Sufficiently accurate for poetry — A scientist’s funny critique of an imprecise poem

By Abraham Piper

Charles Babbage was an English mathematician, engineer, and inventor known for being one of the originators of the computer. Sometime in the 1840’s he read Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Vision of Sin,” and, though he enjoyed it in the main, he noticed an error buried in the middle of the work.

Not one to let niggling annoyances go, apparently, Babbage wrote the following letter to Tennyson, suggesting an improvement to the couplet in question. We may assume (I hope!) that it was composed tongue in cheek…


In your otherwise beautiful poem “The Vision of Sin” there is a verse which reads – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment one is born.” It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death.

I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read – “Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16 is born.”

The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry….