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21 April 2014

The Winters are so short —

The Winters are so short —
I'm hardly justified
In sending all the Birds away —
And moving into Pod —

Myself — for scarcely settled —
The Phoebes have begun —
And then — it's time to strike my Tent —
And open House — again —

It's mostly, interruptions —
My Summer — is despoiled —
Because there was a Winter — once —
And all the Cattle — starved —

And so there was a Deluge —
And swept the World away —
But Ararat's a Legend — now —
And no one credits Noah —
                                           F531 (1863)  J403

Cynthia Griffin Wolff proposes Nature as the speaker of this lighthearted poem (Emily Dickinson, 284-5). After all, it is Nature who causes the birds to migrate and puts the developing seed into pods; Nature who hibernates in her tent until time to have summer "open House – again". 
        One could easily read the poem's speaker as Dickinson herself. Most of the first three stanzas can be plausibly read as from her point of view. This wouldn't be the first time she has placed herself at the hub of the seasons, perhaps most notably in "I dreaded that first Robin, so" (F347) where the creatures and blossoms of spring arrive punctually "in gentle deference" to her and then salute her as they depart. But why would she ramble on here about cattle and floods?
        I'm drawn to Wolff's idea, but would refine the voice as stream of consciousness from an exasperated and rather flighty Mother Earth. Mother gets frustrated with all the "interruptions", with how fast time flies ("What's the sense of sending off birds and tucking myself in for the winter? I just get comfortable and then the Phoebes are back! Now I have to get everything ready again.")  
        She has other complaints, too. Her precious Summer has been "despoiled" because a harsh winter ("Oh, I don't remember when … Once …) killed the cattle. That means no gamboling little calves and no fresh milk. And also, she continues, dredging up old grudges against whatever idiot is in charge of weather, there was that big deluge that drowned the world, that flood where Noah packed all the animals into an ark. "But no one believes that story anymore." I hear the housewife complaining about the husband making her job harder and the lamentable views of the modern world.
        No matter who the speaker is, the liveliness and pertness of the voice add a lot of charm. 

The poem is written in short-meter ballad form: abcb rhyme-scheme quatrains in iambic trimeter – except for the third tetrameter line of each stanza. This is a popular variant of the traditional ballad structure with the reverse trimeter/tetrameter structure: 4-4-3-4 syllables.) The second and fourth lines rhyme. Dickinson often uses slant rhymes and does so here. I particularly like her pairing of "Noah" with "away", which really zings the "w" sound, adding to others in the stanza: was, swept, world, now, one. "Despoiled" and "starved" have little but an "s" and an "ed" in common, but they are probably the strongest words in the poem, both in sense and sound; their uniqueness is not diminished by a closely-rhymed sound.   

18 April 2014

We learned the Whole of Love —

We learned the Whole of Love —
The Alphabet — the Words —
A Chapter — then the mighty Book —
Then — Revelation closed —

But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld —
Diviner than the Childhood's —
And each to each, a Child —

Attempted to expound
What neither — understood —
Alas, that Wisdom is so large —
And Truth — so manifold!
                                 F533 (1863)  J568

Dickinson begins this graceful and difficult poem as if telling a story. Two young people fell in love, indeed, learn "the Whole of Love", exploring each other and revealing themselves in stages as children learn to read. She separates each stage by dashes, slowing the poem's pace so that we linger over the words: Alphabet, Words, Chapter, Book. We imagine looks, gestures, confidences, touches, tears, and laughter. The last line of the first stanza is wistfully final. The book finished, "Revelation closed". 
Engraving by Pierre A. Cot
        As if expelled from an easy Eden, they are now on difficult terrain. No longer entwined, they see "Ignorance" in each other's eyes– but it is a "Diviner" ignorance than that of their youth, one not based in innocence and inexperience but perhaps in the awareness of otherness, of unbridgeable holy difference. 
        They try to make sense of it, talking as children do, or talking to the other as if she were a child (the poem is ambiguous here), but thought and speech no longer suffice. Neither understands.

Among other things, Dickinson reveals the pitfalls of language. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva refers to the "enclosure of language" and its impediment to meaning making. The semiotic realm, to which pre-articulate children, poets, and artists have access, offers by contrast a "heterogeneity of meaning"* – a "manifold" quality of truth. Dickinson writes elsewhere of interiority "Where the Meanings, are" (F320). Even after experiencing the "Whole of Love", the lovers cannot explain themselves either to themselves or to each other. 
        In a plaintive closing aphorism, Dickinson alludes to the limit of knowledge as well as language: "Wisdom is so large – / And Truth – so manifold".  How can we hope to explore all of wisdom's vast domain? And if truth is multiple and diverse, how can we ever hope to congeal it into words? 


* Kristeva, "The Subject in Process", 1998.

