- Emily Dickinson and the Hill of Science
The thriving Dickinson industry seems driven in part by a continuous desire to refashion our sense of who Emily Dickinson was. Recent scholarship projects the poet as healer, philosopher, and, yet again, as expert gardener. Robin Peel's study Emily Dickinson and the Hill of Science adds another preoccupation to the poet's increasingly busy days and presents Dickinson as "concealed natural philosopher/scientist" (14). For Peel, Dickinson's knack for science invites us, once again, to see the poet from a new angle: "What happens if we shed all the assumptions we normally bring to the work of Emily Dickinson" (making us wonder what audience the author addresses) and "assess to what extent we might regard her poems … as examples of writing that partakes in a scientific discourse no less, or even more, than the religious or literary themes with which Dickinson is normally associated." What if we read Dickinson's "startlingly original poems as not only deriving some of their qualities from the influence of the exciting new scientific culture, but also as having scientific intentions and making scientific claims?" (14). And "what … if we consider the fascicles as laboratory or field notes and Dickinson's writing as part of a continuing experiment to observe, evaluate, and make sense of the material and immaterial world?" (17). [End Page 116]
I am quoting at length here, because Peel's four-hundred-page book opens with big claims that promise a fundamental shift in our perception of the poet—claims that are difficult to live up to. Peel makes it no secret that science, as suggested by the trope his title employs, also functions as a rhetorical figure throughout his argument. Echoed in Dickinson's line "I climb the 'Hill of Science'" (Fr2) and traced back, by Peel, to Anna Laetitia Barbauld's 1792 allegorical essay "The Hill of Science: A Vision" (83), "the hill of science" that Peel describes conceives of science as hard work rewarded by panoramic views. Instead, acknowledging that "scientific investigator" is one of the many "supposed persons" that inhabit Dickinson's poems and letters, Peel's book, on the one hand, reaffirms our sense that the poet's take on science is critical and engaging rather than positivist and affirmative (13). "Dickinson's relationship with science," the author writes, "is an extension of her relationship with all authorities" (44). On the other, though, it presents science, analogous to Dickinson's own poetic experiments, as challenging established nineteenth-century views and beliefs by "new evidence" hard to be "square[d]" with scripture (40).
Accordingly, Peel organizes his study into eight chapters. The first, "Poetry, Paleontology, and Geology," centers on geologist and "natural theologist" Edward Hitchcock to reengage Dickinson's many volcano poems. The last, "Disruptive Science and Disruptive Poetry," underlines the author's take on science as a trope for methods and forms of radical thinking and rigid analysis. Within this frame, Peel approaches Dickinson's response to the scientific climate of her age and its particular impact in New England from multiple angles. Chapter two ("Climbing the Hill of Science") interrogates the relation of science, religion, and Romanticism and offers us the kind of introduction we expect in a first chapter. Delineating the scope of women's (science) education during the nineteenth century in general and Dickinson's own study of subjects from botany to physics in particular, chapter three ("Women, Books, Schooling, and Science") concludes that "we may have underestimated the quality and influence of science education available to girls" (186). Turning to Dickinson and geography in chapter four, Peel maps Dickinson's "vocabulary of geography" (208) onto the ongoing excursions, discoveries, and explorations of foreign territory, while also navigating through issues of race and ethnicity. Aspects of vision get crystallized through astronomy and optics in chapter five, while chapter six reads Dickinson's poems as strategies of both survival and adaptation. His sixth chapter also focuses on Darwin's reception during Dickinson's lifetime and rereads the poet's own close-up on nature. Chapter...