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11 September 2014


I'll be off on holiday for a week. Enjoy some older poems in the meantime!

'Twas Love — not me —

'Twas Love — not me —
Oh punish — pray —
The Real one died for Thee —
Just Him — not me —

Such Guilt — to love Thee — most!
Doom it beyond the Rest —
Forgive it — last —
'Twas base as Jesus' — most!

Let Justice not mistake —
We Two — looked so alike —
Which was the Guilty Sake —
'Twas Love's — Now Strike!
                                                                F562 (1863)  J394

In this ironical poem, Dickinson lashes out at a lover who seems to have blamed her for loving him too much. In a neat rhetorical twist, she separates herself from the quality of Love. It's a courtroom drama, appropriate for a poet in a lawyerly family. The poet plaintiff begins by naming Love as the culprit, the one who "died for Thee". He, Love, is the "Real one". The poet, then, is the seemingly rational one who would never give over her life to someone.  

Perhaps the argument has a parallel to cases where the defendant blames the passion of the moment – rage, jealousy, fear – in seeking to avoid the severest penalty. Part of the poem's irony is that unlike those negative emotions, the speaker is trying to throw Love under the bus.
  The irony sharpens to heavy sarcasm in the second stanza: " Oh, and it was such guilt, wasn't it, to love you more than anything. Yes, that dooms it beyond anything else; love should be the last thing forgiven. Why, my Love was almost as base as Jesus'!" 
The poem concludes with a direct address to the Judge. The speaker and Love may seem like the same person, but which one is guilty? Which one had the most at stake? Why, it was love. Dickinson ends the poem with a farcical urging for "Justice" to "Strike" the guilty love right away. Since Dickinson introduced Jesus into the poem, it is hard not to remember that he, like poor love, suffered capital punishment.

It's a difficult, highly compressed poem. I may be reading it all wrong. David Preest shares this reading, but I read a first-page snippet from scholar Bernhard Frank in Explicator who said that the "thee" (addressee) and the "He" (referent) are God and Christ. That's all the snippet showed, so I am unable to follow the argument. I assume that in the first stanza Jesus is dying for his father, God.  
I'm sticking with Preest here. The speaker at the end is almost daring the judge/lover to strike down love. There's an impudent tone to it that seems fitting in a poem to a lover not wanting such intensity, perhaps, from the woman.

09 September 2014

Trust in the Unexpected —

Trust in the Unexpected —
By this — was William Kidd
Persuaded of the Buried Gold —
As One had testified —

Through this — the old Philosopher —
His Talismanic Stone
Discerned — still withholden
To effort undivine —

'Twas this — allured Columbus —
When Genoa — withdrew
Before an Apparition
Baptized America —

The Same — afflicted Thomas —
When Deity assured
'Twas better — the perceiving not —
Provided it believed —
                   F561 (1863)  J555)

Advising us to "Trust in the Unexpected" is a far different thing than to simply expect and be ready for the unexpected. The latter is prudent while trust seems rash – even if one believes in beneficial divine intervention or great favors from fate. If Dickinson is urging the reader to trust in the unexpected, she does not make a strong case for it. In fact, I'm not sure what to make of this poem, even the first line, so I'll take it stanza by stanza, each being a separate example.
        First, Captain Kidd is known for burying treasure, not finding it; the treasure he did bury he never got to enjoy. His career was riddled with ill fortune and ended with his neck in a noose. Dickinson would have been familiar with him, as Kidd patrolled the New England Coast on behalf of New York and Massachusetts provinces in the late 1600s. He later buried chests of gold and silver on New York's Gardiners Island before sailing to Boston to be tried for piracy. Consequently, what Dickinson means by his being "persuaded of the Buried Gold" isn't clear to me. Perhaps this was a story current in Dickinson's time. But if he were persuaded that there was buried gold to be had, why would this example count as trusting the unexpected? What is Dickinson getting at?
The Alchymist in Search of the

