Formatting a Tail for EPUB: Concrete Poetry and Varying Screen Width

Let us format a mouse’s tail.

There’s a good reason for it: Wikipedia says, and I see no reason to disbelieve, that exactly 150 years ago (July 4th, 1862) Lewis Carroll told the daughters of his colleague the first version of the story which we now know, in written form, as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And this is, obviously, a good occasion for some formatting. There is an especially attractive piece in the named book: The Mouse’s Tale, shaped like a mouse’s tail. In my earlier article on formatting poetry for small screens, I mentioned this as an example of a poem too specific to be discussed in a general-purpose tutorial. Let me now repent and discuss it. Maybe the solution presented here will inspire some good ideas for other cases; or maybe it will just entertain someone, which isn’t so bad either.

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Formatting a Bilingual Poetry Collection in EPUB

One EPUB formatting question which I recently got interested in was: how to create a bilingual poetry book? That is, if you want to have a book of poetry in one language with line-by-line translation to another language (to aid a reader who knows the language of the original not too well), how do you do that? In a paper book, a good and well-tried solution is to have the texts in two languages placed on the left and the right page, facing each other. For an e-book, unfortunately, that approach cannot be reused; in particular because with an e-book you usually have only one page visible at a time. Splitting the page into two columns may be acceptable for short citations, but to format a whole poetic collection in this way would be inconvenient, for the columns are somewhat too narrow in this case even on bigger devices.

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Formatting Poetry for EPUB and Small Devices

What we are going to discuss here is how to format poetry in XHTML format (which underlies EPUB) so that it looks nice on smartphone screens – that is, when many or even all of the lines do not fit the screen width. In other words, our concern is how to break poetry lines nicely.

We do not discuss the poems which use non-standard formatting (Lewis Carrol’s Fury said to a mouse, shaped like a twisting tail, is a good example of what we are not talking about here); each poem of this sort is a separate formatting problem of artistic rather then technical nature. What we are going to consider are poetry pieces which use some sort of conventional formatting. The examples used further in this tutorial are from Shakespeare, from Horace, and, for a more specific formatting convention, from Beowulf.

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