Eat Our Words: A Lion, Trafalgar Square, AI Poetry and Wordsmithie

Es Devlin AI

It’s not every day that one can wander the streets of London and stumble upon a lion. Less likely still is the chance that the lion in question can generate poetry more or less on demand. And yet in early September that’s exactly what Londoners were treated to in Trafalgar Square.

Part of the London Design Festival, the four lions that flank Nelson’s Column, a key architectural feature of the Square, were joined by a fifth for several days. Created by designer Es Devlin, the lion was designed to generate a collective poem using machine learning technology. Passersby could feed the lion words via a Chromebook, but the lion was already programmed through a neural network to know 25 million words of 19th century poetry, inspired by the era during which the original lions were cast. The result? Lines of poetry that often read like artifacts from a bygone era, but containing words that are very much of the moment. A few funny examples:

My antidisestablishmentarianism shows with strength to the soul
The sea is still the day


A marijuana lifts the garden floor
While the red sea is strewn with blue between

In a larger sense, though, it showed us the power of AI in the creative industry.

Devlin was inspired by the passivity of the four lions that are traditionally at the base of the Column. Rumor has it that the lions, which are crouched very much like tame house cats, were supposed to look much more fierce, but Queen Victoria preferred a less shocking aesthetic. The fifth lion’s mouth was open, as if roaring. When fed with words, lines of poetry would appear in its mouth and, at night, on its body and on the Column itself. The project thus not only shows a supremely creative application of AI, but how humans can interact with it to very interesting results. And, of course, it gave the more amenable lions a fierce counterpart that could work wonders with words. (Not unlike our ‘Smithies here at the agency…)

The project was undertaken by Google Arts and Culture and The Space, a digital commissioning body which is dedicated to providing access to the arts through digital technologies.

We at Wordsmithie fed the lion in person as well as online. Our team fed the lion over 20 words, and received back several lines of poetry, which you can read below.

The seraphim and song of the dead man’s song
The sun and sun are still the paths of day

Our abolition streams were shed
Where are the paths the stars of song did stray

My diversity the glad and sweet desires
Of song and spruce and strife

Lavender through the sunny moon
The stream is fresh and fair

Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah Jones is a digital marketing consultant who has worked with tech startups, educational institutions and non-profits on acquisition and engagement strategy, implementation and KPI modeling. When she’s not working, she can be found reading, writing, pontificating history, yoga-ing and making up verbs.

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