Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865) doubtlessly was Ireland’s most ingenious mathematician. His most well-known inventions are what is now known as Hamiltonian mechanics, and the quaternions from which vector analysis emerged. Hamilton’s work was, and still is, highly praised; he was knighted in 1835 for his theoretical discovery of conical refraction. Yet his private life has been heavily gossiped about; he is often seen as having been an unhappily married alcoholic.
His own description of the discovery of the quaternions, which he made when he was walking with his wife, breathes such a peaceful atmosphere that it became the inducement to investigate how an alleged unhappy marriage could lead to such a circumstance. That resulted in the writing of this essay, in which it has been shown that he did have a good marriage, and that according to current standards he was not an alcoholic.
The essay can be read online in the Internet Archive’s BookReader, see the link on top of this page. In case offline reading is preferred, it can be downloaded below as a pdf (left) or an epub (right).
For English and Dutch summaries, and further publications, see Publications
The books have only been printed in hardback copies, which cost €62.50 each (not including postal charges). In case paper books are indeed preferred: they can be ordered by filling in a form at BoekenGilde: A Victorian Marriage - Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Clicking on the box: Beschikbaarheid opvragen = Request availability, shows the form in which Naam = Name, E-mailadres = E-mail address, Gewenst aantal boeken = Desired number of books, Versturen = Send. It will be read both by BoekenGilde and me; if we receive ten requests, the corrected version of the essay will be printed in an again small edition.
For some information about me see:
I also made a “project” about Hamilton on ResearchGate where comments can be made if logged in.
The fourfold aim of this essay is to
These copies of the two books on Quaternions written by Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865) are kept at the Special Collections of Utrecht University Library. They can both be read online at the Internet Archive: Lectures on Quaternions (Dublin, 1853) and Elements of Quaternions (Dublin, 1866).
In July 2015 Frans Sellies, one of my colleagues at the Library, showed me the books and very kindly made the beautiful photographs shown above. To see the books in reality was more touching than I had expected, and in order to do something symbolic with having seen them all the colours of this website come from Hamilton’s books as shown on the Internet Archive, and those of the logo come from photographs Frans made of the books. For Frans’ photos see his flickr page.
2018 - Astronomy in 1848
This is an English translation of a short article, Sterrenkunde in 1848, which was published in the June issue of Zenit, the popular science magazine for astronomy, meteorology and space research, and organ of the KNVWS, the Royal Dutch Association for Meteorology and Astronomy. See also Utrecht, 8 June 2018.
2018 - On an 1850 report of a fireball from the Scorpiid-Sagittariid Complex
In 1850 Hamilton saw a ‘splendid meteor’. This article, describing his report, has been published in WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization. See for some more information Utrecht, 12 January 2018. A Dutch announcement of the article, een Nederlandse bekendmaking van het artikel, can be found here: Over een verslag uit 1850 van een zeer heldere meteoor.
2017 - A most gossiped about genius: Sir William Rowan Hamilton
In this article first an English summary of the 2015, and in 2017 corrected, essay has been given. Using six books, published between 1902 and 2008, the second part of this article shows how Hamilton's private life became the caricature it is nowadays. For this article see also Utrecht, 12 December 2017.
2017 - A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton
I made a corrected version of the 2015 essay which now only exists as a handful of printed copies. A Dutch summary, een Nederlandse samenvatting, can be found here: Een Victoriaans Huwelijk.
Another aspect of Hamilton was that he does not seem to have cared much for his reputation amongst people outside science or his private life. De Vere wrote about him: “It was impossible for the most careless observer not to be struck by him at once. One’s first impression was that he was a great embodied intellect rather than a human being. [...] I early observed that his abstracted habits, while they kept him as ignorant of the world as he was indifferent to it, did not prevent his occasionally exercising a keen, if fitful, appreciation of character. He would refer to past incidents, which at the time he had not seemed to remark, with a singular, though never uncharitable, insight.”
This combination may have been the main reason the Dublin gossip got so out of hand; De Morgan’s and De Vere’s descriptions clearly allow for a reputation as an eccentric for those who only knew Hamilton from a distance. And Hamilton would sometimes even worsen it when, for instance, he answered, upon having been asked what he had been thinking about, that he was trying to multiply the North-East by the South-West. Famous people are always talked about and, taking into consideration that in those times there were no computers, television or cinema, talking about such a strange man will have made an amusing pastime.
Adding to this eccentric reputation was the way Hamilton wrote about the three women in his life. In his ante-nuptial poems, which he sent to Coleridge and therefore probably also to De Vere and to many more people, he openly wrote about all three; Catherine Disney, Ellen de Vere, and Helen Bayly, and he gave the associations he had with each three of them: Sweet piety, Enthusiasm, and Truth. But regularly almost mathematically examining his thoughts and his feelings, therewith having been able to make his psychological discovery in the summer of 1832, he gave a very logical reason to be so open about the women in his life: he argued that he would have been dishonest then if he now would deny having loved them. He wrote in one of his ante-nuptial poems:
O be it far from me, and from my heart,
Praising a new love to dispraise the old,
As if I had before but false tales told,
In hasty error, or in flattering art!
That he felt that way is easy to understand, he did not lose them because of a relationship with them which went wrong; they were no ‘ex-lovers’. And it completely fits in with De Morgan’s observation that Hamilton would rather “express his opinions to avoid the possibility of being misunderstood.” His then wife-to-be apparently understood that; she knew about his extreme honesty because she already knew him for years from very close-by, and she had seen how difficult it was for him to get over Ellen de Vere. She thus clearly knew all about Hamilton’s former loves, and agreed to marry him; being as honest as he was, gaining her the association Truth, she will have accepted him especially because of his honesty.
But Graves did not recognize Hamilton’s stance towards honesty in regards to the women in his life, just as he had not recognized Hamilton’s psychological change in the summer of 1832, making him lament about Hamilton’s “susceptible heart.” It is uncertain how in Hamilton‘s time this seemingly romantic attitude was judged, but it directly influenced the later gossip when it was concluded, taking Graves literally, that Hamilton had always loved Catherine. Which he did as can be seen in his poem, but not in the way of a secretly nursed only love.
What was, already having such a precarious public reputation, in the end devastating for it was his drinking very openly, even during the times the Temperance Movement was growing. In his younger years Hamilton did not drink at home, and in later years he only sipped porter when becoming tired during some very interesting investigation, but he enjoyed drinking at public events, and he apparently could drink a lot without getting in trouble.
This was shortly alluded to in a 1965 article by John Reid, then acting director at Dunsink Observatory, in which he first gave the then prevailing opinion, coming directly from Graves as was shown in our gossip article, that Lady Hamilton had not been the strong wife Hamilton had needed, but then, remarkably, stated that Hamilton had had a “very happy” marriage. When mentioning that Hamilton had not been able to attend the 1840 meeting of the British Association in Glasgow because of the birth of his daughter, Reid writes: “He must have regretted this, since it would have given him an opportunity to meet Encke and Jacobi. On the one occasion on which he did meet the latter [at the 1842 Manchester meeting of the British Association], each of them was left with a deep mutual respect for the other’s drinking prowess.” Hamilton thus was not the only one; gaining a deep mutual respect shows that they drank publicly, and it sounds as if they were very much enjoying themselves. But Jacobi did not have such a bad reputation already, and he was never called alcoholic.
When the Dublin gossip got out of hand Charles Graves visited Hamilton twice to warn him about his reputation. The fact that he had to repeat his warning is a clear sign of what De Vere indeed described, that Hamilton was largely indifferent to the world, that he did not care about his reputation of an eccentric, too honest, openly drinking genius. But he was far from indifferent to the people he loved, and it is a good thing that he did not live to hear about the ever more caricature-like picture sketched of him and of his beloved wife. To which recently was added that he made “attempts at self-harm,” making it an open question what will be added next.
Writing the essay I had noticed that Hamilton mentioned several times to have become “a sadder and a wiser man”, and I had assumed that it had been prompted by his romanticism. I had also read Hamilton’s conversation with his sisters, given below, about the ‘Ancient Mariner’, poetry, science, and his tendency or motivation to generalize, and I knew about the deep respect he had for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But I had totally missed the connection between these three particulars because I had not read Coleridge’s 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I did not even know it was written by Coleridge. Perhaps I can be excused; if I had been writing a comprehensive biography I should have done so, but I just focused on countering the negative views on Hamilton’s private life.
