Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.

O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay


The Prelude

In 1805, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth completed his first version of The Prelude, an autobiographical poem meditating on nature, human thought, and the transcendent. In it, he describes his days at Oxford, and has occasion to reflect on his experience with Euclid’s Elements and the appeal geometry has for the poet’s mind. The following is from the 1850 version of the poem.

Yet may we not entirely overlook
The pleasure gathered from the rudiments
Of geometric science. Though advanced
In these inquiries, with regret I speak,
No farther than the threshold, there I found
Both elevation and composed delight:
With Indian awe and wonder, ignorance pleased
With its own struggles, did I meditate
On the relation those abstractions bear
To Nature’s laws, and by what process led,
Those immaterial agents bowed their heads
Duly to serve the mind of earth-born man;
From star to star, from kindred sphere to sphere,
From system on to system without end.


‘Tis told by one whom stormy waters threw,
With fellow-sufferers by the shipwreck spared,
Upon a desert coast, that having brought
To land a single volume, saved by chance,
A treatise of Geometry, he wont,
Although of food and clothing destitute,
And beyond common wretchedness depressed,
To part from company and take this book
(Then first a self-taught pupil in its truths)
To spots remote, and draw his diagrams
With a long staff upon the sand, and thus
Did oft beguile his sorrow, and almost
Forget his feeling: so (if like effect
From the same cause produced, ‘mid outward things
So different, may rightly be compared),
So was it then with me, and so will be
With Poets ever. Mighty is the charm
Of those abstractions to a mind beset
With images, and haunted by herself,
And specially delightful unto me
Was that clear synthesis built up aloft
So gracefully; even then when it appeared
Not more than a mere plaything, or a toy
To sense embodied: not the thing it is
In verity, an independent world,
Created out of pure intelligence.

The story of the shipwreck is inspired by the account of John Newton, an English seaman who spent much of his career in the slave trade. In his younger years, his insubordination prompted the captain of his vessel to put him ashore in West Africa, where he lived the life of a slave. Among the possessions he took off the ship was a textbook on Euclidean geometry, purchased at some point in England, and he taught himself the material as a way of passing the time. Newton went back into the slave trade after he gained his freedom, but he is most famous for his eventual conversion, his work as an abolitionist, and his authorship of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”