# Historical Context

**Euclidean Geometry**

Most principles of geometry upon which mathematicians base their work today—and
for the past twenty-three centuries—are related to the theories and methods
first recorded around 300 B.C.E. by the Greek writer Euclid. His comprehensive
work on mathematical theory, *The Elements*, was probably heavily based on
the work of his predecessor Eudoxus, who had been a student of the philosopher
Plato. Euclid refined Eudoxus’s theories, along with geometric principles that
were the results of generations of mathematicians. His Elements, written in
Egyptian Alexandria, has been a central influence for twenty-three centuries,
from the Hellenistic world after the conquest of Alexander the Great to the
Roman Empire, to the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, into the medieval
world and on to today.

*The Elements* is a comprehensive treatise that brings together
geometry, proportion, and number theory, tying them all into one complete
theory for the first time. It is divided into thirteen books. The first six are
about geometry. At the heart of Euclid’s geometry are five postulates. A
postulate is a rule that is assumed to be true and does not have to be proved,
as opposed to a theorem, which needs proving. Euclid’s first three postulates
have to do with construction. For instance, the first one states that it is
possible to draw a straight line between any two points. The second and third
postulates deal with defining straight lines and circles. The fourth postulate
states that all right angles are equal. The fifth postulate was to become a
challenge to the mathematical community for centuries to come. It states that
two lines are parallel if they are intersected by a third one with identical
interior angles. This postulate assumed many facts about parallel lines
continuing on for infinity. Euclid himself was said to be uncomfortable with
the absolute truth of this statement and declared it to be a given truth only
after some hesitation. Its acceptance was a factor that defined a set of
geometric theories as Euclidean geometry.

**Non-Euclidean Geometry**

For centuries, mathematicians tried either to prove Euclid’s fifth postulate
right once and for all or to find the overlooked element that proved it to be
wrong. In 1482, the first printed edition translating Euclid’s work from Arabic
to Latin appeared, stimulating the progress. During the 1600s, various
mathematicians rewrote the fifth postulate in ways that helped redefine such
concepts as “acute angle” or “parallel” in new ways. By 1767, the French writer
Jean Le Rond d’Alembert referred to the problem of parallel lines as “the
scandal of elementary geometry.”

In the early nineteenth century, there arose various schools of geometry that rewrote the assumptions, creating whole systems of understanding space without having to accept the fifth postulate. Collectively, these schools of thought came to be known as non-Euclidean geometries. There are two different types of non-Euclidean geometry, each relying on a different understanding of the concept of parallelism. Those that assume that there is no such thing as a “parallel” line that will fail to eventually meet the original one are called “elliptic geometries”; those that assume that there can be multiple lines passing through a point that will par- allel the original line without touching it are referred to as “hyperbolic geometries.”

Three mathematicians, working independently of one another, came up with systems of geometry (almost at the same time) in the beginning of the 1800s, all of which left out Euclid’s problematic fifth postulate. Carl Frederich Gauss is credited with being the first of them. Gauss disliked controversy and was unwilling to disagree with the prevailing view that Euclid’s geometry was the...

(This entire section contains 748 words.)

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inevitable, indisputable truth, so he devised his system in private and did not publish his findings. In 1823, Gauss read the works of Janos Bolyai, a Rumanian whose non-Euclidean theories were hidden in his introduction to a book by his father, who was also a famous mathematician. Though Bolyai could not have known of Gauss’s results, his theories were similar. In 1829, a Russian, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who was himself unfamiliar with the work of Gauss and Bolyai, published his own work of non-Euclidian geometry. These three gave rise to a new way of conceiving of space, changing the assumptions that had been put into place by Euclid more than two thousand years earlier. It is just this sort of advancement of knowledge, of restructuring assumptions that were previously taken to be indisputable truth, that Rita Dove considers in her poem “Geometry.”