Philosophers' Stone, Joseph Wright, 1771
        As for the second stanza, no philosopher has ever found the apocryphal stone that would turn lead into gold; perhaps the "old" one "discerned" such a treasure, but that isn't nearly as good as producing or finding one. Even Isaac Newton, a towering genius who studied the Bible and believed in prophecy and divine intervention, was never successful despite his years of alchemical efforts. Was it trust in the unexpected that led him to discern? That discernment, however, seems a result of a philosopher's study, not some happenstance idea – particularly if it never bore fruit.  
        The stanza on Columbus is not clear to me. Perhaps it says that Columbus' trust in the unexpected lured him on even after his home city of Genoa declined to support his proposed journey. He ventured forth even before knowing about the "apparition" later named America. If this reflects Dickinson's intent in the stanza, it still isn't strong evidence to support her claim. Columbus believed he could sail to the East Indies. He wasn't trusting the unexpected but banking on his sense of geography. He never did admit (or realize?) that he had reached a new continental area. It seems likely to me that a sailor venturing into new waters would be armed against the unexpected rather than trusting it. 
        Finally, Thomas is an example of someone who did not trust in the unexpected. Encountering a man who others considered to be Jesus, recently executed and buried, Thomas had to actually feel one of his wounds before offering his trust. In this case, perhaps Thomas should have trusted the unexpected.

Maybe Dickinson is counseling us to trust our inner compass, even if the outcome would be unexpected to the outside world.

Or maybe she is being ironical.

Readers, I hope you have insights to share!

05 September 2014

Did Our Best Moment last —

Did Our Best Moment last —
'Twould supersede the Heaven —
A few — and they by Risk — procure —
So this Sort — are not given —

Except as stimulants — in
Cases of Despair —
Or Stupor — The Reserve —
These Heavenly moments are —

A Grant of the Divine —
That Certain as it Comes —
Withdraws — and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms –
                                 F560 (1863)  J393

This poem shares some of the bitterness of one of her early poems about the painful transience of the divine encounter. There, Dickinson complains that "For each extatic instant / We must an anguish pay" [F109]. Here, the cessation of divinely-granted "Heavenly moments" induces something like opiate or cocaine withdrawal. Coming down from her great high, the "dazzled Soul" finds herself back in her "unfurnished Rooms". 
Dickinson makes the parallel to drug use quite explicit. There is a risk to partaking in divine bliss; only "A few" manage to obtain it. God, or "the Divine", well aware of the danger, doles these moments out. They are only given "as stimulants" when the seeking party is suffering from "Despair" or "Stupor". The Divine grants these moments and always withdraws them. The danger of addiction is mentioned in the first two lines. If these heavenly moments weren't cut short they would come to seem better than heaven itself. Real earthly life isn't a bit like heaven, so such addictive thinking must be kept in reserve.

We can chart these swings from peak to valley in Dickinson's poems. There are poems of Despair, those of stupor or numb paralysis. But there are numerous poems where Dickinson describes bliss, ecstasy, transport, and rapture. Would modern students see evidence of bipolar disorder? Perhaps, but regardless of what engendered these episodes, Dickinson explored them as terra igconita and used them as touchstones for poetic truth. 
Who else could conjure the coming down from a divine high as a "dazzled Soul" finding herself alone in "unfurnished Rooms" as if she had been soaring in high places only to wake up in a drab and deficient habitation of flesh and blood. Such paucity of the flesh is implied, such parsimony of the divine – and such irony in how much emotional force is delivered in a poem that until the last lines reads as an extract from a Catholic or social studies text. 

Sherlock Holmes – who enjoyed cocaine
Dickinson would have some familiarity with the effects of narcotics. During her lifetime, the British Empire was vigorously promoting opium use in China. Cocaine and opiates were famously used by such prominent writers as Thomas De Quincy (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Poets Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Shelley were known to take laudanum on occasion; and Gabriel Rossetti's wife Elizabeth died of a laudanum overdose a year before Dickinson wrote this poem. Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most famous fictional cocaine addict, was also a Victorian creation. Scottish writer and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first started writing about him in the 1880s.  
But while these figures may have hoped drugs would help deepen their perceptions and provide an altered state, Dickinson tastes "a liquor never brewed" and is an "Inebriate of air … / [a] Debauchee of Dew" [F207]. Indeed, she finds something "Transcending ecstasy" in a simple "summer's noon" [F104].

30 August 2014

A Visitor in Marl —

A Visitor in Marl —
Who influences Flowers —
Till they are orderly as Busts —
And Elegant — as Glass —

Who visits in the Night —
And just before the Sun —
Concludes his glistening interview —
Caresses — and is gone —

But whom his fingers touched —
And where his feet have run —
And whatsoever Mouth be kissed —
Is as it had not been —
                  F558 (1863)  J391

This is the flower version of "The Soul has Bandaged moments" [F360] where "some ghastly Fright" caresses the "freezing hair" of the soul and then takes a "sip" from her unmoving lips. But while that experience is portrayed as a ravaging horror, the flowers meet a kinder doom.

