E. Mariah Spencer
“Earth’s Complaint” and other SF Poems by Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: Poems and Fancies with The Animal Parliament. Ed. Brandie R. Siegfried. Toronto: Iter, 2018. xx+462 pp. $59.95 pbk.
Of the commonly noted ancestors of modern sf, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, stands out as a singular example. While many genre theorists and historians recognize the Duchess’s contribution to the field, the focus has primarily been on her “science-fictional romance” (3) The Blazing World (1666).1 As Brandie Siegfried’s 2018 edition of Poems and Fancies (1653) clearly demonstrates, however, Cavendish was exploring scientific concepts from the moment of her first publication. Using the heroic couplet with iambic pentameter and generally short, single stanza verses, the poems included in Poems and Fancies offer “a witty, entertaining primer on the manifold parts and powers of nature: atomic motion and form, biological regeneration and disintegration, magnetic pull and repulse, planetary motion and tidal patterns” (2). Siegfried effectively provides us with Cavendish’s early sf poetry in a critical edition with fully modernized spelling and punctuation. The scholarly apparatus of this text is impressive, with its contextualizing footnotes and vocabulary glosses making the work fully accessible to modern readers for the first time. Prior to this publication, the only ways in which Poems and Fancies could be accessed—without visiting a special collections library—were through print-on-demand copies via Scolar Press and the digitized versions available through the subscription databases Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Literature Online (LION).
Siegfried’s introduction competently explains the social and intellectual contexts for Poems and Fancies, while steering clear of academic jargon that might discourage the non-specialist reader. Her exposition is straightforward and her research is well documented, which is a necessity given that, as Siegfried notes, “Poems and Fancies took shape as a kind of intellectual cartography as Cavendish carefully mapped for herself a view of the scientific terrain” (7). It contains 270 poems divided into five sections with asides and dedications interspersed throughout, as well as a prose parable, The Animal Parliament. Building on Sara Mendelson’s work on The Blazing World (2016), Siegfried presents Cavendish as a creative scientific thinker, whose universe is full of “intelligent, self-organizing matter” (2). Indeed, much of her oeuvre can be read as extended thought experiments posing the question: What if all matter is sentient? With Poems and Fancies, Cavendish articulates for an early modern audience a secular world-view in which matter and the forces of nature are self-directed. In her opening poem to the volume, “Nature Calls a Council, Which Is Motion, Figure, Matter, and Life, to Advise about Making the World,” she personifies each of these natural forces. While Motion, Figure, Matter, and Life remain subservient to Nature, they are imbued with their own agency and purpose:
When Nature first the World’s Foundation laid,
She called a council, how it might be made.
Motion was first, which had a subtle wit,
And then came Life, and Form, and Matter, fit.
Nature began. “My friends, if we agree,
We can and may do a fine work,” said she,
“And make some things which us may worship give,
Whereas now we but to our selves do live.
Besides, it is my nature things to make,
To give out work, but you directions take. (75)
In this excerpt, Cavendish recasts creation with Dame Nature at center stage, positing a secular—and intentionally fictional—explanation for the creation of the world. She inverts the patriarchal hegemony of the Christian tradition through her gendering of the natural forces as female, thus beginning a long tradition of feminine influence in sf, which we see carried through to Mary Shelley and the pulp writers of the early twentieth century.
Siegfried acknowledges that Cavendish’s poems “do not fit familiar literary categories such as pastoral, lyric, devotional, erotic, or epic, although they do make use of features from each of these poetic forms” (23). Instead, what I have noted is that Cavendish presents something altogether new. Of the five types of poems that Suzette Haden Elgin describes in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook (2005)—the science poem, fantasy poem, horror poem, science-fiction poem, and speculative poem—Cavendish writes early examples of all five. Many of her poems address straightforward science in the form of thought experiments regarding observable phenomena (see for example, “Of Burning, Why It Causes Pain”  and “Of Light” ). Other verses expand on observable phenomena, lending atoms intelligence and agency, and they fit the definition of science fiction (more on this below). Her speculative poetry advances ideas related to metaphysics and human mortality (see for example, “A Battle between Life and Death” , “Of a Traveling Thought” , and “A Masquer Dressed by Honor and Time” ). In addition to these, her sections exploring the nature of thought, imagination, and fancy extend into the realm of the fantastic, including poems that address the queen of fairies, windy giants, witches, personified trees, and various animal spirits. And while Cavendish does not write explicitly horrific poems, the graphic anatomical descriptions of war wounds in “A Description of the Fight” (254) certainly skirt the line.
Darko Suvin describes science fiction as a literature of cognitive estrangement, which explores imagined realities running counter to the empirical environment. Cavendish does this to great effect in The Blazing World, describing in minute detail the shining gemstone that is their sun (for example). In Poems and Fancies, Cavendish uses vivid metaphor and personification to familiarize readers with her primary novum—the presence of intelligent and self-directed matter. In addition to the extensive use of figurative language to explore her view of vital materialism, Cavendish also draws on previous literary traditions to make the strange seem more familiar. For example, she uses the common trope of “fairy” to demonstrate things which might otherwise seem inexplicable. In “Of Fairies in the Brain” she speculates on the machinations of the mind:
Who knows, but that in every brain may dwell
Those creatures we call fairies? Who can tell?
