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03 November 2019

Endow the Living — with the Tears —

Endow the Living — with the Tears —
You squander on the Dead,
And They were Men and Women — now,
Around Your Fireside —

Instead of Passive Creatures,
Denied the Cherishing
Till They — the Cherishing deny —
With Death's Ethereal Scorn —
                                                            Fr657 (1863)  J521

There's a sad yet understandable irony in how we often shower the dead with more concentrated attention and affection than we showed while they were alive. In this short poem, Dickinson tersely instructs us  to instead 'Endow the Living'.

That's a reversal, as normally endowment flows from the dead to the living. But Dickinson neatly leaves the dead completely out of it. Instead, the living should cherish the living and 'squander' no sentiment on the Dead who are nothing but 'Passive Creatures, neither wanting nor needing attention.

Yet despite their passivity, the dead retain some pride. They react to the post-mortem Cherishing with 'Ethereal Scorn'. It's phony. It's too-little-too-late. It is irrelevant.

While I don't think there are dazzling insights in this poem, I find the format of  its sensible meaning rather droll. The entire poem is written as a single sentence. The first word, 'Endow', lends a certain legalist cast. The chiasmic reversals of "Denied the Cherishing / Till They – the Cherishing deny –" are clever and build on the theme of logic rather than sentiment.
            I'm not sure, nonetheless, how to respond to the poem in general. It has an overall polished feel to it – a mood at odds with the extended deep grieving Queen Victoria had been practicing since Prince Albert died two years before Dickinson wrote this poem. It is also at odds with the national mood as tens of thousands of soldiers were dying in Civil War battles. 
            The poem's central assumption is that the dead were not cherished in their lifetimes. But is that what Dickinson is really getting at? Perhaps she was thinking more broadly and the endowing and the cherishing aren't so tightly linked. A queen, for example, might devote herself to her people rather than her dead prince. Governments might forgo ritualized grieving for the dead, choosing instead to serve the living.

I don't really believe the poem can be read this way, however. I think it more likely that Dickinson sharpened her poetic wit in response to particular funerals and grievings in her very own Amherst.

19 October 2019

I started Early – Took my Dog –

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
Fr656 (1853)  J520

The poem begins as a simple account of the speaker's walk to the beach with her dog. But then the world comes alive in a fantastical way: mermaids swim to the surface to look at her. Frigates in the harbour seem to extend their anchoring ropes should she, like a mouse, want to scurry on board. She is the center of attention, gazing at an ocean alive with feelings and intent towards her.

          She stays, charmed, perhaps, at the wonders, unmoved until the intent culminates in a tidal wave rushing up. "[N]o Man moved Me", she says, until this tide floods first her shoes, then her skirt, then belt, and finally up to and past her "Boddice" – that is to say, her blouse or bosom. Feeling now as if the Tide would "eat me up", the speaker makes for the safety of a nearby town on higher ground.
But the Tide follows 'close behind' drenching her shoes with the pearls of his 'Silver Heel' until the 'Solid Town' is reached. Against this solidity the fluid sea curls up into itself, 'bowing – with a Mighty look', and withdraws.

            There are several ways to read the forking of this poem from the speaker's imaginative musings on the beach to the sense of danger that makes her flee. The simplest and most innocent is to read it as a girl/woman staying too long in an incoming tide with no one (no Man) compelling her to move to safety. In this reading the engulfing, following, and finally withdrawing Tide is just an extension of the Mermaids and friendly Frigates. Yes, the tide came up too high and she had to hightail it, but that (as many sea-goers know) is part of the fun. The towering, bowing wave looking at her at the end, caps the close call. All in all, a marvellous adventure at the beach.

