will be drawn to lyrical mathematics and E=mc2, or lured by the strange terrain that Keats evokes in his lines, ‘some melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless’. What, one wonders, are ‘shadows numberless’? Could they be foreshadowings of mathematical equations and poetic possibilities that are, for us, ‘numberless’ in that they are yet to be discovered?

My time is up. I have just a few moments to wish all of you congratulations; a most enjoyable graduation day; and every good fortune in the futures that you are all now beginning. Thank you.

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