# Literary Style

“Geometry” is a contemporary American narrative poem. It is like traditional, formalist poetry only in its organization into stanzas. The stanzas are of equal length of three lines each known as tercets; this organization conveys a sense of geometrical symmetry even though three is an uneven number. The poem employs no formal rhyme scheme. It is written in free verse, which means it uses no set pattern of meter, but contains its own unique accents and rhythms. The poet chooses consciously where to break the lines, and does so to produce the sounds that make its ultimate rhythm.

# Compare and Contrast

**1980:** The United States Department of Education is developed,
comprised of a staff of seventeen thousand full-time employees. Today: Some
people feel that the centralized Department of Education should be disbanded
because it cannot adequately understand local issues that affect schools’
environments.

**1980:** A study by UCLA and the American Council on Education finds
that college freshmen express more interest in money and power than at any time
in the past fifteen years. It is the beginning of a period that came to be
known as The “Me” Decade.

**Today:** After a long period of economic stability in the 1990s, many
students take economic stability for granted. Colleges are seeing renewed
interest in careers that are not focused on accumulating wealth, such as
mathematics and poetry.

**1980:** Humanity’s understanding of the universe expands with the
findings of Voyager I, an unmanned space craft that made new discoveries about
Saturn’s moons as part of its three-year, 1.3 billion-mile journey.

**Today:** Plans are underway to send two unmanned space crafts to Pluto,
the farthest planet in our solar system.

**1980:** The United States Supreme Court finds, in the case of
*Diamond v. Chakrabarty* that a man-made life form—specifically, a
microorganism that could eat petroleum in cases of spills—can be patented.

**Today:** Biotechnology and genetic technology are growing scientific
fields and lucrative sectors of the stock market.

# Media Adaptations

Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and S. E. Hinton are featured on a 1999 video from
Films for the Humanities, entitled *Great Woman Writers*.

Journalist Bill Moyers presents an in-depth look at Dove’s life and her
writings in *Poet Laureate Rita Dove*, a one-hour videocassette produced
in 1994 and released by Films for the Humanities. It was originally broadcast
on PBS as part of the *Bill Moyers’ Journals* series.

Rita Dove was the executive producer for *Shine Up Your Words*, a 1994
television program meant to introduce students to poetry. It is available from
Virginia Center for the Book, in Richmond, Virginia.

*New Letters* magazine produced the radio series *New Letters on the
Air*. This series is available on audiocassette, including #305, *Rita
Dove*, which features the author reading and discussing her poems in
1985.

# Bibliography and Further Reading

**Sources**

Hathcock, Nelson, *Critical Survey of Poetry* , Magill, 1991, pp.
954–61.

McDowell, Robert, “The Assembling Visions of Rita Dove,” in *Callaloo*,
Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 1986, pp. 52–60.

Steffen, Therese, *Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita
Dove’s Poetry*, Fiction and Drama, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen, “A Dissonant Triad,” in *Parnassus: Poetry in Review*,
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 391–404.

—, *The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition*, Harvard
University Press, 1995.

**Further Reading**

Bachelard, Gaston, *The Poetics of Space*, Beacon Press, 1994. This
renowned modern philosophical text, first published in 1964, explores poetry’s
relationship to the measurable, physical world.

Dove, Rita, *The Poet’s World*, Library of Congress, 1995. This
publication actually consists of the texts of two addresses that Dove made to
the Library of Congress while she was poet laureate. Her view of poetry’s
overall significance and her goals as an individual poet are emphasized.

Mlodinow, Leonard, *Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel
Lines to Hyperspace*, Free Press, 2001. Dove’s poem assumes that its reader
has a sense of what geometry is about. In this book, Mlodinow traces the
history of geometry by discussing the major figures who have shaped modern
thought, giving a funny, spry spin to a topic that students can sometimes find
dull and dense.

Steffen, Therese, *Crossing Color: Transcultural Space and Place in Rita
Doves’ Poetry, Fiction and Drama*, Oxford University Press, 2001. In one of
the only books analyzing Dove’s overall career, this recent publication looks
at the issues of spatial concept that are raised in “Geometry.”