Now having read the poem, which can be found on the website of The Poetry Foundation in an 1834 version, the conversation with his sisters [Graves 1882, 345-346], which was in itself already quite clear, again makes more sense. It took place about two years after they had come to live at the observatory, and four and a half year after Catherine’s marriage; a time of which Hamilton later said that he was able to maintain his “philosophic calm” “with lucid intervals indeed.”
“Memorandum by W. R. Hamilton of a conversation.
Monday Evening, November 9, 1829.
After being by myself for some hours in the study, I went to the parlour, where Grace, Eliza, and Sydney were sitting, and entered with them into conversation on the “Ancient Mariner,” which they had been reading. Grace complained that, though there were many beautiful parts in the poem, she did not understand it, and could not believe it to be true. I thought that the moral of the story was the duty of loving all God’s creatures, but that the chief object of the poet was to show the natural in the supernatural, by placing a human being under circumstances contrary to human experience, yet attributing to him feelings which we recognise as true; that is, which we are conscious we should ourselves have if we were placed under the circumstances supposed. This truth of feeling I considered to be the highest truth of poetical composition: I thought that one of the chief advantages of poetry consisted in making us acquainted with our own nature, by exercising our understanding and consciousness in the discernment of truth of this kind. Romances may have such truth, and by it may give exquisite pleasure. Novels and ordinary poetic fiction must combine with this truth the observance of that inferior kind which consists in outward probability the truth of circumstances and incidents, as well of character and feeling. A practised taste comes to be offended by a violation of this outward probability in a novel, but need not be so in a romance, or professedly supernatural poem. Eliza thought that it could be of no use to imagine how we should feel or act in circumstances in which we can never be placed, except so far as all imagination is in some degree useful to the mind. I maintained that, in addition to this general use, there was a special advantage resulting from the experimental knowledge which we derive by putting ourselves in thought under remote and even supernatural circumstances, and observing how we feel, or how we believe that we should be affected. It appeared to me that, as in science, mathematical or physical, we have often come to understand better the near by aiming at the remote; so, in the study of our own minds and feelings, we might improve our practical knowledge by not confining ourselves thereto; might come to know better how we should feel and act under real circumstances, by sometimes placing ourselves in such as cannot be realised.”
A short article or rather sketch was published last week in Zenit called ‘Sterrenkunde in 1848’ (not open access available), translated as Astronomy in 1848 and shown here with permission. In this sketch I gave a description of the visit Hamilton made to Lord Rosse and his Leviathan telescope in 1848, the crossing of the rings of Saturn that year, and the discovery of Hyperion. Although William Lassell gave the moon her name, it was seen from a letter by William Cranch Bond that his son George Phillips Bond was the first astronomer who saw Hyperion. The three astronomers were credited together with finding Hyperion, which is of course fair, but the fact remains that Bond Jr. was the first one to see it.
Just before the visit Hamilton had had a six-week correspondence with Catherine, and had learned from her that from the beginning she had been very unhappy in her marriage, something Hamilton had not known before; he had assumed that the marriage had started out happily as can be seen from an 1825 poem he wrote for her but never sent. He had of course been very distressed by learning that the marriage had been unhappy from the start, and coincidentally only a few days after the last letter, he was invited by Lord Rosse to come to Parsonstown, where he arrived on the 27th of August. In the last week of August, while on his way to Parsonstown and during the first days there, he had a very open and honest correspondence with his friend De Vere, who was able to comfort him. As appears from his other letters written while in Parsonstown, at the time the short sketch of this visit starts Hamilton had calmed down again, always able to enjoy good company and feel ‘the affection of fond friends.’
At some time during his visit, most likely on the 8th of September, Hamilton was teased by Airy for drinking only water. Hamilton had abstained for two years, but as can be seen in his letters without much motivation; he had always been used to, and very much liked, “the pleasures of the table”. He had decided to abstain in an effort to stop the Dublin gossip after a bizarre event in 1846. Hamilton did not believe it was caused by alcohol but by excitement, but Graves had had doubts about what happened then, and assumed that Hamilton might have been drunk. Yet Graves did not live in Ireland then, and his doubts came from the reports he received. To be certain that Hamilton would not further jeopardize his reputation, Charles Graves, brother of the biographer, visited Hamilton and advised him to abstain, which Hamilton did.
Because Hamilton had only abstained to save his reputation, it can be imagined that, enjoying the astronomy and the company, in Parsonstown he concluded that after more than two years he had shown to everyone that he was indeed perfectly able to handle alcohol, as he had always been. Indeed, even in the weeks of distress over Catherine he had not drank alcohol, something he only seems to have done when having a good time with friends, or in the night when trying to finish some work but becoming tired. He then sipped porter, a sweet, dark brown beer which doubtlessy gave some energy due to the sugars it contains. And it must be taken into consideration that in those days nothing was known of the long-time effects of alcohol, what was known was the immediate effect of being drunk, leading to much unpleasantness. But that never happened; perhaps apart from that one time in 1846, also according to Graves Hamilton was never really drunk.
Still in Parsonstown, on the 11th of September 1848 Hamilton wrote that he was going to leave on the 12th, yet many years later he wrote that early in October, while being in Parsonstown, he had received a suicide letter from Catherine. That led Hankins to suggest that Hamilton mixed up the months and had received Catherine’s letter early in September, and he thus concluded that Hamilton, having read the letter, broke his vow of abstinence because of the “internal torture” about Catherine. Which certainly would have been a sign of alcoholism.
But Hamilton had not vowed, and in the essay I showed that he may have stayed in Parsonstown longer than he had planned, making it possible that Catherine’s letter arrived early in October as he mentioned, instead of early in September as Hankins suggested. It would mean that Hamilton drank the champagne long before having received Catherine’s letter, while enjoying his stay; that his ending his period of abstinence thus had nothing to do with her letter.
That Hamilton may have stayed in Parsonstown until the second week of October was inferred from the fact that he wrote letters to Lord and Lady Rosse, according to Graves, ‘soon after he returned home’; these letters were written in the third week of October. A reason for Hamilton to stay will have been the enervating astronomy during those weeks, made possible by Lord Rosse’s Leviathan telescope.
Of course, in the end Hamilton did receive Catherine’s letter. Graves did not mention it although he certainly knew about it, he just did not give any letters written between the 11th of September and the 27th of October. He therefore also did not have to say anything about how Hamilton coped with his feelings when he did receive her letter; it must have been hard.
Having finished the essay and the ‘gossip’ article, I thought it a pity that the cheerfully painted picture, as it emerged from Hamilton’s letters, of how they were doing astronomy in those days, was lost to the alleged drama surrounding Catherine’s letter and the alcohol. That holds for many more good stories and vividly described events in the biography, in most cases because they are coloured by the veils of darkness Graves draped over it. I was therefore happy that the sketch of Hamilton’s visit to Parsonstown was published; a visit which was long forgotten to have had many joyful days also.
Last week the Librarian for Irish Studies of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana very kindly sent me photographs of a letter, written fourteen years after Hamilton’s death by his very good friend Aubrey de Vere, and directed to Hamilton’s later biographer Robert Perceval Graves. I had been allowed already to read the seller’s description of the collection of fifty letters which has been bought by the Library of Notre Dame and to which this letter belongs, but the quote in that description had not been so outspoken as what can be read in this piece of De Vere’s 1879 letter, from which some remarkable conclusions can be drawn.
A good and happy marriage
To my surprise and happiness, the part of De Vere’s letter shown above contains a strong confirmation of my most important supposition, that the idea that Hamilton had a bad or loveless marriage is not true. The last time Aubrey de Vere** and Hamilton saw each other was in 1863, when Hamilton was quite ill already, and that makes Graves’ remark, that Hamilton “remained to the end of his life an attached husband” [Graves 1885, 335],*** something Graves and De Vere agreed upon.
Since of Lady Hamilton it has never been claimed that she was unhappy having married Hamilton, that in one of the few quotes of her letters she wrote that “his whole happiness seems to be in making others happy; indeed any woman is blessed to be married to such an affectionate kind creature as Hamilton” [Graves 1885, 61],*** and taking into consideration that after both her two long illnesses Hamilton changed his behaviour and their daily life became stable again, it can be concluded that they indeed had a good and happy marriage.
* This letter was written in the Victorian era, in which words as ‘affection’ and ’attachment’ were generally used to indicate loving spouses and good marriages.
