Poem: ‘Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822-1907)’
Edited by Dava Sobel
It might not be strange that the Radiated, a type of animal
whose house is in the sea, many of whom are so small
in size, and so light and evanescent in substance, that they
are hardly distinguishable from the element in which
they live, should have been among the last to attract
attention from naturalists.
They say I came to science
through marriage. As if
I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
As if I had been dragged by accident
like a jellyfish caught in a net.
The truth is, I got married for science.
It was a way in. As
a ray, I got what I wanted
without unduly attracting attention.
Nothing can be more disagreeable than a sea anemone
when contracted. A single piece of brown or whitish jelly, it
rests like a lifeless thing on the rock to which it clings, and it is
hard to believe he has a complex and extremely
delicate internal organization, or will never extend to such
grace and beauty to truly deserve the name of the flower
after which he was called … all the top of the
the body appears to be crowned with soft and feathery bangs.
We’re all pieces, aren’t we, before we find
the thing we love? Things?
My husband and I put together
flourishes in beauty. I know
it sounds tearful. Let me try again.
These animals … thrive well in confinement.
For some women, marriage is a prison.
They go there willingly. it keeps them
away from the world. Our marriage
looked more like a boat.
They can also multiply by a process of self-division.
We did not have children. I took notes.
Another way to put it is that I wrote books.
At each stage of our studies
sea creatures and each other,
I was in charge of the words.
The name Jelly-fish is inappropriate, although the
the gelatinous consistency of these animals is quite precise
expressed by her; but they no longer have a structural relationship
to a fish than to a bird or an insect.
Jellyfish are neither frost nor fish,
because I was not really a wife or a scientist.
Have you seen them move?
They seem to move while breathing.
Meet one of these huge jellyfish, on an outing
in a boat one day, we tried to make a
measurement of its dimensions on site. It was
lying quietly near the surface, and did not appear in the
less disturbed by the procedure, but allowed the oar,
eight feet in length, to be placed on the disc, which
turned out to be about seven feet in diameter. Support the
boat slowly along the line of tentacles, which were
floating at their greatest extent behind him, we
measured them in the same way and found them
be a little over fourteen times the length of the oar …
As I write these lines I remember
that day in the boat and how happy
we were. A person could measure
our happiness in the oars. A person could
lengthen oar after oar and still need
no more oars.
Our laughter echoes on the waves.
No one to hear it except the other—
and the biggest jellyfish we’ve ever seen.
Author’s note: all citations in italics are taken from Agassiz’s seaside studies in natural history (1865). In addition to her scientific research, Agassiz collaborated with her husband, nature historian Louis Agassiz, on marine expeditions. She was co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College.