In retrospect there is no side to choose:
in math, Newton was earliest to make the formulas contort and yield
but never told a soul; and Leibniz, a little later,
did the same startling calculations somewhat differently,
and published them, as was his way:
wishing always to improve the world.
What they had in common:
rigorous, enormous curiosity
sitting for hours at a stretch in one chair, thinking
not sleeping enough
the abandonment of alchemy
bureaucratic service, which made science and philosophy a hobby
dying out-to-pasture, genius-wise
Isaac, though, was born three months after his father died;
he did not have Leibniz’s jolly family years,
no father teaching him to read history both sacred & profane.
Isaac arrived small enough to fit in a quart pot.
Everyone expected him to die.
His mother moved away when he was three:
remarried, gone until she was a widow
for the second time. A seven-year indoctrination
into solitude. At age 19, he made a tabulation of his sins
including, threatening my father and mother Smith
to burne them and the house over them.
Curiosity an oblivion to be embraced,
an opportunity for fearlessness, for vanishing.
Why publish? That makes a self instead of losing one.
Insight must be joined to fervour.
Fantasy is helped by good air, fasting, and moderate wine.
Curiosity a place to live, a battlement,
a universe. And they were not ashamed of it.
Electric pace and heady certainty and otherworldliness—
a definition of pleasure:
Leibniz, who’s always earnest, usually full of pomp,
it’s hard to imagine him entranced. So well anchored to the world
that he could always get the fervent insight down and pass it on.
Then Newton, hungry, refreshed, a little tipsy:
what kind of fantasy? the undulant many-colored circles that roamed
before his eyes after staring at the sun.
So matter-of-fact, so self-contained.
There were two years, actually: anni:
Newton had fled the plague away from Cambridge,
to the farm at Woolsthorpe, in the prime
of my age for invention. Calculus, optics,
machinery . . . on his own land,
the heir, the patriarch:
i.e. whole days to spend alone.
What is a self but an experiment—
one among many . . . but what it finds
may rise above the viscera
the made propels, eradicates the maker.