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Tuesday, April 15, 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.

Sunday, April 13, 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?

Monday, March 31, 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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

One Anguish — in a Crowd —

One Anguish — in a Crowd —
A Minor thing — it sounds —
And yet, unto the single Doe
Attempted of the Hounds

'Tis Terror as consummate
As Legions of Alarm
Did leap, full flanked, upon the Host —
'Tis Units — make the Swarm —

A Small Leech — on the Vitals —
The sliver, in the Lung —
The Bung out — of an Artery —
Are scarce accounted — Harms —

Yet might — by relation
To that Repealless thing —
A Being — impotent to end —
When once it has begun —
                       F527 (1863)  J565

The poem uses two analogies to talk about suffering. The first stanza introduces the terrors of the individual person or doe: One individual's anguish shouldn't seem so bad: what is one sufferer among many who suffer not? The pain of one person amid a crowd can seem a "Minor thing" – perhaps there is an acceptable ratio. Dickinson then pivots to the image of a terrified doe, and while the two images are not parallel – the doe pursued by hounds seems nothing like an anguished human amid a crowd, I think Dickinson means us to see an anguished person as one set upon by metaphorical dogs of torment. The focus of the first stanza is on the terrorized human, not the doe.  
        The second stanza provides the analogy: the terror of this onslaught of torment is like that of an army, "the Host", suddenly attacked by a much greater force. The army is panicked and overwhelmed. The attacking soldiers, the "Units", are like the individual dogs in the hunting pack. The pack, the Legions, the "Swarm" are comprised of individuals, too, but these act en masse. The word "Swarm" is terrifying in itself here. One pictures the doe being pulled down and covered by the attacking bodies of dogs. One imagines a single army surprised, outnumbered, and likewise being cut down and covered by the swarm of attackers. One then sees the individual being cut down by invisible woes.
A Deer Chased by Dogs,
by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1725
The third stanza moves to the physical human body. Like the army host, it can be overrun by swarms of harms. They might be minor –  a leech set on a patient by a physician, a small fault in the lung, or blood that no longer clots properly. The "Repealless thing" of death begins for most of us with these small physical failures. By themselves they are "scarce accounted – Harms – ", but inexorably they add up. There is nothing we can do about it either. As some would say, we begin the slide to death at the moment of birth.

I don't particularly fancy this poem. The progression of images doesn't quite work. The overall idea of swarms of harm leading to misery, terror and death, isn't made new or fresh. Perhaps a reader will have a more interesting take on this poem.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I pay — in Satin Cash —

I pay — in Satin Cash —
You did not state — your price —
A Petal, for a Paragraph
Is near as I can guess —
                  F526 (1863)  J402

Scholar Judith Farr reads this witty poem as Dickinson's offer to pay correspondents with flowers – the longer their letters to her, the more petals Dickinson would include in her response. This makes some sense as Dickinson did indeed send flowers to friends. 
Auguste Toulmouche, 1866.
Detail from The Reluctant Bride

"Satin Cash" also conjures the lovely gowns and ribbons worn by women of the time. While Victorian women were raised to be and to be regarded as untouchable, their gowns signaled sexual readiness. From their silk and satin fabrics to the wasp waists, hoops and crinolines, the gowns promised sensuality and fertility. Young maidens venturing out to their first balls would surely be wearing the finest "Satin Cash" their fathers could afford. The dress might well attract a man of means.