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03 July 2019

That I did always love

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived — Enough — *[I] did not live

That I shall love alway —
I argue thee * [I] offer
That love is life — *[love] be
And life hath Immortality —

This — dost thou doubt — Sweet —
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary —
J549, Fr652 (1863)


Short as it is, the poem makes me think of Shakespearean sonnets. We have arguments for love that outlasts time, a potentially doubtful beloved, and plenty of Elizabethan thees and thous sprinkled throughout. We even have something that sounds a lot like a closing couplet.

L.W. Willingham

John Drury, in The Poetry Dictionary, writes that historically sonnets often present "an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief." The first sonnets, Drury says, were composed and exchanged in the early 13th century by Sicilian notaries (lawyers of the day) and their Emperor, Frederick II. 

Granted, Dickinson is no lawyer, but she lived with lawyers. Granted, this poem is not fourteen lines nor are the lines in iambic pentameter. Consequently, the arguments are not well developed, but Dickinson cleverly presents only the line of argument rather than the argument itself, thus achieving her trademark compaction.

In the first stanza the speaker claims she always loved the elided (and assumed) You. Her proof? That until she loved she was never truly alive (or alive enough). This is a rather sophististic way of getting around all those years when the speaker did not "always love."  What the Beloved, and at least a few readers, really want, however, is some real Proof, but we suspect the speaker's assertions will have to suffice. Shakespeare would flesh this out a little, but Dickinson holds back.

Having claimed the past, the speaker next argues deductively that her love will always endure: since love is life and life "hath Immortality" her love will therefore be immortal (this would be a valid but perhaps not sound deductive argument, but her point is taken). The ED Lexicon helps us out by suggesting that Immortality in this poem means "Timelessness; an infinite dimension." Love, then, operates outside of time. As Shakespeare would have it, Love is not "Time's fool" (Sonnet 116).

In the final stanza the speaker addresses her beloved directly. It begins with "This" – a pronoun without a clear antecedent. Whether it refers to the argument immediately preceding or to both first and second stanzas is of little consequence. Should the Sweet beloved doubt, then the speaker has nothing else to show but pain and misery.

Overall, the arguments seem half hearted and unconvincing. And surely if the Beloved shows doubts after hearing them, the speaker has other recourse besides donning the anguish of Calvary.

And yet… I like the poem. It reads well and doesn't really call for logical rigor and abundant proofs. The claims make emotional sense and there are some fine lines and phrases. Dickinson weaves the poem together with love and life: four repetitions of "love" and three of some version of "live" or "life". It is another, more subliminal way of saying that love is life.

08 February 2019

Smiling back from Coronation


Smiling back from Coronation
May be Luxury —
On the Heads that started with us —
Being's Peasantry —

Recognizing in Procession
Ones We former knew —
When Ourselves were also dusty —
Centuries ago —

Had the Triumph no Conviction
Of how many be —
Stimulated — by the Contrast —
Unto Misery —

                                                            J385,  Fr651 (1863)

This poem might be grouped with others where either Dickinson claims and celebrates her calling as a Poet or else among those where she recounts a transcendent experience. But while both of those poem groups reflect an almost ecstatic confidence, the current poem seems quite breezy, even condescending, by comparison. The speaker would like to smile after her Coronation, but decides it would be a luxury – and tacky, really –  because in the Procession she would see folks she knew from the distant past, people who "started" with her, and many others – all of whom would be "Stimulated … Unto Misery" by contrasting themselves to her. At least some of those in the Procession, those who began with the speaker, are dismissed as "Being's Peasantry".  Ouch.
St. John sees the crowned saints

Some scholars have suggested that passages in the biblical book of Revelations are the basis of the poem. Cristanne Miller, for example, writes that the poem "probably refers to passages in Revelation such as 2:10, 'be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,' and 20:4, 'And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them … and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years'" (Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them, n. 276, p. 763). Sadly, those people who did not make that first cut must wait in the grave until the second Resurrection where they stand before God for judgment (Revelation 20:12-13). In this reading, the speaker would be figuratively counting herself among the crowned martyrs.
        This may be a sort of triumph fantasy where the person considered by others to be a spiritual risk has found her way to salvation or at least experiencing the mixed emotions when after experiencing an epiphany or transcendent spiritual experience one rejoins quotidean human existence.

