The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Planetarium” is a forty-five-line poem in free verse that was prompted by a visit to a planetarium during which Adrienne Rich read about the work of astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). Herschel had worked with her brother William, the discoverer of Uranus, and later worked on her own. The poem is in “free” verse only in that its groupings of lines and phrases are irregular; they are actually carefully arranged to emphasize the progression of observations and thoughts that make up the poem.

The opening lines refer to the constellations, their shapes identified since ancient times with mythological beings; among them is “a monster in the shape of a woman.” Then Rich moves to a real woman, Caroline Herschel, and quotes from a description of her working with scientific instruments; Herschel, she notes, discovered eight comets. In seven words, Rich deftly points out a kinship among Herschel, herself, and all women: “She whom the moon ruled/ like us.” In a description that sounds like a metaphor but is based on the fact that astronomers often observed from cages that were raised high in the air within the observatory to allow them to see through the telescope, Herschel is seen “levitating into the night sky” and “riding” the lenses.

Rich links the mythological women in the heavens with all women; all are serving “penance,” and it is implied that the penance is being demanded by the men who created the myths and...

(The entire section is 516 words.)