14 April 2014

He gave away his Life —

He gave away his Life —
To Us — Gigantic Sum —
A trifle — in his own esteem —
But magnified — by Fame —

Until it burst the Hearts
That fancied they could hold —
When swift it slipped its limit —
And on the Heavens — unrolled —

'Tis Ours — to wince — and weep —
And wonder — and decay
By Blossoms gradual process —
He chose — Maturity —

And quickening — as we sowed —
Just obviated Bud —
And when We turned to note the Growth —
Broke — perfect — from the Pod —
                                                     F530 (1863)  J567


The poem laments the death of a young and beloved man. Scholars believe this would be Frazer Stearns, the son of Amherst College's president and particular friend of Dickinson's older brother, Austin. Emily Dickinson was fond of him as well. Frazer was killed in battle and Dickinson writes movingly of his death and well-attended funeral in a letter to her young cousins ( L255). 
        The poem begins with a monetary analogy similar to that in "It feels a shame to be Alive" ( F524) where she wonders if we survivors are worth the "Sublimely paid" cost of soldier lives that are piled "like Dollars". Here, the soldier, valuing his life as but "A trifle", gave it away. But this trifle, to his survivors a "Gigantic Sum", becomes so "magnified" in the "Fame" of his brave death that it "burst the Hearts" of those who cared for him. 
        In the lovely and elegiac second stanza Dickinson pivots to the bird-like freedom of the soul that has "slipped its limit" and journeys to "the Heavens. "Unrolled" is reminiscent of her poem a year earlier, "A Bird came down the Walk" ( (F359), where the bird "unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer Home". The rhyme pairing of "hold" and "unrolled" is a gentle one. The soul doesn't struggle from the grip of life. It isn't frantic or frightened. Instead, it slips, swiftly, and unrolls. The stanza is full of "s" sounds that further reinforce the soul's soundless liberty. 
        (The stanza reminds me of John Gillespie Magee's famous poem  "High Flight" where the pilot has "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to reach "The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand and touched the face of God". )
        In the final two stanzas Dickinson contrasts the arc of normal lives to that of the soldier. She winds us up a bit with the repeated "w"s – wince, weep, and wonder – and then in something of a knockout punch delivers "decay" to end the series. That is life. We have painful moments when we wince, the bitter disappointments when we weep, and the glorious times – perhaps just strolling in the garden – when we wonder. Yet all the while we decay. The image is disturbing with its suggestion of moldering rot, but then she softens it by reminding us that this is "Blossoms gradual process". Yes, like a flower we bud and bloom before we decay.
        The introduction of a botanical image is carried through to the end of the poem. Unlike the arc of a typical human life, the soldier "chose – Maturity". Not for him the budding and blossoming lover or poet, firebrand or farmer. He chose the soldier path during the bloodiest war the United States has ever experienced. He "obviated Bud", bypassing it completely. While his peers were simply sowing (I read this as a wry and youthful "sowing their wild oats" reference in addition to the continuation of the botanical analogy), he was "quickening". That's an interesting word containing as it does both a sense of growing life and growing into maturity. A child quickens in the womb; a boy quickens into the maturity of manhood and issues of life and death and courage.
     
Milkweed pod; photo, Harry Alverson
 
 There is a lovely sense of completion and birth in the initial reference to "sowing" seed followed by the soldier who "Broke – perfect – from the Pod", a seed himself loosed from the pod of his body. It is also a Christ metaphor, for Christ was perfected in in his early death, also choosing "Maturity". The alliterating "perfect" and "Pod" work much better than the earlier instances. The slant rhyme of "Pod" with "Bud" evokes the young man's sudden passing from youth to eternity without having budded. His soul, a seed, will bloom, one hopes, in some better afterlife.

12 April 2014

A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink —

A Dying Tiger — moaned for Drink —
I hunted all the Sand —
I caught the Dripping of a Rock
And bore it in my Hand —

His Mighty Balls — in death were thick —
But searching — I could see
A Vision on the Retina
Of Water — and of me —

'Twas not my blame — who sped too slow —
'Twas not his blame — who died
While I was reaching him —
But 'twas — the fact that He was dead —
                                      J529 (1863)  J566

I've been looking at this poem for over a week. I've been trying to find something interesting to say – and think – about it. I have been unable to even decide if it is humorous or not. That last stanza just seems a bit arch: "'Twas not his blame – who died". It is clearly ironic. "Sped too slow" is clever and witty. "Sped" also has the advantage of rhyming with "dead" – surely a lightweight counterbalance. The three "'Twas"s have a light singsongy quality, and the last line seems very close to a punch line. 
And yet the first two stanzas are full of pathos. The iconic great cat moans for water; the would-be rescuer has only her hands to carry what little drippings come from a rock drenched with dew or some seeping spring. The second stanza intensifies the pathos as the speaker searches the "Mighty" eyeballs of the tiger, probably to see if there is any life left. What she sees, however, is that the tiger has died. There is no life in the eyes, only the reflection of herself and the water she carries. Too little too late.


