Search This Blog

16 January 2019

No Rack can torture me —
My Soul — at Liberty —
Behind this mortal Bone
There knits a bolder One —

You cannot prick with Saw —
Nor pierce with Cimitar —
Two Bodies — therefore be —
Bind One — The Other fly —

The Eagle of his Nest
No easier divest —
And gain the Sky
Than mayest Thou —

Except Thyself may be
Thine Enemy —
Captivity is Consciousness —
So's Liberty –
Fr649 (1863)  J384

I've been struggling with this poem for a few weeks now. Oh, it goes along tamely enough for the first three stanzas. Dickinson builds the unremarkable case that the soul is not constrained by the "mortal Bone," but is instead, like the eagle, a creature of flight and freedom. It can "divest" itself of the body and "gain the Sky." It is the "bolder" of the two Bodies – and no wonder! Unlike your flesh body, it cannot be hurt by saws, scimitars, or even torturers' tools. It cannot even be bound; it can simply fly away.

But then there is the ambiguity of the fourth stanza: "Except Thyself may be / Thine Enemy –". Which phrases are these two lines are attached to? Is Dickinson saying that the soul can gain the sky unless you are your own enemy Or is she saying that unless you are your own enemy, Captivity and Liberty are both synonymous in some way with Consciousness? If forced to choose, I would opt for the latter reading although I don't think it is a significant point.

In terms of liberty enabling a consciousness-enhancing captivity, Adrienne Rich, in her marvelous essay on Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home," recounts the following:
[Dickinson's] niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom … and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned and said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”

The poet's locked room becomes a metaphor for the mind, the enclosed space figures as the skull, the poet as the soul. Freed from outside care by the confinement, the soul may boldly venture beyond earthly realms and quotidian concerns. Consciousness emerges from the captivity; Consciousness whose liberty gains the Sky – and Dickinson often uses 'Sky' in place of 'heaven', 'cosmos', and even 'God' (ED Lexicon). 
        An interesting insight comes from Boston University's Thomas Finan who in 2015 wrote "'Captivity is Consciousness': Consciousness and its Revisions in Dickinson’s Poetry," The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 24 no. 2, pp. 24-45. Finan refers to the mid-1800s and the "major philosophical and literary themes involved in the rise of 'consciousness' [as] a concern with the way in which consciousness could imprison through its mediating and unifying capabilities." Finan is convinced that despite this concern, Dickinson found that "the walls of consciousness" could provide a barrier "behind which the self can withdraw." The confining barriers "can provide the prospect of liberty." Yes, much like turning the key in the lock of the door.
But besides all of that, the ambiguously anchored phrase, "Except Thyself may be / Thine Enemy –", remains of interest. Beyond the notion that we can defeat ourselves, there is Lucifer's definitive exclamation in Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 254-5). Surely, the mind that turns a heaven into a hell is its own enemy; the one that does the reverse achieves the Sky.

Dickinson has written about this self-enmity before:
    • in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – " (J670 / Fr407), it is "Ourself behind ourself" that should scare us more than any ghost;
    • in "They shut me up in Prose" (J613 / Fr445), it is as laughable to put a bird behind a fence as to command a poet to stick to prose or a child to stay quietly in her room;
    •  in "A Prison gets to be a friend – " (J652 / Fr456), the 'Geometric Joy" of prison is of our own making and Liberty avoided "like a Dream."

But perhaps her most in-depth examination is yet to come. In J642/Fr710, Dickinson asks, "But since Myself – assault Me – / How have I peace / Except by subjugating / Consciousness? This seems contrary to the current poem where Consciousness is the desirable face of both captivity and liberty. Here, Dickinson wants peace at the expense of Consciousness yet cannot imagine how to abdicate herself of herself. The question is almost one of transcendental meditation. The whole poem is worth reading here:

Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?
                             J642,  Fr710  (1863)

08 January 2019

To Blog Followers

I'm doing a lot of entry adjustments right now, from the beginning up through current (although not necessarily in that order). I apologize for the load of notices this results in.

