Alexis Clairaut (1713-1765)

Chronologie de la vie de Clairaut (1713-1765)

[c. 1799] : Clairaut en vers :
The Astronomer's Drinking Song

Whoe'er would search the starry sky,
Its secrets to divine, sir,
Should take his glass - I mean, should try
A glass or two of wine, sir!
True virtue lies in golden mean,
And man must wet his clay, sir;
Join these two maxims, and 'tis seen
He should drink his bottle a day, sir!

Old Archimedes, reverend sage!
By trump of fame renowned, sir,
Deep problems solved in every page,
And the sphere's curved surface found, sir :
Himself he would have far outshone,
And borne a wider sway, sir,
Had he our modern secret known,
And drank a bottle a day, sir!

When Ptolemy, now long ago,
Believed the earth stood still, sir,
He never would have blundered so,
Had he but drunk his fill, sir:
He'd then have felt it circulate,
And would have learnt to say, sir,
The true way to investigate
Is to drink your bottle a day, sir!

Copernicus, that learned wight,
The glory of his nation,
With draughts of wine refreshed his sight,
And saw the earth's rotation;
Each planet then its orb described,
The moon got under way, sir;
These truths from nature he imbibed
For he drank his bottle a day, sir!

The noble Tycho placed the stars,
Each in its due location;
He lost his nose by spite of Mars,
But that was no privation :
Had he but lost his mouth, I grant
He would have felt dismay, sir,
Bless you! he knew what he should want
To drink his bottle a day, sir!

Cold water makes no lucky hits;
On mysteries the head runs :
Small drink let Kepler time his wits
On the regular polyhedrons :
He took to wine, and it changed the chime,
His genius swept away, sir,
Through area varying as the time
At the rate of a bottle a day, sir!

Poor Galileo, forced to rat
Before the Inquisition,
E pur si muove was the pat
He gave them in addition :
He meant, whate'er you think you prove,
The earth must go its way, sirs;
Spite of your teeth I'll make it move,
For I'll drink my bottle a day, sirs!

Great Newton, who was never beat
Whatever fools may think, sir;
Though sometimes he forgot to eat,
He never forgot to drink, sir :
Descartes took nought but lemonade,
To conquer him was play, sir;
The first advance that Newton made
Was to drink his bottle a day, sir!

D'Alembert, Euler, and Clairaut,
Though they increased our store, sir,
Much further had been seen to go
Had they tippled a little more, sir!
Lagrange gets mellow with Laplace,
And both are wont to say, sir,
The philosophe who's not an ass
Will drink his bottle a day, sir!

Astronomers! what can avail
Those who calumniate us;
Experiment can never fail
With such an apparatus :
Let him who'd have his merits known
Remember what I say, sir;
Fair science shines on him alone
Who drinks his bottle a day, sir!

How light we reck of those who mock
By this we'll make to appear, sir,
We'll dine by the sidereal clock
For one more bottle a year, sir:
But choose which pendulum you will,
You'll never make your way, sir,
Unless you drink - and drink your fill, -
At least a bottle a day, sir (De Morgan 72, pp. 234-236)!
La chanson est ainsi introduite :
In 1798, experimental lectures were given [à l'ancienne London Mathematical Society], a small charge for admission being taken at the door : by this hangs a tale and a song. Many years ago, I found among papers of a deceased friend, who certainly never had anything to do with the Society, and who passed all his life far from London, a song, headed Song sung at a Mathematical Society in London, at a dinner given to M[onsieu]r Fletcher, a solicitor, who had defended the Society gratis.
M[onsieu]r Williams, the Assistant Secretary of the Astronomical Society, formerly Secretary of the Mathematical Society, remembered that the Society had had a solicitor named Fletcher among the members. Some years elapsed before it struck me that my old friend Benjamin Grompertz, who had long been a member, might have some recollection of the matter. The following is an extract of a letter from him (July 9, 1861) :
« As to the Mathematical Society, of which I was a member when only 18 years of age, [M[onsieu]r G. was born in 1779], having been, contrary to the rules, elected under the age of 21. How I came to be a member of that Society and continued so until it joined the Astronomical Society, and was then the President was : I happened to pass a bookseller's small shop, of second-hand books, kept by a poor taylor, but a good mathematician, John Griffiths. I was very pleased to meet a mathematician, and I asked him if he would give me some lessons; and his reply was that I was more capable to teach him, but he belonged to a society of mathematicians, and he would introduce me. I accepted the offer, and I was elected, and had many scholars then to teach, as one of the rules was, if a member asked for information, and applied to any one who could give it, he was obliged to give it, or fine one penny. Though I might say much with respect to the Society which would be interesting, I will for the present reply only to your question. I well knew M[onsieu]r Fletcher, who was a very clever and very scientific person. He did, as solicitor, defend an action brought by an informer against the Society I think for 5, 000 l. for giving lectures to the public in philosophical subjects [i.e. for unlicensed public exhibition with money taken at the doors]. I think the price for admission was one shilling, and we used to have, if I rightly recollect, from two to three hundred visitors. M[onsieu]r Fletcher was successful in his defence, and we got out of our trouble. There was a collection made to reward his services, but he did not accept of any reward : and I think we gave him a dinner, as you state, and enjoyed ourselves; no doubt with astronomical songs and other songs; but my recollection does not enable me to say if the astronomical song was a drinking song. I think the anxiety caused by that action was the cause of some of the members' death. [They had, no doubt, broken the law in ignorance; and by the sum named, the informer must have been present, and sued for a penalty on every shilling he could prove to have been taken]. »
I by no means guarantee that the whole song I proceed to give is what was sung at the dinner : I suspect, by the completeness of the chain, that augmentations have been made. My deceased friend was just the man to add some verses, or the addition may have been made before it came into his hands, or since his decease, for the scraps containing the verses passed through several hands before they came into mine. We may, however, be pretty sure that the original is substantially contained in what is given, and that the character is therefore preserved. I have had myself to repair damages every now and then, in the way of conjectural restoration of defects caused by ill-usage (De Morgan 72, pp. 233-234).
  • De Morgan (Augustus), A Budget of Paradoxes, London, 1872.
Courcelle (Olivier), « [c. 1799] : Clairaut en vers », Chronologie de la vie de Clairaut (1713-1765) [En ligne], [Notice publiée le 23 avril 2013].