Seminar paper, M.A. English Literature, Duquesne University: 2016
5,000 words
Initially I wished to write about the influence of periodical culture upon 19th century female poets. I narrowed my scope and became interested in the influence of contemporary astronomy and science upon Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Once I settled upon this topic, I wrote an annotated bibliography in order to focus my research. My method was to juxtapose scientific articles from periodicals that Dickinson is known to have read,  three of her astronomical poems, and relevant scholarly research. I explore her androgynous self-identity and its relationship to her scientific inclinations. I argue that she utilizes scientific themes in poetry as a means to undermine gender roles and assert a feminist point-of-view.
            Though Dickinson did not enter adulthood to become a scientist, scientific imagery figures into much of her poetry; perhaps for this reason, she is able to escape the stigma of androgyny while still instilling it into her works. Bergland discusses Emily Dickinson’s role in the scientific and academic field during America’s changing attitude toward females in science. Dickinson participated in a rigorous scientific education at Mount Holyoke at just the right time to experience this dramatic shift in gender sensibility within American science. Her teachers at Mount Holyoke were particularly knowledgeable about astronomy, and momentous events occurred in this field in the year 1848, while Dickinson was in school; first, Maria Mitchell discovered a telescopic comet, and second, the astronomer Caroline Herschel died (she discovered eight comets and with her brother discovered the planet Uranus). Dickinson was undoubtedly aware of these events, and she carried with her an interest in and knowledge about science, particularly astronomy, throughout the rest of her life. This interest manifested in her poetry. Approximately 270, or 15% of Dickinson’s poems were about science, and “Her approach to science was often playful and Baym argues convincingly that Dickinson’s scientific imagination helped bolster her antiauthoritarianism.” (Bergland, 85) In addition, through tracking Dickinson’s edits of her astronomical poetry, we can see that she progressed towards a more critical view of gender roles and hierarchy throughout her life.
            Dickinson grew up during a unique cultural moment, having experienced a total reversal of gender roles in the scientific world while she was coming of age. She felt that in her past scientific education, she was “a boy” while she lived as an adult woman poet. In many of her poems, themes of androgyny mingle with scientific imagery or astronomical allusions. I will look particularly at three poems: “The Zeros taught Us— Phosphorus,” “Nature and God- I neither knew,” and “When the astronomer stops seeking.” I will be interrogating these poems for androgynous language and its relation to astronomy—and also looking at their circulation and edits to determine how her scientific or androgynous sensibilities may have had an effect on the final version of each. In many of these poems, we find that the final version reflects heightened anxieties about gender identity and gender hierarchy than in the original versions.
            Emily Dickinson would be aware of the gender identity issues surrounding female scientists at the time; as a highly educated woman who followed not only general current events, but also had a particular interest in astronomy, she would be familiar with the circumstances surrounding the cultural shift in sensibility. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Speciesappeared in The Atlantic which Dickinson faithfully read; she would be aware of the scientific advances that led to women’s exclusion from the scientific sphere. And as a woman interested and educated in astronomy, Dickinson would have a vested interested in undermining the rigid gender binary system oppressing female scientists in America during her time.
            Poetry offered her just the avenue by which to offer critique without the lumbering, heavy, rhetorical obligation that would come with political or socially conscious prose writing. Instead, Dickinson could instill gender deconstructing images and signs into her poetry, thus subtly pushing against the prevailing cultural understanding of gender binary systems. One of the most notable features of Dickinson’s collection of poetry is the tactile control she held over each of them; she left behind extensive collections of handwritten poetry, sewn into “fascicles;” occasionally one of her poems would circulate via letters sent to her friends and personal acquaintances. Christanne Miller, in her article “Whose Dickinson?” reviews the various scholarly approaches to Emily Dickinson’s collected poetry, and also discusses the significance of Dickinson’s editing process to interpretations of her work. Because Dickinson rejected print culture, her work must be analyzed independently from typographical convention. She wrote in three stages: first worksheet, then draft, and then she produced a final version. After producing the final version, she would destroy the initial copies; yet, occasionally she would edit her poems after sending them to friends, and by comparing different versions we can get a sense of her editing process— or at least the general vector of her process. Miller describes the various iterations of Dickinson’s poems as “multiple performances of a single production— each of which is instructive, as with the performance of any art, but none of which constitutes a separate production of poem.” (Miller, 248) Thus, the entire edit history of each poem can be viewed contemporaneously to perceive a complete whole, much like subtle variations from an actor’s performance one night to the next represent different iterations of the same play. The intimate touch of Dickinson’s hand to the page produced— and left behind— both versions. We will be investigating subtle changes in certain poems in order to inspect why she might have changed certain phrasings in light of gender issues and identity.
