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26 April 2020

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –
But wrought their Pang in syllable –
That when their mortal name be numb –
Their mortal fate – encourage Some –

The Martyr Painters  – never spoke –
Bequeathing – rather – to their Work –
That when their conscious fingers cease –
Some seek in Art – the Art of Peace –
                                                            Fr665 (1863)  J544

In this hymn-like poem Dickinson pairs "Martyr" Poets and Painters who, like religious martyrs who died rather than betray their beliefs, died to this world so that their works might live. She uses the past tense throughout the poem, so presumably is thinking of poets and painters past rather than present or future.

These artistic martyrs poured their souls into compositions rather than conversations: the Poets 'did not tell' and the Painters 'never spoke'. They also spent their health. We know from her letters that Dickinson admired John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – both poets associated with the Romantic Movement and both of whom kept writing through poverty and the illnesses that consumed them. Both wrote poems about truth and beauty.
Posthumous portrait of John Keats, William Hilton 
            In "On a Grecian Urn", Keats embodies that urge to 'seek in Art – the Art of Peace'. The poet describes the painting on the urn and how its depictions 'dost tease us out of thought', concluding with the famous lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
            In Browning's "A Vision of Poets" the foreheads of true poets were 'royal with the truth'. They gave their lives for their work; they did not compromise for fame or popularity even if they starved for it. 'These were poets true", she writes, "who died for Beauty, as martyrs do / for Truth – the ends being scarcely two."

It's hard to know just which poets and painters Dickinson might have had in mind. I couldn't find any Dickinson scholars who discussed it. Neither does the poem delve into or offer much in the way of artistic aesthetics or content that might engender martyrdom. It is likely enough that the self-sacrifice of health, popularity, and material comfort might be what she intends.

The poem is written in a different meter than Dickinson typically employs. Rather than the common hymn meter of much of her poems (four-line stanzas alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter and rhyming abcb), this one is all in iambic tetrameter with an aabb rhyme. Although I don't particularly like this poem I do very much enjoy the first two lines with the tell / syllable rhyme.

22 April 2020

Rehearsal to Ourselves

Rehearsal to Ourselves
Of a Withdrawn Delight —
Affords a Bliss like Murder —
Omnipotent — Acute —

We will not drop the Dirk —
Because We love the Wound
The Dirk Commemorate — Itself
Remind Us that we died –
                                                            FR664 (1863)  J379

In this short and powerful poem Dickinson addresses readers directly using the third person plural. We are all, she implies, familiar with the behaviour pattern of rehashing / rehearsing a deep grief or pain resulting from a 'Withdrawn Delight'.
            One ambiguity at the heart of the poem is whether someone else did or caused the withdrawing or whether the 'we' who self sacrificed. Neither do we know the least bit about the Delight – what category of pleasure it might belong to, for example; or whether it was something frequently savoured or a unique delight interrupted. I don't think any of these questions, however, are germane: Dickinson is more interested in what it feels like and why we do it.

What does rehearsing the Withdrawal of the Delight feel like? A "Bliss like Murder – / Omnipotent – Acute." Okay, so that's a line worth thinking about. 'Omnipotent' is a word associated with the Christian God: All-Powerful. It also might mean 'overpowering' in this context, the biblical deity association adding resonance. 'Acute' here would mean 'intense'. The ED Lexicon adds to that, 'penetrating' and 'sharp'. The 'Bliss', then, would be intense and powerful – sharp and overpowering. Could a murder feel like that? It might, and it might in the exact moment feel like that no matter which end of the knife one wields. It doesn't surprise me that Dickinson's imagination takes her to even this dark place.
            But even if Murder does feel like that, how does simply rehearsing it arouse the same sensations? Her explanation lies in the second stanza. We keep experiencing the Bliss because "We will not drop the Dirk." We keep probing with it because "We love the Wound." We don't want it to heal. If we have one great focus in life, one great love, then to lose it would mean the death of something central to us. With Dirk in hand we can remember the intense moment when what we most delighted in was no longer accessible to us. We can ache with what might have been, what should or could have been. We are truly alive. That is why the Dirk is kept. It keeps the Wound – and us, alive.