It is likely, however, that Dickinson is using biblical language to celebrate the internal coronation she has come to feel as a poet. In “For this—accepted Breath” (J195, Fr230), for example, Dickinson claims an immortal crown because of her calling as a Poet – and a great one – and calls on the archangel Gabriel and the Saints to proclaim it.
        But it is her paean to poets, "This was a Poet" (J448, Fr446), two hundred poems ago, that seems most like the current poem. The notion of immortality is front and center there. The Poet, she asserts, is "Exterior – to Time." The Poet "Entitles Us – by Contrast – to ceaseless Poverty –". Likewise in the current poem, the poet, still bedazzled by that mixture of epiphany and confidence whereby she experienced a personal "Coronation" crowning her poetic calling, looks at those around her, those who are dusty, just as she was "Centuries ago." The dustiness is that of the earth, for without the divine spark, we are but flesh and blood. These are "Being's Peasantry" – those tied to life's appetites, achievements and failures, just as a peasant is tied to a parcel of land.

Poetically, nothing tingles or surprises. But I do appreciate the rhyming pair of "Luxury" and Peasantry.

I would be very interested in readers' opinions. What have I missed?



20 January 2019

Death is potential to that Man

Death is potential to that Man
Who dies — and to his friend —
Beyond that — unconspicuous
To Anyone but God —

Of these Two — God remembers
The longest — for the friend —
Is integral — and therefore [Is] subsequent
Itself dissolved — of God —

J548,  Fr650 (1863)

 In this short poem Dickinson takes an austere yet perhaps cosmic view of life and death, employing a cool and even legal diction.

The first stanza claims that Death is significant (ED Lexicon for "Potential") only to the dying and and his friends. His passing is hardly noticed by anyone else – except God.

The second stanza seems straightforward: God will remember the dying person longer than the grieving friend because the friend will himself die and God won't. Yet Dickinson's formulation of the mortality of the friend is quite abstract and formal. Her use of "integral" is interesting. Her alternative choice of "subsequent" – is much less so and a much more straightforward choice. Legally, and Dickinson who resided in a house of lawyers often employs legal diction, "integral" suggests something requisite, elemental, or basic. Because the friend is integral, Dickinson says, "therefore" at death he is "dissolved" of God. "Dissolve" is another word with specific legal meaning. To dissolve, according to Henry Campbell Black's 1891 Dictionary of Law, is to annul, terminate; to "release or unloose the binding force."
        Could Dickinson be drawing from the pantheistic strains of Transcendentalism?  That, as Emerson wrote in "Nature", all of nature and this world comprise a "Universal Being" – a diffusely and absolutely conscious Divine of which we are all a "part or parcel"*? Surely at death, in such a reality, there would be a dissolving, a release into the elemental particles of which the Cosmos is made. I don't think Dickinson is suggesting, despite her "dissolved – of God –" that at death we are released from God, but rather that we are released by God – perhaps into the "currents of the Universal Being."
        Or it might simply be that Dickinson is making a confident statement of belief: No matter if your death is little noted or your life forgotten when your friends are dead: God cares and remembers. Beth Marclay Doriani, in Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy (1996), considers this poem to be one of what she considers to be Dickinson's consolation poems where she "looked past the tragedy of the moment to offer encouragement" (p. 101). To me, though, the poem seems neither consoling or encouraging.

I cannot find much poetry in the poem. It reads as philosophy garbed in ambiguity. I spent an inordinate amount of time on it and don't feel particularly rewarded. Usually Dickinson rewards contemplation and study. In terms of poetic devices, the two stanzas are in basic ballad form. In lieu of rhymes, Dickinson has the second and fourth lines of both stanzas ending in "friend" and "God" respectively. Perhaps she is emphasizing the idea that should you need to pick between friends and the Divine, it is wisest to choose the Divine.


* To expand: "I am nothing! The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God" (Nature, 1836).

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
Consciousness?

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.

Whew.

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.