Madame Laplace in Old Age

by David Barber


Laplace and Poincaré tried in turn
to mend Newton’s clockwork,
but chaos still plagued the worlds.

Forgive the laughter my dear. You were asking
how it was being married to the foremost
mathematician of his Age — but a young bride
does not see it so and I was twenty years
his junior. I do recall how handsome he was,
the more so for not knowing it; and dignified,
though ambitious for his scribblings — elected
to the Académie at twenty-four you know —
just for studying Astronomy. He believed
those early years were the best of him, before
the politics — I do not speak of politics .

At home he was forbidden to think of planets,
only dinner and his son; though I found him often
reckoning by candle despite his promises —
the stars were his playthings you see — and excepting
the blunders of a colleague or some impasse in
his work we never spoke of numbers — how could we?

He boasted that his calculations proved at last
the regularity of the worlds. He told me once
of the sun and its family of planets; how
it was like the clockwork of a well-run house,
with dinner on the table so, the children kissed,
fresh clothes laid out each morning, though the universe
did not require the help of prayers at bedtime.
He told that paysan Napoleon as much —
it was an insult to suppose God need tinker.

I think my husband knew little of the chaos
of kitchens or the collisions below stairs and
if planets were servants that left without notice
his figures might vex like children on rainy days.
Nor are the fates of our dearest so well ordered —
Sophie’s death broke his heart, which a son without heirs
did nothing to mend. Being called the French Newton
provoked him, as if his own name could not hold up
his reputation’s weight. I shared him with a gift
that drove him, and was miserly with happiness.
I would have given it back, God knows, if I could.


Copyright © 2012 by David Barber

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