** De Vere wrote his name as we do in the Netherlands: when writing his full name he wrote his insertion with a lower case letter, ‘Aubrey de Vere’, see his Recollections or a hand-written letter. Because De Vere’s father wrote about his wife as ‘Lady De Vere’ [Graves 1885, 235], in my essay I assumed that also Aubrey de Vere would write his name, in case his given name was not used, as ‘Mr. De Vere’ or simply ‘De Vere’, and since that is exactly how we do it I listed him under ‘V’: ‘Vere, Aubrey de’.
*** It is impossible to give positive remarks made by Graves about the Hamilton marriage which are not embedded in the criticisms discussed in our ‘gossip article’; these criticisms having been needed, as he doubtlessly believed, in his efforts to counteract the Dublin gossip. Still, however critical he was about how the Hamiltons lived their daily life, Graves never said that the marriage was unhappy. For a discussion of the context of this remark see [Van Weerden 2017, 168-169].
Aubrey de Vere
Also striking is the continuation of De Vere’s sentence which reads: “or that [Hamilton] ever discovered how little she approached to his early ideal of her.”* Because it is hardly conceivable that Hamilton would not know his wife after more than thirty years of marriage, this rather seems to shed a light on De Vere himself. When it is taken into account that they lived in a time in which the inner pleasures and struggles of marriage were hardly talked about, it could be surmised that because De Vere never married he did not realize that what he remarked is almost impossible.
De Vere seems to have been a very kind, serious, thoughtful and deeply religious man, although he could also be ironic [Graves 1885, 201-202], politically indignant [De Vere 1848], and sometimes really funny [Graves 1882, 613]. In 1855, two years after Catherine Disney’s death, he had an intense correspondence with Hamilton about her, in which he was able to give Hamilton much consolation. But not having had a very good understanding about the ups and downs of every marriage would explain why De Vere sometimes reacted so philosophically on Hamilton’s outpourings. For instance, towards the end of that correspondence, after Hamilton had called Catherine Disney a “Beautiful Vision”, De Vere philosophized that “all such Visions should be looked on as Anticipations and Types of the Glory and Beauty unrevealed, rather than as lights which have melted away into the sad shadow-land of the Past” [Van Weerden 2017, 313]. It had “almost tempted” Hamilton “into writing again on the potentialities of the past,” but he apparently realized that he had to stop before he would jeopardize his marriage.** Writing for some months in such opennes had done him good, but continuing to do so would be harmful; he loved his family. De Vere mainly saw the poetry in it all.
How very theoretically or perhaps theologically De Vere regarded marriage can, I think, be seen in his poem ‘The Infant Bridal’ [De Vere 1855]. I was a bit shocked when in this poem a marriage which was arranged between two royal children in order to achieve peace between two kingdoms turns out to be extremely happy. Through their Christian faith, or everyone’s, the children almost instantaneously loved each other, and the marriage was consummated after the boy came back from war as a victor over heathens and had become a man. Assuming that the boy had changed after having seen the horrors of the battlefield, where indeed many men died, I expected trouble, but the couple turned out to be so happy that the whole country was blessed. Although in the last stanza De Vere suggests that a “profane and unbelieving crowd” might not go along with this story, he asks them why such a marriage could not be blessed by God if it brought with it peace for two kingdoms. In his days, when marriage was regarded as holy, people may have found it a beautiful and heartening poem, but it is hard to accept today.
The suggestion that De Vere had a higly theoretical view on marriage is also in agreement with the notion that he does not seem to have realized that Hamilton’s idea of an ideal wife was different from his [Van Weerden 2017, 105]. In the essay I have argued that Hamilton did not search for a literary, poetical and sophisticated woman, which was clearly an ideal of both Graves and De Vere who, much more than Hamilton, lived in highly educated upper class circles. Apparently realizing what his intense way of working would ask from a wife Hamilton was searching for a pious, truthful and almost reclusive woman,*** and Helen Bayly deeply was and remained to be the woman he supposed her to be “after a long continued and long impartial study” he had made of her character before asking her to marry him; they had known each other for years already. And indeed, how happy a marriage must be in which one never discovers that one’s partner is not the ideal person one fell in love with in the first place.
* After seeing the photograph of the letter containing this part of the sentence on the internet I decided to take the sentence off; to prevent new gossip it clearly needs the context in which De Vere wrote it, and of who De Vere was.
** Hamilton did not just force himself to stop and hide his true feelings as this might suggest; already in the summer of 1832 he had discovered how bad it was for him to keep reminiscing about “incidents of the past” as he had done then already for so many years, first about Catherine Disney and then about Ellen de Vere [Van Weerden 2017, 118]. That summer Hamilton realized that he had led a “passion-wasted life” and risked never to fulfill his boyhood dreams of fame, upon which he made a very succesful effort to change that by stopping to lose himself in melancholic reminiscences. An effort which, as Hamilton wrote to De Vere, led to a “revival” of “the power of hope”, and in the weeks following this discovery this power of hope began to show “its effect in restoring [his] tone of mind and even [his] health of body.” And, as I assumed in the essay, to finding conical refraction in October and and falling in love with Helen Bayly in November. It was not just that year that he succeeded; many years later he still referred to this important discovery. It is not known why neither Graves nor De Vere recognized or acknowledged this change in Hamilton although motives can be guessed: De Vere missed the poetry, and Graves clearly believed that Hamilton should have tried harder to win Ellen de Vere. Which in turn was not a good idea in De Vere’s eyes; indeed many people had an opinion about how Hamilton should have lived his life.
*** Lady Hamilton was reclusive in the sense of not wanting to go into society, but she did have very many relatives and throughout the biography it can be seen that she visited them and they visited her; visits which often lasted for several days. Being reclusive certainly did not mean wanting to be alone.
De Vere’s letter contains another remarkability. The sentence in the photograph starts with referring to an 1837 sonnet: “The sonnet ‘Tis sweet’ seems to shew that up to that time, A.D. 1837, Hamilton’s affection for his wife had not waned.” It is indeed surprising that De Vere associates this poem, which was written on 16 June 1837, with Lady Hamilton, because in his biography Graves had associated the poem with De Vere.
Since the summer of 1836 Lady Hamilton’s mother, Mrs Bayly, had been very ill, and in order to care for her Lady Hamilton was in Nenagh with the children. Hamilton visited them regularly and for long periods of time, but in April 1837 he had to go to Dublin for various obligations. Shortly before he could return to his family in Nenagh De Vere made a ten-day visit to him at the Observatory, during which they walked together, visited many places and enjoyed the Dargle river and the Powerscourt Waterfall. Graves gave four sonnets as inspired by this visit, and remarked that Hamilton had sent them to De Vere. He then comments: “One of these was addressed to his wife, in the prospect of his again joining her and his children and her mother; the others recorded the pleasures of his renewed association with his friend” [Graves 1885, 198]. The third sonnet, starting with ‘Long time, O Lady mine and truest Wife!’, was obviously addressed to Hamilton’s wife, which means that according to Graves the fourth sonnet, ‘Tis sweet’, belonged to “the others”.
The sonnet was written shortly before Hamilton could return to Nenagh after two months of separation, and he had missed his wife and children terribly.
‘Tis sweet when joy, that has been long away,June 16, 1837.
Re-visits us with unforgetting smile,
And whispers that in all that tedious while
It only seemed from our sides to stray;
When after dreary months, a sudden May
Woos us abroad, with many a loving wile;
Or when we listen in cathedral aisle
An anthem that we heard some long-gone day;
Or gaze on face of some long-parted friend.
Or scene that we had gazed on long ago;
Or feel within ourselves the subtle flow
Of some remember'd mood steal on, and blend,
In union fine, old thoughts and new; or pore
On some delightful page, long read before.
Having read De Vere’s letter and therefore knowing that according to him the poem was about Lady Hamilton, also De Vere’s comments in the biography make more sense. The second sonnet, starting with ‘Shall we not long remember, Friend beloved!’, was clearly addressed to him, and after having received the sonnets he wrote to Hamilton: “Do you know I can hardly look back upon a time of greater enjoyment than those ten days we passed together? It is very seldom indeed that anything thrown so little back into the distance of imaginative memory affects me in the same sort of way; and your four Sonnets* will assist, not in keeping up, but in deepening, this feeling. Your last,** by the way, is becoming a great favourite with me, and my mother seems to like it the best of all: my father, too, is delighted with all of them; but, for my part, I am not prepared to give up my partiality for that peculiarly addressed to me. I think them decidedly the best Sonnets you have written” [Graves 1885, 200].