            Another reading is that of the sexual awakening of a young woman. The transition from child to woman is allegorically portrayed as the shift in focus from companion dog, legendary mermaids and romantic frigates, to immersion in a sexualized tide. This immersion seems dangerous to the young woman, and she flees to the safety of the town whose people, she thinks, are strangers to this powerful tide. Yet she is not entirely safe. As she runs she feels the ocean's 'Silver Heel' close behind. A silver toe would seem less ominous, certainly more polite; yet the heel is not without allure. In an image of fear mixed with desire, it fills her shoes to overflowing with foamy 'Pearl'.  The final image, that of the Sea drawing up into a bowing wave and bestowing a 'Mighty look' before withdrawing, assures that this is not a one-time experience. The maiden must expect that Tide to come again and probably again – and not just for her 'simple Shoe'.

          A third reading would be a deeper allegory: just as a maiden might be seduced "As wholly as a Dew", so a poet who writes of the "divine intoxication / of the first league out from Land", risks the abyssal depths. The mermaids who look can also draw her down. The frigate can only extend its arms when she stands on shore. The town is her refuge only when she dwells in its confines. But Dickinson is not a poet who seeks refuge. She is more pelagic than terrestrial

I believe she writes with the mighty sea at her heels, overflowing her with Pearl.

Poems with the Ocean as love, the Beloved, and desire:
"Wild Nights – Wild Nights" where the poet, "Rowing in Eden", longs to moor in the sea of her beloved (Fr269)
"My river runs to thee –" where as a river, the speaker hopes the Sea will welcome and take her (Fr219)
In "He touched me, so I live to know",  the speaker writes of her beloved's arms as "a boundless place" that 'silenced' her "as the awful Sea / Puts minor streams to rest" (Fr349)
"The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea" depicts the subsuming nature of the lover's attraction to Beloved: "The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea – / Forgets her own localaity – / As I, in thee –" (Fr255)

Poems with the Ocean as poetic gifts and depths:
"'Tis little I – could care for Pearls –" where Dickinson declares, ''Tis little I – could care for Pearls – / Who own the Ample sea" (Fr597)
I'll clutch – and clutch –": the poet is diving for pearls, and although it is getting late, continues diving hoping that the next one "might be the golden touch" or maybe diamonds. The pearls maybe presents for a loved one – and also pearls and other treasures might be the poems brought up from the depths of the sea (Fr385)
"Exultation is the going" – where journeying out upon the ocean is to find 'divine intoxication' in its deep freedom and 'Eternity' (Fr143)
"Three times – we parted – Breath – and I –": Here the ocean is a great trial, almost drowning the speaker who emerges with sunrise stronger and alive (Fr514)
"Once more, my now bewildered Dove": In this poem the speaker 'flings 'Her troubled question' out over the ocean, the 'deep' for answers, one presumes, to deep questions (Fr65)

04 September 2019

He parts Himself — like Leaves —

He parts Himself — like Leaves —
And then — He closes up —
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup —

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose —
And then does Nothing —
Then away upon a Jib — He goes —

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon —
Uncertain — to return Below —
Or settle in the Moon —

What come of Him — at Night —
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance —
What come of Him — That Day —

The Frost — possess the World —
In Cabinets — be shown —
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss —
An Abbey — a Cocoon —
                                                                                            J 517 (1863)  Fr655

This riddle poem charms me. And I learned, well, relearned, something. By the final stanza of the poem I was visualizing butterflies – and why not? they are one of Dickinson's "B" triad along with Bees and Birds – but once I started thinking (and looking stuff up, let's face it) about that last line, I realized the creature had to be a moth. Butterfly caterpillars pupate as a chrysalis; it is the moth caterpillar that creates cocoons for its pupa. All that being said, however, since we usually see butterflies in the day, behaving just as Dickinson describes, and most moths come out at night, I don't think she was focusing on taxonomy here.  

