Historical Context

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Euclidean Geometry
Most principles of geometry upon which mathematicians base their work today—and for the past twenty-three centuries—are related to the theories and methods first recorded around 300 B.C.E. by the Greek writer Euclid. His comprehensive work on mathematical theory, The Elements, was probably heavily based on the work of his predecessor Eudoxus, who had been a student of the philosopher Plato. Euclid refined Eudoxus’s theories, along with geometric principles that were the results of generations of mathematicians. His Elements, written in Egyptian Alexandria, has been a central influence for twenty-three centuries, from the Hellenistic world after the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Roman Empire, to the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, into the medieval world and on to today.

The Elements is a comprehensive treatise that brings together geometry, proportion, and number theory, tying them all into one complete theory for the first time. It is divided into thirteen books. The first six are about geometry. At the heart of Euclid’s geometry are five postulates. A postulate is a rule that is assumed to be true and does not have to be proved, as opposed to a theorem, which needs proving. Euclid’s first three postulates have to do with construction. For instance, the first one states that it is possible to draw a straight line between any two points. The second and third postulates deal with defining straight lines and circles. The fourth postulate states that all right angles are equal. The fifth postulate was to become a challenge to the mathematical community for centuries to come. It states that two lines are parallel if they are intersected by a third one with identical interior angles. This postulate assumed many facts about parallel lines continuing on for infinity. Euclid himself was said to be uncomfortable with the absolute truth of this statement and declared it to be a given truth only after some hesitation. Its acceptance was a factor that defined a set of geometric theories as Euclidean geometry.

Non-Euclidean Geometry
For centuries, mathematicians tried either to prove Euclid’s fifth postulate right once and for all or to find the overlooked element that proved it to be wrong. In 1482, the first printed edition translating Euclid’s work from Arabic to Latin appeared, stimulating the progress. During the 1600s, various mathematicians rewrote the fifth postulate in ways that helped redefine such concepts as “acute angle” or “parallel” in new ways. By 1767, the French writer Jean Le Rond d’Alembert referred to the problem of parallel lines as “the scandal of elementary geometry.”

In the early nineteenth century, there arose various schools of geometry that rewrote the assumptions, creating whole systems of understanding space without having to accept the fifth postulate. Collectively, these schools of thought came to be known as non-Euclidean geometries. There are two different types of non-Euclidean geometry, each relying on a different understanding of the concept of parallelism. Those that assume that there is no such thing as a “parallel” line that will fail to eventually meet the original one are called “elliptic geometries”; those that assume that there can be multiple lines passing through a point that will par- allel the original line without touching it are referred to as “hyperbolic geometries.”

Three mathematicians, working independently of one another, came up with systems of geometry (almost at the same time) in the beginning of the 1800s, all of which left out Euclid’s problematic fifth postulate. Carl Frederich Gauss is credited with being the first of them. Gauss disliked controversy and was unwilling to disagree with the prevailing view that Euclid’s geometry was the...

(This entire section contains 748 words.)

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inevitable, indisputable truth, so he devised his system in private and did not publish his findings. In 1823, Gauss read the works of Janos Bolyai, a Rumanian whose non-Euclidean theories were hidden in his introduction to a book by his father, who was also a famous mathematician. Though Bolyai could not have known of Gauss’s results, his theories were similar. In 1829, a Russian, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who was himself unfamiliar with the work of Gauss and Bolyai, published his own work of non-Euclidian geometry. These three gave rise to a new way of conceiving of space, changing the assumptions that had been put into place by Euclid more than two thousand years earlier. It is just this sort of advancement of knowledge, of restructuring assumptions that were previously taken to be indisputable truth, that Rita Dove considers in her poem “Geometry.”

Literary Style

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“Geometry” is a contemporary American narrative poem. It is like traditional, formalist poetry only in its organization into stanzas. The stanzas are of equal length of three lines each known as tercets; this organization conveys a sense of geometrical symmetry even though three is an uneven number. The poem employs no formal rhyme scheme. It is written in free verse, which means it uses no set pattern of meter, but contains its own unique accents and rhythms. The poet chooses consciously where to break the lines, and does so to produce the sounds that make its ultimate rhythm.

Compare and Contrast

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1980: The United States Department of Education is developed, comprised of a staff of seventeen thousand full-time employees. Today: Some people feel that the centralized Department of Education should be disbanded because it cannot adequately understand local issues that affect schools’ environments.

1980: A study by UCLA and the American Council on Education finds that college freshmen express more interest in money and power than at any time in the past fifteen years. It is the beginning of a period that came to be known as The “Me” Decade.

Today: After a long period of economic stability in the 1990s, many students take economic stability for granted. Colleges are seeing renewed interest in careers that are not focused on accumulating wealth, such as mathematics and poetry.

1980: Humanity’s understanding of the universe expands with the findings of Voyager I, an unmanned space craft that made new discoveries about Saturn’s moons as part of its three-year, 1.3 billion-mile journey.

Today: Plans are underway to send two unmanned space crafts to Pluto, the farthest planet in our solar system.

1980: The United States Supreme Court finds, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty that a man-made life form—specifically, a microorganism that could eat petroleum in cases of spills—can be patented.

Today: Biotechnology and genetic technology are growing scientific fields and lucrative sectors of the stock market.

Media Adaptations

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Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and S. E. Hinton are featured on a 1999 video from Films for the Humanities, entitled Great Woman Writers.

Journalist Bill Moyers presents an in-depth look at Dove’s life and her writings in Poet Laureate Rita Dove, a one-hour videocassette produced in 1994 and released by Films for the Humanities. It was originally broadcast on PBS as part of the Bill Moyers’ Journals series.

Rita Dove was the executive producer for Shine Up Your Words, a 1994 television program meant to introduce students to poetry. It is available from Virginia Center for the Book, in Richmond, Virginia.

New Letters magazine produced the radio series New Letters on the Air. This series is available on audiocassette, including #305, Rita Dove, which features the author reading and discussing her poems in 1985.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Hathcock, Nelson, Critical Survey of Poetry , Magill, 1991, pp. 954–61.

McDowell, Robert, “The Assembling Visions of Rita Dove,” in Callaloo, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 1986, pp. 52–60.

Steffen, Therese, Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Dove’s Poetry, Fiction and Drama, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen, “A Dissonant Triad,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 391–404.

—, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press, 1995.

Further Reading
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1994. This renowned modern philosophical text, first published in 1964, explores poetry’s relationship to the measurable, physical world.

Dove, Rita, The Poet’s World, Library of Congress, 1995. This publication actually consists of the texts of two addresses that Dove made to the Library of Congress while she was poet laureate. Her view of poetry’s overall significance and her goals as an individual poet are emphasized.

Mlodinow, Leonard, Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, Free Press, 2001. Dove’s poem assumes that its reader has a sense of what geometry is about. In this book, Mlodinow traces the history of geometry by discussing the major figures who have shaped modern thought, giving a funny, spry spin to a topic that students can sometimes find dull and dense.

Steffen, Therese, Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita Doves’ Poetry, Fiction and Drama, Oxford University Press, 2001. In one of the only books analyzing Dove’s overall career, this recent publication looks at the issues of spatial concept that are raised in “Geometry.”


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide