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26 July 2015

'Tis Opposites — Entice —

'Tis Opposites — Entice —
Deformed Men — ponder Grace —
Bright fires — the Blanketless —
The Lost — Day's face —

The Blind — esteem it be
Enough Estate — to see —
The Captive — strangles new —
For deeming — Beggars — play —

To lack — enamor Thee —
Tho' the Divinity —
Be only
Me —

                                                     F612 (1863)  J355

Ruth Miller in The Poetry of Emily Dickinson has helpfully organized lists of the poems according to topic (a great resource I just discovered!). This poem falls into "Poems Rendering Compensation (Yoked Opposites)", along with forty three others including
-       "A Wounded Deer – leaps highest" (Fr180, J165)
-       "To learn the Transport by the Pain" (Fr178, J167)
-       "Water is taught by thirst" (Fr93, J135)
-       "The Zeroes – taught us – Phosphorus" (Fr284, J689)
-       "I can wade Grief" (Fr312, J252)
-       "'Tis so appalling – it exhilarates" (Fr341, J281)
-       "We lose – because we win" (Fr28, J21)
-       "Success is counted sweetest" (Fr112, J67)
-       "For each extatic instant" (Fr109, J125)
-       "Sunset at Night – is natural" (Fr427, J415)

Here, Dickinson seems to be writing a clever and somewhat tongue-in-cheek appeal for love. She begins by listing some fairly conventional opposites: a state of deprivation is linked to a desired state of greater fulfilment – that which seems opposite to the current, unfortunate state.

Beggar Children
Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen (1813-1886)
To those with physical constraints, it is grace or gracefulness; to the homeless, the warmth of a fire; to those lost or lonely, the clarifying and uplifting light of day; to the blind, seeing. The seventh and eighth lines are more difficult, but I think they might be paraphrased as "the captive will risk further oppression for the chance to dream and choose; the beggar wishes the luxury of play."
            The last stanza begins in keeping with the list of opposites, but as an address to someone. On first reading, the "Thee" might seem to be a universal "You", but as the poems funnels visually down to "Me", we realize that the speaker's remarks are aimed at a very particular "Thee". If you find yourself lacking or incomplete, she says, become enraptured, even if the "Divinity" you focus on is "only / Me".  It's a droll way to invite a romance.

Dickinson uses quite a bit of simple rhyme to add lightness to the poem. The first stanza has Entice, Grace, and face. The second and third stanzas all are based on "ee" rhymes: be, see, play, Thee, Divinity, only, and Me.

15 July 2015

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie —
When, stirring, for Belief's delight,
My Bride had slipped away —

If 'twas a Dream — made solid — just
The Heaven to confirm —
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her —
The power to presume —

With Him remain — who unto Me —
Gave — even as to All —
A Fiction superseding Faith —
By so much — as 'twas real —
                                                            F611 (1863)  J518

The narrator suspects the bliss of sleeping with her beloved happened in a dream. She takes the disappearance of her "Bride" philosophically, however, for she has the God-given gift of making dreams seem as real as if they had truly happened. And who needs the complications of reality if dreaming makes it so?
            The nighttime experience raises the usual philosophical questions: how can we tell dream from reality? Could the dream have been enfolded in another's dream – in this case, was the narrator experiencing her beloved's dream?

            Dickinson resorts to God: he is the only one who can "confirm" what really happened. But in addition to being all-knowing, God gives the narrator / Dickinson / all of us the ability to experience "Fiction" so vividly as to seem real. This hyper-real Fiction supersedes Faith.
The Dickinson Lexicon defines "Faith" in this line as "Knowledge; sentiment based on concrete evidence" and this makes a commonsense reading: the imaginative world is potentially more real than the knowledge-based. In this case, the dream creation was more "solid" than the empty bed.
I take that last stanza as Dickinson broadly accounting for her powerful poetic imagination. Whether it is a lover, an Abyss, or death, she experiences it as truly – more truly – than a 'real' experience. Dickinson does concede that God gives this ability "to All", but this strikes me as an afterthought.
I am reminded of of Marianne Moore's famous "Ars Poetica" in which she writes that good poetry should have "imaginary gardens with real toads in them".  That is the landscape Dickinson inhabited, too.

Judith Farr argues convincingly that the poem is written with Sue in mind. In The Passion of Emily Dickinson, she has this to say: ""When Lavinia first gave [Sue] Emily's manuscripts, Sue marked them in pencil according to theme: Love, Nature, Death, and so on. She marked this poem with the initial 'S', appearing to acknowledge its relevancy to herself" (p.160).
            I don't think a biographical interpretation adds much to the poem, however. Certainly Dickinson spent no effort on fleshing out the beloved. She is just an exemplar of the poem's greater point about Fiction vs. Faith.


