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Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft

“Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.”

Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft

Six years after Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which became the foundation of what we today call feminism, she fell in love with the radical political philosopher William Godwin. The two forged the original marriage of equals and conceived a daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.

Mary Wollstonecraft shortly before her death. Portrait by John Opie.

In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”

Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:

Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s invigorating wisdom on the courage to be yourself, Wollstonecraft adds:

Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and W.E.B. Du Bois’s magnificent life-advice to the daughter he did have, then revisit Wollstonecraft on loneliness and the courage of unwavering affection, her stirring love letters to and from Godwin, and her moral primer for children, illustrated by William Blake.

BP

Faster Than Light: Marilyn Nelson Reads Her Exquisite Poem About the Purpose of Life and How Our Impermanence Both Frustrates and Fuels Our Creative Drive

“My poems: a handful of dust trying to get back to supernova. Like every longing, everything alive.”

Faster Than Light: Marilyn Nelson Reads Her Exquisite Poem About the Purpose of Life and How Our Impermanence Both Frustrates and Fuels Our Creative Drive

“It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,” the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson wrote in her spare, lovely poem celebrating the genius of Einstein’s theory of relativity — genius at the heart of which was his bold and, at the time, countercultural decision to fix the speed of light as an immutable constant around which all the other variables converged to construct his groundbreaking model of spacetime, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

The speed of light and the vibrating mesh of our understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of reality come alive with uncommon originality of thought and feeling in the title poem from Marilyn Nelson’s 2012 poetry collection Faster Than Light (public library), which she read at the third annual Universe in Verse. It is a long poem, a beautiful and poignant poem, a soaring, meandering meditation on the nature of reality, the purpose of our existence, the way in which our impermanence both frustrates and fuels our creative drive. Enjoy:

My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.

How lovely, too, that Nelson’s altogether magnificent Faster Than Light opens with the perfect tryptic of epigraphs, straddling two and a half millennia of culture at the boundaries of science, philosophy, art, and activism:

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

“It is this, and the existence of limits.”

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.

But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.

EXPLAINING RELATIVITY
by Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

BP

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.

As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:

The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”

But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.

For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.

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