Adrienne Rich’s ode to science’s forgotten women, “Planetarium,” and Lorine Niedecker’s domestic portrait of the United State’s founding father, “Thomas Jefferson,” seem to have little in common other than a connection to history. After all, one celebrates forgotten heroines while the other praises one of the most recognizable (not to mention male) personages in American history. But while re-reading these poems, I noticed that both use quotations liberally. The conscientious student in me reflexively searches for a citation or source; none to be found. At best, Niedecker and Rich hint at the speaker of a given quote, sometimes fleshed out by a footnote judiciously inserted by an editor; but this is poetry, not a term paper – the poets leave MLA citation at the door. So if the quotes aren’t aimed at providing a kind of historical accuracy to these two poems, why would the poets use them?
I can’t pretend to know for certain, but following up on these quotes has proved to be a fruitful way of unpacking their effects on the poems as a whole. We can start with “Planetarium.” The first quote Rich uses describes Caroline Herschel as “a woman ‘in the snow/ among the Clocks and instruments/ or measuring the ground with poles'” (4-6). A search for the source of this quote reveals little; it seems to be from a journal entry. If my guess is correct, then this is significant because it grants Herschel a voice within the poem. She describes her own activity, probably with little realization about the metaphorical significance of her activity as a lone woman “in the snow” – that is, exploring the previously barren land of a woman’s place in the sciences.
Just as Herschel has a voice in “Planetarium,” the much more famous Tycho Brahe chimes in as well: while alive, he described his own eyes as “virile, precise, and absolutely certain” (18). Rich again departs from her speaker’s voice to inhabit another’s voice, this time Brahe’s. In Brahe’s own words, the eye capable of finding a heavenly body must have these qualities. This powerful eye “encounters,” rather than “finds” or “locates” or even “discovers,” the supernova. Significantly, Rich uses Brahe’s quote to refer to “an eye,” not necessarily his eye – and when she locates that eye in “Uranusborg,” the footnote amends: “Actually Uraniborg,” Tycho’s observatory. But this footnote glosses over Rich’s play on words here – William and Caroline Herschel discovered Uranus. “Virile, precise, and absolutely certain” is Brahe’s quote, to be sure, but it doesn’t describe Brahe, it describes Caroline’s eyes. Taking Brahe’s words and applying them to Caroline gives her the recognition she deserved historically but has also gained recently. The next Brahe quote Rich uses accomplishes the same purpose: “Tycho whispering at last/ ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain'” (24-25). Once more, Brahe’s quote about himself applies equally well to Caroline: she did not live in vain, certainly, but until her work was fully appreciated in its own rite, she seemed to have lived only as her brother’s assistant, interchangeable and replaceable. Weaving quotes into “Planetarium” lends a historical legitimacy to the poem and reminds us of the historical legitimacy of Herschel herself by drawing comparisons between Herschel and Brahe.
Niedecker’s use of historical references is, I think, less pointed toward the vindication of an individual (and “others,” as the dedication of “Planetarium emphasizes), though it is just as pointed toward the achievement of historical accuracy. Niedecker’s quotes are also much less obscure than Rich’s – usually words from Jefferson himself, they can be powerful enough to support a whole line by themselves. For example: “Roman temple/ ‘simple and sublime'” uses a quote from Jefferson describing the designs for the Capitol building. “He spoke as Homer wrote,” Jefferson said of Henry, both in life and in Niedecker’s poem. Madison says of Jefferson during the drafting of the first ten amendments: “He remembers…/in splendor and dissipation/ he thinks yet of bills of rights.” Niedecker includes John Adams’s appraisal of Jefferson’s daughter Maria (Polly), along with Jefferson’s own last words.
The entire poem is written from Jefferson’s imagined perspective – why include bits of his real statements? Why set off the historically accurate parts of the poem at all? I think there are some similarities with Rich’s use of quotation here. The quotes certainly lend historical legitimacy to the poem – it comes across to me as a sort of “If you don’t believe me, take a look at this” approach. Niedecker brings in some heavy hitters from early American history to lend their words to Jefferson’s portrait. Niedecker includes plenty of cozy, imagined details from Jefferson’s life in her poem – for example, his letters home to his daughter inquiring about crops at Monticello, and Polly’s death. Where Rich uses quotation to show similarity between Caroline Herschel and men like Tycho Brahe, Niedecker instead uses quotes to create a contrast between the public and the private Jefferson. I think in both cases, the quotes go to show the failure of traditional means of historical recording – like quotation – to tell a real truth about the subject matter. We as students rely a lot on quotes to reveal important facts about the past, but do they really tell us what we think they tell us?