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21 December 2014

The Day came slow — till Five o'clock —

The Day came slow — till Five o'clock —
Then sprang before the Hills
Like Hindered Rubies — or the Light
A Sudden Musket — spills —

The Purple could not keep the East —
The Sunrise shook abroad
Like Breadths of Topaz — packed a night —
The Lady just unrolled —

The Happy Winds — their Timbrels took —
The Birds — in docile Rows
Arranged themselves around their Prince
The Wind — is Prince of Those —

The Orchard sparkled like a Jew —
How mighty 'twas — to be
A Guest in this stupendous place —
The Parlor — of the Day —
                                   F572 (1863)  J304

Sunrise approaches slowly until suddenly, at 5 a.m., it springs like rubies suddenly uncovered – a metaphor mixing the animal with the mineral – or, in a masculine, martial simile, like the light from musket fire. Dickinson pivots to the distaff side when describing how the purple of night is covered over as the rising sun shakes out its Topaz cloth as if the lady of the house were unpacking the linen for the day's use.
Photo: John O Neill
        The "Happy Winds" begin to shake the trees, the rustling of their leaves and branches percussive and musical, like tambourines. The birds line up on fence and branch amid the stirrings of their "Prince", for it is his breath that helps them soar. 

  The last stanza is problematic with its dewy orchard sparkling in the morning light "like a Jew". Did Dickinson believe that Jews are decked out with diamonds – and this a result of both acquisitiveness and ostentation? Did she never question this assumption?  Domhnall Mitchell makes the following comments about that in an article, "Temperance in Emily Dickinson's Writing, published in The Emily Dickinson Journal in November, 2006:

Bolt of silk cloth
Dickinson appears to play on the anti-Semitic stereotype of the miserly in one poem ["I Came to buy a smile – today" (Fr258)], and on the acquisitive in [this one]. Both works were enclosed privately in letters to friends, but they were also recorded in the fascicles. In other words, these are not throwaway or confidential remarks: they were preserved, which suggests a lack of self-consciousness about the images being deployed—a sense that they were acceptable to people other than herself. Had the references been made in letters only, one would have thought that Dickinson knew that they were suspect, but knew too that they would have no wider, public, impact. That she recorded them suggests an assumption of cultural approbation—and indeed others in her social circle felt confident enough to publish similar expressions, 

It is a casual anti-Semitism. The morning is glorious, she regards this "Parlor – of the Day" as a "stupendous place". Had there been an intended bite, the  jumble of simile and metaphor wouldn't have been so ecstatic. Nonetheless, I take Mitchell's point about the anti-Semitic stereotype – which cannot be casually dismissed.

20 December 2014

Two butterflies went out at Noon

Two butterflies went out at Noon 
And waltzed upon a Farm —
And then espied Circumference
And caught a ride with him –
Then lost themselves and found themselves
In eddies of the sun
Till Gravitation missed them –
And both were wrecked in Noon –
To all surviving Butterflies 
Be this Fatuity
Example – and monition
To entomology
                                                     F571 (1863)  J533

Alternate versions of this poem have engendered many papers and discussions, which I won't address here. Johnson's version comes from fascicle 16, written in 1862; an incomplete revision, filled with alternative words and phrases, was written in 1878. Franklin takes his version from Fascicle 25, dated 1863. I limit my discussion to Franklin's version but do include Johnson's below because there is quite a discrepancy.  

This poem seems something of a parable – a light-hearted version of the Icarus and Daedalus legend, a warning not to fly too high or too close to the sun. On the other hand, it seems a nature poem along the lines of "A Bird came down the Walk" (F359) where Dickinson contemplates the natural world with a cosmic twist. I find it easy to read it metaphorically with the butterflies as thoughts and an entomologist/poet waving her butterfly net in hot pursuit. 

           The story is simple: two butterflies venture out at noon, dancing about the flowers – no doubt mating and sipping nectar. I'm not sure what they "espied", "Circumference" being ambiguously abstract here, but it might have been the wind pushing clouds along the curved top of the sky. Such a wind would surely cause little butterflies to lose their way, pulled higher and higher as the heat of the sun creates rising eddies in the wind. The story has a sad ending for "both were wrecked in Noon". Their little excursion lasted less than an hour. 
          Dickinson ends the poem by citing the butterflies' foolishness as a warning to "all surviving Butterflies" and to entomologists. Don't fly so high that the earth can no longer hold you; don't go chasing off after something that will lead you too far astray.

