Emily Dickinson and the Science of Poetry

Emily Dickinson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right (1894)

The following is a guest post written by Caitlin Rizzo, a staffer at the Poetry and Literature Center and a blogger for the Library’s From the Catbird SeatCaitlin and I decided to swap blogs for the week. She wrote this piece for Inside Adams and I wrote a piece about the first, and only, poem I ever memorized. Check out From the Catbird Seat’s for my guest post  Stay Gold: First Poems and Robert Frost.

It may seem strange to see the name Emily Dickinson pop up on a blog about science, technology, and business, but as a poetry-lover and an avid reader of Scientific American (and the Inside Adams blog!).  I can’t help but complicate the divide between the hard sciences and the fine arts. For me, there’s no better poet to understand the far-reaching arm of the humanities than Emily Dickinson.

Like many of the transcendentalist authors of the 19th century, who were her contemporaries, Dickinson was fascinated by science. She saw the study of nature as part of a larger need to understand the universe and the human role within it. I think the best poets are like scientists—asking questions and seeking truth, however uncomfortable it may be.

To me, Dickinson’s poem “632” is the epitome of the spirit of scientific inquiry. Each quatrain begins with a line of hypothesis, followed by a line of experiment and two lines to analyze the results. The poem is a triumph of the scientific method.

632

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

House Members Room. Light of Poetry (red) panel in the Spectrum of Light ceiling mural by Carl Gutherz. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Poems speak in a language of ambivalence that reveals what the author, the speaker, even the reader is most afraid of saying. Emily Dickinson was devoutly religious all her life; she even composed her poems in a distinct rhythm we now call “hymn meter,” modeled after the syllabic counts of the songs she would have heard in church every week. Yet here, as in other poems, she walks a dangerous line. In saying that the brain is the mechanism which contains its own universe, she risks committing to a spiritually and philosophically dangerous viewpoint.

Dickinson uses metaphors from the physical and natural sciences when, in stanza after stanza, she compares the brain to the sky and the ocean, even the physical properities of water; she begins to evoke the science of linguistics in her final line, a science that is more contemporary with today’s reader than with Dickinson herself. She must rely on nature as an empiric guide, to show the brain’s power: to perceive and derive meaning from the existence of whatever is around it.

Dickinson is not alone in mixing poetry and science—Adrienne Rich explores the experiments of Marie Curie in her poem “Power” and later astronomy in her “Planetarium”; Kimiko Hahn focuses intensely on the mysterious world of botany in her Toxic Flora; and Rosmarie Waldrop interrogates the givens of mathematical philosophy in her “Zero, the Corrosive Number.” Rae Armantrout even takes on the complicated economic theory and socio-political commentary in her “Soft Money.” In the end, there’s no real division at all. There’s a poet for every scientist, and a scientist for every poet!

10 Comments

  1. Linda
    June 5, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    I love Dickinson, but you have used an illustration that almost certainly is not of her. It bears no resemblence to the one known, confirmed photograph of her. Also, I would not say that Dickinson was a “devout Christian.” She was a skeptic in many ways, and she took issue with many of the doctrines of organized Christian religions. The truly devout rarely question as she often did. She stopped attending church in her early thirties. Her poems could be used to prove that she was devout, that she was agnostic, that she was held any of several attitudes toward religion, the possibility of an afterlife, and the role of a creator. I agree that she was interested in science–and that she was a fine observer of natural phenomena, a characteristic of most good scientists.

  2. Lieve Vandermeulen
    June 6, 2013 at 9:18 am

    The authors mentioned in the last paragraph are all women. Do they have a better relationship with nature, matter, and on the other hand rational or even spiritual aspects of science?
    The transcendence of the material?

  3. alireza taghdarreh
    June 6, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Coming from a mystical background from Iran, from the land of Rumi, the poem seems to be very mystical in its essence. In the Persian mysticism God is believed to be a gem that cannot be found in the shell of this universe. And yet this same God can be housed comfortably in the heart or the brain of a person who loves him.

  4. Sam
    June 6, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Excellent post, thanks!

  5. Tom Boring
    June 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    ED is my favorite poet with the possible exception of Shakespeare. It is misleading to declare her “devoutly religious all her life.” As a child she refused – several times- to ‘stand’ with those who declared Christ their redeemer. Her skepticism runs throughput her letters, her poems, her life. Sewall is a good reference here. The child portrait shown here has been extracted and modified from a family group that is generic in the extreme. They all look alike!

  6. Erica
    June 6, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    GREAT article, except for some misinformation:
    She was NOT “devoutly religious.”
    I’m not even going to source that, it really should be common knowledge. She doesn’t even respect Christianity- she’s openly hostile towards it in both her poetry and her letters.

  7. angela maria brambilla
    June 6, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Very interesting,fact-based , informative, illuminating! Thanks

  8. Caitlin Rizzo
    June 7, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Thank you so much for all of your comments! I’m happy to see that the word “devout” drew some criticism from our readers. I hoped to point to the subtlety and complexity that defined Dickinson’s relationship with religion, and to navigate the poem’s ambivalence with some general background that included Dickinson’s involvement with religion. There’s certainly room for debate, and I’m happy to have sparked some scholarly discussion about Dickinson!

    As for the portrait, it certainly does not look like the photograph. But, if you click the portrait you’ll find some more details about the item in the Library’s collections. This lithograph served as the frontispiece in an 1894 collection of “The Letters of Emily Dickinson,” published just 8 years after her death. It’s a wonderful piece for all of our Dickinson scholars to check out in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and to see online thanks to the work of the Prints and Photographs Division.

  9. rubyshoes
    June 8, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    The image IS Emily Dickinson; it’s a later rendition of a portrait painted of her when she was a child: http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/23152304

  10. AJ
    August 4, 2013 at 9:44 am

    The edges of the so-called divide between the hard sciences and the fine arts (sensu C.P. Snow, 1952) are much less distinct than lovers of dichotomies might suppose, looking from either the arts or the sciences point of view. The main problem, in fact, seems to be mankind’s innate desire to break things into “this” and “that” pieces; to categorize. Ambiguity (rather than ambivalence) has been suggested to be at the root of both science and the arts (see “The Ghost in the Word”) — it is the motive force for both. Just the tools used for its resolution differ, depending upon the explorer. .

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