To Madame Curie – Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson

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.
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
So would I be this woman whom the world
Avows its benefactor; nobler far,
Than Sybil, Joan, Sappho, or Egypt’s queen.
In the alembic forged her shafts and hurled
At pain, diseases, waging a humane war;
Greater than this achievement, none, I ween.

– Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating the achievements of women in science. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) was Byron’s daughter, which gives this blog extra interest in this day.

Marie Curie is one of the great scientists. She is one of the few female Nobel Laureates, and one of the even fewer multiple winners. Later in her career, she moved from studying the physics and chemistry of radioactive elements to their applications in medicine. Despite her fame, she struggled to buy supplies of radioactive materials, so in 1921 she travelled to America to seek funding. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, also an amazingly inspirational woman, wrote this poem during that visit and it was published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger on 21 August 1921.

This poem expressing the transcendent greatness of Curie’s work is strongly reminiscent of two other sonnets already mentioned on Universification: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare” and “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer“. In fact, the opening lines:

Oft have I thrilled at deeds of high emprise,
And yearned to venture into realms unknown

seem to parallel Keats’s:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen

Unfortunately, Dunbar-Nelson was not the poet that Millay or Keats were, and this poem does not do its subject justice. Aside from the the vigorous imagery of ‘In the alembic forged her shafts and hurled’, the language feels awkwardly contrived and derivative. The poem doesn’t flow well, and even with a clunky contraction the metre breaks down completely in line 8.


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