The poem is written in regular ballad or hymn form. You have to like a poet that rhymes "fatuity" with "entomology". I also like the internal rhyme of "espied" with "caught a ride". 

Johnson's version:

Two butterflies went out at Noon –  
And waltzed upon a Farm —
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested, on a Beam —

And then — together bore away
Upon a shining Sea —
Though never yet, in any Port —
Their coming, mentioned — be —

If spoken by the distant Bird —
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman —

No notice — was — to me —      

18 December 2014

I tried to think a lonelier Thing

I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen —
Some Polar Expiation — An Omen in the Bone
Of Death's tremendous nearness —

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate — to borrow —
A Haggard Comfort springs

From the belief that Somewhere —
Within the Clutch of Thought —
There dwells one other Creature
Of Heavenly Love — forgot —

I plucked at our Partition
As One should pry the Walls —
Between Himself — and Horror's Twin —
Within Opposing Cells —

I almost strove to clasp his Hand,
Such Luxury — it grew —
That as Myself — could pity Him —
Perhaps he — pitied me —
                                     F570 (1863)  J532

I've had a phrase in my head for years and always want to credit it to Pope but can never ascertain if he said it or not, or who did: "the bird who presses its breast against a thorn to sing". Maybe I got it as a quote in Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds or something. I'm reminded of it by this poem where Dickinson subjects herself to an intense thought experiment, seeking to imagine the loneliest "Thing" she can. That Thing turns out to be her "Duplicate" or double.
         The poet makes her purpose clear: this is an expedition of "Expiation", some cleansing through an extreme, "Polar" experience. Dickinson has associated northerly polar regions with God before, notably in "My period had come for Prayer" (F525) where she steps "upon the North" to look for God. In "Through the Straight Pass of Suffering" (F187) she compares the faith of the martyrs to a compass needle which "to the North Degree / Wades – so – through Polar Air!" but in this poem she is going for the bitter, remorseless cold where she can feel Death in her bones. 
         Dickinson doesn't give any clues about why she seeks expiation, but it clearly involves making contact with her Duplicate. She probes "Retrieveless things" to "borrow" him. Perhaps that is the realm of the dead for surely all who pass there become retrieveless. She doesn't want to keep or reanimate this soul, but merely form some fleeting connection. Just the idea that such a creature is possible brings her a "Haggard Comfort". Dickinson's surmise that he exists "Somewhere – / Within the Clutch of Thought" strengthens the word likeness of "Expiation" to "Expediton", for on this trip Thought is its own realm. The other meaning of "clutch" – to grasp – suggests the difficulty of this thought expedition. 
The Count of Monte Cristo as prisoner
         What makes the imagined potential creature her Duplicate is that he too is an outcast, someone "Of Heavenly Love – forgot". Dickinson implies that Heavenly Love has been extended to all others; only she and "one other Creature" are forgotten. Could it be that the expiation involves an actual person, now dead? Some soul mate? To reach him she plucks at the partition between life and death as if she were a prisoner and he, "Horror's Twin", was in a cell on the opposite side. The phrase suggests that the plucking prisoner/poet is the Horror. 
         Dickinson makes a similar ambiguous identification with horror in "That after Horror – that 'twas us"  (F243) where a brush with death is like having a "Face of Steel" look at you with a "metallic grin": "The Cordiality of Death – / Who drills his Welcome in". The terror of this encounter explains perhaps why in the current work the poet "almost strove" to take her Duplicate's hand. She doesn't want a closer brush with death than the "Omen in the Bone". 
This encounter is a truly lonely moment. She clearly senses the Duplicate; he seems to be within reach. Yet having struggled to find him, to borrow him, she stops short of touch.  But the poem does end with a bit more than the hoped-for "Haggard Comfort". She imagines a bond of pity between them, and this is "Luxury". It's a dark place when pity passes for luxury, but it is a place of truth. Not many dive into the depths without the safety net of heavenly love.  Who could pity a Horror? Perhaps only "Horror's Twin". 