The last part of this quote seemed puzzling when accepting Graves’ remark that the last sonnet was about seeing De Vere again, not only because it would be quite intimate for a Victorian friendship, but also because it was becoming a favourite and if it had also been addressed to him De Vere would not have had to give up his partiality. Having connected the last sonnet, ‘Tis Sweet’, to Lady Hamilton in 1879 he may also have done that in 1837 already; not all De Vere’s letters have been given by Graves in their entirety. But had Hamilton in any way suggested that the poem had been about their friendship after all, De Vere would have remembered that when he wrote his letter to Graves.
It is often difficult to comprehend why Graves was so negative about Lady Hamilton that he rather assumed that this sonnet was about the in his eyes beautiful friendship between Hamilton and De Vere, until it is called to mind again that he was trying mightily to counteract the very bad gossip in Dublin; the friendship with such a refined poet would shine brightly on Hamilton’s remembrance. And Graves could not know how many years thereafter people still would read his biography, knowing nothing about the gossip.
* Graves mentions five sonnets as inspired by the visit, but the fifth was written after De Vere’s reply to Hamilton in reaction to the four earlier poems.
** Italics by De Vere.
In the essay I showed that Wordsworth and De Vere rated Hamilton’s poetry much higher than Graves did. Graves was of course not such an accomplished poet as Wordsworth and De Vere were, and for Graves Wordsworth’s criticisms seem to have been a sign that Hamilton’s poetry was not always so good. Or, to see it a bit more positively, he may have found it difficult to give poems which in his eyes still should have been worked on before publication.
That Hamilton’s poems often needed more refinement was indeed Wordsworth’s opinion, but he never said that Hamilton wrote bad poetry or could not become a good poet. Most of the biographical sketches follow Graves’ very critical opinion about Hamilton’s poetry, but carefully reading the original letters, also given by Graves, shows that what Wordsworth said was that he did not want Hamilton to spend much time on the minutiae of words and phrases in order to become a good poet, at the cost of his mathematics in which he could reach the absolute highest goals. And he did not only say about Hamilton’s poetry that it needed more work although it did need more than that of his sister Eliza Hamilton [Graves 1882, 268, 385], something Wordsworth said explicitly about her poem ‘The Boy‘s School’ [Graves 1882, 682] which she therefore may have adapted before publishing; Wordsworth said that every poet has to do that, and that he could point out “five hundred passages in Milton upon which labour has been bestowed, and twice five hundred more to which additional labour would have been serviceable: not that I regret the absence of such labour, because no poem contains more proofs of skill acquired by practice” [Graves 1882, 492].
Indeed, next to being critical, Wordsworth was remarkably complimentary; after giving some criticisms to the poem ‘The Enthusiast’ he wrote to Hamilton: “After having directed your attention to these minutiæ, I can say, without scruple, that the verses are highly spirited, and interesting and poetical. The change of character they describe is an object of instructive contemplation, and the whole executed with feeling” [Graves 1882, 326].
De Vere was even more impressed, writing in 1832 that “I constantly read your poems with my Æolian harp in the window; the unison of sound and song has often brought back scenes before my eyes with strange distinctness.” And in his 1879 letter to Graves he continued the letter writing: “I suppose if [Hamilton] had not married [Helen Bayly in 1833] that remarkable out burst of poetry which characterized the year 1832 would have continued, & left large & important poetical results behind it.* Wordsworth used to call Coleridge’s 26th year his Annus Mirabilis. In some respects I think Hamilton’s 27th year might be so termed.”
Next to being again very complimentary and thereby contradicting the often proclaimed simple judgement that Hamilton wrote bad poetry, what De Vere seems to have missed here was that the end of this outburst of poetry came already before Hamilton fell in love with Helen Bayly; it was a direct consequence of Hamilton’s aforementioned discovery in the summer of 1832. In agreement with the picture of De Vere sketched above, after Hamilton had told him that he had discovered that he had led a “passion-wasted life”, which was the onset to his change and the ‘revival of the power of hope,’ De Vere seems to have taken the expression “passion-wasted” a bit too general or theoretical, writing to Hamilton, “I cannot bear that expression “passion-wasted life”. Is not passion the most essential means by which our souls are purified and elevated?” The bachelor he was, he apparently did not recognise how strongly Hamilton’s poetry from that in his eyes remarkable year was connected to deep unhappiness after losing Ellen de Vere, or, the poet he was, he did not consider unhappiness too unpleasant if it led to beautiful poetry. But while De Vere wanted poetry, Hamilton wanted to have a family life, and although with his marriage his “remarkable out burst of poetry” came to an end, he found the life he had longed for.
* From the letter given by Graves it seems clear that De Vere hoped that these four sonnets would be the start of a new outburst of poetry; he continued his earlier mentioned sentence that the 1837 sonnets were “decidedly the best Sonnets you have written” by writing: “and I am not at all surprised at this. We constantly succeed particularly well in what we have not practised for some time. I hope you will keep your half-promise and go on writing. We should always get as much as we can out of those unaccountable fits of spontaneity which come upon us now and then, at least enough to illustrate the mood we are in, and the degree of development we have reached, so as to note the progress we have made” [Graves 1885, 200]. This shows, by the way, that Hamilton could also write in De Vere’s eyes beautiful poetry when inspired by happy feelings. But Hamilton found it difficult to work when his wife was not around, and finally reunited with her, the flow of poetry had to make place again for the flows of mathematics he had become famous for.
The handwritten Dublin church records are appearing online, and searching the records can lead to surprises. According to Graves' family tree, [Graves 1882, p. xix], Hamilton’s grandparents William Hamilton and Grace Hamilton MacFerrand had five sons and a daughter. Of four sons the baptism records were found; they were baptised in the parish of St. Mary, and in the record of the eldest child, Arthur, who was born in 1775, their address is given as Jervis Street. That was were, according to Graves, they lived indeed [Graves 1882, p. 6]. One surprise was to see that William, one of the three sons who, according to Graves, died early, was a twin brother of uncle James. Strangely enough, in all three baptism records (of four sons) it can be seen that the entries are inserted later.
Hamilton’s grandmother, Grace MacFerrand, was Scottish, and she was an adopted sister of the famous Archibald Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle, who had added to his name his mother’s last name Rowan. From the records it appeared, again surprisingly, that two sons of William and Grace were named after Archibald Hamilton Rowan: next to what was known, that Hamilton’s father was called Archibald after him, their eldest son was called Arthur Rowan, and that was not known. In his biography Graves mentions that Archibald Hamilton Rowan was Hamilton’s godfather, which explains Hamilton’s second name Rowan. The fact that three Hamilton boys were named after Archibald Hamilton Rowan, namely Hamilton, his father and his uncle, seems to indicate very close bonds but that was only through Grace; Hamilton’s father Archibald explicitly mentioned that he was not related to the Hamiltons of Killyleagh Castle.
For an overview and links to records and relevant passages in Graves’ biography (including an example of how Graves could let his readers feel his contempt for someone using only parts of sentences) see Hamilton's Rowan name.
There are things left to investigate. It does not seem to be known which son of William and Grace Hamilton died, apparently still rather young, in a French prison. There are two burial records, one from the 28th of February 1779 and one from the 8th of May 1784, of ‘Mr. Hamiltons Child Jervis Street’, but no names are given. The eldest son, Arthur, having been born in 1775, these two must have been young children indeed, leaving one brother to go, apparently, in the army.
And there is a letter, mentioned by Graves, sent by Archibald Rowan to Hamilton. According to Graves, in this letter Archibald Rowan congratulated Hamilton with his knighthood, which is a problem because Hamilton was knighted in 1835, and Archibald Rowan seems to have died in 1834, see the burial record of Archibald Hamilton Rowan. Therefore, either there were two Archibald Hamilton Rowans, or this is a riddle which could perhaps be solved by reading the letter, which should still be in Trinity Library.
Note added: On the 3rd of March 1834 Sarah Anne Hamilton Rowan was buried, see the burial record of Sarah Hamilton Rowan. As her address Holles Street was given, exactly the same as in Archibald Rowan's burial record. That seems to end any doubt whether the burial record of Archibald Hamilton Rowan was that of -the- Archibald Hamilton Rowan, which makes the letter even more intriguing: who wrote this letter, or where did Graves go wrong?