They have a marble "Visitor" who comes at night and "influences them. He engages in an "interview" after which he offers caresses or perhaps even a kiss before he takes his leave. While this is one of Dickinson's delightful puzzle poems, it is not hard to determine just who the visitor is. Clues?

1) He is dressed in "Marl" or marble – a white stone often referred to as cold.
2) His "influence" on the flowers leaves them as orderly as marble busts – which is to say, cold and inanimate. Orderly indeed!
3) He leaves them "Elegant – as Glass" – and we can picture the plants encased in a glass sheath, posed in stiff formality.
4) His nighttime visit concludes with the sun.
5) His "interview" with the flowers is "glistening", so we picture them sparkling with the rising sun.
6) The last stanza indicates that his visit is a fatal one. Whatever flower he has touched or kissed is as good as dead.

I've had a bougainvillea visited by this fellow so I know full well it is of old Jack Frost that Dickinson writes.
photo: Ian Kirk

She takes a darker tone in a poem some twenty years later where frost "beheads" a flower "at it's play":
In accidental power –
The blonde Assassin passes on –
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God

But in this poem there is no mention of God, and the flowers are kissed and caressed rather than beheaded. One could perhaps read into this poem the deadly paralysis of the cold lover whose kisses  leave behind a deeply wounded woman. But I don't think Dickinson is making a metaphor for heartless love as much as presenting the irony of the lovely frost that comes in the night and imparts a moment of still but fatal beauty.

I send Two Sunsets—

I send Two Sunsets—
Day and I—in competition ran—
I finished Two—and several Stars—
While He—was making One—

His own was ampler—but as I
Was saying to a friend—
Mine—is the more convenient
To Carry in the Hand—
                    F557 (1863)  J308

This poem has Robert Frost's folksy, anecdotal tone and understated humor. Frost is usually considered to be in Dickinson's lineage (versus Whitman, if you are one to divide American poetry into two bloodlines), but this poem seems a reverse channeling of Frost into Dickinson.

Chichester Canal, JMW Turner, 1828
     It is among one of the many poems Dickinson sent her sister-in-law, Sue, and perhaps that accounts in part for the easy, conversational style. Johnson has this poem following " The One that could repeat the Summer Day" [F549], which takes a more weighty approach to poetic creation versus divine creation. In that poem Dickinson discusses the immortality of a great poem and claims that a good enough summer-day poem would be greater than a summer day itself. Here she settles for convenience. Unlike the vast beauty of a real one, her sunset poems can be folded into a pocket or hand delivered to a friend. 
Dickinson dismisses this insight quite casually, telling her recipient/reader that this wasn't a new or profound insight (as were many of her other poems to Sue), but just a fun little observation she made "to a friend". She drolly sets up the comparison as having had a little "competition" with Day. While he has to labor all day to produce one sunset, she could produce two and throw in a few stars as a bonus.
  The Summer Day poem was also sent to Sue, so perhaps Dickinson wanted to lighten the tone a bit – not seem to take herself so seriously.

It's all quite charming.  

*note: yes, I got this and the next poem out of order. They should have preceded "Through the Dark Sod". A bit of carelessness on my part.

29 August 2014

Through the Dark Sod — as Education —

Through the Dark Sod — as Education —
The Lily passes sure —
Feels her white foot — no trepidation —
Her faith — no fear —

Afterward — in the Meadow —
Swinging her Beryl Bell —
The Mold-life — all forgotten — now —
In Extasy — and Dell —
                              F559 (1863)  J392

Victorians made much more use of flowers to convey meaning than we do today. Where we might send roses to indicate love or sympathy, they used dozens of flowers for as many messages. Lilies represented purity, beauty, spirituality and rebirth – associations from hundreds of years before Dickinson's time and ones that continue to this day – just look on Easter altars or in bridal bouquets. Judith Farr, in The Passion of Emily Dickinson, writes that Dickinson presents the lily in this poem "as a metaphor of sensuous spirituality". 

