Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | November 21, 2010




To amuse His Royal Majesty he will change water into wine.
Frogs into footmen. Beetles into bailiffs. And make a Minister
out of a rat. He bows, and daisies grow from his finger-tips.
And a talking bird sits on his shoulder.
Think up something else, demands His Royal Majesty.
Think up a black star. So he thinks up a black star.
Think up dry water. So he thinks up dry water.
Think up a river bound with straw-bands. So he does.
Then along comes a student and asks: Think up sine alpha greater than one.
And Zito grows pale and sad. Terribly sorry. Sine is
Between plus one and minus one. Nothing you can do about that.
And he leaves the great royal empire, quietly weaves his way
Through the throng of courtiers, to his home in a nutshell.

Miroslav Holub (Czech)
Translated by George Theiner

From Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations, 1991, Bloodaxe Books, 274 pp, ISBN 978-1-852-24122-3.


  1. Too bad Zito did not know complex numbers! For example,
    sin(Pi/2+I) = cosh(1) = 1.543… > 1

    • The same objection was made when decades ago this poem was printed in Manifold, a mathematics magazine mainly – but not exclusively – for undergraduates, published at, but not by, Warwick University. I loved this poem so much I bought a book of translations of Holub’s poetry.

      At the time I thought the objection was valid, but a few years ago I realised that once you start using complex numbers as arguments to the sine function, then the resultant values are also complex numbers, even though they might be complex numbers with a zero imaginary part. This matters, because although you can put order relations on the complex numbers, you can’t put an order relation on them which mimics *all* the nice properties of the usual order relation on the real numbers. So whilst there are complex number arguments to sine which give values which have a zero imaginary part *and* a real part which treated as a real number is greater than 1, I think there is something fishy about switching such complex number values to purely real numbers.

      In short, I think Holub is mathematically correct in his poem, but whether he was aware of the impossibility of putting an order relation on the complex numbers which mimics all the nice properties of the usual order relation on the real numbers, or just “got lucky”, is another question.

      An example of a valid scientific objection to a poem is in very funny article on Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”,

  2. Miroslav Holub is one of my all-time favorite poets!
    Here’s a link to a slightly different translation of “Zito the Magician.”

  3. […] That is (I think) the translation which I first read. As one of the comments here points out, if you use complex numbers you can have a sine(alpha) “greater than 1”, something which the Warwick mathematics magazine also noted as a possible criticism of Holub, which at the time I sort of accepted but didn’t worry about because I liked the poem so much. But thinking about it now, there isn’t a “reasonable” order relation on the complex numbers, that is there isn’t a “reasonable” way of saying that one complex number is “bigger” than another, so – many years later – I now consider this type of criticism of Holub’s poem invalid! * […]

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