The Dirk is not only murderous but a commemoration of the murder. We are introduced to the idea of death by the word 'Murder' in the first stanza. We then meet the Dirk and, finally, in the last line, death. The Withdrawn Delight caused a type of death; reliving the deep pain is like pressing ourselves against the dagger. The pain is real and reminds us not only that we died – but that we live.

The bird that presses her breast
against the thorn to sing
This is the opposite of the 'formal feeling' that comes 'after the great pain' in poem Fr372. There the feeling is like a 'Quartz contentment, like a stone –." I don't know how Dickinson could travel from a 'formal feeling' to a 'Bliss like Murder' in the space of one year, but I am not surprised. She was surgical in exploration of human emotion and response and she didn't hesitate to operate on herself. She may have experienced both or neither of the responses to great pain but it didn't matter because one of her great poetic gifts is to truly see the unclothed self.

I also think that she was imaginatively engaged by material from her books on saints, her Bible, her Shakespeare, classics, and poets. I am very tempted to read this poem as a response to the legend of nightingales that lean into thorns to inspire their beautiful, plaintive songs. While one branch of this legend comes from Persia where the nightingale presses its breast against a rose thorn because of unrequited love for the flower, another comes from Ovid's Metamorphosis (Book 6) where king Tereus cuts off his sister-in-law Philomela's tongue after raping her. The gods ultimately turn her into a nightingale. In Sydney's poem "The Nightingale", which Dickinson might very well have been familiar with, he refers to the nightingale who "Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making."

Just so, the dagger and the Bliss – and the emotions strong as murder to remind us all that we are alive.

11 April 2020

I fear a Man of frugal Speech –

I fear a Man of frugal Speech —
I fear a Silent Man —
Haranguer — I can overtake —
Or Babbler — entertain —

But He who weigheth — While the Rest —
Expend their furthest pound —
Of this Man — I am wary —
I fear that He is Grand —
                                                                   Fr663 (1863)  J543

This poem asks to be read aloud. The hymn meter (alternating iambic tetrameter / iambic trimeter lines) is, for Dickinson, highly regular and the slant rhymes not too slant. The poem trips lightly on its poetic feet, contributing to the tone of its dry, ironic wit. The irony, of course, is in presenting the silent, thoughtful man as the man to fear.

I'm rather with Dickinson on this one. When I was a lass and even Dickinson's 33 years when she penned this, I too was a bit wary of the 'Man of frugal Speech' who weighed his words. It's much easier, even fun, to parlay with the ones who present themselves with an argument to confront or the ones who enjoy friendly banter. I would indeed be afraid I'd be deemed a haranguer or babbler to Dickinson's Silent Man. My own burbled-out thoughts – even if not babbling or haranguing –  might be found wanting.
The last line of the poem provides the rationale for the speaker's fear: The Silent Man might be frugal with speech because he may be 'Grand' – that is to say, per the essential Emily Dickinson Lexicon, 'noble' or 'lofty'. He thinks before he speaks; he weighs his words and the words of others. He, no doubt, is not the popular guest, although perhaps the most respected.
            Dickinson uses a metaphor of commerce in this last stanza. As one might weigh the goods before expending money on them, so one can weigh thoughts before expending words on them. The Haranguer and Babbler (and most of us) will squander words, spend them all at the drop of a hat ('Expend their furthest pound'), while the Man of frugal Speech ponders words: are they relevant? True? of Value?

Edward Dickinson: Emily's father, Amherst
College Treasurer, and US Congressman   
I wonder if this poem expresses some of Dickinson's feelings towards her father, Edward Dickinson. Perhaps the foremost citizen of Amherst and practically essential to its well-being, he was known for his rectitude, character, and  dignity. In a sermon that eulogized him after his death, Reverend Jonathan L. Jenkins said that "our friend and father was a silent man" (The Life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall, p.68).