Some days ago I reread our gossip article. Apparently having become blind to the text, I realize now that something was not mentioned which should have been mentioned, namely that in William Edwin’s story about the chops the plates were not between the papers as Macfarlane wote; the nephew, John Garnett Rathborne (1820-1895), who was a very good friend of Robert Stawell Ball [Van Weerden 2017, 359 footnote 62], said that he saw the plates on top of the piles of papers.
In his book about Dunsink Observatory (not available online but for loan in many libraries as can be seen in the WorldCat; Dunsink Observatory), Patrick Wayman drew attention to this twist of history writing: “The ultimate tale is told of the uneaten meals that were found sandwiched between papers in [Hamilton’s] study after his death, but it seems that this story was a fabrication, or at any rate a gross exaggeration.” It is unfortunate that in the article we did not give him the credits for emphasizing this so strongly that it triggered us to search for the original texts, which in turn made it possible to write the second part of the article.
It would indeed be difficult to imagine that Hamilton, for whom letters and papers were very important, would do something like putting papers on a plate. When he laid a letter aside, it was in order to answer it later, but that also held for following letters, which he received in abundance from family and friends, from fellow scientists and members of the public. He often answered very soon, unless when he was in one of his mathematical ‘incubation periods’. The many letters temporarily laid aside to be answered later will then have mixed with all the interesting books and articles laid aside to be read and used later.
But it is actually not so strange as it sounds; if suddenly the contents of our computers, supplemented with the articles and books we added to our reference lists to read or use later, would be strewn about in paper form most of us would be shocked by their accumulated volume. There is the famous photograph of Einstein’s paper covered desk; that happened even though he had the assistance of Helen Dukas, his full-time secretary, while the only assistance Hamilton had was, every now and then, from Thompson (who was of course not a secretary but the astronomy assistant, and did most of the observatory work during Hamilton’s time), and for some years his children who helped with correspondences and texts. And writing his mathematics as fast as another would write notes of invitations, as De Vere once remarked, Hamilton will also simply have produced more paper than others did.
About two years ago I found an article, written by Alexander Macfarlane in 1902, about William Edwin Hamilton. William Edwin had just died, and Macfalane wrote a sort of obituary in Science Jan-June 1902, see also [Van Weerden 2017, 10.8]. In the essay I gave it in its entirety because of its strangeness; it is overall very denigrating. That kept me thinking and wondering: what would motivate a man to write such an article, in a very renowned journal, for the world to read. It is reminiscent of Graves’ about six critical pages in Hamilton’s biography, but Graves certainly did not go so far. Although Graves did have a very negative opinion about William Edwin, even writing to Ellen O’Brien de Vere that he did not have a moral principle, Graves did not mention that in the biography.
Augustus Bridle (1868-1952, Historica Canada), described William Edwin during his apparently most alcoholic period in his 1924 Hansen : A Novel of Canadianization, but he called William Edwin ‘Burnham’, and Chatham ‘Plainsville’. If it had not been for Victor Lauriston (1881-1973, Historica Canada), who in 1952, in an article in the Chatham Daily Planet which was given by Patrick Wayman in his Dunsink Observatory, 1785-1985, mentioned that Bridle had described William Edwin, no-one would have known that anymore. And even though Bridle describes him in his drunkenness and poverty, and with the according to Bridle sad futility of his enormous knowledge, he portraits William Edwin as a ‘kindly old Irishman’ citing Latin verses and addicted to speeches in Greek. It therefore remains understandable why he was known in Chatham for his literacy and was a member of the Macaulay Club, according to Lauriston “the oldest literary and debating club in Canada.”
Lauriston’s and Bridle’s descriptions, direct and without embellishment but with a hint of admiration, makes Macfarlane’s article clearly different. Where, for instance, Bridle and Lauriston wrote that William Edwin slept on a “straw pallet in a room behind the law offices,” Macfarlane wrote that his “sleeping place was said to be the loft of a livery stable.” And it may be true that William Edwin wrote ‘doggerel’ verses as Macfarlane states in his article, but he never pretended anything else [Peeps 1895, 9], which means that it did not have to be discussed. The article therefore seems to be following Graves’ opinion, but sounds much harsher by its compactness and without all Graves’ nuances, just as in case of the lecture about Hamilton Sr., where Macfarlane followed Graves’ opinion but wielded a very different tone.
Macfarlane retired to Chatham in 1898, and he therefore knew William Edwin only for his last four years. In those years William Edwin had already published his Peeps, and most likely hardly drank alcohol anymore, which can also be deduced from Macfarlane’s article. At that time Macfarlane lectured about Hamilton Sr, and in 1904 he published a Bibliography of Quaternions in which William Edwin is named because he was the editor of his father’s posthumously published Elements. Macfarlane must therefore have been very aware of William Edwin’s presence in Chatham. About both Hamiltons he emphasizes their use of alcohol, and in our ‘gossip’ article his lecture about Hamilton Sr. is indeed part of the chain of biographical sketches leading to Hamilton Sr.’s contemporary alcoholic image. But the question is why.
Perhaps Macfarlane wanted to show that Hamilton Sr. really misused alcohol because his son did. Or due to the son he started to believe that the gossip about the father must have been true. But that still is no explanation about why he thought he should publish his opinions about the Hamiltons in the way he did. Assuming that he did not simply want to wage a vendetta against the Hamiltons, or was jealous, which I feel would be a cheap explanation, was it about alcohol and temperance? Or did it have to do with the Victorian era? And if so, what? There does not seem to be a biography about Macfarlane, in which possible answers could be found.
The question is as intriguing as the question why Graves chose to blame Lady Hamilton instead of following Hamilton’s own opinions. But it would doubtlessly take a study of their own papers to gain an understanding of their motives, and a lot of time. Unfortunately, I do not have nine lives. Since in those days temperance was also widespread in Canada, for now I would vote for the temperance argument until it was shown that Macfarlane did drink alcohol. To what his motivation may have been then I have no clue. Prohibition was for many years sought after by a majority of the people; it occurred in Ontario in 1916 but was repealed again in 1916 (in Ireland the temperance movement was already strong in 1840). If Macfarlane indeed abstained, he may have used the Hamiltons as examples of how bad alcohol is for everyone.
In any case, the suggestion seems to be fair that, after drinking became socially accepted again, historians ‘forgot’ to restore the reputations of those who had not complied to the views of the majorities around them and remained to drink als most people did before and after those periods. Which conserved the ruined reputations of both father and son Hamilton. And, of course, of Lady Hamilton.
It is unfortunate that in a biography so large as that of Graves things tend to get overlooked; when starting to read the biography some time is needed to get aqcuainted with everyone. What I overlooked is that Hamilton first saw Ellen de Vere in 1829 when she was visiting her friend Miss Ellis of Abbotstown. Perhaps, but Hamilton was not sure, it was during Wordsworth’s visit to the Observatory, when Wordsworth and Hamilton dined with the Ellis family [Graves 1882, 470].
Ellen de Vere had been “a most intimate friend” of Miss Ellis, who died in 1830. In 1832 Hamilton wrote a poem starting with the words ‘Was it a dream?’, in which he mentions both Miss Ellis and Ellen de Vere [Graves 1882, 562]. In the poem he contemplates the possibility that if, in 1829, he had not still been brooding over the loss of Catherine while being in the company of Miss Ellis and Ellen de Vere, and would have “sooner known and earlier loved, Her heart's fine tendrils might have twined around him”; but now it was too late. Hamilton wrote the poem in May 1832 while often very melancholic about Ellen de Vere's rejection, and therefore it may have been the start of the contemplations leading to his psychological discovery that summer [Van Weerden 2017, 4.3].
After the death of Miss Ellis Hamilton wrote a poem called ‘Easter Morning’ [Graves 1882, 379], a poem which Wordsworth called 'elegant', and in which Hamilton described how they heard, and how he felt, about the death of Miss Ellis.
While writing the essay not realizing that she had been a friend of Ellen de Vere it had been the heartbreaking sentence Hamilton wrote about her parents which lingered in my mind for a very long time because of the utter sadness, and because it was, as I felt, exemplary for the very bad medical circumstances of those days. He wrote to Wordsworth: “You remember, probably, our walk through Mr. Ellis’s grounds, and our dining together at his table; and your heart is too full of exercised humanity not to feel some concern on being told that Miss Ellis, who sat next me at dinner, and was even then unwell, has since fallen into a decided decline, which leaves little hope of her escaping a fate that has already bereaved her parents of nearly all their children” [Graves 1882, 355].
