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  • “Chemical Conviction”: Dickinson, Hitchcock and the Poetry of Science *
  • Hiroko Uno

Emily Dickinson enjoyed studying the then most up-to-date science at Amherst Academy and at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. According to Richard Sewall in The Life of Emily Dickinson, Edward Hitchcock, who was a close friend of the Dickinsons, “literally brought science to Amherst, in men, in enthusiasm, in equipment” as the Reverend Professor and from 1845 until 1854 as President of Amherst College (343). Sewall examines Hitchcock’s importance for Emily Dickinson’s scientific education and says that “Hitchcock and the education he inspired were among the influences that ‘furnished’ her eyes — taught them how to look at nature and what to look for” (356–57). In her biographically-focused Emily Dickinson, Cynthia Griffin Wolff also established that Hitchcock played an important role in Emily Dickinson’s religious training as well as her scientific education, for “all scientific learning was a form of religious education” (82) for him, and his “influence was felt throughout every educational institution that Emily Dickinson attended” (343).

In my paper, “Optical Instruments and ‘Compound Vision’ in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” I have discussed Dickinson’s interest in newly developed optical instruments, such as the telescope, the microscope, and the camera, and how her own experience of using them together with the knowledge of astronomy was adapted in her poetry in order to solve problems in her inner world (227–43).

In this essay, by examining Dickinson’s poems along with Hitchcock’s lectures, which she read or heard, and the science textbooks she used at school, I would like to discuss how much Hitchcock’s scientific thinking is reflected in her poetry. Especially, I will show how she struggled to cope with science’s threat to faith and tried to find her own solution by adapting Hitchcock’s arguments in her way and by using her own knowledge of sciences. [End Page 95]

As “a devout apologist for revealed religion” (Sewall 343), Hitchcock gave and published many lectures in which he tried to reconcile what was written in the Scriptures and what he had discovered or learned in his geological studies. In the first chapter, “Revelation Illustrated by Science,” of his book The Religion of Geology, he declared it as his “leading object” to “show how this [throwing light upon the truth of the Scripture] may be done by science in general, and by geology in particular.” 1 In Lecture XII, “Telegraphic System of the Universe” of the same book, Hitchcock referred to Joshua’s words, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us,” and Habakkuk’s “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it” (330; 409), stating that these prophecies had been proved by the discoveries of modern science, such as “the doctrine of mechanical reaction” (332; 411), “optical reactions” (335; 416), “electric reactions” (338; 420), “odylic reaction” (341; 423), “chemical reaction” (342; 425), “organic reaction” (347; 430), “mental reaction” (349; 434), and “geological reaction” (351; 436).

For example, Hitchcock says in an argument in Lecture XII, “every action of ours on earth modifies the condition and destiny of every other created being in this and other worlds through time and eternity” (349; 434); in another, “the preservation of the tracks of numerous animals in some of the sandstones shows us how deep and permanent an impression the most trivial action of a living being may make . . .” (352; 437). In it he concludes, first of all, that each person occupies “a centre of influence”:

It is just as if the universe were a tremulous mass of jelly which every movement of his made to vibrate from the centre to the circumference. . . . It is as if each man had his foot upon the point where ten thousand telegraphic wires meet from every part of the universe, and he were able, with each volition, to send abroad an influence along these wires, so as to reach every created being in heaven and earth. . . .

(353; 439) (emphasis mine)

Next, he concludes that probably “our minutest actions, and perhaps our thoughts, from day to day, are known throughout the universe:”

I speak not...

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