I love the beginning of the poem: "He parts Himself – like Leaves –". It not only has a soft, lilting quality, but introduces a note of mystery. With "He," Dickinson plants the notion of a person parting himself. I lingered over the line before moving on. The idea of parting myself makes me think of body and soul, or two different personas. There's a fascination in the image, the leaf simile gentle and lovely.
            In the next line He is closing up. Still a mystery. But when the creature is revealed to be atop a buttercup, I knew it for a butterfly. We've all seen them among the flowers opening and closing their wings. It's a beautiful sight.

So begins a day in the life of a butterfly/Moth. It balances upon the buttercup to sip nectar. It must be fairly big, something in the order of the Cecropia silkmoth or an Eastern swallowtail, for when it flies to a rose it bowls it over. Undaunted, it heads for the sky, its triangular silhouette when it closes its wings reminiscent of a jib sail on a racing boat.

High in the air it pauses, "Suspended in the Noon" (such a wonderful phrase!) while contemplating whether to flutter back down to earth or fly up to the moon. Light as spirit, poised between two realms, the creature gives us a focal point to contemplate the same choice. Do we flit about the flowers, doing nothing if we choose – but oh so alive! Or do we follow the beckoning amber hands of the moon?


Photo by Srithern, on Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth stanza Dickinson waves away the bulk of lepidopteran life: moth laying eggs, eggs hatching, caterpillars pillaging the garden and, finally, weaving silken cocoons for shelter as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves at the cellular level. She skips over all this, I think, because it's the last stanza's distilled image of the moth in its cocoon that is what she's after. The cocoon itself might be found either in the cabinets of collectors (and perhaps Dickinson was one) or in a protected cabinet-like nook outside.
             Moth-to-cocoon is a simple story, one of hibernation or even rebirth rather than transformation: the moth, it is implied, is ensconced in its silken swaddling, hopefully to emerge in spring.

It's the "hopefully" that Dickinson hints at in the last two lines. She uses two metaphors for the cocoon: "Sepulchre" and "Abbey". The first is an image of death and burial. The second, a church that typically has tombs, but also where resurrection and the afterlife are taught. Is the insect – are we – to be thought of as moldering in a grave or awaiting rebirth?

It's easy to skip over this rather somber reflection. Dickinson may have wanted to simply emphasize the cosiness of the cocoon and the pleasing image of the free-flying butterfly/moth tucked up for the night. But the poem ends with winter, its secret inside the cocoon inside a cabinet.

19 August 2019

Guest Dickinson Bloggers!

Dear Readers -
I recently attended the annual Emily Dickinson International Society conference in Asilomar. What a great event! The speakers and panels were full of poetry, revelatory and insightful commentary, and scholarship. I even met some Prowling Bee readers!

One of the readers is a professor from Columbus State University in Georgia. He wrote me the following letter a few weeks before the conference and I was very happy to meet him there in person:

This past spring I taught a class on Dickinson's poetry.  For their final project, I gave them the option of creating their own "prowling Bee"-like blog (I referred them to your site and they used it quite a bit, I think).  I thought you might be interested in the results.  Here are some of their blogs:  
not Conclusion, Jacque Hutch 
Diving into Dickinson, Casi Turner 
A Bullet Hit a Bird, Alex Proft 
The Midsummer Mind  
Lenses of Literature, Rachael 
Kind regards,
Patrick Jackson 

Readers, I read through the blogs and I highly recommend them. Each student presents several poems along with very thoughtful explications. These are mostly poems I haven't gotten to yet, so it's great to offer them here. Each student blog has a unique style and each writer definitely has their own voice. There are some real treasures to be found!

I'm not sure if you can leave comments on the student blogs via this site, but please feel free to leave any comments below.

Check it out!


17 August 2019

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides –

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro' it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it –
                              J516, Fr 654 (1863)

Dickinson begins by presenting Beauty as an essence, something drawn from Plato's Forms, timeless and unchangeable. Our mortal senses, part of the physical world, recognize and respond to it, but we cannot create it, neither can we grab hold of it or otherwise own it. As Dickinson puts it, Beauty Is. The capitalization in 'Is' matters.