05 July 2015

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly

From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged — a Summer Afternoon —
Repairing Everywhere —

Without Design — that I could trace
Except to stray abroad
On miscellaneous Enterprise
The Clovers — understood —

Her pretty Parasol be seen
Contracting in a Field
Where Men made Hay —
Then struggling hard
With an opposing Cloud —

Where Parties — Phantom as Herself —
To Nowhere — seemed to go
In purposeless Circumference —
As 'twere a Tropic Show —

And notwithstanding Bee — that worked —
And Flower — that zealous blew —
This Audience of Idleness
Disdained them, from the Sky —

Till Sundown crept — a steady Tide —
And Men that made the Hay —
And Afternoon — and Butterfly —
Extinguished — in the Sea —

                                                                         F610 (F610)  J354

This lovely poem recalls Solomon's wisdom in the Biblical book Ecclesiastes: both the verse about eating, drinking, and being merry; as well as that about dust to dust. There is also a hint of Aesop's fable praising the hard-working ant in contrast to the pleasure-loving musical cricket.
            The poem begins as the butterfly, metaphorically compared to a Lady, emerges on a summer afternoon and begins flitting about without discernable purpose or pattern. While the narrator dismisses this activity as some "miscellaneous Enterprise", the wiser "Clovers – understood". It is pollinators such as butterflies, after all, that ensure clovers' continued presence in the meadow.
As the butterfly feeds and suns, wings upright, Dickinson zooms out so that we see laborers mowing the meadow. It's hard work, and Dickinson immediately and comically contrasts it with the butterfly "struggling hard" against an "opposing Cloud" to join other butterflies wheeling about. They are "Phantom", their destination "Nowhere", their flight patterns "purposeless". It seems to the narrator that they are just showing off their lovely colors and grace.
The Clover knows ...
            So far the poem seems as much commentary on ladies as it does on butterflies. Both groups of wandering idlers disdainfully watch the working population – here laborers, bees, and flowers (whose work is unclear, but who are tethered to the ground and must bow and blow with every puff of wind). But in the last stanza Dickinson reminds us that all are destined for oblivion. Converting the sky to sea (as she has in several previous poems), the approach of night becomes a relentless Tide that carries all in its path to the sea where they are "Extinguished". It is not just the haymakers and butterflies that are swallowed up, but time as well. The afternoon is extinguished by night as surely as the laborer and the idler.
            This last stanza forces us to re-think the rest of the poem. When darkness drowns the light, when life and time are over, what does it matter if we have laid up hay or honey, or been prudent like Aesop's hard-working ants; or, like lady and butterfly, flitted about, conducting miscellaneous Enterprise in the finery of our prime? (And I suspect Dickinson appreciated the ecological role of both butterfly and lady in their respective niches.)  "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," writes Solomon in Ecclesiastes (12:8, King James Bible). "All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked…" (9:2). "There is nothing better for a man", Solomon concludes, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour (2:24).

Dickinson writes the poem in a quiet, observational tone. There are sixteen words of at least three syllables and this lends the poem a rather stately pace. They lead up to "Extinguished" in the final line, – a rich, iambic word that quietly puts to eternal bed the butterfly emerging from cocoon in the first line. Dickinson as observer can find "no Design" in the butterfly's movements that day, but as she contrasts it with the quotidian work going on in the meadow we see both as emblematic of a lovely and ephemeral summer's day.


26 June 2015

A Night — there lay the Days between —

A Night — there lay the Days between —
The Day that was Before —
And Day that was Behind — were One —
And now — 'twas Night — was here —

Slow — Night — that must be watched away —
As Grains upon a shore —
Too imperceptible to note —
Till it be night — no more —
                                                            F609 (1863)  J471

Dickinson depicts a sleepless night using a rather numbing repetitive structure in the first stanza and a very slow pace in the second.  The first stanza could be paraphrased as "It was night." Dickinson stretches the notion out every which way, expanding on the notion of "night" as if counting sheep. The night is between two days: there is one Before and one Behind. It all seems one with the endless night.
painting, Lois Lang
            Dickinson sprinkles various rhymes throughout the stanza, increasing the repetitiveness. There are the repeating Day/Days and Night, plus two "and"s and four uses of "was".  "Lay" rhymes with "Day" and all the whispery "w" sounds seem to beg for drowsiness to take over: between, was, was, were, One, now, 'twas, was. There's not an active verb in the entire stanza. One imagines the poet lying in bed making a little chant about the situation.
The second stanza creeps along in a wearier voice. "Slow – Night – " is a very slow spondee with its long vowels and dashes. Long vowels predominate: slow, night, away, grains, shore, too, note, night, no, more. Watching the night away is as tedious as trying to discern the individual grains of sand on the beach. The moments seem endless.

I feel sleepy just studying this poem.

23 June 2015

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem
'Twas sorry – that we were —
For where the Holiday – should be –
There publishes – a Tear —

Nor how Ourselves be justified —
Since Grief and Joy are done
So similar — An Optizan
Could not decide between —
                           F608 (1863)  J329

Tears of joy and tears of grief – the manifestation of both emotions is so similar that the most discerning individual, or even an eye doctor, can't tell which is which. I personally find this an exaggeration, but Dickinson builds this light little poem around the conceit.
Who is happy here?
Photo, Mauricio Lima, Getty Images, 2012

        It's a familiar irony: we are overflowing with happiness, experiencing a "Holiday" of feeling. In the first stanza it is a stranger who can't tell that the crying person is experiencing joy. In the second it is an "Optizan" – a great made-up word – who can't distinguish between the two emotional extremes.
         I do like Dickinson's observation that "Grief and Joy are done / So similar" as if emotions are things one does as well as feels. Perhaps there is a very fine line between extremes. Surely if we have a sudden rush of joy it is because the potential for grief lay equally close to the surface. The strong potentials evoke similar responses.  
         Dickinson uses a very regular ballad form for the poem. You could sing "Yellow Rose of Texas" to it. The first two lines emphasize the emotions rather than the people: "So glad … / Twas sorry…"

David Preest says this is one of three poems Dickinson sent Samuel Bowles who had taken a trip to Europe in 1862. This one might have been the one she wrote on his return.