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18 January 2016

Prayer is the little implement

Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them – 
They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God's Ear —
If then He hear —
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer —
                            F623 (1863)  J437

In this short poem Dickinson depicts prayer as the recourse of Men to communicate with a God who remains hidden from them.

The tone is breezily dismissive and ironic; the import sad. What is both incisive and sad about the poem is the word choice. Prayer is no powerful medium; only a "little implement". How can such a paltry device ever crack the heavens – particularly when God has "denied" his presence. Shut out from divine "Presence", Men desperately "fling" their prayers. Dickinson says "Speech" here, not only for the rhyme with "reach" but to make quotidian what might otherwise be considered sacred.
        Flinging speech into God's Ear is done on the chance that He hears it. "If then He hear" can be read, "In case He hears". It is as if we were to unceasingly throw messages in bottles into the sea hoping the intended recipient would receive and read them. To extend the analogy, suppose the intended recipient had purposefully removed himself from anywhere we could find him. We don't even know if the message would be read if the sea cast the bottle up at his feet.
W.Holman Hunt, 1859: Morning Prayer
        The poem doesn't offer much hope that prayers are either heard or acted upon. The "Apparatus" seems inadequate and God's denial of his Presence seems far from encouraging. The cool finality of the last two lines, written as drily as if for an equipment manual, finishes the dismissal of prayer.

This isn't the first Dickinson poem about prayer. Most recently in "Of Course – I prayed – "  (F581), she says that she had indeed prayed but that God cared about as much as if "A Bird – had stamped her foot". But while Dickinson dismisses prayer, she does not dismiss the divine. In "My period had come for Prayer —"  (F525the poet does her best to find and talk to God but finds instead "Infinitude" and "Creation" – an experience of such awe that she abandons the idea of prayer and instead simply "worshipped".
        In "At least – to pray – is left – is left –" (F377), Dickinson adopts a dismissive and rather flippant tone towards prayer. She is "knocking – everywhere –" and finally wondering why God can cause wars and storms but seems to take no interest in her.

10 January 2016

To interrupt His Yellow Plan

To interrupt His Yellow Plan
The Sun does not allow
Caprices of the Atmosphere —
And even when the Snow

Heaves Balls of Specks, like Vicious Boy
Directly in His Eye —
Does not so much as turn His Head
Busy with Majesty —

'Tis His to stimulate the Earth —
And magnetize the Sea —
And bind Astronomy, in place,
Yet Any passing by

Would deem Ourselves — the busier
As the minutest Bee
That rides — emits a Thunder —
A Bomb — to justify —
                             F622 (1863)  J591

Dickinson contrasts humans, by way of bees, with the serene majesty of the sun. She also takes aim, I think, at the saccharine platitudes of Isaac Watts' poem "How Doth the Little Busy Bee", published in 1715, and popular during Dickinson's time (and beyond).

The first two stanzas describe the sun's imperturbability. Like the U.S. Post Office motto, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail – nor any other "Caprices of the Atmosphere" –will interrupt his business. The stately third stanza describes this business as stimulating the earth to be fruitful, magnetizing the Sea (I'm not sure about what this might mean: the basaltic ocean floor is magnetized but that is geologic rather than astronomic), and binding Astronomy – probably meaning binding earth to the sun's progression through the galaxy.
        Those are big jobs! Nonetheless, to any passing extraterrestrial observer it would seem that humans have more to do. We are like the tiniest bees whose efforts to gather nectar involves an inordinate amount of buzzing – a "Thunder", Dickinson calls it, as if such a commotion will 'justify' its constant bustling about.
        The bees' Thunder allows an amazing segue to "Bomb" in the last line. But while bees' thunder indicates their passage among flowerbeds, human's thunder, their bombs, indicates their rush to destroy. And so it was in 1863 while Dickinson was writing this poem. Battles at Vicksburg, Gettsburg, Chickamauga, and Stones River – just to list a few that occurred that year – had nearly 130,000 casualties.
Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier & Ives 
        And what could Dickinson possibly mean, ending the poem with the word "justify"? Do we humans, or at least Americans at the time she was writing, believe that battles justify the victors? It's a sad and timely commentary, if so.

