Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, wrote many words seeming to describe worlds within
worlds, some so small that they go unnoticed. Her poem “Of Many Worlds in This World” summarizes this view in
16 lines, and is ridden with metaphorical language to help the reader better understand the comparison she wishes to make.
This poem can be read either of two ways: Either the historical and societal context of the poem can be left out of its meaning,
giving it a straight-forward conceit, or the context can be applied, giving it many more layers of depth.
Immediately in line 1, the first simile of the conceit is announced: “Just like as in a nest of boxes round.”
This line compares the complexity of the “world” to boxes of the same basic shape that fit within one another.
The element that seems to differ between them is their size, allowing some to “hide” within or “be hidden”
by others. This notion is clarified and emphasized in the next three lines, where Cavendish writes: “Degrees of sizes
in each box are found/ So, in this world, may many others be/ Thinner and less, and less still by degree (2-4).”
In the next line, another piece of information is added to our registry of ideas about these hypothetical worlds that Cavendish
is describing. She goes on to point out that some of these worlds are “not subject to our sense (5),” meaning
that humans cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch them- at least not in a perceptible fashion. This could be because they
are simply too small to be perceived, or because they are hidden, as mentioned in lines 1-2. “A world may be no bigger
than two-pence (6)” is the specific size comparison used to accompany this statement. Seeing as a two-pence piece (about
the size of a United States penny) is a very easily perceptible object, this must mean that some of these worlds are either
overlooked or hidden from sight. Is it at all uncommon for every-day pennies to be passed over for larger, shinier coins?
In line 7, another theme is presented to the reader. Cavendish personifies Nature as the
creator and maintainer of these worlds, and refers to her as “curious.” In this context, she is using ‘curious’
to mean ingenious and skillful rather than eager-to-learn. This ingenious creator has “shaped” these worlds to
be exactly as they are, suggesting that their small size has a purpose in the higher order (7). Perhaps it is not necessary
for humans to notice and perceive all of these small worlds, and perhaps they are not meant to. Otherwise, why would they
so “easily escape” the “dull [human] senses (8)?”
Up until this point
in the poem, these various sizes of worlds have seemed like inanimate objects being described (such as a “nest of boxes”),
but in line 9, Cavendish adds an element of life to even the smallest of worlds. “For Creatures, small as Atoms, may
be there (9),” she writes, referring to atoms not in the scientific sense but as a description for the tiniest building
block of existence. If living creatures this tiny are present in a world the size of two-pence, then perhaps that world is
proportionally similar to the large one humans are familiar with. Cavendish continues to comment on these creatures and her
lack of insight on what they really look like, proposing the hypothetical idea that “every one a Creature’s figure
The next set of lines goes into greater detail on the requirements of what
must make up a “world.” In another of her poems, Margaret Cavendish refers to “four atoms”- air, water,
earth, and fire- as being the necessary four elements to constitute a world. In “Of Many Worlds in This World,”
this notion is referenced in line 11: “…atoms four, a world can make…” If all it takes are four tiny
little atoms, then imagine how very miniscule some of these worlds can be!
takes the reader back into the realm of comparing the small size of these possible worlds with every-day objects. She writes,
“What several worlds might in an ear-ring be (12),” presenting an imprecise unit of measurement for a human trying
to understand such a size comparison. She emphasizes further in lines 13-14, pointing out that “millions of those atoms
may be in/ The head of one small, little, single pin.”
The last two pines of the poem
seem to sum up everything that has been written or implied thus far, combining the metaphors and symbolism into one visual
image: “And if thus small,” Cavendish begins, “then ladies may well wear/ A World of Worlds, as pendents
in each ear (15-16).”
The mental picture of the lady wearing many worlds on her ear
that is presented in these last two lines brings forth an easy transition into the contextual meanings of the poem. In the
time the poem was written (mid 1600’s), the world was one of male-domination. Women like Margaret Cavendish, though
they could be published poets and state their opinions in public matters, were not valued as equal contributors to the decision-making
of society. It could be said that “Of Many Worlds in This World” can be a metaphoric look at the “worlds”
of womankind- small and insignificant in the eyes of the men, but still quite complex and purposeful. Though many men of the
time were probably not aware of what was taking place in the quiet workings of the women, it is likely that they were in some
way being supported or aided by their “small” accomplishments.
The image of the
ear-ring also brings forward another idea. As the straight-forward analysis of the poem shows, a woman can be wearing many
worlds on her ear, simply as a decoration! Much the same, women in the mid-1600’s were often considered a decoration
to the dominant world of men. They would be dressed to impress, asked to keep quiet, and taken to “decorate” the
arm of their commanding male at a social or government event. This was particularly the case with women in the aristocracy,
such as Margaret Cavendish.
With these historic and social contexts in mind, perhaps the poem
really does go much deeper than it seems. A world can be as small as one-millionth of the head of a pin, an ordinary penny,
or as large as or larger than the one humans occupy. It is possible that with this concept in mind, humans will be encouraged
to take more notice of their own world, and for that matter, their own pocket change!