Science

Poem: ‘Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822–1907)’

Edited by Dava Sobel

It is perhaps not strange that the Radiates, a type of animals

whose home is in the sea, many of whom are so diminutive

in size, and so light and evanescent in substance, that they

are hardly to be distinguished from the element in which

they live, should have been among the last to attract the

attention of naturalists
.

They say I came to science

through marriage. As though

I wouldn’t have, otherwise.

 

As though I was dragged, by accident,

like a jellyfish caught in a net.

 

The truth is I married for science.

It was a way in. Like

a radiate, I got what I wanted

without attracting undue attention.

Nothing can be more unprepossessing than a sea-anemone

when contracted. A mere lump of brown or whitish jelly, it

lies like a lifeless thing on the rock to which it clings, and it is

difficult to believe that it has an elaborate and exceedingly

delicate internal organization, or will ever expand into such

grace and beauty as really to deserve the name of the flower

after which it has been called … the whole summit of the

body seems crowned with soft, plumy fringes
.

We are all lumps, aren’t we, before we find

the thing we love? The things?

My husband and I, lumped together,

blossomed into beauty. I know

that sounds maudlin. Let me try again.

 

These animals … thrive well in confinement.

For some women, marriage is a prison.

They enter it willingly. It keeps them

safe from the world. Our marriage

was more like a boat.

 

They may also multiply by a process of self-division.

We had no children. I took notes.

Another way of saying it is I wrote books.

At every point in our studies

of sea creatures and each other,

I was in charge of the words.

 

The name Jelly-fish is an inappropriate one, though the

gelatinous consistency of these animals is accurately enough

expressed by it; but they have no more structural relation

to a fish than to a bird or an insect
.

Jellyfish are neither jelly nor fish,

as I was not truly wife nor scientist.

Have you seen them move?

It looks as if they move by breathing.

 

Encountering one of those huge Jelly-fishes, when out

in a row-boat one day, we attempted to make a rough

measurement of his dimensions upon the spot. He was

lying quietly near the surface, and did not seem in the

least disturbed by the proceeding, but allowed the oar,

eight feet in length, to be laid across the disk, which

proved to be about seven feet in diameter. Backing the

boat slowly along the line of the tentacles, which were

floating at their utmost extension behind him, we then

measured these in the same manner, and found them to

be rather more than fourteen times the length of the oar…

As I write these lines I remember

that day in the boat and how happy

we were. A person could measure

our happiness in oars. A person could

lay down oar after oar and still need

more oars.

 

Our laughter echoing over the waves.

No one to hear it besides each other—

and the biggest jellyfish we ever saw.

Author’s Note: All italic quotations are from Agassiz’s Seaside Studies in Natural History (1865). In addition to her scientific research, Agassiz collaborated with her husband, natural historian Louis Agassiz, on marine expeditions. She was a co-founder and the first president of Radcliffe College.

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