In Plato's Symposium, Sophocles links love to our response to beauty and traces its evolution: at first, love is a response to the beauty of a particular body; it then becomes more generalized, seeing and loving beauty in all bodies. As we mature and become more wise we recognize the beauty in more abstracted things: Souls, laws and institutions, knowledge, and finally we recognize and love Beauty itself in its ideal form.

Some have also seen the first stanza as hearkening back to Keats' "Ode on a Grcian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  But I don't think Dickinson is making that point. If she is channeling anyone besides Plato (whose writing and philosophy would have been familiar to her, if not from her academic studies then from lectures and discussions), I think it would be Emerson.
        It is Emerson the transcendentalist who seeks the still center where beauty abides, who writes, " within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related …" ("The Oversoul", 1841). Even more to Dickinson's point, he says that Beauty "cannot be handled. … It instantly deserts possession and flies to an object in the horizon" (The Conduct of Life, 1860).
        But perhaps most in tune with Dickinson here is his depiction of Beauty as "hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky" (The Conduct of Life).

Having pretty much condensed the notion of ideal Beauty into three lines, Dickinson writes a pivot line, isolating it between the first three lines, preventing an initial quatrain, and the following quatrain to which it is linked by both grammar and sense.

However, cleave ultimately as it may to the second quatrain, "Overtake the Creases" is initially grasped as linked to the opening lines by means of the perfect rhyme of "Creases"with "ceases" and also because "Overtake" seems a continuation of chasing. But then we read on and find ourselves on a gusty day in a meadow creased by the fingers of the Wind. We might, for the sheer joy of it, for the beauty of it, try to overtake the Wind, but a "Deity" will make sure it never happens.

In isolation, "Overtake the Creases" is a wondrously ambiguous and mysterious phrase. What are the Creases, one wonders. I immediately thought of seams, of liminal space between one thing and another – between the physical and the ideal, the chasing and the not chasing. But then I meet the meadow and meaning wobbles. I've been pivoted from the third to the second person. I've moved from the abstract to the Real. I've come from the Ideal world into one with a Deity who might be the Christian God or who might be a casual symbol of the laws of nature.

If I look at the poem on the page, my attention is drawn to that isolated imperative: Overtake the Creases. What I read are two reasons not to: first, because Beauty disappears when pursued; second, because it is impossible to ever catch it. What is Dickinson really suggesting we do? Try to overtake? Or let it be? I think she is saying 'both' – or somehow just implanting the notion that sometimes, some critical time, we should go for the creases.

02 August 2019

No Crowd that has occurred

No Crowd that has occurred
Exhibit — I suppose
That General Attendance
That Resurrection — does —

Circumference be full —
The long restricted Grave                                                       [long] subjected
Assert her Vital Privilege —                                                   [Assert] His Primogeniture
The Dust — connect — and live —

On Atoms — features place —
All Multitudes that were
Efface in the Comparison —
As Suns — dissolve a star —                                                 [Suns -] annul

Solemnity — prevail —
Its Individual Doom
Possess each separate Consciousness —
August — Absorbed — Numb —                                        [August-]  Resistless– dumb

What Duplicate — exist —                                                    [What] scenery
What Parallel can be —
Of the Significance of This —                                                [the] stupendousness
To Universe — and Me?
                                                            J515, Fr 653 (1863)

This poem describes a slice of Judgment Day (from the Bible's Rev 20:1-15) . It begins in a rather droll way, the tone conversational as if the speaker were making an offhand remark on the topic of large gatherings. She ultimately concludes, unremarkably, that Judgment Day will be the largest and most significant gathering ever in the whole Universe --  and also – but with a question mark –  the most significant event to herself.

It is that question mark paired with the droll opening tone that may expose the poem to the If of faith and doubt.

