Chess: A little poetic licence

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SIR WILLIAM JONES, who died 200 years ago last month, was a remarkable man. Linguist, philologist, poet, lawyer, commissioner of bankrupts and ultimately judge, he was said to have known 13 languages thoroughly, and 28 fairly well. He was the first English scholar to master Sanskrit, discovered the Indo-European group of languages, and was the first historian to trace the origins of chess back to India.

However, he is mainly remembered by erudite chessplayers for Caissa, the Muse of Chess, whom he created in a ghastly epic poem he wrote at the age of 16. Set in the world of Greek myth, it tells the tale of Mars, the god of war, persuading Euphron, the god of sport, to invent a game to soften the heart of the nymph Caissa. The poem begins with a long introduction which, at line 55, finally gets to a description of the chess-board:

Square eight times eight in equal order lie,

These bright as snow, those dark with sable dye,

Like the broad target by the tortoise born,

Or like the hide by spotted panthers worn.

After a general description of the pieces (twice eight in black, twice eight in milkwhite mail), he moves on to a specific account of each piece, beginning with the king:

High in the midst the reverend kings appear,

And o'er the rest their pearly sceptres rear.

Moving on to the queen:

Swift as Camilla flying o'er the main,

Or lightly skimming o'er the dewy plain.

And proceeding through rook (four solemn elephants the sides defend), bishop (the valiant guards, their minds on havock bent), knight (their arching course no vulgar limit knows, traverse they leap and aim insidious blows) and the pawns (direct their progress, but their wounds oblique).

Mars, armed with the game, catches up with Caissa:

Tir'd with the chase the damsel sat reclined,

Her girdle loose, her bosom unconfin'd.

She asks him to explain the rules of chess, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tomorrow, the life of Sir William Jones, polymath, will be celebrated in a series of public lectures at Oxford University, telephone 0865 276602 for further details.