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25 October 2011

"Arcturus" is his other name –

"Arcturus" is his other name – 
I'd rather call him "Star”!
It's very mean of Science
To go and interfere!

I slew a worm the other day – 
A "Savant" passing by
Murmured "Resurgam" – "Centipede"!
"Oh Lord – how frail are we"!

I pull a flower from the woods – 
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath – 
And has her in a "Class"!

Whereas I took the Butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in "Cabinets" – 
The Clover bells forgot.

What once was "Heaven"
Is "Zenith" now!
Where I proposed to go
When Time's brief masquerade was done
Is mapped and charted too!

What if the “poles” should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I'm ready for "the worst" – 
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the "Kingdom of Heaven's" changed.
I hope the "Children" there
Won't be "new fashioned" when I come – 
And laugh at me – and stare!

I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl – 
Old fashioned! naughty! everything!
Over the stile of "Pearl”!
                                                                     - F 117 (1859)  70

Dickinson is having entirely too much fun with science here. She particularly doesn’t like the naming and classifying, and laughs at the conceit of considering all this scientific activity progress. She, in contrast, is naughtily “Old fashioned.”
            The first stanza tackles astronomers. “Arcturus” is actually a descriptive name, taken from the Greek “Arktourus” which means “Guardian of the Bear.” This is apropos as the star is positioned behind Ursa Major. Somehow, Dickinson would just rather call it “Star.” I guess it is mean of astronomers to name all the stars as there are so many of them – and it does turn star gazing into an identification game. She tackles astronomers in the fifth stanza, too, complaining about mapping and charting Heaven – or “Zenith” as those pesky scientists would have it.
Walt Whitman – whom
Dickinson never read
            Dickinson was not alone in bemoaning the burgeoning field of astronomy during her lifetime. Walt Whitman, her contemporary, wrote the widely anthologized “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” that gets at the same preference for wonder and mystery:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

            I like how in the second stanza she “slew” a worm. Since the Old English (from the German) term for “dragon” is “wyrm” one sees the poet as a St. George, the Dragon Slayer. But then along comes some know-it-all zoologist who declares the worm to be a centipede and murmurs “Resurgam” – I shall rise again. The zoologist may be thinking of how worms can regenerate after being cut in half, or he may have assessed that the centipede still  has plenty of life left in at least some of its many legs. At any rate, this prompts the reflection that humans, in contrast, are frail. A human would have been truly dead.
            Dickinson displays a proper, to me, indignation about the butterfly specimen filed away in some specimen cabinet, the sweet smell of wildflowers long forgotten. A taxonomizing botonist with a magnifying lens becomes "A monster with a glass" subjecting a poor flower to his invasive scrutiny and then relegating it to the straitjacket of a taxonomic "Class." She thinks about the reversal of the Poles in terms of their frisking about, standing on their heads, North becoming South – a perfect metaphor for her point about science turning this into that. 
            She doesn’t believe in all her ridicule. She’s just having a lark. I think she likes thinking of herself as Father’s naughty little girl. She won’t have to climb over that heavenly “stile” when her time comes. Father will come and lift her over Himself!  


  1. Susan, you've done an absolutely wonderful job putting together these pieces by Emily Dickinson. I find this so very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Her devotion to common metre shows how she too participates in the very human need of charting the unexplored.