Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Adrienne Rich’s “Planetarium” begins with a two-line epigraph, explaining that the poem is an homage to astronomer Caroline Herschel. Despite her success, historians often overshadow Herschel's accomplishments with those of her brother and fellow astronomer, William Herschel. The dedication names her first, to place the Herschel daughter, for once, before her brother, and acknowledges “others” who have faced similar treatments and felt as if they were more a monster than a woman. Rich’s 1968 poem compassionately tells the story of Caroline Herschel and other female astronomers like her, whose accomplishments and careers faltered due to sexism and gender-based limitations. "Planetarium" is written in scattered free verse featuring numerous non-traditional line breaks, dropped lines, and enjambed stanzas. Across forty-five lines and seventeen heavily-indented stanzas, Rich discusses the demands placed upon women in science to divorce themselves of the femininity men did not wish to encounter or permit into such male-dominated realms.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes the “skies” as full of monsters “in the shape of a woman” and of women “in the shape of a monster.” The speaker means this both literally and figuratively, referring to constellations—often named after mythological women and monsters—as well as the lives of women who spend their lives behaving in ways that subvert the natural order. By involving themselves with masculine-coded tasks, such as the “Clocks and instruments” of stanza two, these unconventional women figure themselves as monsters who “measure the ground with poles” like men.
The third stanza returns to the poem’s subject, Caroline Herschel to explain that in her “98 years” of study and work, she “discover[ed] / 8 comets.” As stanza four indicates, she felt compelled to search the skies much as the moon compels the Earth’s tides; “riding the polished lenses,” she sought knowledge in the heavens. Referring to the moon as a driving force, the speaker recalls the feminine association of women to the moon and the lunar goddess of Greek mythology, Artemis. Herschel’s desire to look up in wonder seems to be a natural draw.
Stanza five returns to constellation imagery to detail the “galaxies of women” Herschel sees through her lenses. These mythological women, relegated to the dark loneliness of the skies, are a reminder of the consequences unconventional women might face, forced into chilly stasis as “penance for their impetuousness.” Viewed through a telescopic lens she was scorned for using, the stories of these women must be a sobering reminder of the patriarchal world she had to navigate. Stanzas six and seven build from the stark assessment of stanza five and begin to lose cohesion. Heavily enjambed and featuring two dropped lines, the stanzas recall “Uranusborg,” the laboratory of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The first to record the appearance of what is now known as a supernova and exiled from his home country for his heretical work, Brahe’s “eye” “encountering the NOVA” reprises Herschel’s own.
In stanzas nine through eleven, the form of “Planetarium” collapses briefly into a frantic description. Experiencing this astronomical phenomenon inspired an exultant reaction, as “every impulse of light exploding / from the core / as life flies out of us.” In this existential moment that frames human life in a crystalizing moment of cosmic death, Rich reveals the beauty and undeniable draw of Herschel’s subversive work. It is powerful, a force beyond human ken, yet its access is restricted and denied, and Herschel, a woman in a man’s field must demand, as Brahe famously did, “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”
Beginning in stanza twelve, the speaker describes the impact one might feel when observing a cosmological...
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event such as a nova, as “seeing is changing.” Experiencing the “heartbeat of the pulsar” manifests physically, like a “heart sweating through my body.” The astronomical phenomenon comes “pouring in” to the viewer, an ephemeral sight that inspires and incites the unbelievable and unspeakable in those lucky enough to observe them. Such sights leave viewers feeling “bombarded,” assailed by the sights of wonder before them.
In stanza seventeen, the speaker argues that this feeling of meaningful “bombardment” is not unfamiliar. Just as the nova strikes the life from its viewers and lays upon them the bare heat of exultant spirit, so too does society. Unlike this cosmic marvel, society forces women to limit their lives and relegates them to spheres where they must accept that they will have “lived in vain.” “Bombarded” by a “battery of signals” both cosmic and social, the speaker describes radio and light signals as metaphors for the signals directed at women by a society that refuses to allow them agency or self-determinism. Writing that she has spent her life consumed by “the most accurately transmitted most / untranslatable language in the universe,” the speaker points to the unspoken meanings of existential wonder inspired by learning and viewing as well as the gendered implications of her world and its sexist pressures.
In this final stanza, the speaker describes herself. She is a "galactic cloud," one so deep that all these signals can barely penetrate it. She is "an instrument in the shape of a woman" who attempts to translate all the signals that are being directed towards her into an authentic order that adheres to her desires and passions. Rich uses vivid imagery to suggest that women like her are constantly attempting to translate a never-ending series of confusing signals directed at them by a society which is not clear about what it wants—except for women to be anything other than themselves.