Mixing Apples and Oranges: What Poetry and Applied Mathematics Have in Common1

By Cohen, Joel E. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Mixing Apples and Oranges: What Poetry and Applied Mathematics Have in Common1


Cohen, Joel E., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

MY GRADE-SCHOOL EDUCATION in mathematics included a strict prohibition against mixing apples and oranges. As an adult buying fruit, I often find it convenient to mix the two. If they have the same price, the arithmetic works out well. The added thrill of doing something forbidden, like eating dessert first, comes free. In any case, the prohibition against combining apples and oranges falls away as soon as we care about what two subjects, different in some respects, have in common.

I want to mix apples and oranges by insisting on the important features shared by poetry and applied mathematics. Poetry and applied mathematics both mix apples and oranges by aspiring to combine multiple meanings and beauty using symbols. These symbols point to things outside themselves, and create internal structures that aim for beauty. In addition to meanings conveyed by patterned symbols, poetry and applied mathematics have in common both economy and mystery. A few symbols convey a great deal. The symbols' full meanings and their effectiveness in creating meanings and beauty remain inexhaustible.

Consider the following examples, which involve a beautiful poem of A. E. Housman (1859-1936) and some applied mathematics from my own recent research. In August 1893, Housman wrote:

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

The surface meaning is simple: I regret that my friends, once young, have died. At that level of sophistication, the surface meaning of The Odyssey is equally simple: Odysseus has trouble getting home. Below the surface of Housman's poem, though, multiple meanings (social, personal, and allusive) interact.

The poem's social meanings arise from its time and place. The 63 poems in the collection A Shropshire Lad (of which this is number 54) describe the nostalgia of a country boy who moved to the big city. The poems, published in 1896, resonated widely in English society, where the population was rapidly urbanizing. By 1900, England would become the first country in the world to have most of its people living in cities.

The poem also had personal meanings for Housman. The scholar Archie Burnett's 2003 essay "Silence and Allusion in Housman" showed that many of his poems were "for Housman a means of finding a voice for the love that dare not speak its name, a way of breaking silence, a veil for disclosure, at once catering to reticence and facilitating expression." In May 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced for the crime of "gross indecency" (homosexuality but not buggery) to two years' imprisonment with hard labor. Housman 's Shropshire 54 seems benignly neutral about boys and girls, maidens and lads, and Housman went to great lengths from his youth onward to conceal his homosexuality. But his passionate objection to society's treatment of homosexuals, including Wilde, is clear in several poems in A Shropshire Lad and in his later writings, as the critic and scholar Christopher Ricks demonstrated in his essay "A. E. Housman and 'the colour of his hair' " in 1997. Among the personal meanings of "With rue my heart is laden" is what Housman dared not say.

This poem also has allusive meanings for those who read it with the literary background that Housman brought to writing it. In Cymbeline (act 4, scene 2), Shakespeare wrote a beautiful song of mourning for a boy, Fidele, who was thought to have died (but was in fact only drugged into a deep sleep):

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Here are Housman's "golden" "lads" and "girls." John Sparrow in 1934 noted echoes of Shakespeare's dirge in this and two other poems of Housman's. Beyond the specific words, Housman echoes Shakespeare's point that mortality masters all. …

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