Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Emily Dickinson -- and circumference

     Great poets may be investigated from many points of view.  For Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), some have noticed that her work employs particular terms from mathematics.  Including a much-quoted line -- "My business is circumference" --  in a letter to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson is said to have used the word "circumference" in six letters and seventeen poems.  For example, the word appears in both of the poems offered below:

     633     by Emily Dickinson

     When Bells stop ringing—Church—begins
     The Positive—of Bells—
     When Cogs—stop—that's Circumference—
     The Ultimate—of Wheels.    

     883     by Emily Dickinson

     The Poets light but Lamps—
     Themselves—go out—
     The Wicks they stimulate—
     If vital Light

     Inhere as do the Suns—
     Each Age a Lens
     Disseminating their

     The poems shown above and ten others that include "circumference" are found at  I have enjoyed comparing and contrasting these stanzas to see this term in new lights.
     Many mathematical terms -- such as "sum" and "subtract," "circumference" and "arithmetic" -- are rich in sound.   Dickinson is a poet of brevity -- one who squeezes much of both sound and meaning into as few words as possible; this "maximum impact in fewest words" is an important Dickinson-connection to mathematics.
     More about Dickinson's use of circumference and other terms may be found in a lexicon developed at Brigham Young University.  Useful information concerning the poet's math experiences is found in "Dickinson and Mathematics" by Queens professor Seo-Young Chu (The Emily Dickinson Journal, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2006, pp. 35-55.  Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press).  Paraphrasing both Dickinson and Plato, Chu includes these words in her final paragraph:  " . . . to know mathematics is to come very close to transcending bodily experience and realizing the ineffable nature of eternity. Through the strangely abstracted language and disembodied imagery of mathematics, Dickinson’s poetry speaks to us from beyond the world of time."

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