23 December 2018

I've seen a Dying Eye

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'Twere blessed to have seen –
                                                  Fr 647 (1863)  J547

The living have no way to really know what happens after death. There are the usual reports from the near dead or briefly dead: the tunnel with a light at the end, for example; or the evanescing (or perhaps effervescing) into the vast Oneness of the Cosmos. But we tend to take these tales with a grain of salt. The brain might be doing strange things as it closes down. We may be conditioned to expect certain outcomes and, thus, imagine we've seen them.
        In this poem, the speaker waits by a death bed or death beds hoping the dying person will provide some indication of what might be glimpsed as he or she passes through the veil separating life from death. But no such indication is forthcoming.
        It's a poem of frustration rather than grief. The speaker details the Eye's movements in the last moments, but it is clear it is not clinical curiosity about what an eye does before becoming "soldered down" with death, but rather curiosity about what the eye sees as the body dies. There is, however, no indication that dying Eyes see anything of note. They become cloudy, then obscured, and then, finally, closed in the finality of death. The poem ends with the speaker frustrated that nothing has been revealed, but Dickinson seems to imply that the dying are not "blessed to have seen" anything.
Fading Away, Henry Robinson: Victorian deathbed watch

In another poem's death scene frustration, a dying person "heard a Fly buzz" when she died rather than seeing "the King," undoubtedly Jesus or some other representation of God or the divine, that those gathered around her were clearly expecting. Instead she sees only a fly as her "Windows failed." The incongruous and existential disparity between savior and fly in this poem (Fr591is profound.

Dickinson refrains from the hushed respect accorded death bed watches. While the buzzing blue fly is an almost sarcastic dismissal of hopes for a divine encounter,  Sharon Leiter  says that the Dying Eye's searching in the current poem "suggests nothing so much as a demented rodent of some sort racing desperately in circles' (Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson, 2007, p. 133). I don't think that Dickinson is dismissing the mysteries of life and death but rather depicting the vagaries, indignities, and ultimately the singularly alone-ness of the passage.

Dickinson compresses two stanzas in this poem, using traditional hymn or ballad style. She further knits the poem together with word sounds. The 'ou's of  "round and round" are echoed in "Cloudier" and 'Without". The rodent quickness is impelled by the "r"s of "Run round and round a Room" followed by the sibilance of "In search of Something – as it seemed – ." "Dying Eye" not only has a core rhyme but the visual element of the "y," and most of the end words can be sorted into two slant rhyme groups: Room, seemed, become; and seemed, be, and seen (plus down with seen).
        But the heart of the poem lies in the center as the poet builds to the final anticlimax. She begins with the Dying Eye searching, followed by three listings: Then it becomes cloudy; and then obscured; and then it is soldered down. Hope diminishes with each step into the final ironic subjunctive.

04 December 2018

To fill a Gap

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and 'twill yawn the more —
You cannot solder an Abyss •
With Air –

                                           Fr 646  (1863)  J546

• Plug a Sepulcher   (E.D. Archives)

This short poem starts out confidently as if stating a rule of thumb: if something has fallen out or been removed, fill the gap by putting that something back in. But the next statement is questionable: if you try to substitute something else the gap will only get worse? How can that be? A pearl lost from a necklace can be replaced by a similar pearl. One hearthstone may be substituted for another.  So what is Dickinson talking about?
Wiki commons
When the heart is like an open grave
When she writes that using something other than 'the Thing that caused it' will cause the gap to 'yawn' apart, she conjures the 'yawning grave' – an epithet so familiar as to be almost trite. But Dickinson isn't talking about an earthen grave. Her Gap is an inner rupture, the loss, perhaps, of love or a loved one who occupied the heart. Like a grave, it bears the name of only one occupant. When that occupant is gone, the gap remains. Trying to fill it with another only rips it further.
The loss involved, the rupture, is so deep that the poet rephrases it in the penultimate line as an 'Abyss' – then as now meaning a chasm or void. It is invokes once more the image of a grave, itself the symbol of death and loss. You cannot fill this great gap with someone else; it cannot be soldered with air or annealed by time.

