In 1853, the mathematician and physicist William Rowan Hamilton paid one last call on Catherine Barlow, whom he had once loved passionately and for whom he still had some affection. She had won his heart three decades earlier when he was a first-year student at Trinity College, Dublin and she was Miss Catherine Disney – before her parents had decided that Reverend William Barlow, a man of means fifteen years her senior, would be a good match for her. Events proved them wrong.1
If, thirty years later, Reverend Barlow resented Hamilton’s presence in his home, he probably forgave the trespass, since his wife was dying and had asked for one last visit from Hamilton. Hamilton, a published poet as well as scientist, had written of her fondly in some of his early verse, but what he bestowed upon her now was not poetry but a mathematical treatise that he had written upon a topic of his own invention, quaternionic analysis, which had won so much acclaim that it was a mandatory examination topic in Dublin. Indeed, a year earlier Catherine’s son had needed some instruction in quaternions and Hamilton had tutored the young man, perhaps enjoying the opportunity to play a paternal role to the son of his old flame.
Catherine spoke of how her marriage to Barlow had been thrust upon her by her parents, and Hamilton was outraged on her behalf. She told him of her unfulfilling marriage, and of her unwavering love for Hamilton throughout the years, and he was devastated. And then, near the end of the interview, he tried what he should have tried thirty years earlier. “Rising, I received, or took, as my reward, all that she could lawfully give – a kiss, nay many kisses: – for the known and near approach of death made such communion holy. It could not be, indeed, without agitation on both sides, that for the first time in our lives, our lips then met. . . . Yet dare I to affirm that our affectionate transport, in those few permitted moments, was pure as that of those who in the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the Angels of God in Heaven.”Continue reading