Lily bulb
We can see the sensuousness in the tactile qualities of the poem. The lily grows upward from the bulb through the "Dark Sod", and anyone who has ever gardened knows the feel and smell of such rich earth. "Dark" in this case suggests the richness of the soil but also the subterranean darkness where you must feel your way carefully. Many lily shoots never breach the ground and find the sun; they might encounter dangers in pests or rodents, suffer from bulb mold, be blocked by obstacles or damaged by the roots of other plants.
This lily however, "passes sure" through the tests of her "Education".  We see her emerging from earth to a better, brighter place as if an eternal soul were being born from the flesh of the world. Her "white foot", her bulb, provides the nutrients to fuel her journey. She "feels" its soundness and between her self confidence and her faith in what lies ahead, she ventures forth with "no trepidation". 
Greenish-white, beryl, bell of the lily
Her steady faith and earthly education are rewarded, for in the second stanza we see the lily ecstatic in a beautiful little meadow. This is the second tactile moment, for she isn't just gazing at the sun but "Swinging her Beryl Bell".  

The poem has a far different mood than those where the poet is paralyzed by dread or trying to recover from some staggering blow. The soul in this poem keeps moving and her keystone is faith. The poem is also a significant departure from those poems where the dead languish seemingly forever. Here there is an Education in the dark sod of life, and then there is an "Afterward" where the soul's beauty is completed, where she can swing her flower in "Exstasy". 

The poem echoes the steady confidence of the lily in three spondees: Dark Sod, white foot, and Mold-life. These are key images – the danger of the dark earth, the pure faith and self confidence of the lily/soul, and the mortality of the flesh in its mold-life. The joy of the poem is emphasized with the freedom of "Swinging" and the alliteration of Beryl Bell – further emphasized by the rhyme of "Dell". Heaven here is both a condition, ecstasy, and a location, the dell. This charmed little meadow is as much the rightful heritage of the lily as heaven is for the soul.

It's a simple metaphor, beautifully rendered.

23 August 2014

It's coming — the postponeless Creature —

It's coming — the postponeless Creature —
It gains the Block — and now — it gains the Door —
Chooses its latch, from all the other fastenings —
Enters — with a "You know me — Sir"?

Simple Salute — and Certain Recognition —
Bold — were it enemy — Brief — were it friend —
Dresses each House in Crape, and Icicle —
And Carries one — out of it — to God —
                                          F556 (1863)  J390

The one visitor who cannot be denied entry, whose arrival cannot be postponed, is Death. Dickinson continues in the Gothic vein from the previous poem to pen this sketch of Death's visit. 
        What could be more dramatic than her opening words, "It's coming", followed by the creepy "postponeless Creature". We see it reaching the block and then the door, unerringly reaching for the proper latch among all the other door fastenings. Dickinson says Death "gains" the block and the door as if its ultimate victory is being built step by step. It is inexorable.
But for all this scary build up it seems this Death is akin to the gentleman caller in "Because I could not stop for Death" [F479) who conveyed his passenger in great "Civility". The current caller is vastly superior, however. While Death in 479 took his passenger to what seems an eternity in a grave, this one carries its subject "to God". 
His visit doesn't arouse the terror and dread the first stanza would suggest. The dying person recognizes and salutes him (or perhaps Death salutes his subject). If he is perceived an enemy he acts with bold resolution; if as a friend, perhaps a deliverer, his visit is blessedly brief. Those left behind to live another while don their black crape mourning clothes, their tears sharp as icicles.  
Can't you just hear the chain rattling?

Part of the dread induced by the first stanza is due to Dickinson's pacing. That first line is a slow read. The feminine (unaccented) ending of "coming" creates a whisper; the long vowels of "postponeless Creature" draw out the rest of the line – to say nothing of the ghostly sound of "postponeless". It sounds like moaning. Death's progress is graphed quite visually, particularly at the door where the reader pictures him at the latch.
The second stanza is more assertive with trochees beginning the first three lines. The firm trochaic meter is the parallel structures of the first two lines: Simple Salute; Certain Recognition; and Bold were…/ Brief were… 

I find the contrast between the two stanzas quite effective and meaningful. The approach of death (at least this type of death) is surely more fraught with dread and fear than the actual encounter.

22 August 2014

A House upon the Height —

A House upon the Height —
That Wagon never reached —
No Dead, were ever carried down —
No Peddler's Cart — approached —

Whose Chimney never smoked —
Whose Windows — Night and Morn —
Caught Sunrise first — and Sunset — last —
Then — held an Empty Pane —

Whose fate — Conjecture knew —
No other neighbor — did —
And what it was — we never lisped —
Because He — never told —
                                F555 (1863)  J399

The poem sets a Gothic scene suggestive of a tale. Unfortunately we will never know the tale because only Conjecture knows what happened there on the hill and why the house is deserted – and Conjecture isn't talking.
Dickinson takes us into the scene with breathy 'h' sounds and then launches into a series of spooky details. The poem is written in the same meter as the previous one, a predominately trimeter whose choppy lines contribute to the drama of the scene. 