It is common knowledge that Hamilton, although he was Astronomer Royal of Ireland, was not an enthusiastic practical astronomer. That does not mean however that he did not know about astronomy, but that his work was mathematical rather than practical. He could be very enthusiastic about special astronomical events such as eclipses and comets, and seeing the reappearance of the rings of Saturn in 1848. Still, he would hardly have guessed that, after having seen a beautiful meteor, the short notice he sent to a local newspaper would turn out to be the first ever report of a meteor of a complex of radiants.
The article containing his report is published in WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization. Since WGN is not open access, the article can be read here (with permission), On an 1850 report of a fireball from the Scorpiid-Sagittariid Complex, until in early 2019 it will be uploaded to the ADS where it will be available open access. The abstract reads: “In the night of 13-14 May 1850 both Sir William Rowan Hamilton and his son William Edwin saw a meteor which was “many degrees more brilliant than Jupiter.” This meteor has now been recognized as a member of the so-called Scorpiid-Sagittariid Complex. It makes the report the earliest one of this complex, the hitherto earliest one stemming from 1878.”
This picture, representing the path of Hamilton's meteor, is made with the free planetarium program Stellarium. Clicking on the picture shows a larger size. The three circles represent the path of the meteor: the rightmost circle represents its point of greatest brightness as given by Hamilton, the middle circle its derived starting point, the leftmost circle the theoretical radiant, which is in Ophiuchus. The apparent curvature of the path is a consequence of the curved coordinate system showing azimuth and altitude. The field of view has been chosen in such a way that also Scorpius and Sagittarius could be seen, and that Hamilton's local horizon would be represented by a horizontal line, making it easy to imagine how he must have seen the meteor. Looking to the south, west is to the right, north is up. Jupiter, to which Hamilton was looking when the meteor appeared, is outside this picture, just having passed the west-southwest.
Lady Wilde (1821-1896), the famous Irish poet Speranza, was held in very high esteem by Hamilton. He clearly regarded her as a friend: in April 1858 he held what he called a ‘Feast of the Poets’ at the Observatory with Aubrey de Vere, John Anster, Denis Florence MacCarthy, and Mrs. Wilde (she would become Lady Wilde in 1864). Aubrey de Vere afterwards wrote about it as “the pleasant day we had with you: our merry dinner, rambles about the green fields, and poetical recitations.” According to Graves MacCarthy wrote “a longer and fervid outpouring” but unfortunately, he preferred only to give De Vere’s “sufficient reminiscence”. [Graves 1889, 604], [Graves 1889, 97-98].
On the 4th of May 1855 Hamilton wrote about her in a cheerful letter to Augustus De Morgan: “A very odd and original lady [...] had also lately a baby: such things you know will happen, at least in Ireland; and on my being asked to hand her in to dinner, at a party given by Colonel and Mrs. Larcom in this neighbourhood, when I met her for the first time in my life, she told me of this “young pagan,” as she called him (or it, for I did not know the sex. I don’t call newborn infants in these countries pagans); and she asked me to be a godfather, perhaps because I was so to a grandson of Wordsworth the Poet [...], and because she is an admirer of Wordsworth. However, I declined. But it seems that I have not fallen entirely out of favour thereby, for she paid me, on Saturday last, a visit of three hours and a-half, it being my second time of seeing her. You must observe, however, that I had made it a sort of open day [to show the Observatory and the telescopes to members of the public], and had several other guests, including a troop of deaf and dumb boys, for whom, and for the others, Lady Hamilton, though prevented by a heavy cold from being disposed to appear herself, had laid out a comfortable luncheon, and allowed her daughter to be present. My visitress told me, as we drank a glass of wine to the health of her child, that he had been christened on the previous day, by a long baptismal name, or string of names, the two first of which are Oscar and Fingal! the third and fourth sounding to me as a tremendous descent, but I daresay she prefers them. You must know that I have been long acquainted with her husband, as a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, though he had not time to come with his wife, on her long and entertaining visit of the other day. She is quite a genius, and thoroughly aware of it. One thing she said, as I was conducting her upstairs to the Dome, and while she was professing to admire the house (which she hoped was a haunted one -- my sister believed it to be so), was: “Let a woman be as clever as she may, there is no prize like this for her!”” [Graves 1889, 496-497].
It does not sound as if Hamilton knew, when he declined to become godfather, that Oscar was born on the 16th of October 1854, on the eleventh birthday of the quaternions (as Hamilton called the day of discovery); he most likely would have made a remark about that. Since dates were important to him it can be wondered whether he would have decided differently had he known it, and it is interesting to ponder on the question what would have happened if he would have accepted, or on whether it would have changed anything in Oscar Wilde’s life.
Note: According to the Dublin church records Oscar Wilde was baptized on the 26th of April 1855 in the parish of St. Mark as Oscar Fingal O’Fflahertie Wilde: handwritten baptism record of Oscar Wilde (fifth from the top). Different from what can often be read, O’Fflahertie is written with double f of which the first one is capitalized. Hamilton mentions four names while the baptism record shows only three, judging from the remarks however it seems that four was indeed Mrs Wilde's intention. According to Hamilton, or Mrs Wilde, Oscar was baptized on Friday, which would have been the 27th of April; in the record it is written that it was the 26th, which was a Thursday.
When I was writing the essay, I was happy to recognize Hamilton’s remarkable psychological discovery in the summer of 1832,* for which he was doubly ‘rewarded’: he discovered conical refraction which earned him a knighthood, and fell in love with Helen Bayly which gave him his marriage. For me, being occupied with Hamilton’s ‘defense’ regarding the gossip about his private life, the psychological discovery was far more important than his mathematical discovery. I did know of course that Hamilton was knighted because of conical refraction; as far as is known it was the first time mathematics predicted something which experiment then verified instead of the other way around.
But I had no further thoughts about conical refraction itself, other than that it was some byproduct in optics on the way to what I did understand to matter, Hamiltonian dynamics. That only changed when I stumbled on this website: Hamilton’s Diabolical Legacy by Mike Jeffrey, who gives a very clear introduction to what Hamilton actually discovered, making me finally see (as far as I can understand it) (and after some very kind and explanatory emails) why anyone would think it worth a knighthood. And, by the way, why it also made Humphrey Lloyd famous; he did not ‘just’ provide the experimental proofs. Hamilton had predicted polarization in internal conical refraction, Lloyd saw that polarization also occurs in external conical refraction and explained it using an analogous treatment to Hamilton’s, therewith showing his deep theoretical and experimental understanding of the phenomenon.
Hamilton had started his theory on optics already in his teens; in 1825 he presented his first paper ‘Memoir On Caustics’. It was rejected because the discussions were too abstract, and the formulæ too general, but it seems easy to surmise from the rest of his work that he had found the characteristic function already. Hamilton kept working on it, writing an ‘Essay on the Theory of Systems of Rays’ followed by three supplements, and it was in 1832, during the writing of the ‘Third Supplement’, that he made his mathematical and psychological discoveries.
To my amazement, since this claim was completely new to me, on his website Jeffrey states that “Hamilton’s formulation of geometrical optics married the wave theory of Fresnel with the ray method of Newton. Describing light rays as the normals to level surfaces of some characteristic function, the theory was first published in 1828.” Jeffrey writes about the discovery of conical refraction that in October 1832 “William Rowan Hamilton [...] predicted a singularity, a point where light’s deterministic journey through a simple crystal broke down. The calamity would be observable within Fresnel’s theory of double refraction, seen as a single ray exploding into infinitely many rays, neatly arranged a brilliant cone. In one stroke, the field of singular optics was born and a sensation began that would take 173 years to run its course. Despite prompt experimental confirmation of Hamilton’s beautiful mathematical theory, the phenomenon was long hindered by controversy and misconception. Victorian mathematics contained only the initial sparks of the asymptotic techniques which would be needed to achieve a full understanding.”