The second stanza flatly depicts what Revelations describes. The Grave, long portrayed (by many, including Dickinson herself) as a passive receptacle for the deceased to wait, "safe in their alabaster chambers" (Fr124), until the final Resurrection, here asserts "her Vital Privilege": to reassemble the scattered 'dust' and atoms of the dead into their recognizable former bodies.
            Although there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth, neither is it a happy crowd. We see no joyful reunions, no reconstituted flesh revelling in the touch of a breeze, or bird song (should there be enough atoms left for birds). Instead, Dickinson paints a picture of the numb solemnity of a solid mass of humanity just before the moment of judgment.
            She ends the poem rhetorically asking if there could every be anything like such an event, anything comparable to its significance both to the Universe and to herself. While the questions are simple they just don't reflect, for me, the tone of someone truly contemplating their doom. Judgment Day feels far-fetched, the scene too dispassionate. It is like Eliot's Prufrock squeezing "the universe into a ball" and rolling it "towards some overwhelming question" only to have the listener shrug.
            This may be exactly the effect Dickinson intended. It may well have been a reaction against a religion she was never quite comfortable with

Puritan/Calvinist Christianity emphasized the afterlife: the threat of hell and a hope of heaven. The threat was never made more clear than in Jonathan Edwards' 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Throughout the (very long) sermon, Edwards paints a fearsome picture of damnation – and even of God: "The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire."
William Blake's "Judgment Day", 1808
Echoes of this famous and fiery sermon reverberated in Dickinson's life whether at home, away at school, or in her local church. She experienced a wave of revival that made similar calls for parishioners to stand and make a clear declaration of conversion. Although her family and most of her friends did so, Emily Dickinson did not.

Her letters contain a few mentions of fiery sermons. One was disturbing:
The minister today … preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those, meaning Austin and me, who behaved improperly – and somehow the sermon scared me, and father and Vinnie looked very solemn as if the whole was true, and I would not for worlds have them know that it troubled me … . He preached such an awful sermon though, that I didn't much think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day, and then you would not speak to me, according to his story. The subject of perdition seemed to please him, somehow. (Letter 175 to Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Holland, Nov. 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 124) 

Another sermon, no doubt intended to scare the devil out of parishioners, was laughed at by the whole family, including Dickinson's conservative and dignified father:
The rest have gone to meeting, to hear Rev Martin Leland. I listened to him this forenoon in a state of mind very near frenzy, and feared the effect too much to go out this afternoon. The morning exercises were perfectly ridiculous,  and we spent the intermission in mimicking the Preacher, and reciting extracts from his most memorable sermon. I never heard father so funny.  … He said he ran out of meeting for fear somebody would ask him what he tho't of the preaching. He says if anyone asks him, he shall put his hand to his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, and cry, Unclean – Unclean!! ( Letter 125 to Austin Dickinson, June 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 104-5).

In this poem, Dickinson does not describe salvation, damnation, God's mood, nor how humanity and the Universe came to this pass. Instead there's a sort of latent eeriness, certainly a lack of affect, in her depiction of corpse dust – and there would be countless tons of it –reconfiguring into a mass of long-ago bodies. The underlying question is, I think, Why? Why the big production? Why at all?

            I realize this poem can also be read as a stately and somber depiction of Judgment Day. Christanne Miller discusses how the uninflected verbs (verbs without tense, here used ungrammatically) such as "Exhibit," "be full," and "Solemnity – prevail," "undercuts any clear sense of time or of number. … Those crowds do still exist, and resurrection is … ongoing, universal, like the poem's verbs" (Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Gramnmar, p.68-9).
            Yet to me, even the meter works against the solemnity. There is an over-regularity, an over-stressing of iambic trimeter, that affects a reader's mood. The first stanza in this poem, with its strong meter, it's rhyme of "suppose" and "does", it's dry "Exhibit" and "General Attendance" all establish a wry mood. "Resurrection" appears anticlimactically in the last line of the stanza.

So, Reader, what do you think? A subtle undercutting of Judgment Day? Or a carefully-crafted serious treatment of it?