Throughout his life, George Boole displayed a rare combination of high creativity and rigorous intellectual application. These two qualities are usually thought to occupy different sides of the brain, but in Boole’s case, both sides were strongly developed — making him both an artist and a scientist.
As a young child, George Boole first studied English, developing an early interest in literature and the structure of language. At the same time his mother encouraged what was to become a lifelong interest in music. When he was an older schoolboy he began to read avidly the work of the best English authors of his time.
He mastered Latin by the age of 12, and went on to teach himself Greek. He was particularly adept at translation and aged 14, his proud father submitted his translation of Ode to Spring, a poem attributed to the Greek poet and epigram writer Meleager, to the editor of the Lincoln Herald. This resulted in some controversial correspondence about the authenticity of its authorship by the young Boole.
In his spare time, he added to his linguistic range by teaching himself French, German and Italian. He favoured the learning of a language with a view to speaking it and reading its literature, rather than merely acquiring a sterile knowledge of its vocabulary and grammar.
Many would argue that mathematics should be regarded as an art form rather than as a science. Boole certainly saw beauty in mathematics and this also extended to poetry, a medium in which he chose to express his feelings. The early Italian poet Dante (1265-1321) was his favourite, particularly his Paradiso, which was much loved by Boole.
He also adored the poetry of John Milton (1608-71) and enjoyed reading his work aloud to others. The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was another enthusiasm. According to his wife Mary, the poem St Agnes’ Eve by fellow Lincolnshire man Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) used to throw Boole into ‘a quiver of delight’.
Boole wrote poetry for relaxation. The themes he chose included religion, the classics and friendship. He wrote poetry intermittently from 1834 until 1849, when he was appointed as Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College Cork. After his marriage in 1855, he tended to switch to other leisurely pursuits.
Perhaps George Boole’s most accomplished poem was inspired by the visual arts. Having seen a painting at a Royal Academy exhibition in London, he was deeply moved by the depiction of a brave man, before his martyrdom, receiving the sacraments in the presence of his wife and friends. His reaction was communicated to a close friend in the form of a highly sensitive verse letter.
His most intriguing poetic creation is his mystic sonnet To the Number Three: ‘Space diverse, systems manifold to see, Revealed by thought alone . . .’
In 1835 the Cuvierian Society was founded in Cork, to promote ‘a friendly intercourse between persons who feel a pleasure in the cultivation of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts’. Boole was elected a member in 1850 and by 1854 he became President.
As President, he delivered a carefully crafted address at ‘a conversazione for the educated classes’, attended by 1,400 people. His outstanding speech on the evening of 29 May 1855 rose above the differences between the arts and the sciences and presented a vision of their totality.
His gripping talk ranged over Greek and Roman history, philosophy and sculpture, elucidating fascinating insights into the marvels of Gothic architecture. The speech was delivered the same year that the famous English Gothic Revival architect A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52) – best known for his work on London’s Houses of Parliament – was completing one of his major Irish projects, St Mary’s Cathedral in nearby Killarney.
Boole revealed himself as something of a pioneer when he talked about the ’art of photography’. At one meeting of the Cuvierian Society he is recorded as showing beautiful photographs of Lincoln Cathedral. On another occasion in the Department of Art he displayed figurative daguerreotypes, pioneered by trail-blazing French photographic artist Louis Daguerre (1787-1851).
Recent research suggests that Boole, who was a keen pianist, ordered a pianoforte to be sent to his lodgings at 5 Grenville Place. It is interesting to speculate what he played as he watched the River Lee flow slowly past his window. Works by Chopin, Field or even Schubert’s ‘The Trout’? Or combining his love of mathematics with his musical fascination, did he prefer the numerical imagery conjured up by Mozart or the Romantic work of Robert Schumann, famous for his love of musical cryptograms?