Dickinson wrote 'Plug a Sepulcher' as an alternative to 'solder an Abyss'. It's less subtle and lacks the sibilance, but maybe Dickinson was of two minds about subtlety here. 'Plug' fits with the short, strong 'Gap' and 'Block'. It crudely strips away any romanticism about the death or loss and her response to it. It's harsh, but Dickinson was clearly drawn to it.
To me, though, the harshness, the stab, almost, is more than adequately delivered in the truncated last line, 'With Air –'.  Helen Vendler observes that the poem 'staggers to its close'. A life and this line have been cut too short. There is no solution, no closure.

02 December 2018

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —
And then a Tract between
Set Cypherless — to teach the Eye
The Value of its Ten —

Until the peevish Student
Acquire the Quick of Skill —
Then Numerals are dowered back —
Adorning all the Rule —

'Tis mostly Slate and Pencil —
And Darkness on the School
Distracts the Children's fingers —
Still the Eternal Rule

Regards least Cypherer alike
With Leader of the Band —
And every separate Urchin's Sum —
Is fashioned for his hand —
                           F646, J545  (1863)

In this philosophical poem Emily Dickinson presents a benevolent and just deity through the metaphor of an arithmetic lesson. The teacher is 'Father', the word serving as both the metaphorical father of the student as well as the Father of Creation.

He is a wise teacher, knowing what must be told and what must be left for the students to make sense of. He begins the lesson with single-digit counting numbers, which for most children is simple as they can count along with their fingers. I picture the teacher writing on a chalkboard, pausing after the column of ones, then leaving a gap between it and a column of tens. This 'Tract between' is left as open space for imagination to enter and the students to traverse.
     The approach is frustrating and, Reader, I relate to the Peevish Student. It's no fun to face someone else's puzzle, especially when it comes to the mysteries of numbers and Eternal Rules. Yet when the students finally realize that the second column is the result of some function applied to the first, a function related to the addition of the zero, their peevishness disappears and fingers fly with the (wonderful phrase) Quick of Skill. Soon their slates overflow with calculations – the fleshing out, the adornments, of the underlying Rule governing the value and nomenclature of the tens.
Greenleaf's First Lessons in
Numbers, 1831, Boston

Dickinson never uses the word 'zero' in this poem, but it is implicit. She employs a subtle bit of word play around it as until the early 1800s, zeros were commonly referred to as  'cyphers'. Cypherless space, then, has no zero. Obvious enough. But in Dickinson's day, according to the Lexicon, readers would read 'cypherless' as not just 'lacking zero', but as 'undeterminable; without an exact meaning; unable to be expressed'. It is here that students journey between the column of ones and the zero-enhanced column of tens. It is here that we older readers discover how meaning saturates material, how abundance springs from nothing, and where we contemplate the world called forth from the void.


The third stanza returns us from this rather Kirkegaardian leap and expands the metaphor  beyond arithmetic lessons. The students, still in the realm of Slate and Pencil, struggle with their lessons when darkness falls. Just so do we struggle with faith and spiritual advancement during dark times.
      A good School Master/Father understands this and in accordance with the Eternal Rule fashions each student's lessons according to ability and need. The 'least Cypherer' is valued as highly as the most brilliant pupil, even as much as, if I read it correctly, the leader of a band of angels. 'Cypherer' here again plays on 'zero': while in Dickinson's day it would mean someone who works with numbers, its association with zero suggests a person who amounts to nothing.
      The Eternal Rule governing all this may be what Dickinson's church would have taught as the Golden Rule – doing unto others as we wish others would do to us. It might refer to the numerous parables and teachings Dickinson would have read where Jesus made it clear that to the Father, the meek, the halt and the lame; the poor, the imprisoned, and the thief on the cross are as worthy of blessings and salvation – if not more worthy – than the most learned and powerful.