            Having been raised by a serious and taciturn man, Dickinson would know about the depth; she would know about the contrast between such a person and the ones with clever prattle. But despite the many words written about how oppressive it must have been in the Dickinson household, it must always be remembered that Emily Dickinson adored her home, hated to be away from it, and in her letters frequently expressed her joy and appreciation for the entire family as a unit – including her father.

04 April 2020

I had no Cause to be awake—

I had no Cause to be awake—
My Best—was gone to sleep—
And Morn a new politeness took—
And failed to wake them up—
But called the others—clear—
And passed their Curtains by—
Sweet Morning—when I oversleep—
Knock—Recollect—to Me—

I looked at Sunrise—Once—
And then I looked at Them—
And wishfulness in me arose—
For Circumstance the same—

'Twas such an Ample Peace—
It could not hold a Sigh—
'Twas Sabbath—with the Bells divorced—                        [Bells] reversed
'Twas Sunset—all the Day—                                              ['Twas] Sundown

So choosing but a Gown—
And taking but a Prayer—
The Only Raiment I should need—
I struggled—and was There—
                                                            Fr662 (1863)  J542

Jine Wang, a Chinese scholar, writes that this poem is among those where Dickinson espouses suicide as a "possible solution to pain."  I've struggled against that reading but without complete success. The last stanza seems to suggest, at least superficially, that the speaker waged a successful struggle to join the dear departed in a peaceful, eternal Sabbath sunset.
            The poem boldly begins with the opposition of those who will not wake to those whom Morn awakens -- and the speaker wondering why she/he is awake. She feels no reason to rise when her 'Best' lay buried. The year this poem was written, 1863, saw some of the war's bloodiest battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga. So while the Best might be friends and family, they might instead be Civil War dead. We do not know.
            We also do not know who the speaker is. Dickinson makes it clear that when she writes in first person "it does not mean – me– but a supposed person" (L268). Except for the Gown at the end, the speaker might be a soldier thinking of his fallen comrades. She might be a grieving woman Dickinson read about or imagined, or someone who has lead a hard and difficult life. Or herself. But what is common to all is the yearning for peace.
Civil War ambulance: the roof unrolls into side 'curtains'
The first stanza, two stanzas compressed into one, looks from the present to both the past and the future. The speaker wakes in the present but then thinks of those whom Morn quietly passes by – a 'new politeness' towards the newly dead. The 'curtains' of the dead might be grave clothes or crypts or it might be the curtains on funeral and ambulance wagons. Then the speaker addresses Morn directly about a future time when she herself (or he) will 'oversleep'. Don't pass me by then, she asks; instead, Knock and remind me about how I once felt about death, or at least about a death-like state
            The next two stanzas are the story of those feelings. They start with another morning. The speaker looks at the Sunrise and then looks at 'Them' – the same 'them', presumably, who are the sleepers in the first stanza: the dead. When she regards the sleepers she wishes she were in their circumstances: the Peace is so pervasive, so full, that it 'could not hold a Sigh.' It was a Sunday but instead of church bells ringing in both morning and evening, they rang only at night – it was 'Sunset – all the Day'.

This introduces the poem's contrast between morning and evening – the beginning of life and ventures and actions versus the letting go into timeless sleep and death. In a transcendental sense, this isn't the sleep of the dead waiting in their silk-lined coffin for some distant Resurrection ("Safe in their alabaster chambers –" Fr124), but rather the cessation of striving and suffering. Nor is it a space of negation but rather of ampleness. It is into this eternal Ample Peace that the speaker, with only Gown and Prayer, has struggled to arrive. It is the making of this decision that she asks 'Sweet Morning' to remind her of.
One reading of this poem, and one that avoids the complications of past, present, and future in the reading I just described, is that the speaker struggled to enter the Amplitude not through death but through a meditative or trance state.

Frankly, Reader, none of my thinkings and jottings, and squintings and analyzings lead me confidently through the stories in this piece. Like so many of Dickinson's poems, it is enigmatic at the core, its meanings kaleidoscopic. I welcome your thoughts.

