July 22, 2014, BY Paula Cogan Myers

Professor Saundra Morris, English, and Molly Brown ’15

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A hush falls over Bucknell University as the students depart at the end of each spring semester. You might wonder if anything happens on campus during the summer. The students and faculty doing summer research can assure you that it does. From exploring how music links with literature in the poetry of Emily Dickinson to installing a network of sensors to measure temperature variability in the Susquehanna River, they're busy pursuing their scholarly interests.

Sample a taste of the work being done on campus this summer in English, economics, psychology and civil engineering.

Molly Brown '15, music and English (literary studies and creative writing)

Mentored by: Professor Saundra Morris, English  

Supported by the Bucknell Program for Undergraduate Research (Candland)

Molly Brown '15 came to Bucknell as an Arts Merit Scholar to study piano performance. During her second semester, she took American Poetry with Professor Saundra Morris, English. Brown soon decided she wanted to combine her interests in music and literature — a natural pairing for someone who started piano lessons and stumbled on the poetry of Emily Dickinson in a children's book at age six.  

Morris, a scholar of American Romanticism and poetry, agreed to advise Brown on an interdisciplinary humanities project and quickly recognized the depth and breadth of Brown's talent and potential. She emphasizes the serendipity of their shared interests, but also that Brown's creative work is her own. "Molly has shown herself to be so self-motivated and capable that she has earned a lot of flexibility in choosing the direction of her research," said Morris. "And I'm just very interested in what she does. I think it's terrific."  

While reading Dickinson, Brown began to see patterns. "She has a lot of musical imagery and allusions in her poems and uses vivid color imagery, which I think is interesting," she said. This is how she started studying literary synesthesia, a concept she describes as an evocation of the mixing of the senses.  

Brown has tied the concept to sound/color synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that causes people to see color when they hear music. Her research has led her to believe that during Dickinson's most productive creative period (1860–1865), she could have been experiencing this type of synesthesia. The time coincides with an eye affliction Dickinson suffered, which led the poet, who rarely left home, to travel for treatment. 

During the same period, her poetry reflects vivid color imagery and musical references in a way it hadn't before.  

Piano was central to Dickinson's life, and many of her poems are written in hymn form. Morris publishes on Dickinson's poetry but is not trained in music, so Brown's ear lends a new perspective to Morris' interests. Most of the scholarship in this area centers on setting Dickinson's work to music, but Brown is looking at the deeper relationship between her music and poetry.  

"Molly is right there on the cusp of the burgeoning field of the integration of music and literature," Morris said. "Molly's imagination leads her to important new movements in academic work. The undergraduate research grant is enabling her to explore those things."  

Brown's summer research schedule requires motivation and discipline. To start each day, she reads Dickinson's poetry and then takes a break to read secondary sources. In the afternoon, she plays music and reads Dickinson's letters. She thinks that her work this summer will set a foundation for her honors thesis and extend into her graduate work.  

"The kinship between music and poetry is fundamental to Dickinson, as it is to me," she said. "I'm so glad I had the opportunity to do this summer research. It's been a blast."