This poem is among the most regular of Dickinson's work in terms of meter and rhyme. Its simple construction mirrors the simple lesson it teaches. Or so it seems. The more I delved into the first stanza the more redolent and 'undeterminable' I found that 'Tract between' and its traversal to be.

03 November 2018

Exhiliration — is within —

Exhiliration — is within —
There can no Outer Wine
So royally intoxicate
As that diviner Brand

The Soul achieves — Herself —
To drink — or set away
For Visitor — Or Sacrament —
'Tis not of Holiday

To stimulate a Man
Who hath the Ample Rhine
Within his Closet — Best you can
Exhale in offering.
J383 (1863)  Fr645

Oh to have a bit of that intoxicating joy that Dickinson writes about from time to time! It punctuates some of her most popular poems and is the polar opposite of her Gothic horror poems.

In the gay and charming 'I taste a liquor never brewed', for example, she is an 'Inebriate of air', a 'little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun!' (F207).  That same year, 1861, Dickinson describes an irrepressible inner ecstasy as 'A Diagram – of Rapture!' (F212). In perhaps my favorite of these poems, she claims that 'Exultation is the going / Of an inland soul to sea', a 'divine intoxication' (F143). In other poems she depicts piercing joys, cosmic highs, and often transcendental experiences of Nature.
I find that Georgia O'Keefe's paintings often
reflecta deep and mystical ecstasy.

The current poem promises to give us a little more insight into inner ecstasies, but ends up cloaked as all mysteries are. It begins with a claim: it is possible to experience, even possess, something 'royally intoxicate', something that doesn't come from any 'Outer Wine'. It is 'diviner' than any happiness the finest liquers, riches, bonanzas, or foreign travels might offer.
        Some joys invite us to enter the sacred – or perhaps the inverse: a special place, a piece of music, meditation, dancing – poetry. We might at times want to invite a guest into our sacred realm. We might choose to experience the exhiliration sacramentally as a holy ritual. In this poem Dickinson describes not only exhiliration and perhaps enlightenment, but also empowerment. The Soul can achieve; the Soul can dispense.

The third and last stanza is difficult. A man with 'Ample Rhine' in his wine cabinet might be a good and worldly man, the Rhine wine standing for vitality and robust goodness; a man who might be stimulated to begin achieving his own diviner intoxication. Or, and I think this more likely, it might refer to a man whose Soul has already achieved an ample supply of the 'diviner Brand'.
        Why should the poet consider how to stimulate such a man – and for what purpose? The Emily Dickinson Lexicon's first definition of 'stimulate' is 'To excite, rouse, or animate to action by means of a motive. Perhaps the desired 'action' and the underlying motive would be the realization of a soul mate, a worthy Guest to share her inner wine – and someone who could reciprocate.
        In any case, Dickinson's prescribed stimulant is to 'Exhale in offering'. When we are full of wine, our breath reflects it. An exhalation of divine intoxicant would have not just odor, but power. The key word is 'offering'.  I am reminded of Old Testament offerings – blood sacrifices with savoury smoke to please the Lord while carrying prayers. I wonder if Dickinsons exhalations – her gnomic poems, letters, and conversation – might not be such an offering.

01 July 2018

For Death – or rather

For Death – or rather
For the Things 'twould buy –
This – put away
Life's Opportunity –

The Things that Death will buy
Are Room –
Escape from Circumstances –
And a Name –

With Gifts of Life
How Death's Gifts may compare –
We know not –
For the Rates – lie Here –

Fr644  (1863)  J382

I picture the poet standing by the grave of a suicide. 'This' – the corpse –, she muses, 'put away / Life's Opportunity' for what Death buys. The poem is chillingly cool as Dickinson portrays the decision to keep or stop living as a transactional one. Rather than spend your Life, you can sell it to Death.