Now, as to Watts' poem about the "Little Busy Bee". The first two stanzas praise the bee who is industrious, skilful, and neat. Such attributes "Improve each shining hour". The last two stanzas find the poet wanting to emulate the bee for two reasons: to lead a good life and to stay busy so that the Devil can't make use of his 'idle hands'.
        I imagine Dickinson reading this poem and finding it deeply ironic. Most of her countrymen were exposed to this poem. Many of them spent their childhoods "In books, or work, or healthful play" and later strove to be busy in 'works of labor or of skill'. And yet rather than a society like the humming hive, they found no way out of their deep divisions except by busily building and employing the engines of war.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
                                     Isaac Watts, 1715

28 December 2015

The Wind — tapped like a tired Man —

The Wind — tapped like a tired Man —
And like a Host — "Come in"
I boldly answered — entered then
My Residence within

A Rapid — footless Guest —
To offer whom a Chair
Were as impossible as hand
A Sofa to the Air —

No Bone had He to bind Him —
His Speech was like the Push
Of numerous Humming Birds at once
From a superior Bush —

His Countenance — a Billow —
His Fingers, as He passed
Let go a music — as of tunes
Blown tremulous in Glass —

He visited — still flitting —
Then like a timid Man
Again, He tapped — 'twas flurriedly —
And I became alone —
                                              F621 (1863)  J436

This poem always delights me. We see the poet open the door to the wind. No doubt she had been listening to the hums and knocks and tappings outside her door. Once she'd opened it, however, the "footless Guest" came in for a brief visit. And what a guest! Of course he couldn't sit in the company chair any more than air could enjoy settling into the sofa. What was he like, then?
        Well, first he was rapid in a "footless" way – exactly as you would imagine wind swirling around the drawing room. After all, he had no bones to bind him to the ground. As for small talk, he had none, for he had no real speech. Dickinson describes his noise as like the "Push" of hummingbirds in a beautiful flowering bush. Lovely. He also made a breathy, musical sound like that we get when blowing lightly in a bottle.
        After flitting about for a while he tapped again at the door, all in a flutter, and left.

I don't think the poem can be mined for deeper significance. It captures an experience common to many in a way meant to delight.

Just for your delight, here are some more wind poems:
  "The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —" (F494)
  "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad" (F334)
  "Of Brussels – it was not –" (F510)
  "An awful Tempest mashed the air –" (F224)

13 December 2015

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

Much Madness is divinest Sense – 
To a discerning Eye – 
Much Sense – the starkest Madness – 
'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail – 
Assent, and you are sane  – 
Demur – you're straightway dangerous – 
And handled with a Chain.
                                        F620 (1863)  J435

This popular poem is a gem, from word choice to line placement and to meter and rhyme. Dickinson's transition from the abstract to the political/sociological on a personal level leads to a surprisingly dystopic ending.

The poem can be read as two enjambed quatrains. The first makes the often-quoted claim that discerning people find great sense in what seems like madness to most people. As a logical corollary, they find what the majority finds sensible to be Madness.

State Lunatic Hospital, Worcester, MA 1847
The setting and landscaping were designed for
peacefulness and wholesomeness. 
        What saves this reversal from being platitudinous is not only the intervening line with its multisyllabic 'discerning' but the adjectives. The Sense is 'divinest'; the Madness, 'starkest'. The contrast is as extreme as possible. Dickinson isn't saying how someone might be crazy like a fox, or how there is sometimes truth in folly. No, 'Much' of Madness is divinest sense; 'Much' of Sense is starkest madness. That is a strong indictment of the majority who get it all wrong but nonetheless 'prevail'.
        It takes a 'discerning Eye' to recognize this madness/sense paradox. Poets are among our most discerning eyes, and Dickinson certainly put herself to the task. But there is real risk involved. In the second quatrain Dickinson says that if you oppose majority views, even by a simple demurral, you will end up in chains. These could easily be the prisoner's or the madman's chains, but could also be the invisible restraints on the madwoman in the attic – the dotty relative who is never allowed out.
        Dickinson builds up to this dystopic vision through a variety of poetic techniques. Two sets of parallel constructions set up oppositions. In the first, 'Much Madness' is echoed and opposed by 'Much Sense'. Both are spondees, providing extra emphasis. 'Madness' and 'Sense' are presented in opposite order: the first line has Madness then Sense; the third, Sense, then Madness. The tightness of this construction is at odds with the wide disparity between the two – divinest Sense and starkest Madness. This tension and disparity contribute to the chilling outcome for to avoid being deemed a danger to society you must go along with what seems unmitigated folly.
"Reasons for Admission" to West
Virginia's Trans-Allegheny Lunatic
Asylum, 1864 - 1889
        This leads to the second set of parallel construction. While the parallel oppositions, Assent and Demur, seem much less drastic than the first stanza formulation, Dickinson's switch from the third person to the second makes the stakes personal. It is your ethics and courage she's talking about here. To be considered 'sane' by the majority you have to assent, or as the Dickinson Lexicon would have it, 'concede' or 'conform in practice'. If, one the other hand, you feel compelled to demur, you will pay a very stiff price.

