Monday, November 8, 2010

One type of "mathematical" poetry

When I began (in the 1980s) collecting examples of "mathematical poetry," I sought lines of verse that included some mathematical terminology.  More recently, my view has expanded to include structual, visual, and algorithmic influcences from mathematics; however, the two samples from the work of William Blake (1757-1827), presented below, fit into that initial category -- selected as "mathematical" because of their vocabulary -- one speaks of "infinity," the other of "symmetry."  (Blake was an artist as well as poet and his volumes of poetry were illustrated with his prints.)  The following stanza is the opening quatrain for Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence." 

     To see a World in a grain of sand
     And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
     Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand
     And Eternity in an Hour.

Both the poet and the mathematician are ones who may hold "... Infinity in the Palm of your hand."

Although "The Tyger" involves little mathematical terminology, the precision and clarity of Blake's words and the images they evoke are analogous to mathematical elegance of the best kind.  Each reading is a new delight.
     The Tyger      by William Blake
     Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
     In the forests of the night,
     What immortal hand or eye
     Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

     In what distant deeps or skies
     Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
     On what wings dare he aspire?
     What the hand dare seize the fire?

     And what shoulder, & what art,
     Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
     And when thy heart began to beat,
     What dread hand? & what dread feet?

     What the hammer? what the chain?
     In what furnace was thy brain?
     What the anvil? what dread grasp
     Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

     When the stars threw down their spears
     And water'd heaven with their tears,
     Did he smile his work to see?
     Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

     Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
     In the forests of the night,
     What immortal hand or eye
     Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Reading this poem aloud enables a reader to "feel" the mathematics of Blake's syllable-count -- to sense intuitively that most of the 24 lines have seven syllables!
Exploration of poetry with mathematics in mind reveals the "intersections" of mathematics and poetry to be many and diverse.  The interested reader may also wish to explore Kaz Maslanka's longstanding Mathematical Poetry blog;  in it Maslanka includes proposed definitions for various types of math-poem hybrids and I encourage you to browse his thought-provoking views.  Also see my April 12,  June 21 and August 16 postings.

1 comment:

  1. I love that Blake poem! I know it as a Unitarian hymn, actually.