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The Atomic Poems of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from her Poems, and Fancies, 1653, an electronic edition. Edited with an introduction by Leigh Tillman Partington

by Margaret Cavendish [Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of, 1624?-1674]

date: 1653
source publisher:
collection: Early Modern through the 18th Century

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A Note on the Text

I have modernized the lowercase "s" and "f," and regulated the spacing. All spelling, capitalization, italics, and punctuation are faithful to the 1653 original. The footnotes were written by Margaret Cavendish and printed as marginalia only in the 1653 edition. I have used the margin for glossing vocabulary and line numbers, and so moved Cavendish's notes to the bottom of the page. Although later editions of texts are generally considered more authoritative, this does not hold true for Cavendish's early manuscripts. In the 1660s, Cavendish, according to Mendelson, hired an "anonymous drudge to 'correct' the stylistic errors of her earliest works for second editions" (42). We cannot be sure how closely she supervised this editing process, and considering her opinion of her own grammatical skills, I think she would have left it in the hands of an expert. Also, as noted earlier in the introduction, by the time Philosophicall Fancies was published later in 1653, Cavendish had discarded her theory of atoms. Therefore, if she was responsible for any changes made in the later two editions, those changes might reflect her disinterest, and in fact, disbelief, in atomic theory. I have chosen to work with the 1653 edition for these reasons: the poems are purely Cavendish's work, reflecting her enthusiasm for her own interpretation of atomic theory.18 Comparing the same poem from each edition illustrates the minor differences:

Cavendish: Of Aire.

THE reason, why Aire doth so equall spred,
Is Atomes long, at each end ballanced.
For being long, and each end both alike,
Are like to Weights, which keep it steady, right:
For howsoere it moves, to what Forme joyne,
Yet still that Figure lies in every line.
For Atomes long, their Formes are like a Thread,
Which interveaves like to a Spiders Web:
And thus being thin, it so subtle growes,
That into every empty place it goes.

Cavendish: Of Air.

THe reason, why Air is so equal spread,
ls Atomes long, at each end ballanced:
For being Long, their ends alike withall,
Make th'Air as Weights into just Measures fall;
And let it move, joyn to what Form it will,
Yet lies in every Line that Figure still:
For Atomes long, their Forms as thread are spun,
And like a Cobweb interwoven run;
And thus Air being thin, so subtile grows,
That into every empty place it goes.

The meaning does not change, but the spelling improves somewhat, the rhymes are polished, and the meter flows a little more smoothly. The later version may be a better poem, but it lacks the spontaneity of the poet tacking "right" onto the fourth line in pursuit of a rhyme for "alike." It isn't a good rhyme, but it adds the energy and joy to the first edition that I think the second edition lacks. In the interest of editorial fairness, however, a facsimile reproduction of both editions of these selected poems appears in Appendices A and B.

Notes

18. Douglas Grant assumes that Cavendish corrected her earlier editions herself, but he also prefers the earliest editions: "The revisions were technically an improvement but, as they were insufficient in themselves to raise her poetry higher, they hindered the sincerity and spontaneity of her expression by their superficial polish. Rough and ragged though they are, her poems are to be preferred in their earlier shape" (113)

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