In schools today, there is too often a deep line dividing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) from the humanities. That line is falsely drawn, and it limits the potential for learning and discovery for all students.
For proof of its falsehood, look no further than American poet Walt Whitman.
Aside from the fact that he was once a math teacher (who knew? I didn’t), digital humanities scholar Stefan Schöberlein writes about the poet’s affinity for mathematics and that Whitman’s actual poetry is dappled with the language of computationality:
That Leaves of Grass itself is brimming with the language of arithmetic is certainly a well-known—though rarely commented on—fact. From Whitman’s frequent use of “average” (both as verb and noun) to terms like “add,” “divide” or “multiple,” the 1855 edition seems to base both its argument and its language in parts on this most fundamental of the branches of mathematics.
As proof of his claim, Schöberlein offers readers examples of the kinds of words Whitman used throughout his poetry, though modern readers might expect to see in math class:
Wherever we find ourselves in Leaves, a mathematical idea, metaphor or expression is only a stone’s throw away: from “sum” (iii, x, 60), “equal(s)” (v, vii, 14, etc.), “number” (vii, viii, 40, etc.), “multiplication table” (ix), “infinitesimal” (x), “divide(s)” (x, xii), and “subtract” (x) to “thousand(s)” (xi, 14, 24, etc.), “difference” (25, 67), “calculated” (26), “unequal” (31), “infinite” (35), “multiples” (43), “fraction” (43), “trillions” (49), “multiplied” (51), “count” (51), “ten thousand” (54) and “value” (59, 60), even a fleeting glance across the poet’s pages reveal them to be saturated with mathematical terms.
I was eager to see for myself just how the language of math “saturated” Whitman’s poetry. So I enthusiastically graphed a few of the words Schöberlein mentioned on the text’s Plotting Plots page, but found myself disappointed. Here is what I saw:
OK, so a few mathematical terms pop up occasionally in his poetry. Can that really be considered “saturated” or “brimming” as Schöberlein suggests? I began to suspect the claim that Whitman’s poetry brimmed with computationality was an overstatement.
But, later in his same essay, Schöberlein further clarifies that Whitman’s language is “an underlying numerical logic” and “underscores” some “central moments” in Leaves of Grass. He writes:
“Whitman’s arithmetical language is remarkably consistent,” Sholom J. Kahn has rightly observed, and scholarship from the field of mathematics itself seems to suggest an underlying numerical logic behind the poet’s verse. Even a fleeting glance at some of the central moments of Leaves underscores the importance of basic arithmetical ideas to its democratic impulse.
Whereas I was led to believe that I would be overwhelmed with individual word frequencies, perhaps the power of Whitman’s mathematical diction was in the slow-and-steady use of perfectly curated mathematical terms. In order to test this theory, I created a simple topic model in which I tallied variations of words Schöberlein mentions to see how they collectively appear in Leaves of Grass. The result was much more interesting.
The topic model immediately revealed that some books in Leaves of Grass were, well, brimming and saturated with computational language–specifically, Books 3, 24, and 34.
What was going on in those books?
I investigated Book 3 in Whitman’s poem, also known as “Song of Myself,” which is one of Whitman’s most famous compositions gloriously asserting the wonder of individuality in the context of society and the universe. For Whitman, being true to oneself is perfectly in line with cosmic energy.
In Book 3, Whitman uses words related to “equal” most often. It is not a word I ever noticed before, but it struck me profoundly upon rereading. On the one hand, it is a word that conveys objective computationality as in 2+3=5. On the other hand, Whitman puts mathematical words like “equal” to unabashed subjective and social use when he writes some of his most forceful verses. For instance, with key words emboldened:
The clock indicates the moment—but what does eternity indicate?
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them.
Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety.
I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any.
I began to see what Schöberlein meant by “underlying numerical logic behind the poet’s verse.” In the excerpt above, Whitman sprinkles mathematical terms and concepts into a moving declaration of human diversity and dignity. Whitman reclaims words associated with numbers (“clock,” “moment,” “eternity,” “trillions,” “one”) and computational comparisons (“greater,” “smaller,” “equal”) on behalf of expansive humanistic wonder, and even democracy itself.
It must have been challenging for Mr. Whitman the math teacher to limit his thinking to a single discipline. Perhaps that is why he turned to poetry. At its best, the humanities embraces numbers as enthusiastically as letters. It is a lesson that schools today would be right learn, and teach accordingly.
To see how math and literature interplay for yourself, head over to Leaves of Grass page and plot away! And if you need some help, read this walkthrough of how using quantitative data can deepen one’s reading of literature.