Wednesday, March 31, 2010

John Donne's numbers

       Perhaps best known for the religious themes in his poetry, John Donne (1572-1631) also wrote many love poems. Although the mathematics here includes only numbers, they are well-used to strengthen both the intensity and the precision of the work.

The Primrose  by John Donne

Upon this Primrose hill,
Where, if heaven would distill
A shower of rain, each several drop might go
To his own primrose, and grow manna so;
And where their form, and their infinity
Make a terrestrial galaxy,
As the small stars do in the sky;
I walk to find a true love; and I see
That 'tis not a mere woman, that is she,
But must or more or less than woman be.

Yet know I not, which flower
I wish; a six, or four;
For should my true-love less than woman be,
She were scarce anything; and then, should she
Be more than woman, she would get above
All thought of sex, and think to move
My heart to study her, and not to love.
Both these were monsters; since there must reside
Falsehood in woman, I could more abide,
She were by art, than nature falsified.

Live, primrose, then, and thrive
With thy true number five;
And, woman, whom this flower doth represent,
With this mysterious number be content;
Ten is the farthest number; if half ten
Belongs to each woman, then
Each woman may take half us men;
Or—if this will not serve their turn—since all
Numbers are odd, or even, and they fall
First into five, women may take us all.

Two additional love poems by Donne--"Love's Growth" and "The Computation" are collected in the anthology Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008), edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney.  Donne's complete works also are available online.


  1. It was John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" that first introduced me to the possible merging of math and poetry:


    If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two;
    Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other do.

    And though it in the centre sit,
    Yet, when the other far doth roam,
    It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

    Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
    Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
    Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end where I begun.

    Thanks for the pleasant reminder!

  2. Hi, Charlotte--
    Thanks for visiting the blog--and special thanks for your posting; it is one of my favorites.