The Laws of Metre

Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor, wrote a letter to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, commenting on the latter’s poem, The Vision of Sin.

“Every minute dies a man, / Every minute one is born:” I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: “Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.” I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

Tennyson actually revised the poem, which now reads like this: “Every moment dies a man, / Every moment one is born.”

Once again, art takes a knee before the rule of fact-checkers and copyeditors.

From Doug Hofstadter’s book Le Ton beau de Marot.

(Letters of Note has a slightly different version of the letter here.)