And by their several actions they may frame
Those forms and figures, which we fancies name. (302)
During the late sixteenth century many writers used the word “fancy” as synonymous with “imagination,” defining it as “the process, and the faculty, of forming mental representations of things not present to the senses; chiefly applied to the so-called creative or productive imagination, which frames images of objects, events, or conditions that have not occurred in actual experience” (OED). Towards the end of the seventeenth century, during the time in which Cavendish writes, the term “fancy” becomes slightly more specialized to indicate an aptitude for the “invention of illustrative” imagery (OED). In this way, we see Cavendish underscoring one of her primary purposes in writing Poems and Fancies, namely to illustrate how she believed atoms—and other elements of nature—behave. In Siegfried’s words, “Cavendish’s fairies were about shared traditions rooted in English culture, traditions that might be recovered for the sake of joining readers in imagining a new science of minute particles in constant movement … and the mathematics of infinitesimals that might help to explain unseen but explicable natural forces” (41). While Cavendish uses figurative language and common English literary tropes to familiarize readers to the novum of intelligent matter, modern readers may still encounter challenges when engaging with this early sf poetry. Poems and Fancies lacks a unifying narrative structure, draws on a number of antiquated themes, and in some cases, puts forward scientific theories that are now verifiably false. The Duchess also draws on a seemingly endless list of intellectual and literary sources, including Lucretius, Homer, Hesiod, Plutarch, Ovid, Boccaccio, Spenser, Shakespeare, Raleigh, Sidney, Wroth, Donne, and Milton (as well as many others).
Cavendish’s self-directed atoms may seem bewildering and strange. In order to better illustrate these theoretical particles for the early modern reader, she draws some unlikely comparisons. For example, in “A World Made by Atoms” Cavendish juxtaposes the movement of atoms with the imagery of both a stately dance and the cooperation of construction workers. She opens with the lines, “Small Atoms of themselves a world may make, / For being subtle, every shape they take. / And as they dance about, they places find; / Of forms, that best agree, make every kind” (81). Later in the poem, she expands on the illustration of atoms working in tandem, using a simile when she writes that “Thus, by their forms and motions they will be / Like workmen which amongst themselves agree; / And so, by chance may a new world create, / Or else, predestinate, may work by fate” (82). While Cavendish does not invent cognitive estrangement, she seems comfortable using it. She introduces novum after novum as she delves into the atomic structure of the universe. Siegfried points out that the Duchess’s metaphors inspired a great deal of thought among her contemporaries—as evidenced by the seventeenth-century Dutch poet, Constantjin Huygen. The very first person to review Poems and Fancies, he writes, “A wonderful book, whose extravagant atoms kept me from sleeping a great part of the night in this my little solitude” (qtd. in Siegfried, 1). Not only were her imaginative portrayals engaging, but some seem eerily accurate. For example, she describes water atoms in the following way:
But Water is round drops, though ne're so small,
Which shews its figure to be spherical.
That figure makes it spongy; spongy, wet,
And being hollow, softness doth beget.
And being soft, it makes it run about;
More solid atoms thrust it in or out.
But sharper atoms’ force it cannot shun,
For cold doth nip it, and heat makes it run. (83)
In these words we can imagine the dance of water molecules beneath a microscope, as they freeze or melt or move according to vibration. Yet Cavendish wrote this poem more than a century before Henry Cavendish (her grandson by marriage) discovered hydrogen.
The concept of a subatomic realm resurfaces in a number of Cavendish’s early poems, including “Of Many Worlds in this World” and “A World in an Earring.” While both are included in Appendix A of Mendelson’s edition of Blazing World, Siegfried has made them available with modern spellings, glosses, and contextualizing footnotes. For example, Cavendish writes:
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. (128)
In these six lines we see the Duchess touching on ideas later taken up by theoretical physics. The many worlds hypothesis, for example, suggests that we live in a sea of infinite worlds, in which all probabilities are acted out at the quantum level. Siegfried’s footnotes guide the reader to a deeper understanding (and longer history) of the hypothesis. Footnote 338 directs us to Lucretius’s On Nature for “more on the ‘many worlds’ theory derived from atomism” (128). In this particular case, Siegfried’s footnote adds a great deal of information to the history of an idea related to multiple worlds at the atomic level—sixteen centuries of history to be precise.
As Siegfried acknowledges, Cavendish strives to make atoms, which were wholly theoretical at the time she was writing, more familiar to her readers through a series of thought experiments written in verse. In “The Reason” and “A World Made by Atoms,” Cavendish uses metaphors (“great armies,” “range into ranks and files,” and “to havoc and make spoils”) and similes (“as in great fires,” “like a rescue,” and “Like to a troop or regiment of horse”) to imagine how the atomic world works. As noted above, in “A World” she compares atoms to workmen who must agree among themselves on building projects. In both instances, the Duchess uses figurative language to bring her creative thought experiments to life. The use of figurative language as a familiarizing device is particularly valuable when we consider that many of the Duchess’s readers, at the time of publication, were women. Siegfried addresses this, describing how Cavendish urges her fellow women to be allies who read, understand, enjoy, and then recommend her book (8). In this way, we see Cavendish working to expand the range of subjects on which a woman could write and claim authority. She makes subjects of scientific speculation—the exclusive domain of men—newly accessible to women.