Dickinson would have probably read many accounts of the horrors of Bedlam and other institutions where people were treated brutally. Sometimes their only offence was to have been inconvenient to family. A perfectly sane person could be forcibly restrained and hauled off to a lifetime commitment. Fortunately, by Dickinson's time there was a strong prison reform movement in the United States. Unfortunately, it was still very easy for someone to be forcibly commited for such reasons as 'Imaginary female trouble', 'Over action of the mind', 'Grief', and 'Hard study' (see illustration).

Some other nice poetic touches include Dickinson's use of alliteration and assonance. For 'D' alliteration there are divinest, discerning, Demur, dangerous, and handled. For 'M': Much Madness, Much, Madness, and Majority. There are plenty of smooth-sounding 'S' sounds, too: Madness, divinest, Sense, discerning, Sense, starkest, Madness, this, Assent, sane, and straightway. The last half of the poem is sprinkled with long 'A' sounds: prevail, sane, straightway, dangerous, and chain. All these repeated sounds help knit the poem together in one very cohesive – and damning – piece.

10 December 2015

Happy birthday Emily Dickinson!

Or at least, happy Emily Dickinson's birthday to you, Readers! Go ponder the universe, send a flower to someone with a cryptic note, or gaze out the window to see what wonders might be found.

The Writer's Almanac has a special tribute to her today.

29 November 2015

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —
Widths out of the Sun —
And look — and shudder, and block your breath —
And deem to be alone

In such a place, what horror,
How Goblin it would be —
And fly, as 'twere pursuing you?
Then Loneliness — looks so —

Did you ever look in a Cannon's face —
Between whose Yellow eye —
And yours — the Judgment intervened —
The Question of "To die" —

Extemporizing in your ear
As cool as Satyr's Drums —
If you remember, and were saved —
It's liker so — it seems —
                            F619 (1863)  J590

I can say quite a bit about this poem: its Gothic qualities, the pivot from Cavern to Cannon, the dark and frightful imagery for Loneliness, the extemporizing moment when facing death; I can discuss the ballad meter and how it works with the gothic, the spondees of "Widths out" – and all sorts of things. But, Reader, what I cannot discuss with any confidence at all are the last two lines.
        If I read carefully, tracing back the sentence structures, it would seem Dickinson is saying that if you remember looking at death in a 'Cannon's face' than it is likely that it happened. But I am not convinced that is what Dickinson is getting at. So let's take a closer look – and maybe you can help out.

The poem begins with asking the reader if they were ever terrified by something deep within a cavern and then advising that if they have, they know what Loneliness looks like. It isn't entirely clear whether Loneliness is like the horror that one flees or the whole terrifying experience. I think the latter.
        Dickinson then pivots to facing death. Once again she asks the reader if they have had a dread experience that, the poet implies, she herself has had. The third stanza with its "Did you ever" parallels the first. The fourth, on the face of it, parallels the second: if you did such a thing (ran away, remembered and were saved), then … something. In the second stanza it is gaining the knowledge of Loneliness. In the fourth, well, I'm not sure. 
I read the third stanza as saying, "Did you ever face a cannon as it went off, aimed at you, and heard the voice of Judgment intervene as you pondered your own death?" 
And then I'm guessing. 
Speculation one: If you remember the cannon firing and the voice of judgment intervening, then you have been saved by God. (Is this Salvation or just fortunate divine intervention?)
Speculation two: If you remember the cannon going off at you and how you were coolly and distinctly pondering whether you would live or die – or even were ready to die – then your judgment saved you (perhaps by having you duck).

I'd love to hear readers' interpretations. Understand, though, that I really don't need a clear and logical explanation for Dickinson. She likes to 'tell it slant'. But often there is some deeper meaning that can be expressed or at least hinted at. 

I am wondering, having tossed this poem around while I wrote, if Dickinson isn't talking about Salvation. The moment of Salvation is like the moment of death; it is like looking down a live cannon. And one meaning of salvation is being saved from the terrifying loneliness that is this cavern, life.

