Somewhere on the slightly more reputable end of the spectrum of jocular and abusive nicknames for courses ─ nicer than “Rocks for Jocks” and “Cowboy Calculus” ─ lies that general education standard “Physics for Poets”. The term does capture in a neat way something of the drive, in a broad education, not only to cover but also to relate different fields and disciplines. It gets at the “connections” piece. Connections keep turning up, and they integrate our vision.
So there we are, Scott and I, standing in front of Laird Hall at Carleton. I thought I was looking at a sculpture on a pedestal. He saw that it was a sundial. (And that it was a few minutes slow.) It was a modern-looking bronze abstraction, mounted on a traditional, flowery, stone column, with a line of poetry running around the top rim:
“Love alters not, nor light, with Time’s swift flight.”
How cool, I thought. Four syllables borrowed from the very heart of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, along with the contrast of love’s endurance against the flux of time, combined with a reference to the constancy of the speed of light, which, as we know from Einstein, stays the same no matter what is changing in your frame of reference. And slightly sprung iambic pentameter, almost a rhythmic match for the “bare, ruined choirs” line in Sonnet 73. Cool, indeed: physics for poets.
“Oh,” we said, “this thing is using light to tell the time just as it is holding up light as a parallel metaphor for love’s constancy. The unchanging measures the changing.”
But wait. It was clear to us that the sculpture and its pedestal were of differing provenance. The date on the base was 1909. The bronze was nearly contemporary. The first was dedicated to Anna T. Lincoln; the second to Laudie Porter. Apparently the column had once been topped with a less ornate sundial. So we were looking at a layered memorial, an original fixture repurposed.
Miss Lincoln, we later discovered, had been head of “the boarding department,” from 1879 to 1903. She fed Carleton, and promoted athletics and campus beauty. The single line of verse was written by the dean of women, Margaret Evans, described as Miss Lincoln’s close friend. Laudie Porter was the deceased wife of David Porter, the distinguished classicist and musician who served at Carleton before going to the presidency of Skidmore, 1987-1999. David has been an important figure in Phi Beta Kappa over the decades. How dense and how good, these intersecting rays of light and love!
There was another issue. The line of poetry was on the 1909 part of the column. I had read it as incorporating Einstein’s theory of relativity. But would the constancy of the speed of light have been an available metaphor in Northfield in 1909? Maybe. The timing is just possible. Or maybe not. It’s a question for some local literary sleuth.
But the question also points to one of the great contentions of literary criticism in the 20th century. Does meaning depend on the author’s intention? On the text itself? Or the reader’s own creative contribution? Is it legitimate to find a reference to Einstein in a line penned by an author who may have had no such thing in mind? Can we do what we like with a text? What about putting a new sundial, memorializing another beloved college figure, atop a column memorializing someone else? Well, love alters not.
The sundial, by the way, was slow by Central Time. By local solar time, it was spot on.