Dickinson has presented this theme in earlier poems. In my commentary on F195, "Victory comes late –" where Victory "is held low to freezing lips – / Too rapt with frost / To take it –", I write:
Karolina Jakubowska, watercolor pencils
Dickinson wrote numerous poems exploring the theme of “too little too late,” and on haves vs. have-nots.  There are beggars who would revel at a feast if only they could go (As Watchers hang upon the East),  someone dying of thirst despite lovely meadow brooks (To learn the Transport by the Pain), and a dying and defeated soldier hearing the victor’s trumpet calls (Success is counted sweetest), among others. In those poems she seemed to be holding up the paradox for examination: why those and not those others? What tragic irony that one could die with water close at hand or starve while food abounds.

I can't shake the feeling that the tone of this poem is … parodic? Saucy? Arch? Wry? Readers, what do you think?

30 March 2014

'Tis not that Dying hurts us so —

'Tis not that Dying hurts us so —
'Tis Living — hurts us more —
But Dying — is a different way —
A kind behind the Door —


The Southern Custom — of the Bird —
That ere the Frosts are due —
Accepts a better Latitude —
We — are the Birds — that stay.


The Shiverers round Farmers' doors —
For whose reluctant Crumb —
We stipulate — till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home.


                                                            F528 (1863)  J335


For a little context on the poem I'm borrowing David Preest's excellent introduction to it:
This poem ends a letter (L278) Emily wrote to her cousins, Louise and FrancesNorcross, on the death of their father on 7 January 1863. She is at her tenderest in condolence letters such as this and in another letter (L279) written to her cousins a week or so later. In the first letter she tactfully asks them, ‘Wasn’t dear papa so tired always after mamma went, and wasn’t it almost sweet to think of the two together these winter nights? The grief is our side, darlings, and the glad is theirs.’  …. And she ends the letter with these words which lead into the poem, ‘Good-night. Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.

I find those final words quite moving. The poem is like a song. Written in hymn form (alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines in quatrains), you could sing it quite easily to the tune of "Amazing Grace". Like a good hymn, it is a very visual poem. We can see the newly dead finding a hidden path behind the door between life and death. Then, shifting back to this world, we see the cold and hopeful birds hanging about a farmhouse. We imagine the farmer tossing out a scanty handful of crumbs from time to time, the birds swooping down hungrily from nearby trees.

The last quatrain is an anti-prayer from the poet who "cannot pray". Over-wintering birds may hover around praying for crumbs, but it is ultimately the soft, lovely, lethal snow that comes to them – to us – unbidden. Prayer might bring crumbs, but the true home, the "better Latitude", is what we should aim for. Those who stay behind hoping for the farmers' largesse seem pitiful to us and also, it would seem, to the delivering "pitying Snows".
   

We have seen both the niggardly crumb and the ease of snow in earlier poems.  In “Victory comes late” (F195) the speaker bitterly complains about dining on crumbs. There the table of plenty is Victory and it is God who keeps it out of reach. Those yearning for its bounty must “dine on tiptoe". "Was God so economical?" the poet asks, and the same question might be asked of the farmer so stingy with his crumbs.
            In contrast, the snow seems generous. Dickinson has used snow imagery in several ways – as purity, leaves of poetry, steadfastness, and death. As a metaphor for death, it presages spring and rebirth; it is "that long town of White – to cross – / Before the Blackbirds sing!" (F265). In F372, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –", we see a snow death: "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –". While at first there is cold and growing stupefaction, there is finally the assent to snow's persuasion, a gentle letting go.
            The last line of the poem reminds me of "A Bird came down the Walk" (F359) where the poet offers a bird a crumb (not at all reluctantly). The bird is too wary to accept, however, "And he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer Home –". The image here, as in the poem under discussion, is of a gentle ending. The bird's trip "Home" is as soft as butterflies leaping "plashless" off "Banks of Noon". The snow is likewise soft: it persuades without ruffling a feather.
And who but Dickinson could phrase death as "Persuade our Feathers Home"? It's a beautiful image that at once engages the association of bird with spirit as well as home with heaven. As a consolatory poem the ending is exceedingly lovely and gracious.


As a final thought on Dickinson's statement that she cannot pray, she covered that ground a couple of poems ago in "My period had come for Prayer –" (F525).  Although she felt an urgent need to pray, she realized that the God to whom she was trying to speak was nowhere to be found. Instead, she found "Vast Prairies of Air", Infinitude, Silence, and Creation. Her epiphany was that prayer was perhaps irrelevant, that to confront the Silence is to enter into worship.