What might have happened – or what kind of house might this be that wagons and peddlers never approached, where no dead were ever brought down, where the chimney never smoked? We can picture the house in its gloomy isolation, its window panes reflecting both sunrise and sunset – and dark and empty at night. But then the poem ends with the mystery: the 'we" – the townspeople or at least the children – never told its story because they never knew. I suspect plenty of stories were made up, though.

One could try to shoehorn in some sort of metaphor for a hillside crypt here, the repository of the dead (hence, the dead were never carried out), but wouldn't that mean that wagons did in fact reach it to deliver the dead? No, unless someone has a better story for this poem I'm sticking with the spooky mystery house idea.

19 August 2014

I had not minded — Walls —

I had not minded — Walls —
Were Universe — one Rock —
And far I heard his silver Call
The other side the Block —

I'd tunnel — till my Groove
Pushed sudden thro' to his —
Then my face take her Recompense —
The looking in his Eyes —

But 'tis a single Hair —
A filament — a law —
A Cobweb — wove in Adamant —
A Battlement — of Straw —

A limit like the Veil
Unto the Lady's face —
But every Mesh — a Citadel —
And Dragons — in the Crease —
                                   F554 (1863)  J398

The lady hears her lover from the great divide that separates the living from the dead. Until then she hadn't minded the walls that this world represent, for the universe seemed of such solidity that it might have been "one Rock". But then she heard "his silver Call" from the other side. It seemed at first a simple if daunting task to reach him: she need only tunnel through until her "Groove" pushed through to the place beyond death where she might look in his eyes – which is all the "Recompense" she wants.
But love's impetuosity is never enough, especially with such little obstacles as death in the way. In a series of paradoxical metaphors and similes Dickinson then describes the nature of the barrier that she would have breached. It is only a "single Hair – / A filament"  – yet that hair a law that cannot be broken. It is a fragile "Cobweb", but one woven of impermeable stone; a structure of straw, but an impregnable "Battlement" nonetheless. The final simile compares the "limit" of our earthly reach to that of a lady's veil. It might seem gauzy and flimsy; we may be able to see through it, though dimly, but every mesh of the veil is a fortress, and dragons lurk in every fold.
        It's a dazzling series portraying the tantalizing but impenetrable translucency between this life and the one hereafter. All together, it is a beautiful poem of frustration. One could go mad trying to tear the veil that separates us from the call of a beloved, only to find dragons at every turn.

Dickinson would have been familiar with the Renaissance map (1504) marking unknown and dangerous territory as "hic sunt dracones": "Here be dragons". The unknown on these and following maps is marked by all kinds of monsters and mythical beasts. Dickinson draws from such imagery with its hint of magic. The poem, I think, reads as a romance. A prose analogy would be a tale from The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights where things are never as simple as they seem.  

The magical and romantic tone is supported by the consistent metrics: Most of the lines are iambic trimeter – a meter useful for heightening drama through its regular beats and rhythm. The third line of each stanza is iambic tetrameter that adds a narrative feel. Many narrative poems are written in alternating tetrameter and iambic lines. Substituting a trimeter in the first line of each stanza where a tetrameter would usually goes quickens the pace and adds drama.
Another thing that impresses me about this poem is the number of concrete nouns of great visual interest. They push together crowding out even verbs – and among the few that Dickinson uses are the vigorous "tunnel" and "Pushed". But the rest of the poem doesn't need verbs being almost a slide show of images, each represented by a single noun that then metamorphoses with the next noun: filament / law; battlement / straw; mesh / citadel.

Scholar Rae Armantrout argues that his poem " envisions a subtle yet impassable barrier between the believer and the mind of God" * and I like that reading. It is appealing to think of the "silver call" as coming from God, and it makes Christian sense to find "Recompense" just by "The looking in his Eyes". I can't really argue against this reading, but I can't help but feel the poem recounts the narrator's heroic love for a man rather than her frustration in trying to fathom God's mind. 

* From: The Emily Dickinson Journal Volume 15, Number 2, 2006 
pp. 4-5; 10.1353/edj.2006.0000