“Maths is truth, truth maths”: Romanticism, Poetry and Mathematics

The Romantic Period, an intellectual, literary and artistic movement that swept across Europe, saw a change in the way society viewed the world during the late 1700s and early 1800s (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2005). Nature was increasingly becoming more valuable to the Romantics during a time of industrial revolution, where trade and business was becoming king.

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

John Keats, one of the most famous Romantic poets, explored the natural world within his poetry and had a great fascination and desire to immerse his own being into nature itself – removing himself from the societal pressures life brought. Keats’ life was filled with much turmoil and his only escape was his own poetry and art of writing. Unfortunately, much of Keats’ work was not valued at when he was alive and he was heavily criticised by many. Thus, resulting in him believing he had failed in the art in which he blossomed…

You may question the mathematics behind a Romantic poet, whose main ideology was to distance oneself from life’s industrial pressures and structure, however, Keats’ art seeps with fundamental mathematics (Ma, 2010) underlying his literary prowess because he meticulously planned out his art to convey a particular theme or emotion and he understood the importance of selecting his words carefully in each of his poems. This blog post will explore this within his poetry and will also see the importance of mathematical thinking within creativity as a whole.

In “To Autumn” Keats breaks down the heavily structured way of writing by including an extra line in each stanza (a verse in poetry):

“For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells” (Keats)

In his mind, autumn is a huge season filled with so much change and beauty. To convey this vast enormity, 11 lines are favoured over the traditional 10 to convey how excessive the nature of autumn is and how overwhelmingly beautiful it is to him. The extra line above even states that summer is overfilling (almost like a liquid going beyond the brim of a glass) into the orange richness of autumn, which Keats has shown through the lines literally overflowing beyond the constraints of typical poetry.

The Romantics had a key ideology of embracing self-awareness in people’s own emotions as a necessary way of improving society and bettering the human condition in a time of corruption and social class divides (Sallé, 1992). Keats effectively combines his art of poetry and his carefree beliefs with a structured and logical approach in formulation, similar to those who have the freedom to experiment and explore mathematics freely. Sadly, Keats’ work was not valued until after his death. I find this fitting very well with the mathematicians that believe that there is only one way to go about working through a problem. Multiple perspectives should be evident in both mathematics and the arts, because set rules only lead to confinement in gaining self-progress in both areas. There is more than one way to calculate a mathematical problem in the same way there is more than one way to write a poem. Keats could not reach his full potential as a writer due to the pressures placed upon him and this can be seen as an embodiment of a teacher or professional undermining the prospects of a student within mathematics – disaster will be the only outcome of negativity.

Poetry should also go beyond the words that are written on a page. During an input in Languages, about reading poetry, we were enthused to really appreciate the act of performing poetry aloud. This can be greatly identified in Keats’ poetry once more as he also saw the importance of rhythm in writing:

“Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on viewless wings of poesy” (Keats)

Within “Ode to a Nightingale”, Keats establishes an iambic pentameter as he picks each word systematically to follow a pattern, a key aspect within mathematical thinking (Bellos, 2010), of an unstressed syllable being preceded by a stressed syllable. Every line follows a da-dum da-dum rhythm so that the poem could be performed like a song or to a little tune. This iambic pentameter is used to symbolise the flight of a nightingale flying higher and lower, always changing and never following a set path. Keats explored the freedom of the bird and its stance in nature with its wings allowing it to go wherever its heart desire. This can also be connected with the mathematical structure of music, because songs are psychologically made to instil a mood, much like all aspects of the arts. For example, upbeat music is normally used to bring joy (Wall, 2013). This interconnects back to the Romanticism movement once more as all the arts saw a wave of change during this period, not just poetry and writing.

Friedrich, C. D. (1818) Der Wanderer über den Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) – a Romantic painting that also explored man’s relationship with nature, showing the movement’s impact on the arts.