15 December 2014

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A privilege — I think —

His venerable Hand to take —
And warming in our own —
A passage back — or two — to make —
To Times when he — was young —

His quaint opinions — to inspect —
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind —
The Literature of Man —

What interested Scholars — most —
What Competitions ran —
When Plato — was a Certainty —
And Sophocles — a Man —

When Sappho — was a living Girl —
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified —
Facts Centuries before

He traverses — familiar —
As One should come to Town —
And tell you all your Dreams — were true —
He lived — where Dreams were born —

His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —
                                       F569 (1863)  J371

In this charming ode to classical literature, Dickinson metaphorically meets the old vellum volumes as elderly gentlemen who enjoy being asked about their lives and times, whose "quaint opinions" are still of interest, and whose very presence is "Enchantment". Such encounters are a pleasure and a privilege, the pleasure being both "precious" and "mouldering". Antique books (and old gentlemen) can be a bit musty, but that is part of the precious pleasure, signaling a vantage of the storied past.
Some of the books Dickinson was
known to have read

        The extended book/man metaphor is introduced as we see the poet meet the Antique Book in the "Dress his Century wore".  We imagine seeing the ancient Greeks in draped tunics and cloaks, or Medieval gentlemen in doublets and hose.         Opening the book is like taking the gentleman's hand. It warms to the touch and, with this offered encouragement, he opens up and tells his tale. I like Dickinson's phrase, "To Times when he – was young", for it reminds me that old books may seem venerable now, but they were first being read in their youth, when what they said was fresh and new. 
        Dickinson wants to inspect his opinions, ascertain his views on such themes of interest as literature, scholarly work, and "What Competitions ran". That last one is a puzzlement. Perhaps she wonders if there were prizes for poetry reading or costume as well as, of course, for sport. No doubt the sort of competitions an era engages in provides some insights into its values. 
        She reveals her literary excursions through her examples. What literature, scholarly focus, and competitions were current when Plato "was a Certainty" (perhaps a droll reference to his contention that it is a changeable and deceptive world our senses perceive); when Sophocles was a living man and Sappho a living girl; and, delightfully, when Dante's Beatrice wore what must have been a very becoming gown.
        His knowledge is centuries old, and his stories tell you "all your Dreams – were true" for He lived – where Dreams were born." That's a lovely line and may refer to Western literature's heavy reliance on Greek myth and literature whose themes and icons echo even now. It is seducing to think that in the gentleman's youth those fabled stories were true. But the "Old Volumes" just shake their "Vellum Heads" the way an old grandfather would when asked for more tales from his impossible youth – half encouragement, half demurral.

13 December 2014

A Prison gets to be a friend —

*Note: the following poem is out of Franklin order because I inadvertently omitted it earlier. This is the last of the out-of-order poems.

A Prison gets to be a friend —
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours — a Kinsmanship express —
And in its narrow Eyes —

We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us — stated as Our food —
And hungered for — the same —

We learn to know the Planks —
That answer to Our feet —
So miserable a sound — at first —
Nor even now — so sweet —

As plashing in the Pools —
When Memory was a Boy —
But a Demurer Circuit —
A Geometric Joy —

The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor — Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty —

As this Phantasm steel —
Whose features — Day and Night —
Are present to us — as Our Own —
And as escapeless — quite —

The narrow Round — the stint —
The slow exchange of Hope —
For something passiver — Content
Too steep for looking up —

The Liberty we knew
Avoided — like a Dream —
Too wide for any night but Heaven —
If That — indeed — redeem —
                             F456 (1862)  J652