28 March 2020

Some such Butterfly be seen

Some such Butterfly be seen
On Brazilian Pampas —
Just at noon — no later — Sweet —
Then — the License closes —

Some such Spice — express – and pass —
Subject to Your Plucking —
As the Stars — You knew last Night —
Foreigners — This Morning —
                                                            F661 (1863)   J541

This poem buries a sharp edge within its lilting meter. It seems at first like a poetical and philosophical comment on life: what is once beautiful, fragrant, and mysterious becomes lost, diminished, or altered over time. We are attracted to what is rare and ephemeral and should not even try to capture or categorize it.
A real Brazilian Pampas butterfly: Stichelia pelotensis
            Yet the 'Sweet' and the 'Your' suggest the speaker is writing to someone specific about herself and their  relationship. The speaker is reclusive, like a shy and rare butterfly. To see it requires diligence and patience. She offers a gentle warning to her 'Sweet' that if she seeks this butterfly she must be present at a certain place by a certain time – before 'the License closes'.  
            She also reminds Sweet to not be greedy. While Sweet might enjoy the fragrance of a flower on its stem for as long as the flower lives, distilling it for perfume kills the flower. It might be best to take what fragrance the flower freely gives.

Dickinson depicts perfume-making more explicitly, even brutally, a few years later:
Essential oils are wrung:  
The attar from the rose  
Is not expressed by suns alone,  
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    

In the last lines of the poem, the speaker suggests that what seemed true and real and present by night might be quite different by morning – or not seen at all. Sweet should take what is true in the moment and not build expectations into it – especially if the moment involves the night sky with its mysterious and romantic stars.

I'm not sure if trying to fit these images into Dickinson's biography is useful. I don't think they really fit, for one thing, and it isn't necessary to fit them for another. The seeker and the elusive sought, the perfumer and the used up petals, the nighttime lover versus the daytime are all common literary tropes. Dickinson would have encountered them in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Wordsworth.  

15 March 2020

I took my Power in my Hand —

I took my Power in my Hand —
And went against the World —
'Twas not so much as David — had —
But I — was twice as bold —

I aimed my Pebble — but Myself
Was all the one that fell —
Was it Goliah — was too large —
Or was myself — too small?
                                                            Fr660 (1863) J540

After experiencing a significant failure we might wonder if the problem lay in our shortcomings or in the scope of the problem itself. Dickinson poses the question here in a tone of rueful whimsy. It's the voice of a woman looking back and shaking her head. She seems to like that her younger self was valiant like David – and bolder than David, yet confesses that while David prevailed, she has fallen.

The famous biblical David-versus-Goliath story unfolds 3000 years ago. A shepherd boy brings provisions to his brothers who as part of the Israelite army are gathered for battle against the Philistines. But the army is paralyzed by Goliath, a mighty and gigantic warrior who daily challenges them to produce a champion for single combat. Day after day the Israelites lose heart. David sees all this, steps up with his slingshot, and slays the giant with one stone.
Michelangelo's David stands ready
with slingshot in one hand and stone
in the other.
         The speaker's Goliath is the World. Her 'pebble' is her unspecified Power. The analogy might simply be Dickinson aiming the force of her poetry against a restrictive religion, and a conformist, paternalistic society. It might also be her unique poetry against a field of those she may have considered lesser contemporary poets. Or it might be something else entirely. The poem is open to interpretation. Dickinson, as she often does, leaves explanatory details out, creating universality.

What I find  most interesting about the poem is its claim about boldness. David was pretty bold, but he had one specific enemy in Goliath. And although David's fighting experience was limited to the lions and bears that preyed on his flocks, the experience was precisely useful. If he could bring down big predators at a distance with a slingshot, he could bring down a Goliath. Distance was key. No one wanted to engage the giant in a sword and shield battle.
        Dickinson, on the other hand, took on the World.  This would require much more boldness than David needed because the World, even a limited aspect of it (such as poetry or New England), is infinitely complex and dynamic. Her Power could not be as precisely targeted.