        To someone with a reasonably satisfactory life, Death's gifts seem scant: a room the size of a coffin or at best a crypt; escape from the troubles of life (which Dickinson mitigates in the first stanza by pairing Life with 'Opportunity' ); and your name carved in stone.
        In the third stanza Dickinson acknowledges that she cannot judge if trading Life's gifts for those of Death is a good deal. Any potential the deceased's life might have held lie dead in the ground. They can no longer be measured in any rate of exchange against the sureties of Death: Room, Escape, and Name.
A 1910 suicide's grave in unconsecrated ground;
the regular cemetaary is in background
        Nowhere does the poet mention the possibility of an afterlife – either the promise of heaven or, particularly for suicides, the threat of hell. Nor is there reference to any loved ones who might be missed or who might be suffering. No, Dickinson has stripped it down to the most fundamental level. Life has Opportunities – promising, certainly, but uncertain; and the always doubtful if not ominous 'Circumstances' – a word too often preceded by 'reduced', 'unfortunate', or 'tragic'. Death might seem bare and devoid of interest, but it is, in this portrayal, restful and secure.
        In this regard, I'm reminded of Dickinson's poem "How many times these low feet staggered" (F238) where the poet contemplates the body of a woman who is portrayed as an exhausted housewife. At the end, Dickinson details the chores now left undone as the "Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!" Death here is a relief from Circumstances as well as what were probably very limited Opportunities.

That Dickinson, in the end, does not assert Life over Death is startling and considering her place and time, even shocking. Suicide historically has been considered by Christians to be a great sin – and in most cultures a great evil. Suicides' bodies were mutilated and never allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Fortunately, however, although suicide was illegal in Massachussetts until the late 1800s, by Dickinson's time opinion had shifted to consider suicide as a result of mental illness.

The poem may be read as about death in general rather than suicide specifically. But I think the first stanza and the proposition itself support a reading of the poem as about choosing between life and death, a choice exemplified by contemplation of a suicide.

23 June 2018

A Secret told —

A Secret told —
Ceases to be a Secret — then —
A Secret — kept —
That — can appall but One —

Better of it — continual be afraid —
Than it —
And Whom you told it to — beside —

              Fr643 (1863)  J381

It feels good to get something off your chest, to share some heavy secret with a sympathetic and friendly listener. But, Reader – have you ever done this and then regretted it? I certainly have and can think of several reasons why I regret it.
1) It was a secret for a reason: either because of someone else's wishes or best interests or else because of my own personal reasons.
2) There is no honor in telling secrets
3) If I couldn't hold the secret, why should the confidant?
4) Worry: The confidant knows something she isn't supposed to know. How will that affect her? What will it mean?

WWII poster
Dickinson boils all this down. A kept secret may upset – even frighten –  and depress its keeper. But if the secret holder tries to get support or share some of that burden by revealing the secret, she makes her trouble worse. Now she has whatever fear she had to begin with in addition to worrying about the one she blabbed to.

It is very tempting to guess at the category of secret Dickinson is referring to here; tempting to assume she is talking about some secret of her own. Is it a love relationship? Is it something about her father or other family member? Is it her poetry? Her religious inclinations, her health?

Reader, we must, in addition to the delicious guesswork we might undertake, acknowledge that the poet may simply be writing a truism as a poem. Think of it as an advice poem rather than a Hint.

Dickinson, however, is a great one for secrets. There are the passionate Master letters – we don't even know who Master is. Dickinson's best friends and family either didn't know or didn't agree. Why does she stay home, wear white, and hide from even dear friends? We don't know.

Tolstoy once wrote in his Diary, "Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all." I think this is true. Dickinson's poetry reveals deep secrets but with such ambiguity that they must be interpreted 'in common' rather than in a specific way.