Cavendish’s “extravagant atoms” continue through the first 110 poems. She then engages with theories on moral and political philosophy in part two; the “science” of the mind in parts three and four; and experiences of war and human mortality in part five. The scope of this project remains manageable because of the well-structured guidance Siegfried provides as its editor. She summarizes the project in the following terms: “Its overall coherence develops through variations on three Epicurean themes: atomic motion and form by which is expressed Nature’s creative variability; the pleasures, pains, and paradoxes of perception in relation to knowledge; and the tension between the constant emergence of new life, on the one hand, and the inevitability of death, on the other” (14). Add to these fascinating poetic sections the prose parable, The Animal Parliament, and what we have is a mammoth project that addresses several subjects early science fiction explores, including world-building.
The Animal Parliament examines the early modern theory of homeostasis in the human body, while forming an imagined dialogue among the body, mind, and soul. As in many of Cavendish’s works, she takes her thought experiment to its logical extreme, advancing a complex metaphor that addresses both human physiology and the political processes of a healthy government. Though not nearly as detailed as The Blazing World, The Animal Parliament still manages to convey how Cavendish believes an ideal society should be run (361). Another, more vivid example of unique world-building lies in the early ecological poem, “Earth’s Complaint.” In this poem, Cavendish writes from the point of view of the Earth, proclaiming to Nature, “I’m wounded sore, but yet I cannot die” (208). She describes the torture of humans’ farming and mining activities, before comparing herself unfavorably to the Sun. In a remarkable moment of personification and cosmic visualization, Cavendish portrays our solar system in the following terms:
He in the center sits just like a king;
Round him the planets are, as in a ring.
The largest orbs over his head turn slow;
And underneath, the swiftest planets go.
All several planets, several measures take;
And with their motions, do sweet music make.
Thus all the planets round about him move,
And he returns them light for their kind love. (208)
Once again, Siegfried’s meticulous scholarship reveals the complexly layered meanings embedded in Cavendish’s exuberant writing. We find that the Duchess draws on the Pythagorean tradition of “Musica universalis (the music of the spheres)” (208) when describing her courtly image of the solar system. Siegfried also provides footnotes for the curious reader regarding Johannes Kepler’s early seventeenth-century work on this same theme.
If there is a downside to this extraordinary text, it may be that with Siegfried’s modernized spelling and silently corrected capitalization and punctuation, we lose the true extravagance of the Duchess’s writing, as well as the cause for some of the subsequent complaints she makes against her printers. The ease with which readers now engage the modernized text, however, counterbalances the potential loss of the Duchess’s unique style. All in all, Siegfried’s work on this collection provides a timely source for the gendered history of western scientific thought and creativity. This gendered history remains a focal point for the author and the editor. Siegfried explains that “What I hope this edition shows is that Cavendish was quite systematic in her studies, and as a woman who was not allowed a formal university education, she was equally eager to make her studies available to others who might share her interests despite limited access to certain forms of education.” In other words, the Duchess was a pioneer in women’s education, engaging with the men of science in a way newly accessible to women. Unfortunately, the world was not quite ready for her “extravagant atoms.” Cavendish predicts her own obscurity with the lines, “Books have the worst fate; when they once are read, / They’re laid aside, forgotten like the dead. / Under a Heap of Dust they Buried lie, / Within a vault of some small library” (363). Siegfried’s edition resurrects Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies, making the history of this seventeenth-century natural philosopher accessible to the modern reader. As if this were not enough, the book itself is a lovely object. The cover—a reproduction of the Duchesses’s portrait from the 1660s—is resplendent, almost sumptuous, as it brings Cavendish to life in all of her aristocratic glory.
1. Published in 1666, one year after the first scientific publication, Philosophical Transactions, was created, The Blazing World follows its unnamed female protagonist through a portal at the north pole into an alternate world. The Emperor of this so-called Blazing World makes the Lady his Empress and she goes on to rule over the population of intelligent animal-human hybrids. Notable elements of the narrative include a series of Socratic dialogues with her experimental philosophers, the bear-men, in which she harshly criticizes their use of the microscope and telescope—a thinly veiled satirization of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), reviewed in Philosophical Transactions earlier that year—as well as a military campaign against her enemies in which fish-men use submarines and bird-men deploy incendiary weapons that ignite upon contact with water.
Cavendish, Margaret. A Description of a New World, called The Blazing World. Ed. Sara H. Mendelson. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2016.
Elgin, Suzette Haden. The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. Ed. Mike Allen and Bud Webster. Cedar Rapids, IA: Sams Dots, 2005.
“Fancy n.4." OED Online. Online.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979.