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Relations between Modern Mathematics and Poetry: Czesław Miłosz; Zbigniew Herbert; Ion Barbu/Dan Barbilian

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posted on 2021-11-15, 00:52 authored by Kempthorne, Loveday Jane Anastasia

This doctoral thesis is an examination of the relationship between poetry and mathematics, centred on three twentieth-century case studies: the Polish poets Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) and Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), and the Romanian mathematician and poet Dan Barbilian/Ion Barbu (1895-1961).  Part One of the thesis is a review of current scholarly literature, divided into two chapters. The first chapter looks at the nature of mathematics, outlining its historical developments and describing some major mathematical concepts as they pertain to the later case studies. This entails a focus on non-Euclidean geometries, modern algebra, and the foundations of mathematics in Europe; the nature of mathematical truth and language; and the modern historical evolution of mathematical schools in Poland and Romania. The second chapter examines some existing attempts to bring together mathematics and poetry, drawing on literature and science as an academic field; the role of the imagination and invention in the languages of both poetics and mathematics; the interest in mathematics among certain Symbolist poets, notably Mallarmé; and the experimental work of the French groups of mathematicians and mathematician-poets, Bourbaki and Oulipo. The role of metaphor is examined in particular.  Part Two of the thesis is the case studies. The first presents the ethical and moral stance of Czesław Miłosz, investigating his attitudes towards classical and later relativistic science, in the light of the Nazi occupation and the Marxist regimes in Poland, and how these are reflected in his poetry. The study of Zbigniew Herbert is structured around a wide selection of his poetic oeuvre, and identifying his treatment of evolving and increasingly more complex mathematical concepts. The third case study, on Dan Barbilian, who published his poetry under the name Ion Barbu, begins with an examination of the mathematical school at Göttingen in the 1920s, tracing the influence of Gauss, Riemann, Klein, Hilbert and Noether in Barbilian’s own mathematical work, particularly in the areas of metric spaces and axiomatic geometry. In the discussion, the critical analysis of the mathematician and linguist Solomon Marcus is examined. This study finishes with a close reading of seven of Barbu’s poems.  The relationship of mathematics and poetry has rarely been studied as a coherent academic field, and the relevant scholarship is often disconnected. A feature of this thesis is that it brings together a wide range of scholarly literature and discussion. Although primarily in English, a considerable amount of the academic literature collated here is in French, Romanian, Polish and some German. The poems themselves are presented in the original Polish and Romanian with both published and working translations appended in the footnotes. In the case of the two Polish poets, one a Nobel laureate and the other a multiple prize-winning figure highly regarded in Poland, this thesis is unusual in its concentration on mathematics as a feature of the poetry which is otherwise much-admired for its politically-engaged and lyrical qualities. In the case of the Romanian, Dan Barbilian, he is widely known in Romania as a mathematician, and most particularly as the published poet Ion Barbu, yet his work is little studied outside that country, and indeed much of it is not yet translated into English.  This thesis suggests at an array of both theoretical and specific starting points for examining the multi-stranded and intricate relationship between mathematics and poetry, pointing to a number of continuing avenues of further research.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Modern Languages

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

School of Mathematics, Statistics and Operations Research

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Sonzogni, Marco; Donelan, Peter