‘Planetarium’ by Adrienne Rich is a free verse poem celebrating the female astronomers’ community and their awe of the universe. It is also a dedication to Caroline Herschel, who pioneered the involvement of women in the astronomical society.
As expected of a Rich poem, ‘Planetarium’ highlights feminist themes; these themes are artfully woven into the poem using astronomy-related metaphors.
‘Planetarium’ by Adrienne Rich is a poem lauding female astronomers while telling of the wonders of the universe.
The poem starts with a dedication to Caroline Herschel, a famous female astronomer who, apparently, inspires the speaker. The speaker transitions from praising Herschel’s passion for astronomy to speaking of the loneliness Herschel and other female scientists felt. The speaker, who reveals herself to be a female scientist, informs readers of the source of their loneliness: society.
Using astronomy-related metaphors, the speaker explains that by pursuing their passion for the universe, women like her and Herschel are isolated from society. This is because women studying astronomy defied society’s expectations of women. So, these women were seen as “monsters,” powerful and feared.
The speaker then sets forth a case for female scientists, capturing their passion for the universe. She initially uses a male astronomer’s point of view to show that one’s awe of the universe transcends gender. Finally, the speaker ends with a declaration of her reasons for studying the universe. It simultaneously reads as a promise to never let her passion die.
‘Planetarium’ by Adrienne Rich is composed of 46 lines written in free verse. The first two lines are italicized because they constitute an epigraph for Caroline Herschel. These lines are blocked and indented. Some other lines in the poem are also indented for stylistic purposes. In addition, some lines (or part of them) are quoted. This may have also been for stylistic purposes. However, line 25 quotes a person, Tycho. Enjambment runs throughout the poem.
Beyond stylistic purposes, the unorthodox structure of the poem reflects its feminist theme of “breaking out of the norm.” Rich does not write ‘Planetarium’ using traditional spacing or compartmentalization rules. This is why the poem is not sectioned into stanzas; it cannot be. At first glance, the poem’s structure is enough to convey Rich’s message.
- Soliloquy: This is a prominent literary device in the poem. “Thinking of” in line 1 clarifies that the poem is simply the speaker’s thought. The entire poem, therefore, is the speaker’s thought rendered out loud.
- Allusion: The poem alludes to two renowned astronomers: Tycho Brahe and Caroline Herschel. It also references the name of Brahe’s observatory and real events like the supernova and the rebuttal of Aristotle’s theories. The poem references Herschel’s work as well; it is the inspiration for the poem.
- Metaphor: Metaphor is the foundation of the poem. There is hardly any line without a metaphor. Most metaphors used, however, are related to astronomy in one way or the other. This was purposely done to stay on theme. An example of an astronomy-related appears in line 15. “Galaxies of women” in this line refers to the community of female scientists and their isolation from the rest of society.
- Imagery: Imagery is a by-product of metaphors. The metaphors in the poem enable readers to easily visualize the poem and, more importantly, understand its meaning.
- Alliteration: Alliteration appears in line 26. The consonant sounds “w” and “s” repeat in this line.
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.
The opening lines of ‘Planetarium’ form an epigraph. They simultaneously reveal a major theme of the poem, astronomy, and dedicate the poem to the late Caroline Herschel. Caroline Herschel was one the greatest female astronomers. She was known for discovering eight comets and three nebulae.
These lines are italicized to distinguish them (as an epigraph) from the rest of the poem. It is also another way of honoring Caroline Herschel. Furthermore, beginning with the phrase “thinking of” tells readers the speaker is only voicing out their thoughts. In a way, one may regard the poem as a soliloquy.
A woman in the shape of a monster
the skies are full of them
In the next lines of ‘Planetarium,’ the speaker reveals more about Caroline Herschel using a metaphor. The speaker calls her “a monster.” This tells us she was feared and powerful. However, in line 5, the speaker transitions from “thinking” about Herschel to thinking of other women. Line 5 tells readers there were many women like Herschel and using the word “skies” denotes their isolation from society.
One can then tell that these women were isolated because they were powerful and feared. It is no surprise considering the time women like Herschel grew up in, where society placed certain expectations on women, expectations that did not include exploring astronomy. It is not far-fetched that any woman who went contrary to societal norms would be and be seen as a “monster.” Using “skies” reveals Rich’s genius as it allows her to express her thoughts while staying on theme.
a woman ‘in the snow
or measuring the ground with poles’
These lines take readers into Herschel’s routine. Line 6 paints a picture of the female astronomer working in the cold. This tells of Herschel’s tenacity and her passion for astronomy. The “Clocks” in Line 7 may refer to sidereal clocks which are used to measure solar time or atomic clocks which are also useful in astronomy. This is purposely written using the present progressive tense to capture her continuous effort to know the universe.
in her 98 years to discover
These lines tell of Herschel’s most noteworthy discovery. It also tells how long the female astronomer lived.
she whom the moon ruled
riding the polished lenses
Within these lines, the speaker transitions from thinking about Herschel to thinking about other women. Rich, once again, uses astronomy-related terms to stay on the theme while describing, through her speaker, the feelings of awe shared among these women when they studied the universe.