Delving deeper, the structuring of poetry and even language as a whole requires so many different parts (particularly within a persons time in education) to be taught and learned effectively in order for people to be able to communicate properly: spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, letters, symbols, words, paragraphs, essays… The list could go on and on. Mathematics breaths the same air in terms of its longitudinal coherence because we wouldn’t categorise the various aspects that make up language in the same way some people break mathematics down into specific topics. Teachers that make connections back to the fundamental skills of mathematics when exploring new areas with students provide the best learning experience, because students get to see the wider importance of maths (Ma, 2010). If we were to tackle language teaching in the same confining manner that maths is taught, then communication would be impossible because children wouldn’t see the importance without the contextualisation. In fictional writing, we normally get children to think outside the box and explore outlandish and creative environments, and yet, we then teach mathematics in a polar opposite manner of textbook work and worksheets (Haylock, 2014).

However, flipping the argument on its head, having too heavily a structured environment for writing could also hinder learners in the creative process (Perkins, 2012). Acrostic poems, rhyming schemes and other constraints being placed upon children when they first explore the art of poetry could paint the picture that, from the get-go, creativity and freedom to express one’s thoughts in writing has to conform to a set of rules and if it doesn’t, it isn’t valued. This can be interlinked with the emphasis on teaching through reciting formulae in order to deal with mathematical problems. Many children have experienced negative emotions with the subject when they see they have gotten a question incorrect when their mathematics might actually all be correct up until making a minor mistake.

Much like Keats’ poetry and the Romantics’ ideologies, we need to find a way of gaining a bounty of appreciation and understanding of the application of the fundamental principles of mathematics within life that go beyond the barriers that have been set by years of anxiety, years of dated practice and years of staying within the lines of convention.

The title of this blog comes from a very fitting last line of one of Keats’ poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

The poet proclaims that the truth in our existence should be sourced through our own individual appreciation of life and shouldn’t be hindered by pure rationale. Once again, experimentation within mathematics should be heralded over utilising purely formulae in the subject because it has more substance for a learner. Life itself would be ultimately boring if we could answer everything with one answer; having a sense of discovery about existence is far more exciting and mathematics should be viewed in the same light. The art we create can transcend experiences, emotions and events in time and thats what Keats wanted to grasp within this last line. Utilising mathematics effectively, we could potentially do the same:

“Concepts such as active literacy and the natural learning environment have proved to be powerful tools in changing attitudes and practice in the field of language arts. Properly understood and adapted, the same concepts can work just as powerfully for us, and for our students, in mathematics.” (Monroe, 1996, pg. 369)

Overall, Keats and the other Romantics were controversial in their carefree beliefs during a time of structure and order; however, they themselves formulated structures within their creative art forms to emphasis that empathy and compassion were far more important to society than money and power. I think that we can take great points from the Romantics, poetry and writing as a whole when viewing mathematics as they have parts that overlap, just like the subject of mathematics. Education is, in itself, a wholesome topic and should be viewed in such a cross-curricular manner whether in language, mathematics or any subject we learn and teach.

All the extracts of poetry sourced from:

Keats, John (1994). The Complete Poems of John Keats (Wordsworth Poetry Library) Wordsworth Editions Limited: Hertfordshire.


Bellos, Alex (2010) Alex’s Adventures in Numberland London: Bloomsbury

Sallé JC. (1992) Keats, John (1795–1821). In: Raimond J., Watson J.R. (eds) A Handbook to English Romanticism. Palgrave Macmillan: London

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2005). Romanticism [Article] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20051013060413/http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9083836 (Accessed 17th of November 2017)

Ma, Liping (2010) Knowing and Teaching elementary mathematics: teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States New York: Routledge.

Monroe, E. E. (1996) Languages and Mathematics: a Natural Connection for Achieving Literacy Reading Horizons, 36 (5). Available from: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/reading_horizons/vol36/iss5/1 (Accessed 17th of November 2017)

Perkins, Margaret (2012) Observing Primary Literacy London: SAGE Publications Inc.

Wall, Timothy (2013) Trying to be happier works when listening to upbeat music according to mu research [Article] Available at: http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2013/0514-trying-to-be-happier-works-when-listening-to-upbeat-music-according-to-mu-research/ (Accessed 17th of November 2017)

Images sourced from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/

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