Jeffrey then describes how in the course of years many intricacies about conical refraction were discovered, until in 2004 “the first detailed explanation of the conical diffraction phenomenon was achieved by Berry, both qualitative and quantitative, [...] and all aspects of the biaxial phenomenon thus far observed were explained.” What Jeffrey through his PhD thesis added was the effect of chirality (the crystal not being symmetric) on the phenomenon of conical diffraction, and dichroism (not equally absorbing all components of light).It does not seem to be known whether Hamilton ever contemplated direct applications of this discovery. He made his discoveries in a time in which the very first trains appeared but most of the travelling was done using horses, and he was writing by candlelight in a room warmed by a hearthfire. Therefore, like about his quaternions, which are now used in for instance gaming and space travel, also about conical refraction he could not have guessed what it would be used for today, enhancing holographic applications or the focus of lasers.
* See for a description of the process leading to that discovery the essay [Van Weerden 2017, 4.3, 4.4].
Today we received the message that the article which I wrote together with Steven Wepster and which was accepted by the BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics has been published online: A most gossiped about genius: Sir William Rowan Hamilton. The abstract reads: “The Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805–65) is often portrayed as an unhappily married alcoholic. We show how this image originated in the 1840s, caused by a combination of the strict social rules of the Victorian era and the then changing drinking habits in Ireland. In the 1880s Hamilton’s biographer Graves tried to restore Hamilton’s reputation by blaming Lady Hamilton for her husband’s habits. This unintentionally caused his biography to become the basis of Hamilton’s overall negative image. We argue for a far more positive description of Hamilton’s private life. Thereafter we trace the evolution of the negative image using an anecdote about Hamilton’s work habits and its increasingly distorted representations.”
I uploaded the corrected versions of the pdf and the epub to my website, and the essay also to Google Books, A Victorian Marriage. I rather like the word cloud they made: Lady Hamilton has a prominent place in it.
In 1895 Hamilton’s eldest son, William Edwin, published the second edition of his autobiography annex description of Chatham, Ontario towards the end of the nineteenth century, Peeps at my life. This "pamphlet", as he called it [Peeps 1895, 22], contains a surprising story; the very vivid description of the tragic death of Edward James Senior, who was killed by a train on the 7th of March 1865, in what must have been one of the early railway accidents in Dublin, and probably the first. Edward Senior was a Poor Law commissioner, and a younger brother of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864), an English barrister and political economist.
Edward Senior’s death was announced in The Spectator of 11 March 1865: Mr. Edward Senior. The Spectator writes: “Mr. Edward Senior, the brother of Mr. Nassau Senior, so well known for his notes of foreign dialogue and poor-law commissions in Dublin, has followed his brother speedily to the grave. His end was a terrible one, being killed while crossing the Galway railway near Phoenix Park, Dublin, on Tuesday last. He was only 58 years old. It seems that he was in the habit of walking home to his house, Ashtown Lodge, through the park, and of crossing the railway at a level crossing. The policeman on duty frequently remonstrated with him for crossing when a train was in sight, and he wrote to the directors to complain of this annoyance, saying that being warned he accepted the responsibility of passing, and desired not to be worried about it. He was notwithstanding earnestly warned on this occasion, and again accepted a responsibility of which he did not know the extent.”
The ‘earnest warning’ and the ‘extent’ were described by William Edwin in his Peeps: ““Ye maun na gang across,” bawled the dark and sinister-looking High-lander, gateman at the Ashtown level crossing of the Midland Railway, near Dublin, a crossing which combined all conceivable elements of danger, being on a steep grade and a sharp curve, in the concavity of which tall willows were planted to blind the outlook of the engine driver. Senior, relative and namesake of the celebrated Professor and a great Government official, being Secretary to the poor-law Commissioners, was walking home to this country villa. The large gate barred the roadway, but he passed through the turnstile. “D--n it ye maun na pass,” shouted Sandy, roughly collaring him. The roar of the Express shook the willows. The earth trembled. Black clouds of sulphurous smoke heralded the unseen demon. Enraged at his presumption, Senior angrily shook him off, thinking he had time to clear the train, but the delay of two seconds was fatal. Had he been completely let alone or completely held prisoner, he would have been alive to-day. Fragments of hair and bloody bones strewed the track. My father terribly shocked, sent me with a letter of condolence to the widow next morning.”
Nowadays, there is a house called Ashtown Lodge in Castleknock. It is located at River Road, north of Phoenix Park and the crossing, and south of the Observatory and Dunsinea, now Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre, where in 1865 the Rathborne family lived. If this was indeed Senior’s house, then the crossing must have been at the contemporary Ashtown station. Virtually standing on the crossing, it can be seen that the tracks are far more curved that they seem to be when seen on a map: Ashtown Crossing, looking towards Dublin. Also at the other side the tracks are curved but further away: Ashtown Crossing, looking away from Dublin, or zoomed in making the sharp curve visible, Ashtown Crossing, looking away from Dublin, zoomed in. It seems possible to notice the train in time from this side though, making it more plausible that the train came from Dublin. Perhaps the situation is not exactly the same anymore; the steepness William Edwin writes about does not show in this link, but such details are generally hard to see in these streetviews.
In hindsight I should have read through the essay at least one more time, my English having been slightly improved along the way. But alas, I did not. Now working on an extensive corrigendum for the essay, I came across some sources mentioning either Lord Langford or Lord Longford as owner of Summerhill House after the death of Baron Langford in 1825. The once famous house in county Meath was built in 1731 by Hercules Rowley and Frances Upton, and in 1825 their great-granddaughter Frances Rowley and her husband Clotworthy Taylour, Baron and Baroness Langford, still owned Summerhill House. Yet it is not at all clear who owned the house after the Baron’s death, see Summerhill House.
In 1824 and 1825 Hamilton apparently regularly visited the Disneys who, according to Graves, lived in Summerhill House. Hamilton briefly described it from within: once in a letter written to his sister Eliza in September 1825, in which he described how enormous it was, see pp. 57-58 of the essay, and once in 1850, when he mentioned its ‘great decay’, see pp. 297-298. A description of the history and some pictures of the interior of the house can be found at: archiseek -- Architecture of Meath & Lost Buildings of Ireland and Summerhill House -- The Irish Aesthete.
What Hamilton wrote to Eliza in 1825 was: “I am now, as you will observe by the date, in Summerhill. If you wish to have a more minute description, know that I am in the chamber of the eastern wing upon the north side of the castle, as I conclude from the stars – time midnight, as I learn from the deep tolling of the clock in the tower. A shaded lamp is burning before me; all is quiet now except the audible ticking of my watch; both doors of my room are open, one of which leads to a suite of uninhabited apartments, so long that my light only shows their gloom, through which the beams wander without filling their extent. Hark! what sound is that which comes from their obscurity? it is only the creaking of a door; [...] I am in a castle, with windings and recesses enough to please you and to satisfy even the passion for exploring which we had when children.”
The essay has been printed, and really does look like a book. It is slightly (much) thicker than I had expected; e-books do not show much volume... . I also made an epub version, with clickable links. Unfortunately, since I did not define page numbers, the in-document referencing is rather imprecise. The epub has been tested in Firefox and on a Kobo Glo: Firefox is not very good at following links to other places within the same document, the Kobo does not show some doubly accented Greek letters. For the rest it seems fine.
Update 1 Sept 2017: My new Icarus Illumina 9.7 inch handles the Greek very well, but to my great surprise it cannot handle internal links: it more or less follows the links, but there seems to be no way to return to the page which contains the link. In Firefox the back button can be used to go back; the Kobo Glo provides a link called ‘Previous location’. It is really very strange that such a function seems to be omitted in a high-quality e-reader, which the Icarus Illumina certainly is (it can be written upon using its stylus, which is great for correction purposes!).
The ‘weeks of editing’ became almost a year but I finally uploaded the final version and sent the files to the printer. I had no idea that editing was so much work, and although the ideas in the essay did not fundamentally change anymore, they did evolve again. Also remarks from people who were so kind to read the drafts almost unvariably led to changes bringing along more changes; luckily, already as a child I was tested as thinking rather lightheartedly about tough jobs.
In 2015 we had come to Dublin very unprepared, and when we became curious where Hamilton’s birth house could have been we could not find it. But the internet is a remarkable thing: not only did I never see Graves’ biography in a paper form although I worked with it for two and a half years, back home we found Hamilton’s birth house after a weekend of searching on the web. Through Hamilton’s own descriptons and a lot of websites with old and new street maps of Dublin, historic information especially about the famous plasterwork (some examples) of No 20, and a description in the Dominick Street Regeneration plan of 2010, it appeared to be, in hindsight, rather obvious that what Hamilton called 36 Great or Old Dominick Street is now 33/38 Lower Dominick Street, Bolton Square, apartments 21-40, left side if seen from the opposite side of the street. Someday going to Dublin again will be much harder than finding information which is more than two hundred years old.
