To Those Without Wings

To my knowledge, this is the first English translation of a poem by Felix Hausdorff (1868-1942), a world-famous mathematician who was also a philosopher, dramatist and poet. While his literary work has been neglected as his scientific renown has grown, I think it was part of the same holistic and innovative worldview that made him a founder of what some historians have called “mathematical modernity.” I am translating his 1900 poetry collection, Ekstasen (Ecstasy) in the hope that it will interest English-speaking mathematicians and poets, and contribute to interdisciplinary thinking. This is the first poem in a section entitled “Flights of the Butterfly.”

 

I fly my joy
So it doesn’t flee.

All joy longs to fly
To glide on butterfly wings the color of burning gold
Over clouds of blossom-fragrance.

I don’t envy those
Who sing and speak and dance their joy
Their earthbound pleasure
So strictly tamed and trained, compelled
To trudge along in clanging harness
With words as plodding as a mule.

Because you cannot fly
You bind joy tight
Lest it escape your bondage

I fly my joy
I am my own joy’s flight and storm
I am the cloud of fragrance above the trembling flowers
Whipped by the wind from incandescent wings.

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