            Dickinson utilizes astronomical imagery in her poetry to discuss her interests in science while also using this imagery to recognize herself as a person participating in both gender roles. In “The Zeros taught Us – Phosphorus –” we can find evidence not only of Dickinson’s interest in chemistry and astronomy but also in the androgynous identity she holds in relation to her interest in these fields. The second and third lines of the poem read: “We learned to like the Fire/ By handling Glaciers- when a Boy-” This poem, written in late 1862, shortly after the “Mary Somerville” essay was published in The Atlantic Monthly could have been influenced directly by her thinking about the topic of women in science— specifically, astronomy.
            Dickinson’s edits to this poem indicate that she altered it to include a noticeable hierarchy between opposites. Her original version, sent to Samuel Bowles in 1862, is significantly different from the final version which we read in Franklin today, and which was also sent to Samuel Bowles (but in 1863). The third line, rather than reading “By handling Glaciers— when a Boy—” originally read “playing Glaciers.” The final version of the poem reads:
            The Zeros Taught Us— Phosphorus –
            We learned to like the Fire
            By handling Glaciers – When a Boy
            And Tinder – guessed – by Power

            Of Opposite— to equal Ought—
            Eclipses— Suns— imply—
            Paralysis— our Primer dumb
            Unto Vitality—  (F284)
            The first stanza of the poem speaks not specifically about astronomy, but does allude to chemistry. The first stanza implies the ambiguous state of origin: mankind discovering chemicals and the utility of fire (rather than its destructive force). Similarly, Dickinson’s work to upend gender roles is deconstructive— not destructive— she wishes society to un-learn, rather than to perish entirely.
            An interesting edit to the first stanza is that Dickinson changed “playing Glaciers” to “handling Glaciers.” Why would this be? The word “playing” implies childlike fascination and fun, or even that Dickinson as a child pretended to be a glacier, or played a game called Glaciers. “Handling” involves less joy. Overall, “handling” is a more ambiguous term than “playing;” are they pushing glaciers around, touching glaciers, or simply contemplating the existence of glaciers? To handle something is a weightier and more adult activity than to play something. Dickinson may have included this edit in order to give the poem more weight. After all, her edit also brings celestial objects into the poem, creating a heavier effect overall.
            The second stanza originally read:
            Of Opposite— to balance
            If White— a Red— must be!
            Paralysis— our Primer dumb
            Unto Vitality— (F284A)
            Compared to the original:
            Of Opposite— to equal Ought—
            Eclipses— Suns— imply—
            Paralysis— our Primer dumb
            Unto Vitality—  (F284)
            The original version of “The Zeros taught us— Phosphorus” dabbles in chemistry, but does not touch upon astronomy; it departs from science in the second stanza and instead focuses on the idea of opposites. In an deconstructionist move, the poem implies that identity results just as much from the absence of what one is than it does from an active participation in any particular quality. Dickinson, then, might be defined by her opposite. The edited, 1863 version of the poem allows itself more access to both astronomy and to androgyny; in doing so, it also implies a hierarchy between these opposites— sun and eclipse verses red and white. While white and red, which represent opposites in the original version of the poem, participate in no inherent hierarchy, eclipses and suns do participate in a strict dynamic. The sun is an active presence, while the eclipse is nothing but a shadow: an intangible phenomenon that only exists as it is observed. This implies not only Dickinson’s androgyny, but also that women only seem to exist in the shadow of men—particularly in science…

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