And again in hindsight it appears that, in any case in 1907, there was a “tablet” on the house at 36 Dominick Street marking it as the birth house of Sir William Rowan Hamilton: see p. 294 of Chart, D.A. (1907), The Story of Dublin. London: J.M. Dent & Co.. Hopefully some sign will be added again some day.
Last week we were in Dublin; we came to Ireland to attended the ‘Hamilton Walk’ on the 16th. The Hamilton Walk is a walk from Dunsink Observatory to Broom Bridge in commemoration of Hamilton’s discovery of the Quaternions on the 16th of October 1843: The Hamilton Walk. It was an exciting event indeed; being inside the Observatory and walking along the Royal Canal where Hamilton and his wife walked that day!
We stayed in Dublin at the house of a very nice group of young Brazilian people, and we tried to find Hamilton’s birth house in Dominick-street. We could not find it; the house seems to have been teared down, and there is not a plaque or anything referring to Hamilton. Which is a pity indeed.
Dublin, 15 October 2015
Although today I finished the essay, there will be edits in the following weeks since, luckily, people are reading it, and they give very useful comments. The ideas in the essay will not change anymore though; having formed gradually over the last year they were full-grown last summer.
When all comments are satisfactorily implemented, and someday they surely will, I will have this essay printed by the BoekenGilde, in a small edition. For anyone who does not mind to read from a screen this essay can be downloaded as a pdf or an epub, or read in BookReader on the main page, A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Contrary to other browsers, Internet Explorer does not display the essay in BookReader properly.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the death day of Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), the famous mathematician who lived most of his life at Dunsink Observatory in Dublin, Ireland. About his work on mathematics and mathematical physics much is written, and that was positive; no-one doubts or doubted his geniality. Also about his personal life much is written, and that was often not so positive; many people doubt or doubted his ability of handling himself.
Already during his life Hamilton had a very bad reputation, having uncommon habits like working hermit-like on books no-one understood and drinking alcohol when that was not customary anymore. Although it was generally acknowledged that someone on the brink of alcoholism, as he often was claimed to have been, would not be able to work on such extremely high levels as he did, yet somehow his alcoholic image seems to cling to him. In this essay it is shown that he was indeed not an alcoholic.
And having lost his first love, it is often simply assumed that he must have been unhappily married, that his marriage failed from the start, and even that his honeymoon already was a disaster. Hamilton on the contrary, wrote in the days before his marriage about the “layers of love and algebra” and the “attraction of Venus”, which does not sound very disastrous. Indeed, nowhere in his first, and largest, biography it can be read that Hamilton was ever dissatisfied with his choice for her; Hamilton’s main biographer even remarked that “he remained to the end of his life an attached husband, just as Lady Hamilton remained an attached wife, as well as a good woman” and “She had brought calm to his affections; she won the good opinion of his friends; and she became to him the centre round which the pleasures, the duties, and the hopes of home were gathered.” The peace Hamilton found in his marriage is so clear that it actually was the main inducement to write this essay.
In the 1880s Robert Perceval Graves wrote Hamilton’s main biography, consisting of three volumes and more than two-thousand pages, mostly filled with letters Hamilton wrote to friends and family. It can be read online at the Internet Archive, Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, volume 1 (1882), volume 2 (1885), and volume 3 (1889). In the many years after its publication this biography was often minutely scrutinized, and some sentences of Graves’ extensive biography seem to have assumed a life of their own; reading those sentences on the web, they can easily be traced in Graves’ biography. Yet in some strange way, as far as I know Graves himself, or the circumstances and social boundaries in which he wrote the biography, is never really scrutinized, and that is what I did in this essay. While doing that it was of course not my intention to ruin Graves’ reputation in order to restore that of Hamilton; yet starting to understand where Graves came from when he wrote it clarified a lot.
Graves having focused mainly on Hamilton’s personal life, in 1980 Thomas Leroy Hankins published Hamilton’s second main biography: Hankins, T.L. (1980), Sir William Rowan Hamilton. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. In this biography Hankins completes the picture of Hamilton with the many other sides of his life: his work, his religious, political and social life, and his poetry and metaphysics, being intertwined with his mathematics. Moreover, he fills in the gaps Graves left in his biography since he judged some events to personal for a biography; Graves wrote it deep in the Victorian era, in which many personal events were concealed because of the then prevailing very strict social norms. Hankins published letters and facts worth knowing about Hamilton’s first great love, Catherine Disney, therewith evoking a much more complete picture of who Hamilton was. Yet, since Graves had known the Hamiltons personally, Hankins accepted Graves’ view on Hamilton’s personal life.
The gossip about Hamilton started already during his life, and when Graves had to decide whether or not to accept the task of writing the biography that played a part in his considerations. He described how he accepted the task in the preface to the first volume; “wishing that the memory of my friend had been more fortunate, but at the same time conscious that by me would be devoted to it the warmth of honest affection and admiration, and the desire to be just and truthful.” But not only did Graves find the gossip difficult, he also disapproved of Hamilton’s lifestyle; Graves clearly lived his life very differently from the way Hamilton lived his. What Graves also found very difficult was Hamilton’s choice to marry Helen Bayly; according to Graves everything would have been different if only she could have handled him better and make him live a healthy and ordered life. The apparent impossibility thereof is also described in this essay.
While writing the essay it became clear that there are some loose ends which can only be answered by reading original correspondences. Obvious examples are a letter Hamilton wrote to his friend Lady Campbell in 1830, after he had noticed the unhappiness of Catherine Disney, his ‘lost love’, yet Graves did not want to give this letter since he judged it too personal. The same holds for a letter to Aubrey de Vere which Hamilton wrote in August 1848 when he was in Parsonstown, and a letter to “an unnamed friend” written in 1849; these letters all have to do with Catherine Disney. And it holds for the many letters he wrote after Catherine’s death since in this essay it is suggested that Hamilton only learned about Catherine’s forced marriage on her deathbed, explaining the heavy impact their “parting interviews” had on him.
About Hamilton and drinking alcohol perhaps the most important missing information is what Lady Campbell said, sometime between 1848 and 1851 or 1854, when she warned Hamilton about his drinking habits. Graves does not give an exact quote, he just writes that she “had not failed earnestly to plead with him his own cause, when she heard of the danger that threatened him of being dominated by a fatal habit”, this fatal habit being drinking alcohol regularly, instead of mainly at dinners. Graves’ choice of the words “fatal habit” seems to suggest that Hamilton was already on the brink of becoming an alcoholic, yet reading it carefully, Graves actually writes that Lady Campbell warned Hamilton not to become dominated by a fatal habit, she did not say that he was dominated by this habit already. It is even unclear whether or not she used the word fatal, or whether that was Graves’ interpretation. It is also unclear from Graves’ biography if Graves read this in a letter written by Lady Campbell, or in one of Hamilton’s notebooks or journals in case it was said in a conversation. Her letter, or Hamilton’s note about it if it was a conversation, could very well contain the most clear information about how far Hamilton ever was in developing this “habit”.
[Added note: Also one of Graves’ brothers warned Hamilton, yet that concerned Hamilton’s reputation. Every now and then, after periods of working hard and apparently rather abstemiously, he drank much when he was in public and enjoying himself. The influence of the Temperance Movement was growing, and Hamilton therefore was much gossiped about. Following these warnings Hamilton did not stop drinking alcohol, yet he immediately changed this behaviour. Always having been temperate at home he also publicly did not drink much anymore, but by then his reputation in this respect was already ruined. Hamilton became a moderate drinker for about a decade, until his gout got worse. According to a doctor’s report he then stopped drinking alcohol altogether.]
And what would shed some more light on Hamilton’s daily life are letters he wrote to friends and neighbours; Graves mostly gives letters written to members of the peerage or to eminent scientists. But Hamilton must have written many more; it is, for instance, certain that he corresponded with John Head, Dean of Killaloe, who was ‘connected to’ Helen Bayly, yet no letters are given. Missing is also the correspondence between Sir and Lady Hamilton; judging by some letters given by Graves it can be assumed that Hamilton more often wrote letters to his wife when travelling, for instance when visiting the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.