Poem: ‘Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822– 1907)’

Poem: ‘Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822– 1907)’

Credit: Bruce Shafer Stocktrek Images and Science Source

Edited by Dava Sobel


It is possibly not unusual that the Radiates, a type of animals
whose home is in the sea, a lot of whom are so small
in size, therefore light and evanescent in compound, that
are barely to be distinguished from the element in which
they live, should have been amongst the last to attract the
attention of biologists


They say I pertained to science

through marital relationship. As though

. I would not have, otherwise.



As though I was dragged, by accident,

like a jellyfish captured in an internet.

The truth is I married for science.

. It was a method. Like

a radiate, I got what I desired

without attracting excessive attention.

Nothing can be more unprepossessing than a sea-anemone
when contracted. A mere swelling of brown or whitish jelly, it
lies like a lifeless thing on the rock to which it clings, and it is
difficult to believe that it has an intricate and exceedingly
delicate internal organization, or will ever broaden into such
grace and charm as actually to deserve the name of the flower
after which it has been called … the whole summit of the
body appears crowned with soft, plumy fringes


are all lumps, aren’t we, before we find

. the important things we like? The things?

My partner and I, lumped together,

blossomed into appeal. I know

that sounds maudlin. Let me try again.

These animals … thrive well in confinement.

For some ladies, marriage is a jail.

. They enter it voluntarily. It keeps them

safe from the world. Our marital relationship

They might also increase by
a process of self-division

At every point in our studies

of sea creatures and each other,

. I was in charge of the words.

The name Jelly-fish is an improper one, though the
gelatinous consistency of these animals is properly enough
expressed by it; but they run out structural relation
to a fish than to a bird or an insect

Jellyfish are neither jelly nor fish,

as I was not genuinely partner nor scientist.

Have you seen them move?

It looks as if they move by breathing.

Experiencing among those huge Jelly-fishes, when out
in a row-boat one day, we attempted to make a rough
measurement of his measurements upon the spot. He was
lying quietly near the surface area, and did not appear in the
least interrupted by the proceeding, however enabled the oar,
8 feet in length, to be laid throughout the disk, which
proved to be about 7 feet in size. Backing the
boat gradually along the line of the tentacles, which were
floating at their utmost extension behind him, we then
determined these in the exact same way, and found them to
be rather more than fourteen times the length of the oar …

As I compose these lines I keep in mind

that day in the boat and how happy

we were. A person might measure

our joy in oars. A person could

lay down oar after oar and still require

more oars.

Our laughter echoing over the waves.

No one to hear it besides each other–

and the biggest jellyfish we ever saw.

Author’s Note: All italic quotations are from Agassiz’s Beachfront Research studies in Natural History(1865).

This article was originally published with the title “Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822–1907)” in Scientific American 325, 2, 26-27(August 2021)

doi: 10.1038/ scientificamerican0821-26



    Jessy Randall’s books consist of How to Inform If You Are Human: Diagram Poems(Pleiades), Suicide Hotline Hold Music(Red Hen), and, upcoming in 2022, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science(Gold SF).

    Credit: Nick Higgins

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