That leads to the central question of the poem about the cause of failure. Can blame even be apportioned in terms of bigness or smallness? David's success shows that to be a false choice after he used a slingshot against a giant. But I don't think Dickinson meant the question to be parsed so carefully. Once again she waives the details so we can wonder along with her if in our own failures and disappointments we might have prevailed if only we had been … bigger, smarter, stronger.

16 January 2020

The Province of the Saved

The Province of the Saved
Should be the Art—To save—
Through Skill obtained in Themselves—
The Science of the Grave

No Man can understand
But He that hath endured
The Dissolution—in Himself—
That Man—be qualified

To qualify Despair
To Those who failing new—
Mistake Defeat for Death—Each time—
Till acclimated—to—
                                     F659 (1863)  J539

Dickinson stakes a position contrary to the Calvinist/Protestant teachings she grew up with and at least somewhat in sync with the Buddhist concepts of bodhisattva and upaya-kausalya – skillful means. While she depicts Salvation here as self achieved, aided by those who have experienced Dissolution, Calvinist doctrine insists that salvation and damnation are predestined by God and that skill has nothing to do with it.

(Note: I haven't studied either Buddhism or American Transcendentalism enough to write authoritatively or even, perhaps, competently, about how bodisattvas and upaya-kausalya might surface in Dickinson's poetry – or even if I am being clear and accurate on the subject. Buddhist readers, please help out here as needed.)

For me, the poem is best understood if stanza breaks are not considered indicators of thought units – or even sentences. I read the sense groupings as follows:

"The Province of the Saved / Should be the Art – To save – / Through Skill obtained in Themselves – (.)  /

The Science of the Grave // No Man can understand / But He that hath endured / The Dissolution – in Himself – (.)

That Man – be qualified // To qualify Despair / To Those who failing new – / Mistake Defeat for Death – Each time – / Till acclimated to – (.)

The progression begins boldly: The Art and duty of the Saved is to use their internally-achieved Skills to save others. Dickinson dispenses with the pre-ordaining Deity right off the bat.
        Such saved persons have experienced a Dissolution of self and gained, perhaps, a transcendental understanding of life/death. This helps them ameliorate the suffering of those who are caught up in cycles of defeat and despair.

Dickinson's saved people who emerge from Dissolution to help others are like the bodhisattvas who, although worthy of nirvana, choose rebirth in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Their Art arises within, from the state of self dissolution. The dissolving of the I into something cosmic is a Transcendentalist idea that Dickinson might well have picked up from reading Emerson.
        The Art and Skill evoke Buddhist Upaya kausalya – "skillful means" or "skill-in-means". It is the tool of the bodhisattva and also, in this poem, of the Saved. It is "an insight capable of formulating the most effective method" to liberate or save (Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhism, Leslie Kawamura, p.216).
Guanyin, the bodhisattva associated
with compassion

Dickinson has written of despair in earlier poems as a numb and lifeless emotional state. In this poem it is the result of repeated failings and defeats that each time seems like a death – until the sufferer is inured into numb despair.
        A simple reading of this poem is that only a person who has experienced the personal dissolution this process would entail is able to 'qualify' or lessen the pain of a sufferer.

Dickinson uses a variety of poetic devices that knit the stanzas together. The first is quiet, with sibilances in every line: Province, Saved, Should, save, Skill, Themselves, Science. The repetition and long-'a' rhymes of Saved, save, obtained, and Grave give it a stately pace. We feel that the poem will be abstract and philosophical – and it is.
The second stanza is more forceful with more hard consonants and many short-'a' syllables: Man, can, understand, that, hath, That, Man, qualified. The rhymes end in hard consonants: understand, endured, qualified. It's a hard truth the poet wants to tell and the stern and authoritative tone reinforces that. The final word in the stanza, 'qualified', leads to the next stanza with its repeating 'qualify'.
The last stanza's topic is Despair and Dickinson suggests the open-ended bleakness of the emotion with open-ended lines. 'Despair' at the end of the first line suggests 'air' – as if the line had petered out into white space. Dickinson writes 'failing new –' to close the second line rather than 'fail anew', which would make more sense, and in so doing gains the echo of 'knew'. The despairing know they are failing, they know defeat.
The long syllables in the spondee 'Each time–' draw out the penultimate line. Despair comes from knowing failure time and time again. The final line simply gives up. The reader must supply the last word subsumed in the empty space following the trailing off, dash-enclosed 'to'. Despair, then, is the acclimating to failing or defeat.

