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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 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

14 August 2014

When Diamonds are a Legend

When Diamonds are a Legend,
And Diadems — a Tale —
I Brooch and Earrings for Myself,
Do sow, and Raise for sale —

And tho' I'm scarce accounted,
My Art, a Summer Day — had Patrons —
Once — it was a Queen —
And once — a Butterfly —
                     F553 (1863)  J397

Lacking the prominence of a poet laureate or the glamor of the lionized poets of her day such as the Brownings, Emerson, or William Cullen Bryant, Dickinson pluckily says she can make her own jewels and baubles. And despite her lack of fame, she had, at least on one Summer day, two patrons of her art: a Queen and a butterfly. 

This charming poem begins as if a once-upon-a-time tale. Like the unnamed heroine of Rumpelstiltskin, she can sit alone in a room with her Muse and craft treasures. Dickinson says she sows them – as if jewels were cabbages or poems peonies. She raises them as if they were lambs or ponies. And like a farmer or rancher, she raises them for sale.

The wry second stanza has her admitting that as she writes she is little known and "scarce accounted" in general. Perhaps this last phrase is a bit of a dig at editor and dear friend (at least) Samuel Bowles who didn't encourage her to submit poems to his paper – or to Higginsworth, her "Preceptor" who discouraged her from publishing.
If one were to pick two patrons, a Queen and a Butterfly are lovely choices. No doubt there are real people behind these monikers, but we can only speculate as to whom.

The poem is written in hymn meter. The "had Patrons" in the second stanza metrically belongs to the next line. But the "Once – it was a Queen" line works much better by itself.

12 August 2014

There is a Languor of the Life

There is a Languor of the Life
More imminent than Pain —
'Tis Pain's Successor — When the Soul
Has suffered all it can —

A Drowsiness — diffuses —
A Dimness like a Fog
Envelops Consciousness —
As Mists — obliterate a Crag.

The Surgeon — does not blanch — at pain
His Habit — is severe —
But tell him that it ceased to feel —
The Creature lying there —

And he will tell you — skill is late —
A Mightier than He —
Has ministered before Him —
There's no Vitality.
                     F552 (1863)  J396

I wouldn't place this poem in the top two tiers of Dickinson's work, despite the interesting assertion that post-pain languor or lethargy is "More imminent than Pain" and the quite wonderful second stanza. It's the last stanza that kills it for me.

The poem begins in familiar Dickinson territory: the numb legacy of grief, treated notably in earlier poems in phrases such as "The Feet, mechanical, go round – / A Wooden way" [F372] and "From Blank to Blank – / … / I pushed Mechanic feet" [F484]. Here, Dickinson delves into the foggy, dampened mental state that is "Pain's Successor". 
Once the Soul has endured as much as it can, a certain diffuse drowsiness sets in that dims the once raw pain. Much as a mist can mask a craggy mountain top, consciousness becomes submerged in a fog-like state where the crag of pain no longer dominates the psyche. Counter-intuitively, Dickinson claims that this dull, languid state is more imminent – more pressing and closer at hand – than the pain. It is a type of death, enervating and enveloping. 

She switches then to the surgeon who doesn't hesitate to wield his scalpel despite the pain it causes. That pain tells him his patient and her survival instinct are alive. But if the patient is so numb that she has "ceased to feel", he realizes it's too late for his skills. There isn't any vitality there to save. 

The last line seems limp and dead to me (no pun intended). I'm not sure whom the "Mightier than He" refers to – perhaps the mightiness of pain – or, heretically, God who deals blows to his Creatures. "Ministered", then, would be ironic. Woe to her who suffers such ministrations!

By Dickinson's time trepanning and bloodletting were becoming rarer, although bloodletting was not uncommon. So I think her bringing in the Surgeon to close the poem is just a way of saying that while the scalpel might cure the body, there is no cure for a broken and lifeless spirit. 

10 August 2014

Conjecturing a Climate

Conjecturing a Climate
Of unsuspended Suns —
Adds poignancy to Winter —
The shivering Fancy turns

To a fictitious Country
To palliate a Cold —
Not obviated of Degree —
Nor eased — of Latitude —
(F551)  1863  J562

Ah, that "fictitious Country" where the sun is always out in his warm, golden glory – how particularly glorious it seems when we are in the throes of winter. Dickinson says it adds "poignancy" to the winter, a sort of bitter pleasure in the conjecture of warmth without the actual heat. She repeats this idea, contained in the first three lines, in the following three: the "shivering Fancy" imagines a warmer place in order to lessen the cold.  

 So far, so good. The first two lines are so charming that I, at least, wouldn't demand much more of the poem. The alliterative hard 'c's of the first line contrast very nicely with the 's's of the second. Then we have the "poignancy" of winter, a "shivering Fancy" and a "fictitious Country" – each a rich and delightful image. The shivering fancy is surely imagination clothed as an ethereal wanderer searching for heat. The fictitious country reminds me of Hamlet who was imagining death as "The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns." 
        Perhaps Dickinson was thinking of it, too. In a Dickinsonian twist, the last two lines describe a Cold that is not going to be stopped or lessened by degrees of latitude or longitude. A trip to Tahiti will not warm this marrow-deep, soul-deep cold. The land of "unsuspended Suns" may well refer to some Bible-class version of Paradise where heavenly rays are always shining on the saints and angels. If so, the poet lets us know by the word 'fictitious' that she is indulging in wishful thinking.

