‘To Madame Curie’ by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson is a fourteen-line sonnet written in the Petrarchan, or Italian, form. This particular form of the sonnet follows a specific rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdecde and can be separated into one set of eight lines, or octave, and one set of six lines, or sestet.
Additionally, as is common with sonnets, towards the middle of the poem as the octave turns into a sestet, a “turn” occurs. This “turn” can involve the answering of a question, a change of perspective, or the resolution of a problem described in the first half. In this particular piece, the “turn” revolves around a wish the speaker has to be greater than the most famous women who have ever lived.
Before beginning this piece it is important to take note of the historical background and biographical information concerning the poem’s subject, Madame Curie. Curie was a Polish-born physicist and chemist who worked in the field of radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Novel Prize and the only person to ever win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. The speaker, who may be the poet herself, reveres Curie for her pioneering work, but even more so for the legacy, she left behind.
Summary of To Madame Curie
The poem begins with the speaker stating that she often thinks of the greatest deeds every completed by humankind. There is one person in particular who far exceeded the accomplishments of all others. That was Madame Curie. She learned from God what she needed to rise above all others and wage a war on “pain” and “disease.”
The speaker describes how she too wishes to become as Madame Curie was. She desires to be greater than Joan of Arc or Sappho of Lesbos. She wants the world to depend on her as it did on Curie.
Analysis of To Madame Curie
Oft have I thrilled at deeds of high emprise,
And yearned to venture into realms unknown,
Thrice blessed she, I deemed, whom God had shown
How to achieve great deeds in woman’s guise.
In the first quatrain of this piece the narrator, who could be the poet herself, speaks on the joy she gets from dwelling on the “deeds of high emprise.” This is a pattern of thought which is very familiar to the speaker and in which she often indulges. She takes pleasure from imagining the lives of the greatest people who have ever lived.
It is important to note a number of different things about this opening line of To Madame Curie. First, the poet makes use of the word, “emprise.” This is a French word meaning dominant, influential, or ascendant. It makes sense in the context of the poem as the speaker describes her reverence for those who achieve greatness, but it also corresponds closely to the life of Madame Curie herself. Curie was born in Poland but she moved to France in the late 1880s.
In the second line, the speaker describes her admiration for the same group of unnamed people and how they “yearn” to “venture into realms unknown.” They are not afraid of taking chances or entering into academic territory which has never even been considered before.
In the second half of the quatrain, the speaker turns her thoughts to a more specific case, Madame Curie. While the scientist is not mentioned by name in the text of the poem, it should be clear from the title that she is the subject. Dunbar-Nelson’s speaker refers to Madame Curie as being someone who was “Thrice blessed.” Her life was overwhelmingly successful and must have been, the speaker states, well organized by God.
God is then mentioned in the next line in reference to the “great deeds” Curie was able to achieve. She was given direction by God and taught how to break through her “woman’s guise” and do something only men had previously been able or allowed to.
Yet what discov’ry by expectant eyes
Of foreign shores, could vision half the throne
Full gained by her, whose power fully grown
Exceeds the conquerors of th’ uncharted skies?
In the next set of four lines, the speaker describes the unbelievable achievements that Curie was responsible for her life and how no one would ever have been able to guess the extent of her greatness.
In the first line, the speaker offers up the image of new land being discovered by “expectant eyes.” The thrill and importance of this discovery do not count for half of what Curie did. The speaker states that this imaginary adventurer, who knows achievement well, could not even touch what Curie did.
In the next set of lines, the speaker continues on this same train of thought and asks her listener “whose power,” when “fully grown” is greater than the “uncharted skies?” The answer to her question is Marie Skłodowska Curie.
So would I be this woman whom the world
Avows its benefactor; nobler far,
Than Sybil, Joan, Sappho, or Egypt’s queen.
It is at this point in the poem that the narrative takes a turn. The speaker now begins to refer to herself and how she would like to be a woman like Curie. She would if she could choose, become someone who “the world / Avows its benefactor.” The speaker wishes to acquire a legacy such as those belonging to the other women mentioned in the poem.
She looks up to people like Joan of Arc, Sappho of Lesbos, and Queen Cleopatra. The speaker reveres these women. Not only does she wish to contribute to history as they did, but she also wants to surpass them. She wants to be “nobler far,” or far nobler than they ever were. The speaker would be as Marie Curie was if it was possible.
In the alembic forged her shafts and hurled
At pain, diseases, waging a humane war;
Greater than this achievement, none, I ween.
In the final lines the speaker returns to the story of Madame Curie and if the reader was not already aware, provides a few hints about what she achieved. The speaker describes an “alembic,” which is a type of old-fashioned distilling device used in chemistry. It is in this contraption that “she,” Madame Curie, “forged” the weapons she used to “wage” war on “pain” and “diseases.”
She was “humane” in the war she waged, but she did it all the same. In the final lines, the speaker states that this “achievement” was greater than anything ever done by another living soul.