At first glance the poem seems to share similarities to other of Dickinson's work where she is numbed to liberty or otherwise circumscribed or impeded. But Dickinson's use of the first person plural, the frequent "we" and "our", signal that in this poem she is talking about the human condition. The metaphorical prison bars are a "Phantasm" that that we choose – or learn – to observe. We avoid liberty, willingly exchanging it, or at least coming to acquiesce in the exchange, for the quieter, "passiver" state of "Content". Heaven might offer real freedom, but in the last line Dickinson expresses some doubt that heaven can in fact "redeem" us.
Newgate prison cell, 1856
The physical body is very present in this poem. It begins with the human face contrasted with the "Ponderous face" of the prison. Its window eyes are viewed with our eyes. Our feet feel the floor, we hear its noises; we recall splashing in pools of water. But the essence of the poem centers on freedom. 
        Should we mourn the loss of childish freedom when unfettered life is "Too wide" to comprehend or negotiate?  Freedom may have been as lovely to a child as the cheek of its mother, but even that image reminds us that children are held in loving bonds to their parents. Childish pleasures, Dickinson implies, give way to a "Geometric Joy" where immersion in confinement produces the sort of mindfulness espoused by sages and ascetics. 
        If all we can now see of the sun, so long taken for granted, is its light filtering through prison windows at predictable times, we respond with "gratitude". The noisy planks converse with our feet, becoming over time a sweeter sound than that of our childhood "plashing". This is is a walking meditation Dickinson describes. Joy can be found in the geometry of a cell. 
        This is not indicative of agoraphobia as Maryanne M. Garbowsky ("The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia") has suggested, but rather an insight into transcendence. How do we transcend the prison of our earthly existence? Not, according to this poem, by travel or adventure or the pursuit of wealth or ambition; but rather by self knowledge. For I think that Dickinson's metaphor can be read not only that earthly life is a prison, but that we ourselves are both prisoner and prison.
        We exchange the hope of youth, the dreams we had, for contentment, a much quieter and less exciting state of being. We avoid "The Liberty we knew" as something unmanageable and quite beyond our grasp. The transcendence of the "stint" comes when we find the sweetness, the "Demurer Circuit", and that "Geometric Joy. 
        Despite all that, I do not think that Dickinson is celebrating the "stint"; she paints a rather meager transcendence and an over-all cramped vision of life. And it is rather sad to read the poem written, in Franklin's chronology, just previous to this one, "It was given to me by the Gods"  [F455], where she exults in her youthful discovery of poetic talent:

Rich! 'Twas Myself – was rich –
To take the name of Gold –
And Gold to own – in solid Bars –
The Difference – made me bold –

It was in her small bedroom where Dickinson dreamed and wrote. She increasingly chose that room over all other places. Adreinne Rich, in her marvellous essay on Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home",  wrote:
Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned and said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”

So while the poem isn't really celebratory, it is a reflection of Dickinson's own transcendence of her "narrow Round" and "Phantasm steel". 

The first two stanzas alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter – a common ballad structure. But beginning with the third stanza Dickinson uses iambic trimeter in all but the third line. The effect is to emphasize the last words of the first two lines of each stanza: Planks / feet; Pools / Boy; Key / Day; steel / Night / stint / Hope / knew / Dream. 
        Each word is one syllable; most have a long, lingering vowels. One exception, "stint", cuts through the slow sounds around it (narrow Round, slow exchange of Hope), adding extra emphasis on the word that in its double meaning of limitation and task is at the heart of the poem.

09 December 2014

Give little Anguish —

*Note: the following poem is out of Franklin order because I inadvertently omitted it earlier.

Give little Anguish —
Lives will fret —
Give Avalanches —
And they'll slant —
Straighten — look cautious for their Breath —
But make no syllable — like Death —
Who only shows the Marble Disc —
Sublimer sort — than Speech —
                               F422 (1862)  J310

In this wisdom poem Dickinson claims that people will fret over small problems but after suffering an avalanche of anguish will, once over the initial shock, respond with deathly quiet. Dickinson considers this muteness a "Sublimer" response than "Speech". We don't use forms of "sublime" in this way today and so it is difficult to know just what she is getting at. Among the eight meanings of the word in the Webster's Dictionary of Dickinson's day, the Dickinson Lexicon considers "Fearful; terrible; awe-inspiring" to be the sense of it in this poem (you must register at the site to get the poem references; the definitions are available to all).
        When a person dies, only a gravestone remains to speak directly for the corpse, and even that "Marble Disc" has few words. It is the silence of the grave that is terrible, that opens our imaginations to the most fearful conjectures. When someone is struck by some terrible woe, they will stagger but (for the sake of this poem) "Straighten" again. They check their breathing as if it might have stopped. But they do not speak. They become like a gravestone, their bodies markers for the silenced spirit. It's a fearsome thing, Dickinson is telling us, when words can't come.

