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14 December 2011

A science—so the Savants say

A science—so the Savants say,
"Comparative Anatomy" –
By which a single bone –
Is made a secret to unfold
Of some rare tenant of the mold,
Else perished in the stone –

So to the eye prospective led,
This meekest flower of the mead
Upon a winter's day,
Stands representative in gold
Of Rose and Lily, manifold,
And countless Butterfly!
                                                         - F147 (1860)  100

I can hear the poet reading this and pronouncing “Comparative Anatomy” in grand, puffy tones. In this latest and greatest science (of 1860) paleontologists and archeologists can deduce an entire animal from just one bone. We see this in museums: here in New Zealand a moa leg bone serves as the basis for reconstructing the entire giant and alas extinct giant ostrich. The science is handy not only for dead animals found decomposed under ground or leaf litter, but also in fossils.
Meadow, Amherst, MA
            But Dickinson champions the naturalist as one with similar skill but without the pompous name. A naturalist out and about  with an “eye prospective” in the middle of winter need see only one little dandelion (the “gold” “representative”) in order to describe the ecology of the meadow. Where the non-naturalist sees one little weed, the naturalist “sees” the roses, lilies and various Lepidoptera that will populate the meadow in spring. 


  1. Thank you, Susan! I post these on a chat site
    ever so often. Love your explanations.

  2. Stanza 1 reflects excitement over 19th century fossil discoveries and their recent synthesis in ‘Origin of Species’ (Darwin 1859). The immediate and continuing impact of Darwin’s book cannot be overstated. Stanza 2 describes the realm of a poet, not a scientist such as Darwin who rightly claimed to be a naturalist. Analogous to a bone telling a story of whole families of extinct giants, a single dandelion sparks poetic memories of roses, lilies, and butterflies. Such memories are the stuff of poetry and as important as the realm of science.

  3. The eye of Dickinson is “:prospective.”. For Dickinson the little flower in winter not only recreates in her mind the garden as it was, but also as it will be when spring comes. Unlike the paleontologist, she doesn’t just recreate what was but will never be again, but instead what will always be. One of her more hopeful poems, even evoking some thoughts about the way faith works—the belief in things unseen.

    1. I like Anonymous's point that this is a hopeful poem that celebrates a cycle. Regarding fossils: She could have been responding in part to Darwin, yes, but she had cause nearer to home in the form of the first dinosaur footprints to be scientifically described. The work was done by Edward Hitchcock, professor and then president of Amherst College. Her brother Austin worked with Hitchcock, as had their father. Emily learned about geology from him and was friends with one of his daughters. Questions of paleontology and how to interpret fossils and fossilized marks were all very close to home for her, literally as well as literarily.

    2. Thank you! What wonderful images this conjures -