Taking apart poetry with mathematics? Sacrilege! Or is it? Genetics professor Steve Jones
shows how the two ancient disciplines can get along in The Telegraph. Certainly poetry uses patterns in
its rhyme schemes, and poets such as Robert Frost have famously not
just accepted but celebrated the place of rules in verse. But the math-poetry relationship goes far beyond a mere
appreciation of an iamb or an ABAB structure, he explains. The arranging of long and
short syllables, crucial even to Sanskrit poets "as early as 200 BC," has a hidden bit of numerical
A syllable is short, with one beat, or long, with two.
In how many ways can a metre of four syllables be constructed? Four
shorts or four longs have just one pattern for each, while for three
shorts and a long, or three longs and a short, there are four (SSSL,
SSLS, SLSS, and LSSS, for example). For two of each kind of syllable,
there are six possibilities. Do the sum for metres of one, two, three,
four and more and a mathematical pattern emerges. It is Pascal's
Triangle, the pyramid of numbers in which the series in the next line
is given by adding together adjacent pairs in the line above to
generate 1, 1 1, 1 2 1, 1 3 3 1, 1 4 6 4 1, and so on.
As in a
great poem, hidden within that elegant structure are deeper truths that
touch on apparently unrelated things; on fractal patterns, on the
theory of numbers, on primes, and of complexities too deep to be
accessible to mere mortals untrained in the mathematical art. One
useful property is that Pascal makes it possible to ask in how many
ways it is possible to arrange a group of objects, be they footballers
in a league, or lines in a poem.
[Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
hhorn at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.