        The next poem chronologically, "The first Day's Night had come" (F423), anatomizes the avalanche aftermath from a first-person point of view. The day after a terrible event, the poem's speaker tells her soul to sing, but "She said her Strings were snapt – / Her bow – to Atoms blown".  Perhaps that explains the silence in this poem.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. The first four lines might be considered two tetrameter lines divided into shorter lines for emphasis. The rhymes are so slant as to be subliminal, with the exception of Breath and Death – a classic pairing. Instead, Dickinson chooses strong, interesting words throughout, densely packing meaning. The assonances of Anguish and Avalanches are enriching and strengthen those already strong words; the use of "Lives" rather than "people" or "men" sets up a resonance with "Death" in its surprise appearance later in the poem. The alliteration of "slant", Straighten", "syllable", and "Sublimer"  slides the simile of numb anguish to death into the last of that string of "s" sounds, "Speech" – a harsh-sounding word (like 'screech') that stops the poem just as speech itself stopped.  

08 December 2014

I like to see it lap the Miles —

*Note: the following poem is out of its Franklin order as I accidentally omitted it earlier.

I I like to see it lap the Miles —
And lick the Valleys up —
And stop to feed itself at Tanks —
And then — prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains —
And supercilious peer
In Shanties — by the sides of Roads —
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its sides
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid — hooting stanza —
Then chase itself down Hill —

And neigh like Boanerges —
Then — prompter than a Star
Stop — docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door —
              F382 (1862)  J585

Helen Vendler includes this poem in her wonderful collection, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. I really have not much to add to her commentary, but I can summarize a few of her points. Vendler notes that Dickinson's father was a backer of the railroad whose eventual station was located close to the Dickinson house. Dickinson would have been able to hear its "horrid – hooting stanza" as she wrote.
       Vendler has some fun listing the different animals the train is seemingly like: it laps and licks as a cat would; it neighs like a horse and also like a horse has a stable. It can also peer in shanties (superciliously!), pare down quarry walls and then crawl between them, and it has a "prodigious step" like a giant. Most interestingly, it is both "docile" and "omnipotent".
She makes other points about the poem, but she doesn't account, I don't think, for its charm. At least it has always charmed me! I, too, like to see the train lap the miles – but I like it better in this poem than in real life, for Dickinson has created a cartoon train. The entire poem unfolds as if it were an old Disney black and white. I follow each line and have no trouble visualizing the action. Frankly, it never occurred to me to question the mixed metaphors. Each segment of the poem seems another stage in a journey and I am along for the ride.
       Part of the energy comes from the use of "and". It goes here and it does this and that, and then finally it is home. It's a headlong adventure. The language is also fun. Lapping and licking the miles and valleys is fun, as is the train taking a break at a tank like a thirsty horse before it's off again. (Presumably imbibing the miles and valleys didn't quench its thirst.) The prodigious step is another fun phrase and image as is the Pile of Mountains. I see the train as a giant inch worm raising itself up and coming down on the other side of the hill. 
        It's not uncommon to see or imagine seeing people looking out the window of a passenger train at the yards along the other side of the track . There is something supercilious about it, but Dickinson has the train itself become like a snobbish passenger.
       Perhaps the most fun image is that of the mighty train carving its track through a rock quarry, and then having to crawl through, "Complaining all the while". Those hooting stanzas were probably painfully familiar to Dickinson. In Vendler's final paragraph she writes, "The train is Dickinson's self-parody, a bad poet."

I must confess that I always thought Boanerges was the name of some famous war horse. Vendler corrects me: in Aramaic it means "Sons of Thunder" and Jesus called James and John, two disciples, by this name. The Dickinson Lexicon lists an additional meaning as a "loud orator" or "vociferous preacher". Google helped me find it used in an 1862 manuscript about evangelists. In referring to a Mr. Bell, author Madison Evans writes, "He has a strong, deep voice, and his loud, rapid, and  sometimes vociferous utterance has won for him the sobriquet, Boanerges. … He closes every discourse  with a powerful exhortation, in which his voice sometimes  rises to the highest pitch" (from "biographical sketches of the pioneer preachers of Indiana"). I wonder if this frontier Boanerges also ended up at his own stable door "docile and omnipotent". That's another fun image.