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28 March 2015

'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —

'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —
Who own the Ample sea —
Or Brooches — when the Emperor —
With Rubies — pelteth me —

Or Gold — who am the Prince of Mines —
Or Diamonds — when have I
A Diadem to fit a Dome —
Continual upon me —
                                 F597 (1863)  J466

The poet doesn't care much about Pearls, Brooches, Gold, or Diamonds because she has the ocean, rubies galore from an Emperor, a mining empire, and a crown as big as a dome. Dickinson scholar Judith Farr believes that pearls represent Sue (based on poems such as "One Life of so much consequence" [F248]) and that the Emperor, the sea, etc., represent the adored Master to whom Dickinson wrote a series of powerful love letters.
        But I think the range of best things indicates more than just one man, no matter how adored or superlative, or how generous with his Rubies (Farr finds the imagery of the man pelting the speaker with rubies to be phallic and assaultive). In each case Dickinson dismisses the particular in favor of having the general and more encompassing richness. Pearls are just one precious commodity of the "Ample sea". One brooch will never equal a pelting of rubies, nor gold outweigh all the gems from all the various mines. Diamonds wouldn't fill out a dome the way a Diadem might.
Rubies in the rough

I find this poem as clear a pronouncement of Dickinson's brimming-over poetic calling as in "For this – accepted Breath" [F230] where (I believe) poetry is her "Crown" and her "perennial bloom" – and her portal into something like the "glory" experienced in heaven. Each metaphor supports this. The ocean is not only a symbol of the feminine but of creativity. To own it is to delve at will into its unpredictable and fertile depths. 
        The ruby-pelting Emperor is a fun version of a poetic muse. Each ruby is an insight or idea more delightful to the poet than a brooch. The rubies are in their natural state, ready for the artist's hand, whereas the brooch is a finished piece: good for adornment but not for creativity.
        As a Prince of Mines, the poet can not only delve in the seductive sea but in the richness of the mineral earth. The giant Diadem, or crown, is as it was in F230: the crowning glory of Dickinson's life – poetry. 

This poem is among the most regular of Dickinson's verse. With its ballad meter and simple rhymes, it seems almost a cheerful ditty. One could truly sing it to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and it would sound just right.

24 March 2015

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —
Your Vision — was in June —
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied — too — of mine —

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

'Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

'Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —
                                                                                    F596 (1863)  J631

In this nostalgic poem, Dickinson addresses an old friend. Although they were both wed in the same long-ago summer, the friend married first. Not long afterwards the poem's speaker also "received the Sign". Alas, while the friend seems to be living a warm and fertile life, the speakers' relationship seems cold and sterile.
            The poem is written in standard ballad form and begins as colloquially as an old song – "Ourselves were wed one summer – dear –". The speaker refers to her friend's wedding as her "Vision" when her "little Lifetime failed". The Dickinson Lexicon points readers to Revelation 21.2 and 21.9 as likening the wedding to that of the apostle John's vision of the "new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." Dickinson is likely thinking here of Sue, her brother's wife and her own best friend from youth, and recalling this union as a glorious and transformative event.
            The passage marks marriage as when childhood, her friend's "little Lifetime", ends. Dickinson says "failed" as if the dreams and innocence of childhood were stretched too far. The end of the "little Lifetime" would also be the end of the special relationship between Emily Dickinson and Sue as Sue takes on her new role.
Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
            As a consequence, the speaker wearied of her own childhood. Her transition found her in a Dark place where, Dickinson writes, "You had put me down", as if Sue's friendship had carried her and lighted her life up until this juncture. Fortunately, someone enters this dark void, "carrying a Light". Just as light transfigures dark, so this "some one" must have brought not only love but enlightenment.
Dickinson marks the distinction between the two friends' experiences very precisely. The friend receives the "crown" of matrimony; the speaker receives the "Sign". This language takes us back to "Title divine, is mind" where the speaker announces she has become "The Wife without the Sign", and is "Royal, all but the Crown". But in this poem the Sign is hers. She doesn't have to be without it.
And yet it seems to bring no fulfilment. There's a wistfulness in how the speaker compares their subsequent lives. The friend's cottage faces the sun, surely a symbol for a life either blessed or brightly lived. The speaker's abode, however is bordered by oceans and "the North" as if it were in some Arctic or Antarctic isolation – a cold, inapproachable land far beneath the sun's noon.
It is also true, the speaker continues, that the friend's garden bloomed first. Her own, after all, had been sown in Frosts. Dickinson biographers list two love interests in Dickinson's life at this time. Both were married, perhaps explaining the nuptial garden being sown in frost and failing to bloom. It never had a chance.

In "There came a Day – at Summer's full" [F325], Dickinson describes a lovers' pledge that they would be married eternally in heaven after death. Perhaps the Sign in this poem is the solemn vow made over each other's crucifix in the earlier poem. That might account for the final nostalgic wistfulness of the last two lines. The two young women that one summer were Queens, but only one was crowned. A lifetime must seem a long time to wait for the other one.


It's a lovely, haunting poem. More so, perhaps because while Sue's marriage began happily it did not long continue to be so. And Dickinson's isolation provided her access to her own searching imagination. Her bringer of light may not have been able to provide a public crown, but Dickinson internalized the light as few poets have. She found her own way after that, lit from within.

