09 Of Many Worlds in This World by Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Carol Rumens’s poem of the week

Poem of the week: Of Many Worlds in This World by Margaret Lucas Cavendish

This 17th-century aristocrat exercises her scientific mind in a poem that makes a subtle claim that women be allowed access to the ‘many worlds’ of ideas
Margaret Lucas Cavendish
Engraving depicting Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, circa 1650. Photograph: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Monday 2 July 2012 11.52 BST

I admire contemporary poetry which finds ways of connecting to the scientific disciplines. Ruth Padel, for example, excitingly weaves ornithology, zoology, history, philology and other forms of specialist knowledge into her prose-and-poetry collection, The Mara Crossing, traversing ideas as the migratory birds she describes traverse continents. While today’s reader would not go to poetry primarily for scientific knowledge, he or she would normally be justified in expecting accuracy. Yet the attraction of poetry which explores scientific ideas is often at the level of language. It may employ layered, crystal-complex Greek or Latin terms, or simply present a mind searching for knowledge – both attractive phenomena. Accuracy is mutable, of course: it’s worth remembering that today’s fact can be tomorrow’s charming but obsolete fantasy. Which brings me to the interesting case of Margaret Lucas Cavendish author of this week’s poem, Of Many Worlds in This World.

As an aristocrat, Cavendish was well-educated for a young woman of her period, and she later learned science and philosophy from her husband William and brother-in-law Charles. While much of 17th-century science is still at a relatively early stage of development, we cannot but be intrigued by the way her poem seems to foreshadow some of the discoveries of our own times: microscopic life-forms, atomic physics, fractals.

But it really doesn’t matter how modern the ideas are, nor whether the hypotheses would have stood up to contemporary peer review. To merit re-reading, the scientific poem of the past should relate timelessly to our humanity, however wrong or right (by 21st-century lights) the science. Like all poetry, it should create its own coherence. Then we can happily read it, however fictitious, as a brand of magic realism.

Cavendish demonstrates a truly scientific mind in that she makes no assertions. She uses “may” and “may be” throughout, rather than “are” and “is.” At the same time she writes in a straightforward manner which suggests objectivity. “Nature is curious,” she remarks in the middle (more or less) of the poem, and though she means “curious” in the sense of ingenious, we catch a whiff of Cavendish’s own intellectual curiosity in that statement, and indeed throughout the poem.

Like a good tabloid headline, the title whets the reader’s curiosity with its word-play. It presents a metaphysical paradox, but also lays out honestly the subject of its discourse. The poem itself is a fairly simple “world of worlds”. Cavendish makes no attempt at capturing the complexity of her idea in her poetic structure. Perhaps it’s a wise decision. Had she chosen to write a sonnet, for example, she would have been subject to the sonnet’s inherent dialectic. Her plain rhyming couplets – not particularly gracefully executed, it has to be admitted – are an ideal home for a set of speculations.

These couplets are somewhat end-stopped, and the syntax lacks richness and variety. Cavendish is rather over-inclined to begin a line with the feeble tacking-stitch of a conjunction (“so, “although”, “for”). This criticism would not have upset her in the slightest. When taken to task by contemporaries for both her grammar and spelling, she declared it was “against Nature for a woman to spell right.” Her opening phrase seems clumsy: “Just like as in …” The simile itself is fine, though, and the female connotations of the round “nest of boxes” very appropriate: as the concluding lines show, Cavendish is writing consciously as a woman.

There are further stumbles. The repetition of “degrees”/”degree” nudges tautology. The plural pronoun “they” in line five turns out to be governed by the singular “world” (unless modern punctuation has wrong-footed the poem, and “they” refers to the “many others.”) The rough hewing brings to mind a later poet, John Clare – also, being a naturalist, a kind of scientist. Lapses of grammar are not fatal to either Clare or Cavendish, but help us appreciate their authenticity. Both poets are trying valiantly in their not-quite-polished English to be true to what they see or sense.

Cavendish’s “A world may be no bigger than two-pence” is an observation as lively as it’s informal. It’s helpful to know that the 17th-century two-pence was a small silver coin, not the relatively hefty 2p piece of today. Verbal currency changes in value, too, and what she means by “small as atoms” is not what we would mean if we used such a phrase. The beings “our dull senses” miss aren’t particles but, she imagines, tiny replicas, like Swift’s Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

In line 11, Cavendish seems to be conflating “atom” with element. She believed these four elements (earth, fire, air, water) were made of different shaped atoms, and, presumably, each had more than four atoms: she means four sets of atoms, perhaps. Did she believe everything was composed of the elements, in varying proportions? The confusion (probably mine rather than the poet’s) is soon relieved by an image, one more bold and quirky than the two-pence piece: the modest earring.

Thomas Aquinas’s question about angels dancing on the head of a pin seems to be revisited and secularised with the “millions” of atoms which, the poet says, may be in the “small, little, single pin” of the earring. That trio of adjectives captures the pin’s minuteness, though the poet might be criticised for using both “small” and “little”.

“A world of worlds” nicely telescopes the poem’s central concept. The ladies wearing “a world of worlds, a pendant in each ear” are grand court ladies, surely, and the poet is telling us and them that their wealth is of another kind altogether, and hinting, too, that she has other, intellectual worlds at her disposal.

Cavendish, for all that she thought women of a “fantastical” turn of mind, suited to poetry and bad grammar, wrote some powerful polemic against women’s lack of educational opportunities. It wasn’t only learning from books she advocated. She knew it was important to experience “the various humours ordained and created by Nature.” This poem’s combination of scientific concept (many worlds in a world) with conventional female adornment is a touching symbol of unfulfilled potential, and perhaps a subtle claim that women be allowed access to the “many worlds” of ideas which were evolving so rapidly in those revolutionary times.

Of Many Worlds in This World

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found.
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense,
A world may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such works may shape,
Which our dull senses easily escape:
For creatures, small as atoms, may be there,
If every one a creature’s figure bear.
If atoms four, a world can make, then see
What several worlds might in an ear-ring be:
For millions of those atoms may be in
The head of one small, little, single pin.
And if thus small, then ladies may well wear
A world of worlds, as pendants in each ear.

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