On a Sonnet made from Numbers and the Philosophy of Meaning

I must record here for you Reader a most curious Discovery. I was investigating the usage of Rhyme in an historical Corpus of English Poetry, when, quite accidentally, while mixing together a Sample of Iambic Poems from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, this Poem was randomly generated out of the unseen depths of Chance. And yet I think it is a wonderful Poem—a Sonnet in fact, after the Shakespearean manner—if perhaps wanting a little in Sense. Nonetheless I count it a Discovery: indeed, it reminds me of James Macpherson, who found and bravely brought to the World that glorious epic of Ossian. But I digress no further: here is the Poem: I have but added certain Punctuation, which it lacked entirely:

01	Let us who pale to look for rest, retreat;
02	Now, vain resistance will but buy the task,
03	And light with smiles indulgent chear'd and beat.
04	The lightnings strike: the ende is good to ask
05	Thee, save these groves and lawns and shades, in vain
06	The fortress strong, the cage was wood: he chose
07	An ample plain where sickning pleasures reign.
08	Or, as her choice flowers, their beauty shows
09	From faces heavnly fair, in sight the black
10	Rock's side or flowry glade: a deep abyss
11	Prostrate he lies, enrowl'd now all the pack
12	And first is fed fancy, who with a kisse,
13	Was sealed to keep their fainty hopes alive.
14	But soon, shall prove thine utmost ire and drive.

I copy my Procedure below. But now let us address an important Question of Philosophy. What is the status of Meaning in this Poem? It calls to mind a similar Thought-Experiment: Professors Knapp and Michaels’ “Against Theory” article in the Critical Inquiry of Summer 1982 — in which the more Wordsworthian Conceit is, that Nature herself, while already occupied in splashing about a Beach with the Waves of the Sea, somehow manages, quite by Accident, to transcribe in perfectly readable English the following words: “A slumber did my spirit seal, I had no human fears:” &c. &c. For Profs. K. & M., because its creation is by Chance, it cannot be a Poem, nor bear any Meaning: for Meaning derives from Intentionality.

Let us who pale to look for rest, retreat;
Now, vain resistance will but buy the task,
And light with smiles indulgent chear’d and beat.
The lightnings strike: the ende is good to ask
Thee, save these groves and lawns and shades, in vain
The fortress strong, the cage was wood: he chose
An ample plain where sickning pleasures reign.
Or, as her choice flowers, their beauty shows
From faces heavnly fair, in sight the black
Rock’s side or flowry glade: a deep abyss
Prostrate he lies, enrowl’d now all the pack
And first is fed fancy, who with a kisse,
Was sealed to keep their fainty hopes alive.
But soon, shall prove thine utmost ire and drive.

But is this fascinating Sonnet, another Accident of Sorts, really not a Poem? — with no Meaning whatsoever? Absurd, in my Opinion. Look for instance at the poem’s opening pastoral affect, surrounding the Vanity of Ambition and the Virtue of Rest; followed by the prophesy of the End of Days; and then the ensuing, strange, gendered Dialectic, in which a Male Persona (“he”) of “sickning pleasures” alternates with a Female Persona (“her”) of “choice flowers” and “faces heavnly fair”. I could walk out this interpretation Further — and will — in this footnote.1 But in a word, I mean to say: this is a Poem. As a raindrop falls down a Window — unpredictably, and yet likely to follow the Channels of prior Drops — so this Sonnet wrote itself by falling down the Grooves made, not by Nature’s idle unthinking Waves, but by thousands of English Iambic Poems across the last five Centuries.

Herein lies the Problem with the Account of Knapp and Michaels: Nature could never write a Poem. They ask us to take this Falsity on Premise, but it is a Devious Falsity, for it obscures the Nature of those Forces that bring a Poem into being. Although constructed from an historically distributed Sample, this Poem has a predominant flavor of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, perhaps given its Seed Words, “let us”, with their monosyllabic Diction and prayer-like Invocation. But in any case, from this origin, to travel the Markov Chain of English Iambic Poetry is, for some reason, to travel through a thematics of Ambition versus Rest; of an interesting, and problematic, gendered Polarity of Affect, between Fancy and Delight on the one hand, and Aggression and Dissolution on the other. What gives these Thematics meaning, in this Accidental Poem, is identical to what gives meaning to the Thematics of a “Real” Poem: the Forces that led Language to take on this particular Shape and Pattern. In a Poet, these Forces are personal as well as literary, social, historical, &c.: here, while not personal, the Forces embedded in the Markov Chain are perhaps still more deeply historical, cultural, literary, and political.2 They represent a muted Afterglow of Poetry’s English History, an Afterglow which in spite of itself retains a Specificity of Meaning. For the eminent Philosopher of Events and Action, Donald Davidson, Reasons are Causes of Actions. So too here: Reasons are Causes of Poetry, even as these Reasons are de-personalized from Intentionality, per se — one could say that the ghost of Wordsworth is dispelled — to become instead a more persuasive, complex Form of Meaning: Forces and Causes; Grooves, and Raindrops.


