Sunday, March 28, 2010

W. H. Auden's Kingdom of Number

Some poetry is termed "mathematical" because mathematical terminology is included in the text of the poem, often to vivid effect. Such is the case in this poem by W H Auden, in which it is also the case that most lines have 11 syllables.

Numbers and Faces

The Kingdom of Number is all boundaries
Which may be beautiful and must be true;
To ask if it is big or small proclaims one
The sort of lover who should stick to faces.

Lovers of small numbers go benignly potty,
Believe all tales are thirteen chapters long,
Have animal doubles, carry pentagrams,
Are Millerites, Baconians, Flat-Earth-Men.

Lovers of big numbers go horridly mad,
Would have the Swiss abolished, all of us
Well purged, somatotyped, baptised, taught baseball:
They empty bars, spoil parties, run for Congress.

True, between faces almost any number
Might come in handy, and One is always real;
But which could any face call good, for calling
Infinity a number does not make it one.

"Numbers and Faces" may be found in W. H. Auden: Collected Poems (Vintage Books, 1991).

W H Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England and relocated to the United States in 1939. Son of a physician, this much-admired lyricist included scientific and mathematical ideas in many of his poems. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his war-time book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety. Auden's seasoning of his poems with math-science terminology is illustrated by this sample from another of his long poems, For the Time Being (1941-42); in section III of "The Flight into Egypt" we find these 14-syllable (approximately) lines:

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.


  1. Numbers, Faces, Lovers Big and Small

    In Auden’s poem “Numbers and Faces” he uses an interesting selection of words. First I am not familiar with his two categories of numbers: small and big. Small numbers appear to be associated with superstitious pursuits and Big numbers with order and control.

    He starts out with the line “The Kingdom of number is all boundaries”
    And ends with “calling infinity a number does not make it one.” Don’t be fooled by the concept of infinity, numbers are limited.

    Lover of small numbers
    Lover of big numbers

    The use of the word Lover in relation to numbers points to absurdity.

    He seems to be saying that people can get so fixated on numbers that they forget their own humanity. Our association with numbers should be minor in comparison with our relationships with our fellow man or “Faces”

    David Perrings

  2. Love this! I was reflecting on an Auden poem already this morning, and this is a great dessert. (If I Could Tell You

    1. Thanks, John, for dropping by -- and for finding time to comment!