Margaret Cavendish, a Woman of Personality

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623 – 15 December 1673), was a product of her time: a follower of science, a romantic, and an academic. Yet, she had a sense of humor, as you will see in this witty poem:

Of Many Worlds in This World

Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round,
Degree of sizes within each Boxe are found.
So in the World, may many Worlds more be,
Thinner and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
Although they are not subject to our Sense,
A World may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such worke may make,
That our dull Sense can never finde, but scape.
For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there,
If every Atome a World can make, then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-ring bee.
For millions of these Atomes may bee in
The Head of one small, little, single Pin.
And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendants in each Eare.

The Duchess had an avid interest in the physical sciences, but she was willing to mock them, and she mistrusted the notion of using the five senses to understand the world. Human senses are “dull”, just as she claims in her poem. And all of those hidden worlds are mysterious, beyond our comprehension or apprehension, even with that new instrument of science called the microscope.

I love her skepticism.  I wish people in our culture had a little more of it, and would even begin to mistrust the sciences again. After all, how can pure knowledge ever be arrived at, when it is filtered through our minds and, by extension, our senses?  That was what the Duchess argued centuries ago.  She was willing to go up against the Royal Society of London, for heaven’s sake.

I love the Duchess.  Those of you who are fans of sci-fi might be interested in knowing that she quite likely wrote and published the first fantasy/sci-fi book, The Blazing World, in her own name.  At a time when most women published anonymously, she didn’t.  Of course, many criticized her ideas and mocked her persona, but that was all right.  If nothing else, she was a fantastic marketer of her own work!  I ought to take lessons from her.

Share

2 comments

  1. Fascinating! I had never heard of her book–now I must go look it up!

    I agree about skepticism and science–my husband is an astronomy grad student and we often vent our frustrations at how the system is, despite what academics would propose, a system of faith based on our understanding.

  2. If you read her Blazing World, be ready for a wild ride! It's great fun. She was such a character. She would go out in wild clothes and take tours of the Royal Society, and critique and argue with the local scientists and philosophers of her day, who thought she was completely crazy.

    I agree, science is a system of faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Me