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Matter: 'Particle poems: 3'

'Particle poems: 3' by Edwin Morgan

The poet says...

"If it is not the duty, it should at least be the delight, of poets to contemplate the world of science … Particles we 'know' only by their tracks in the cloud-chamber, light conceived sometimes as particles and sometimes as waves, causality lost in subatomic behaviour, particles 'unobservable' because mere observation imposes changes on the object – how do we relate all this to the solid world of which electrons, atoms and molecules are a part?"

Edwin Morgan, 'The Poet and the Particle', in Essays (1974).


'Three particles lived in mystical union' is the third poem (of six) in Edwin Morgan's 'Particle Poems' sequence.

Written in 1977, the poems were first published in Star Gate: Science-Fiction Poems (1979).

In quantum physics, 'ground state' describes a particle which has the minimum energy, while 'excited state' describes a particle which has above the minimum level of energy.

Only the 'ground state', in which an electron and a proton are bound together, is stable; 'excited' states are short-lived and soon fall back into 'ground' states by emitting a photon.


Notes on some of the references in 'Particle Poems: 3' – to people and ideas


Teaching ideas


Read the poem aloud

  • Discuss any unfamiliar words and concepts.
  • Discuss the differences between the two verses – trios and pairs, harmony and conflict, concrete things and abstractions.
  • If the three particles are living in "mystical union", how would you describe their relationship?
  • In the last line, who is "after you, or me"?
  • In the first stanza, why do you think the poet lists two sets of three in each sentence?
  • In the second stanza, why do you think the poet lists all the pairs in a single sentence?
  • How many lines does each stanza have?
  • Is there anything unusual or significant about the lengths of the stanzas?

Perform the poem

  • Think about how to organise the voices:
    • as simply as three voices reading the first stanza, and one dropping out for the second stanza
    • or in other ways – perhaps a 'narrator' or 'narrators' with other voices reading the trios and pairs which are listed.


Trios and Pairs, or threes and twos


  • Make a class list of other things that go together in threes, and in twos.

Think about such things as

  • food
  • sport
  • religion
  • sayings and proverbs
  • company or brand names
  • musicians and entertainers
  • titles of books, films, tv programmes

For the pairs, think about opposites as well.


Draw up a template for noting the triplets and the pairs:

  • a triangle for the triplets, with one item to be written along each side,
  • a line for the pairs, with one item to be written at either end, or on either side, of it.

Once you have completed several templates, choose one – from your own list, or exchange yours with others.

  • Compose a sentence or phrase including each item from the triplet written around the triangle. Write it down inside its triangle.
  • Compose a sentence or phrase including each item from a pair written around the line. Write it down along its line.
  • Group the triplets/triangles together in threes, as three-line verses. Think about the best order for them to go in.
  • Group the pairs together in twos, as two-line verses. Think about the best order for them to go in.

If you want to extend this, you could write about fours and ones in a similar way.

  • For templates use a square or rectangle for the fours, and a point for the ones.
  • Then compose four-line verses and one-line verses using these groups.


Finally select and combine some of the verses.

  • You could build up from shorter to longer verses, or vice-versa.
  • You could make a poem in which all the verses are the same length, for example a poem featuring pairs, written in two-line verses.

Once you have completed a poem or poems, think of ways of reading aloud using different combinations of voices, as above.


Cross-curricular links


  • Listen to pieces of music using different time-signatures, especially 3/4 and 2/4.
  • Beat out different time-signatures using percussion instruments , especially 3/4 and 2/4.
  • What words would you use to describe the 3/4 signature? And the 2/4 signature?
  • How would you describe the difference between the two?


  • Make a visual representation of your choice of line from the poem.
  • Separately, or incorporated into the above exercise:
  • make an image using two primary colours (which can be mixed);
  • make an image using three primary colours (which can be mixed).


Discuss the science behind this poem, considering the different, and increasingly small, particles that have been identified:

  • molecules
  • atoms
  • nuclei
  • electrons
  • protons
  • quarks
  • and so on.

Find out what the scientists at CERN are hoping to find with their 'particle collider'.


Religious and Moral Education

Edwin Morgan takes the idea from quantum mechanics that groupings of three are 'exciting' but 'unstable' while groupings of two' are 'bound' but 'stable'.

How does this contrast of exciting/unstable and bound/stable apply to your own life?

You could think about it in terms of

  • relationships within the family
  • relationships outwith the family
  • activities, including sports
  • future career choices

The poem uses trios from the Old and New Testaments: "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego" and "faith, hope, and charity".

Make a list of other groups of threes that are important in different religious and philosophical traditions.

  • Are other numbers important in certain religious and philosophical traditions?
  • Do you think it is simply chance that certain numbers have become important, or can you ascertain a reason behind this?


l.5, "faith, hope, and charity" – see 1 Corinthians 14, 13

l.11, 'Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia" – the three daughters of the king in Shakespeare's King Lear.

l.12, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego" – Daniel's brothers, see Daniel 1, 6-7.


Further reading

Morgan, Edwin. Essays (Carcanet, 1974)
'The Poet And The Particle'

Morgan, Edwin. Star Gate: Science-Fiction Poems.
Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1979.

Glasgow University Special Collections
This catalogue entry lists the following item: "Edwin Morgan. Particle Poems 1-6. 14 March 1977. Holograph poems, untitled. The old old old old particle..."

"An overview of the various families of elementary and composite particles, and the theories describing their interactions"

European Organisation For Nuclear Research


Resource written by Ken Cockburn, April 2009




Languages (English), Expressive Arts (Art and Design, Music), Sciences (Forces, electricity and waves), Religious and Moral Education


1970s, matter, particle, atom, quantum physics, technology, philosophy