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Agassiz and the Poets, part II

In a sonnet written immediately after Louis Agassiz’s death in December 1873, the Dante translator and Boston dentist Thomas William Parsons without further ado defined Agassiz’s lasting importance through the service he had done the nation by reconciling religious vision and scientific fact:

What made the greatness of our great man gone?
Facts about fishes?—reading laws that rule
The glacier’s marche [sic] and move the black moraine?
An eye whose gaze with equal reverence glowed
At a small star-fish, or his Alpine throne?
Or that he founded for our land a school?—
Never to see that harvest which he sowed!—
His large companionship with man, shell, stone,
And every type of the most High? The fool
Who thinketh in his heart there is no God
Stands here in silence. ’Mid our tears and pain
This joy was uppermost: beneath His rod
Bowing, we bless Him for each nobler mind
Whose highest vision science fails to blind.

December 1873 T. W. Parsons


Not his taxonomic achievements (Agassiz first made a name for himself as an expert on Brazilian ichthyology and the fossilized fish of Europe), not his pioneering work in glaciology or marine biology mattered to Parsons, nor the fact that Agassiz had put Harvard on the map as a center of scientific research, not even the warm relations he had maintained, according to Parsons, with all manner of created things. For him, Agassiz was more than merely human. The last lines of the poem present him as a kind of High Priest (like the biblical Aaron) or even God himself, beneath whose rod we all bow as David once did (2 Samuel 12), grateful that he has allowed our vision of eternity to blossom.

In his elegy for Agassiz, “The Prayer of Agassiz,” New England Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier cast Agassiz’s apotheosis in different, though equally grandiose, terms. He evoked a powerful moment at the opening of the Penikese summer school in the summer of 1873 when Agassiz asked his students to bow their heads with him in silent prayer:

"We have come in search of truth,
Trying with uncertain key
Door by door of mystery;
We are reaching through His laws,
To the garment-hem of Cause,
Him, the endless, unbegun,
The Unnamable , the One
Light of all our light the Source,
Life of life, and Force of force."


Agassiz's prayer uplifts everyone, including the poet, who, remembering this scene (which he had in fact not witnessed himself), imagines the dead scientist risen to have become part of that "Force of force," his sail now drifting on a “vaster sea.” In death, Agassiz has become part of nature, with his name being repeated “by the waves that kiss the shore” and “by the curlew’s whistle sent / Down the cool, sea-scented air." For both Parsons and Whittier, Agassiz was the embodiment of the confidence that, with patience and persistence, the patterns of God’s designing intelligence will be found in nature. Nature herself had bestowed final authorization on Agassiz’s vast project.

Both Whittier and Parsons confirm, in different ways, that the literate American public had understood the importance Agassiz had attached to his scientific work and to the work of every other scientist who was doing what he, by his own estimation, was doing so well: translate the secrets of the universe to the people so that the truth stood revealed, “face to face,” as Agassiz's friend Emerson would have said.

The theoretical foundations of Agassiz's science have long been discredited, and his unpalatable views on race and evolution have made him unfit company in most intellectual circles today. But the desire that he fulfilled for those two poets is not gone, the hope that we might be able to reconcile science and faith, to balance what we are doing in the lab during the week with the thoughts we are thinking in the pew on Sunday. In a more recent lyrical evocation of the beauties of a salt marsh in Massachusetts,Sippewissett: Or, Life on a Salt March (2006),modern nature writer Tim Traver asks himself if the time hasn’t come to look at the world again from an “Agassizian perspective.” For Agassiz, every detail in nature had spiritual—or, as Traver would say, “ecological”—significance: “Our experience of the whole, organic world builds a space for something bigger, something sacred. Something different than the bird our eyes hear and our eyes see.” And so Traver has this strange vision of Agassiz having come back to roam his beloved marsh: “Walking home up the main creek, carefully skirting the snoozing golden plover, I see Agassiz in his black frock coat stooping to pick up something common that he finds incredible. Amazed, he holds it aloft—the smooth shell of a moon snail. Moving forward, the stands for a long minute bent over the red Cyanea capillata, lion's mane jelly, pulsating like a heart and pushing--a fixed idea in the mind of a visionary God--against the tide and upstream." In Traver's lyrical book, Agassiz, despite his flaws, stands for something good: the virtue of respect, a reverence for the divine which has a purpose that, at least for now, exceeds our seeing and understanding but, by the same token, also urges us to take good care of all that we do see and know.


Bibliographical note: For the texts consulted for this post, see Thomas William Parsons, “Agassiz,” Broadside, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Leaflet fAC 85.P 2566.B891; John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Prayer of Agassiz” (1874), in The Complete Works of John Greenleaf Whittier,Household Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904) 552-554; Tim Traver, Sippewissett: Or, Life on a Salt Marsh (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006).

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