Margaret Cavendish

‘A World in an Eare-ring’, Poems, and Fancies (1653)

A world in an eare-ring by Margaret Cavendish

This image is taken from the copy owned by the Bodleian Libraries
The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, P.1.22 Jur. Seld, pp.44-45
(Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries)

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  Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a prominent natural philosopher and writer of poetry, fiction, letters, essays and plays. Wife to William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, she was part of the literary and intellectual circle around William, his mathematician brother Charles, and other prominent intellectuals including Hobbes and Walter Charleton. Cavendish often wrote antagonistically about the Royal Society, criticizing its focus on experimentalism over reason and imagination. Her visit to the Society in 1667 was a grand and unusual event recorded by Restoration diarists Pepys and John Evelyn.

Though Cavendish would go on to write her natural philosophy in prose, her first book Poems, and Fancies used poetry to explore a vitalist and atomistic view of the world. In the poem displayed here, ‘A World in an Eare-Ring’, Cavendish characteristically blends fantasy and philosophy. The idea of a miniature world existing within an earring, presumably a globe-like pearl, is in keeping with Cavendish’s ebullient poems about fairies. This fantastical vision also, though, engages with and perhaps parodies contemporary scientific techniques. Galileo's use of the telescope had already transformed the early modern world's understanding of huge objects far away and a decade after Cavendish's Poems, and fancies, Robert Hooke's microscope would transform the smallest everyday object into a thing of wonder. (Hooke's fabulously intricate illustrations in Micrographia are displayed in Room 1). Cavendish is both inspired by the imaginative potential of such work, and offers an alternative view; her poetic vision is created by the imagination not the telescope or microscope. Cavendish saw optical devices as providing an artificial view, and one that was prone to error. In her prose fiction The Description of a New World, called the Blazing World, Cavendish caricatures scientists using microscopes and telescopes as absurd creatures, half animal, half man.

Though Wadham library owns many Cavendish works in their seventeenth-century editions, this work is in the Bodleian Library.
Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Lizzie Scott-Baumann