Last Updated on September 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522
The speaker, arguably Rich herself, writes in praise of Herschel’s accomplishments as a female scientist during a time defined by its refusal to permit women's brilliance and self-determinism and uses her life story to discuss women's struggles when working in male-dominated industries. Rich, a much-lauded female poet whose early work received much praise from male literati and poets, often wrote that she felt divided, at once poet and woman but never both. Rich's later work details her desire to heal this division, discussing subjects such as female desire, motherhood, and same-sex attraction that male readers and writers viewed as less prestigious and literary. Rich’s story reprises Herschel’s, and the poem reflects this shared context of “otherness” and tertiary inclusion.
Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the subject of the poem’s epigraph, was a famed German astronomer born in the mid-eighteenth century whose accomplishments were often denied or incorrectly attributed to her older brother, William Herschel. The younger Herschel discovered several comets, was the first salaried female scientist in England, and published many works cataloging and describing astrological phenomena. Despite her success, Herschel remained a woman of her time and, by her death in 1848, had acquired little social and historical acclaim compared to her brother.
Adrienne Rich dedicates “Planetarium” to Herschel and others like her in acknowledgment and praise of the way that women who live unconventional lives must harness their passions and defy the call of social expectation. Herschel’s clear-eyed gaze, always directed to the heavens that inspired her, shines through the enjambed and dropped lines, radiating the joy of self-determinism and the anguish of the form it must take. The German astronomer died unmarried at the age of 98 after a lifetime spent pursuing a passion that her contemporaries were slow to admit.
The older brother of Caroline Herschel, the subject of “Planetarium,” William Herschel was a German-born musician-turned-astronomer renowned for his discovery of the planet Uranus and membership in the Royal Society. His discoveries were monumental and launched him to overnight fame and, despite his sister’s unflagging support and material contributions to his work, the elder Herschel bears the lion’s share of laurels from these findings. However, William is only briefly mentioned in the poem, referenced only in relation to his sister. His inclusion implies comparison, and William becomes a fill-in for the masculine gaze and social conditions that plagued Caroline’s career and its historical retellings.
A sixteenth-century Danish astronomer who died in exile for his scientific work, which was deemed heretical and borderline blasphemous, Tycho Brahe is another historical figure in “Planetarium,” who Rich uses to detail the danger of subversive thinking in the field of astronomy. While Caroline Herschel struggled due to her gender, her predecessor faced social and religious condemnation for his observation of a nova and subsequent realization that the heavenly bodies were neither immutable nor set. His work disrupted the long-held belief in the staid perfection of the heavens, one of the most basic astronomical assumptions, just as Herschel would, centuries later when she forged a niche for herself in a male-dominated world.