25 November 2015

To love thee Year by Year —

To love thee Year by Year —
May less appear
Than sacrifice, and cease —
However, dear,
Forever might be short, I thought to show —
And so I pieced it, with a flower, now.
                                      F618 (1863)  J434

Dickinson borrows from the sonnet form here, and perhaps from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most quoted poem, "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43). One Dickinson scholar I read, Judith Farr, believes this is a poem for Sue, a response to Sue's rejection of or inability to return Emily's love on Emily's terms. The diction is so abbreviated that it could be read in various ways, but this is how I (finally) came to paraphrase it: "After years, my love seems less like love than sacrifice, and so I may give up. But, dear, if  "Forever"  is to be cut short, I want to show the love I still have now – and so I send this flower to prolong it even if just for a bit."   
Piecework: adding and extending

        The flower is a symbol of the ephemeral, serving as a reminder of how people and love change over time. It can also be a symbol or even a memorial of true and eternal love. Dickinson's flower can be seen in both ways.       

The sonnet form is traditionally a vehicle for love poetry, and although this is a short poem, the first four lines could be read as two iambic pentameter lines (sonnet meter). The last two lines make a rhymed couplet suitable for a love sonnet. By dividing the first lines, Dickinson is able to emphasize what would otherwise be internal rhymes: Year, appear, and dear. 
        The division also allows the important third line to stand alone. The sibilence of 'sacrifice' and 'cease' create a sense of melancholy and dwindling. 'Cease' is the only unrhymed line ending in the poem. Placed as it is in the center of the poem, it also provides a foreshadowed ending. We see the lover looking ahead to what seems a natural end to a rather one-sided relationship. Yet with the following 'However', we see the flower as a love gesture. Yes, things will change, but not right now. I'm pretty sure Dickinson used the word 'pieced' not only to suggest an extension added on but to hearken back to its slant rhyme 'cease'. While the year-after-year love might cease, it can still be pieced bit by bit.
        If Dickinson sent this poem with a flower to Sue, it must have been a poignant, almost bittersweet remembrance.

18 November 2015

The Night was wide, and furnished scant

The Night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single Star —
That often as a Cloud it met —
Blew out itself — for fear —

The Wind pursued the little Bush —
And drove away the Leaves
November left — then clambered up
And fretted in the Eaves —

No Squirrel went abroad —
A Dog's belated feet
Like intermittent Plush, be heard
Adown the empty street —

To feel if Blinds be fast —
And closer to the fire —
Her little Rocking Chair to draw —
And shiver for the Poor —

The Housewife's gentle Task —
How pleasanter — said she
Unto the Sofa opposite —
The Sleet — than May, no Thee —
                                             F617 (1863)  J589

I like this snug little winter poem with it simple message. One of life's pleasures is drawing up by the fire with a loved one while outside the winter's night is cold and windy.

The first two stanzas are in ballad form: alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter. They also read like a ballad, Dickinson establishing a very atmospheric scene. The few stars that can be seen disappear quickly under the clouds. Down below the wind shakes the bushes and scatters the leaves. It is so cold that the remnant warmth of November goes for shelter up under the eaves.
        Dickinson adjusts the meter in the following two stanzas to be iambic trimeter, the third line in iambic tetrameter. It gives the poem a more abrupt tone but also highlights the longer line – which in both stanzas is softer and gentler, the plush of the dog, the dip of the rocking chair.
  I am not one of those folks who dislikes anthropomorphism. I like it when Dickinson has the natural world acting out of emotion or described in human terms. It is a bracing opposite of the deep abstraction she can employ – sometimes in the same poem. In this one she has a timid little star, so timid it blows itself out when faced with a cloud. She has a fierce wind harrassing bushes and leaves and even driving November away.
        Another thing people cherish about Dickinson is her ability to drop a killer phrase into a line. Here we have the deserted street: no one is abroad, not even squirrels. But there is a 'belated' dog whose feet pad along like "intermittent Plush". Lovely! The tactile sense of 'plush' is transformed into an aural sense.

The last two stanzas bring us inside. The Housewife checks the window dressings then draws her rocking chair close to the fire, giving a sympathetic shiver for the Poor who might not have a warm and cozy room. All this is summarized as her "gentle Task", for in spring and summer she is no doubt doing much harder work. Or perhaps Dickinson is ironically suggesting that to shiver for the poor while next to the fire is an easy thing.
        The poem ends with the housewife talking to the sofa across from her. We must assume that the sofa has an occupant, probably the husband. "The Sleet is pleasanter," she tells him, "than May without Thee."  Dickinson may be projecting an alternate self into this poem, one where she had not chosen the 'Belt around [her] life' of the truth-saying poet's life. Either way, it is a lovely and loving poem.