At this point, lines 12 and line 14 reveal the speaker as an astronomer herself who speaks for other female astronomers who, like her, admire Caroline Herschel. Line 11 is a strong indication of how enraptured these women were by astronomy. The speaker also uses the words “levitating” from line 13 and “riding” like line 14 to capture an almost childlike joy these astronomers have when they explore the universe.
Galaxies of women, there
in those spaces of the mind
At this point, the speaker draws focus to their jobs as women and how it is received by society. The speaker also focuses on the community these female astronomers have formed while contrasting that with the loneliness the isolation from society stirs in them. “Galaxies of women” simultaneously represents this community and its isolation from the rest of society, given by the definition of a galaxy.
Line 16 informs readers that this separation is a punishment from society, the women’s “impetuousness” being their disregard for society’s expectations of a woman. Lines 17 and 18, however, tell readers how harsh this punishment is for the women. Even though they have their community, they still feel the “chill” of loneliness.
‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
These lines depict the wonders of an astronomer’s discoveries and how the astronomer sees them. The astronomer’s perspective given here is Tycho Brahe’s. Tycho Brahe was a male astronomer known to have observed and proven the supernova (indicated by the capitalization of “NOVA”) was a distant body. Brahe observed the nova with his naked eye (as indicated in lines 19 and 20) in his astronomical observatory called the Uraniborg. However, the speaker intentionally calls it “Uranusborg” in line 21 to stay on the astronomical theme. Another probable reason the speaker introduces this wordplay is to draw a connection between William Herschel, Caroline’s brother and equal astronomer, and Tycho Brahe. William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus under a different name.
The speaker did not only draw a connection using wordplay. In these lines, she purposely uses a male astronomer’s perspective to prove that the passion for astronomy, and by extension, many other things, transcends gender and the societal norms surrounding it. By referencing Brahe, especially his sentiments in line 27, the speaker tells readers that she and her band of female scientists can also relate to Brahe’s passion for the universe and so should not be deprived of their right to do so.
and seeing is changing
These lines continue describing the wonders of the universe now from the speaker’s perspective. “We” here no longer refers to female astronomers. After referencing Brahe, “we” have come to include all astronomers, regardless of gender. Line 27 alludes to one of Aristotle’s theories that the heavens were unchanging. Brahe proved that certain celestial bodies, like the nova from line 22, could indeed change. This disproved Aristotle’s theory and showed the “changing” nature of the universe, hence line 27.
the light that shrivels a mountain
“The light” from line 28 refers to an astronomical body, most likely a comet. Line 28 captures the terrifying strength of this body, yet line 29 shows its ability to amaze, and not terrify, people who see it.
Heartbeat of the pulsar
In these lines, the speaker compares their heartbeat to the throbbing of yet another astronomical body, the “pulsar.” A pulsar is a dense body known for emitting electromagnetic waves, which helps create a vivid picture of the speaker’s nervous excitement. Line 31 corroborates this excitement and cements the speaker’s awe for the bodies of the universe.
The radio impulse
I am bombarded yet I stand
These lines describe another exciting sensation the speaker feels, but most importantly, they reveal the place where the speaker feels these sensations, her workplace. Everything described from lines 26 up to these lines was felt here. “Taurus” is a constellation, and line 34 is a culmination of all these sensations and the speaker’s reaction to them. “…yet I stand” shows not only the speaker’s tenacity to remain on her path of exploration but also her joy for all the sensations she feels.
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
and the reconstruction of the mind.
In these lines, the speaker directly addresses herself for the first time. Using astronomy-related metaphors, the speaker reveals how much astronomy means to her. Like most scientists, she studies the universe for the love of it. As indicated in lines 44 and 45, she studies it for knowledge and comfort.
The speaker sees the universe as a mystery, the “most untranslatable language,” yet her determination shines through her lifelong efforts to gradually decode this language. This resolve must have been in part fueled by her predecessors, especially Caroline Herschel, hence the reason for this poem. In a way, one can interpret this ending as the speaker’s promise to Herschel to never stop studying the universe, no matter the cost.
‘Planetarium’ was written in 1968 and published in 1971 as part of Rich’s fourth poetry collection, The Will to Change: Poems, 1968-70. Like ‘Planetarium,’ other poems in this collection aimed to advance feminist ideals.
The major theme in ‘Planetarium’ is astronomy. The poem describes one’s awe of the universe and its celestial bodies throughout. However, this wonder is majorly told from a female’s point of view. The poem then addresses the passion that female astronomers have for the universe, despite society’s expectations for women not to study astronomy. These issues, therefore, introduce the theme of feminism and the female identity.
The poet, Adrienne Rich, identified as a feminist and used most of her works to advance the feminist cause. ‘Planetarium’ was one such work. Therefore, ‘Planetarium’ is a feminist poem.
Much like the speaker, Adrienne Rich was inspired specifically by Caroline Herschel, the first female astronomer. Generally, however, Rich’s desire to redefine the image of a woman in her time inspired her. Adrienne Rich wrote ‘Planetarium’ and many other works hoping to convey the message that women are much more than the traditional roles prescribed to them.
If you loved reading ‘Planetarium’ by Adrienne Rich, you can check out these similar poems:
- ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich – this poem heavily employs metaphors and innuendoes to describe the nature of power.
- ‘Women’ by Alice Walker – this poem celebrates African American women who fought for the education of the girl child.
- ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ by Craig Raine – this poem portrays what Earth is like from a Martian’s point of view.