Recipe: for a Sonnet

  1. From 800 Poems sampled from each of eight Historical Periods as annotated in Chadwyck-Healy’s Corpus of Poetry, from the Tudor Period to the 20th Century
  2. in the Poems which the Algorithm believes are Iambic
  3. construct two Markov Chains
    1. for words within lines only (to maximize Sense and Syntax)
    2. for all words in the poem
  4. a “Chain” meaning that for every three words (n1 + n2 + n3), increase in your Data the probability of (n3) given (n1 + n2)
  5. this then allows, from a chosen starting point of an arbitrary (n1 + n2), a “random” decision of the next word, (n3), but weighted by the probability of (n3) derived from the foregoing operation, number 4.
  6. Then (n2 + n3) become the new (n1 + n2), and predict a new (n3) in its turn, and so on ad infinitum, in potentia.
  7. To generate a Pentameter Poem, however, run the Model (from the initial Seed Words [here, “let us”]) as many times as necessary until:
    1. a perfect 10 Syllable Line is created
    2. whose last word is not a function word
    3. whose last two words were observed somewhere in the Corpus [to further prohibit ending on Syntactic Words]
    4. and which, if necessary, rhymes with the appropriate line.
  8. Once the first Line is created, the next line is generated using the Seed Words of the last two Words of the first Line — but only Lines generated that satisfy the above Conditions are accepted, all others are discarded, into a Heap of Combinations of English Words perhaps never before Seen, and perhaps, never after
  9. The lines can be given a Rhyme Scheme to follow. In this case the scheme is the following: “A B A B C D C D E F E F G G.”
  10. Rhymes are defined as a Correspondence of Phonemes in the Nucleus and Coda of the Final Syllable of two Lines.
  11. Use the Within-Line Markov Model when within a Line, whenever possible; otherwise switch to the All Words Model

Further Notes


  1. The Poem begins with a rhetorical stance, speaking in the imperative tense: those who pale at the thought of finding Rest, should retreat from their position: their vain Resistance to the Wisdom of Rest will but force them to need more of it, as their indulgent Smiles, requiring so much Effort, give them a Light that is “chear’d and beat.” Then the Poet reminds us of the End of Days: “the lightnings strike” and “the End is good to ask thee”, to give you this Opportunity and Time, now,  now before the End comes, to save these “groves and lawns and shades,” that is, places of mental Serenity and Rest. “In vain” is the aggressive, ambitious, “man”-made fortress or cage: beauty’s “choice flowers” are instead the “black rock’s side” and “flowry glade.” Truly the fortress of the Male Persona is a “deep abyss” on which he is “prostrate,” no Fortress or Cage. But to him is given “Fancy,” a sexualized and feminized Persona calling back to a few lines above, and who ominously “was sealed,” in the passive voice, “to keep their fainty hopes alive.” A bleak ending of domestic tragedy, except for the last line: “but soon,” these “fainty hopes” of “thine,” perhaps referring to both the Female and to the Male Personas, will Polarize to become “Ire and Drive” — an emotional Ambiguity of Indignation and a new, fresher Ambition.
  2. Indeed, the Poem can be said to be Misogynist. Why are Women so strongly associated with Flowers, and Fancy, and such, that they appear only among them in a Random Voyage through Poetic History? The Feminist or Sexual Politics of Language is perhaps still more resonant here.


  1. tree

    Misogynistic? Quite the opposite, for its suggestion that a man cannot have anything to do with beauty, anything to do with grace, anything to do with his divinity. Misandry perhaps was the arrow, piercing indeed for those among us who make stead with all forty six chromosomes of our nature and do not side with simply one or the other

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