Math is not often associated with poetry, but it should be. “Poetry,” from the Greek “poiesis,” meaning “to make,” is a language art that makes connections between the physical realities, while mathematics manipulates the metaphysical principles that govern them. Poetry helps us see that the quantitative functioning of matter is not all that matters, and whenever they go hand in hand, poetry and mathematics have a rare power to lay beauty bare.
One of the original mathematicians was the ancient Greek, Euclid, whose “Elements” is the backbone of geometry and number theory. It also provides a point of departure for logic and many other scientific systems. His treatise is beautiful indeed, and the American lyrical poet Edna St. Vincent Millay captured something about the beauty of Euclid’s mathematics and mathematics in general.
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
Here is celebrated in verse the glories of the mathematical perspective. This poem seeks to wake those bound up in a narcissistic, goose-gabbling, self-important trance and enter the luminous vision that Euclid had. He saw the magnificent patterns in which the world has been constructed. To those who learn to share this awe-inspiring vision, St. Vincent Millay gives the title of “heroes,” whose initial blindness in that shaft of the light of truth melts away to reveal the secrets of Beauty.
Mathematical principles have unfortunately become something of a neglected portal for a metaphysical view of the beauties of the cosmos—to the beauty of “light anatomized.” For even though mathematics and the other scientific disciplines seemingly tend to eliminate the mystery of things, their reductive truths ought not to reduce the beautiful wonder inherent in things. For despite the clarity of computation, there is a reality animating such truths that is one of the reasons why they are good—and that reality is beauty.
And while beauty cannot be proven, per se, we know its presence by the mighty footprint it imparts upon the whole world, as permanent as a stamp in stone.
It is no secret that conventional education has largely replaced the otherworldly with the worldly, giving a high place to mathematics and a low place to poetry. This is partially yet particularly manifested in the exaggerated importance given nowadays in many schools to the physical arts over the metaphysical arts. It is hardly going too far to say that science poses as a new religion of sorts in purporting to explain what religion used to express.
Many syllabi, sadly, subordinate spiritual exercise of the fine arts to the acquisition of knowledge that is empirical and purely functional and utilitarian—and ultimately, as St. Vincent Millay alludes to, narcissistic. Of course, there are many societal trends that dictate the preoccupation with measurable and manipulative operations and objectives, given that many fortunes are earned through engineering and technical fields.
But there are essential mysteries of contemplation that defy empirical measurement, and their expression begins with the poetic. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, upheld the study of poetic human expression, as it provides a philosophical and theological platform rooted in wonder that rises above the accumulation of facts to, instead, the interconnectedness of all subjects understood in their proper relation to one another.
The ancients considered that this was both the beginning and the end of a liberal education, preparing people to live the good life. The harmonious union and cooperation of science and poetry in education serves to embody a complete worldview that is absent from the arena of modern education, where the measure of things is valued over the mystery of things.
The efforts of physical science can reveal only half of the world—the other half belongs to a different form of knowledge. And for this reason, the poetic and the scientific are not mutually exclusive, as St. Vincent Millay demonstrates. They are mutually confirming: A full vision of things involves both the truth and the truthful, that is, respectively, the fact and the symbol—and, of course, the beauty that belongs to both.
One way or another, men and women must make sense of the world, but how best to understand it? A conglomeration of combined atoms? Mathematical equations and scientific proofs? Or is that too superficial? Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay invite the contemplation of both the physical and spiritual worlds together. Let us resist the dusty bondage of materialistic fixation and seek release in the freedom of transporting and enduring beauty.
Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and The Imaginative Conservative.