The last lines might also mean that the paradisical fictional warm country would be outside the effects of earthly geography. That would put us back in heaven but without having the narrator suffering from some existential Cold. I don't favor this reading, however, because it just doesn't fit as well to have the country obviated and eased as it does the Cold.

09 August 2014

I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them Early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would They go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain -
In Contrast with the Love —

The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —

There's Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call "Despair" —
There's Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they're mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —
F550 (1863)  J561

Misery loves company and here Dickinson says she finds a "piercing Comfort" in noting the crosses other people bear, presuming that "Some – are like My Own". Yet Dickinson is saying much more in this contemplation of grief than the old saying. Combining her poetic eye and her family's forensic skills, she muses on and anatomizes the grief she sees in others – and that she herself has experienced. The second line of the poem invites readers to watch her "narrow, probing, eyes" as she scrutinizes her subjects. It is a very visual and startling line: she is more calculating than curious; more analytical than empathetic.
        The coolness should be ironic, the poet is clearly noticing and identifying with her subjects' grief, yet Dickinson distances herself from actual pain throughout the poem. No specifics are given either about herself or other sufferers. She emphasizes her detachment in the seventh stanza as she introduces her categories of grief. "I am told", she adds – seemingly gratuitously – that there are many grievers and various causes for grief. The narrow-eyed observer of pain, the confident of dear friends and family, most of whom no doubt suffered mightily during their lives, would not need to be told that many suffer.
        The very distance she establishes reflects a very Dickinsonian grief. We know from poems such as "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"  [F372], that numbness and detachment are ways that Dickinson experiences grief. More recently, in "I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl" [F522 she describes the "scrupulous exactness" with which she endures even though "existence – some way back – / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through". It with scrupulous exactness that she dissects the experience of grief in this poem.

The first two stanzas establish that her intense interest in the grief of others is spiced by her own grief. Hers is heavy and old; how old and heavy is theirs? Having established her misery bona fides, Dickinson begins a meditation on the effects of grief. Does it hurt so much, does living become such a struggle that the sufferer might prefer death? She notes grief's quelling effect on smiles. Her metaphor of smiles as lamps is apt, for we think of smiles as lighting up a face. Even when the smile returns after a long grief it is weak for lack of fuel. Whatever joy and comfort can be experienced are but dim warmth. Grief still dampens the source of light. She also wonders how long might grief might last – centuries perhaps? Could pain actually grow larger than the original love that spawned it?
        Dickinson then makes her aside about being told about grief and its causes, cataloging the types of grief: Want, Cold, Despair, Banishment, and Death. In perhaps the most striking line of the poem she mentions, again almost casually, that "Death – is but one" cause, but it "comes but once / And only nails the eyes". The graphic image of death nailing the eyes is reminiscent of earlier poems where death comes wielding instruments of torture from the machine age. In "How many times these low feet staggered  [F238] a dead housewife's mouth is "soldered" shut, the corpse is stilled with an "awful rivet" and stayed with "hasps of steel". In "That after Horror – that 'twas us"  [F243] Death "drills his Welcome in" with a "metallic grin".  
Coffin nail -- now a fashion item via Etsy
        But despite this horror, Dickinson has modified the grief of dying by saying death is "but one" cause and it "comes but once" and "only nails the eyes". Clearly the other griefs are more to be dreaded. The griefs of Want, Cold, Banishment and Despair by implication can come more than once, affect more than the body. They maim the soul.
        As she closes the poem, Dickinson establishes yet more distance in tone from the real experience of grief that come out in the earlier striking phrases. She depicts the various agonies of the Cross as "fashions" and her interest in them centering in "how they're mostly worn". Such a diversion affords her comfort: surely some of these suffering people are experiencing the same sort of grief that she suffers. Looking at the outward manifestations as styles of dress affected by the afflicted is at once comfort, grist for the poet's mill, and survival strategy.

This poem is one of a hundred discussed by prominent critic Helen Vendler in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentary. If you find yourself drawn to Dickinson's poetry, by all means  get a copy. Although I almost always find myself enlightened by Vendler's commentary, I disagree with her on this poem. As one example, Vendler contends that Dickinson measures other Griefs against her own, always finding her Grief "is greater not only comparatively but superlatively. Only Christ's passion is a Grief on the same order as hers."
I simply don't see that degree of Grief one-up-manship here. I see the numbed soul finding human connection where it can, even while maintaining distance; I see a poet who delves into grief employing her narrow, probing eyes to see as deeply as she can, diving into the wreck as twentieth-century poet Adrienne Rich did to "see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail."