Friday, 31 January 2014

2 poems from W.D. Hamilton at Tonbridge

Two poems from W.D. Hamilton for their historical interest. They show that Hamilton was already fascinated by parasites and pathogens as a school boy -- long before he got into research on the Red Queen hypothesis. (This post was inspired by a post at Small Pond Science by Terry McGlynn.)


The beechwoods on far hills are turning gold,
Suns shall light them, and in evenings
Red suns on red horizons rolled
Shall stain them deeper, sweeter and less cold.
Soft rain shall drench them, mists shall drown,
Leaves through stagnant stillness spinning
Go drifting quietly down and down.
Wet earth is black, the piled dead leaves are brown.
The stately trunks snake-coloured, and on these,
Live, or dead but still upstanding
White hands of bracket fungi seize
Hands tough as leather, soft as cheese
Quietly encircle, quietly pull and kill.
And when that cobweb-shattered sun
Sinks huge to a yet more distant hill
The pallid hands grow fleshy, pink and fill
That beauty with their growth.

                                                                                W. D. H. [from The Tonbridgian, May 1954, page 24]


The red death was creeping over the land. From bush to bush, from tree to tree, it moved. All was dying under its merciless jaws. The corn was bitten from head to root, and now it stood brown as the earth it grew from, dead. As it passed though wood and orchard, the branches, red with the bodies groaned and broke with the weight, and when it had passed on, it left the trees with a myriad tattered midribs where the leaves had been. On wood and crop and grass and garden the red death crawled, and they died.

The little wild beasts of the land starved, and they too died on a black earth and barren field. Horses, cattle and sheep pined in their pastures, and the carcases of the dead lay unburied among the dying. Birds starved till they collapsed on the wing; then, as they lay on their backs, they shook their feathers, trembled and lay still.

Most pitiful to see was man dying in horror. Man who had made the Death, who had plunged so deep into the secrets that controlled him, that he had doomed even himself.

He had made Life at last ... in a test-tube. From the day when the great, scientist, crouching over his microscope in the warm, drug-scented room, had seen against the white a red blotch break apart and move of its own will, life was doomed. He had made life and the punishment was inevitable. Perhaps he knew this, for be tried to kill it. When his assistants came in an hour later, the slide was melting above a Bunsen flame, and fallen to the floor in that forest of test-tubes lay the great scientist with a broken phial between his bleeding lips.

But they made Life again, cultivated, fed it, and let it escape and then brought the weapons of modern science against it to kill it. They failed. Then they called it Death.

Now they wandered among the stricken crops and stamped it underfoot hopelessly. They sprayed it with fire, dropped dust from the air, did everything conceivable to kill it, but they could not. A thing that has seven generations in a day, and that will eat anything green, is not easy to kill. Only two trees it refused as food; the Yew and the Cypress. Oh, horror of horrors, why those trees of all the thousands?

Already Man is dying by the million; he starves in the street, he dies of disease. Finally, to end his suffering he dies by the Knife, the Cord. and the Bottle whose label is black and red. As his eyes dim and blear, he sees beside him in the gutter, the little red worm crawling; the worm that has only a mouth, the power to reproduce and the power to kill.

Rather the Great Flood than this. And why, why the Yew and the Cypress ?

                                                                           W. D. H. [from The Tonbridgian January 1951, page 295]

HT to Martin Jacoby at