For all of that, the poem offers hope. There are the Saved, the bodhisattvas uniquely qualified to ease the pain of Despair.

01 December 2019

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—
But then—Themselves were warm
And could not know the feeling 'twas—                    [And] did
Forget it—Lord—of Them—                                         [it – ] Christ

Let not my Witness hinder Them                                [Witness] Them impair
In Heavenly esteem—
No Paradise could be—Conferred
Through Their beloved Blame—

The Harm They did—was short—And since               [was] brief
Myself—who bore it—do—
Forgive Them—Even as Myself—
Or else—forgive not me—                                                Else – Savior – banish Me –

                                                            Fr658 (1863)  J538

The poem is framed as a prayer where the speaker asks that the Lord forget and forgive how the beloveds, the 'They', shut the speaker out in the Cold. By this prayer the speaker becomes, ironically, the informant.

She makes the case that the shutting out was an understandable rather than a cruel act: the perpetrators' happiness made them unable to recognize or even understand sadness.

I'm not buying it. The beloveds were cads and the speaker doesn't really mind if you think so.
Arthur Rackham, The Lady
Enters the Forest
Judith Farr believes, as I do, that this poem is directed at Sue and Austin Dickinson, both of them beloved by Emily Dickinson. After their marriage, though, amid a growing family and growing social prominence, neither Sue nor Austin held Emily Dickinson quite so central to their lives as they had previously (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, pp. 155-6). So the shutting out might refer to a specific episode or to something that occurred over a period of time. At any rate, the speaker claims that the Harm was 'short' – but this might be another ironical deflection. It might have felt like an eternity to her.

About being an informer: It is quite possible to read the first line of the poem as suggesting that someone else or some cosmic awareness led the Almighty to know about the shutting out situation. The second stanza, however, makes it clear that the speaker knows she herself is the source. It is her 'Witness' that might complicate the beloveds' afterlife.

The speaker prays that it does not hinder them, for, in a continuation of the ironical mode, if it's her fault they don't make Paradise, they could blame her for it. And Paradise won't be "Conferred" on her if she is being blamed. Farr reads this as "I myself won't find Paradise by blaming them." I can't agree with that reading because the speaker indicates Paradise must be conferred rather than found.

The third stanza argues for forgiveness. This is quite a pivot from the forgetting prayed for earlier. It is one thing to tattle and then pray that the information is forgotten or ignored and quite another to ask that the informed-on behavior be forgiven. And should it be forgiven because the sinners are contrite or otherwise blameless or that the victim was at least partly to blame? No. the speaker argues that the beloveds should be forgiven because, besides the Harm being 'short', it was the speaker not the Lord who was shut out.  Further, she has forgiven them, so the Lord should, too. 
        The last line of the poem is more in the way of a demand than a prayer. 'If You, God, don't forgive Them, then don't forgive Me'.  The sentiment doesn't seem sincere. The prayer has included blame and then blame qualified. There is no sense of her own guilt about having given negative 'Witness'; no admission of even general sin for which she might wan to be forgiven. To reject forgiveness when there is not a felt need of it, is empty bravado.

I recognize that the poem can be read as heartfelt, its pathos a reflection of the sensibilities of the time. But I can't help thinking of Shakespeare's use of verbal irony – Antony, for example, proclaiming the nobility of Brutus in a way that conveyed the opposite opinion. I like the idea that Dickinson was able to sit down with her sense of grievance and put a twist on it.

As a proponent of the heartfelt pathos reading, Jane Donahue Eberwein includes this poem with those written in a 'childlike voice' and those where a little child might slip 'quiet from it's chair' into the grave, or meekly take the smallest room; where an adult is but a 'Drop that wrestles in the Sea', or is a Nobody (Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation By Jane Donahue Eberwein).

That makes sense, but I still feel the poem's scorn.