“Best Witchcraft is Geometry” (1158)
Best Witchcraft is Geometry
To the magician’s mind —
His ordinary acts are feats
To thinking of mankind.
I don’t really need to talk about this poem. It illustrates a few themes in political philosophy well – those of you who’ve seen The Prestige will recognize exactly what’s going on.
Still, the grammar is peculiar enough and Dickinson’s diction gives the linkage of science and magic a distinctive twist. “Witchcraft” has overtones of femininity – perhaps also the idea of a love potion being brewed or seeing into the future. The question is what exactly the magician admires in “Witchcraft.”
“His ordinary acts:” who is he? The magician? The geometer? We could say the dash indicates that the last two lines are the admiration of the magician for the geometer. The geometer simply orders and this is a feat compared to the “thinking” the rest of mankind engages in. In fact, one who really thinks and tries to figure out human nature is also shown up by the geometer. We don’t call the book “Socrates’ Elements.” Self-evident truth lies with Euclid.
But the magician has ordinary acts. They in themselves are feats and can’t quite be compared with “thinking of mankind.” They are literally “feats to” – they lead somewhere. A magician sees what excites wonder and uses it. He does not know the whole; he does not order. But his manipulation of ignorance – in a way, his own ignorance – can lead to others thinking.
So the magician admires geometry; we note well that there is no geometer, no witch in this poem. The question is whether the magician himself will allow his mind to have a say and recognize his ordinary acts in their full significance. Love and the future are very much at stake.