18 March 2015

The Lightning playeth — all the while —

The Lightning playeth — all the while —
But when He singeth — then —
Ourselves are conscious He exist —
And we approach Him — stern —

With Insulators — and a Glove —
Whose short — sepulchral Bass
Alarms us — tho' His Yellow feet
May pass — and counterpass —

Upon the Ropes — above our Head —
Continual — with the News —
Nor We so much as check our speech —
Nor stop to cross Ourselves —
                                           F595 (1863)  J630

Lightning is a threat; thunder is not. Yet, as Dickinson points out in this poem, we pay no attention to the real threat until we hear the boom of its "sepulchral Bass". 
In the first stanza, lightning plays but is unnoticed until it sings. Dickinson uses the antiquated (even in her time) "playeth" and "singeth" to, it seems, evoke the grandeur of Shakespearean or biblical language. Not until we hear the thunder do we get serious about the danger, checking insulation and donning protective gloves.

The second stanza has bystanders alarmed by thunder although the "Yellow feet" of lightning have been crisscrossing the sky above. I like the image of lightning passing back and forth "Upon the Ropes – above our Head" as if it were part of a circus act.
  The last lines provide a commentary on human nature. There lightning is, right over our heads, with the "News" about its deadly force, but we don't pause in our conversation and certainly don't "stop to cross Ourselves". God should have a megaphone, is the implication. Our lives are fraught with existential danger but unless there's a clap of thunder in our ears we chatter obliviously away.   

16 March 2015

When I hoped I feared —

When I hoped I feared —
Since I hoped I dared
Everywhere alone
As a Church remain —
Spectre cannot harm —
Serpent cannot charm —
He deposes Doom
Who hath suffered him —
                                                            F594 (1863)  J1181


The conclusion of this concise little poem, an epigrammatic couplet, seems to say that the only way to dispel ruin or anguish is through enduring it: "He deposes Doom / Who hath suffered him".  While the last line is ambiguous enough to permit another meaning – to have "suffered" Doom might also mean to have accepted it – I believe the poem as a whole supports the idea of endurance.
The journey to this epigram begins in hope and travels through loneliness – perhaps the loneliness of a failed attempt at love, or perhaps the loneliness of a life chosen to be lived in much solitude. The poem begins with two parallel lines. The first is chronological: When the speaker felt hope she also felt fear. That makes sense: something hoped for is not yet attained and so we fear our hopes will be dashed. The second line is causative: because the speaker hoped she dared to act. This also makes sense: why take risks if there is no hope of success?

The central four lines are difficult. The aloneness seems to have resulted from the dared action rather than as an underlying state of being. Then Dickinson introduces images from Christianity. She is "Everywhere alone" as if her interior were some empty and abandoned church. We expect a church to be filled with life – either of its worshippers or of the divine spirit. But in this poem to this speaker it is a symbol of vacancy.
Immediately following the reference to the Church is the "Spectre". In addition to suggesting some frightful phantom, it might harmonically suggest the Holy Ghost as well. The Serpent, another Biblical reference, follows the spectre. The serpent persuaded Eve to taste the forbidden fruit and thus lose Paradise. But in the lonely, churchish vantage from which the speaker writes, neither spectre nor serpent can harm her or lead her astray. Such a vantage would be one where there is no hope from whispered temptations, nothing left to fear from spectres holy or unholy. It is a safe but barren and lonely place.
Yet she has not succumbed. Doom has no sovreignty over her. She has experienced some agony or ruin and emerged in some state of static peace.

This epigrammatic end seems to me a reworking of a poem written two years earlier: "'Tis so appalling – it exhilarates –"  [F342] where Dickinson writes, " To know the worst, leaves no dread more — ".  She also, chillingly, writes that although "any [who] are not sure" about Truth may be shown prayer, "we, who know, / Stop hoping, now –". Perhaps that is Dickinson's poetic center: Neither hope nor despair, but a forging on, fearless now, plumbing the depths.

14 March 2015

I watched the Moon around the House


I watched the Moon around the House
Until upon a Pane—
She stopped—a Traveller’s privilege—for Rest—
And there upon

I gazed—as at a Stranger—
The Lady in the Town
Doth think no incivility
To lift her Glass—upon—

But never Stranger justified
The Curiosity
Like Mine—for not a Foot—nor Hand—
Nor Formula—had she—

But like a Head—a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away—
Did independent, Amber—
Sustain her in the sky—

Or like a Stemless Flower—
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations—
Than bind Philosopher—

No Hunger—had she—nor an Inn—
Her Toilette—to suffice—
Nor Avocation—nor Concern
For little Mysteries

As harass us—like Life—and Death—
And Afterwards—or Nay—
But seemed engrossed to Absolute—
With Shining—and the Sky—

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise—
She vaulted out of Gaze—

And next—I met her on a Cloud—
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road—
Or its advantage—Blue—
                    F593 (1863)  J629


According to John Mullan of The Guardian, this is one of the ten best examples of moon poetry. 

The lorgnette
The poem begins sweetly: the poet is moving from window to window, following the moon's ascension on its journey through the sky. After a while it seems to pause in one place as if taking a rest. The enthralled poet gazes on it with the sort of scrutiny she might give an interesting stranger. Dickinson claims that this is no lapse of manners: after all, "The Lady in the Town" doesn't find it uncivil to "lift her Glass" – her lorgnette – to look a stranger over. 


        And the moon seems strange indeed! Dickinson tosses out two similes that are both delightful and eerie. With no hands or feet or any of the typical arrangements of body and accoutrements, the moon first seems like the head of a lady severed by a guillotine (still being used in Europe in Dickinson's lifetime). In fact, under the sharp impersonal blade of the figurative guillotine the moon head slides "carelessly away" to an independent existence in the sky. Dickinson transforms the initial shock of a fine lady's head rolling away from the guillotine into the lovely amber face of the moon hanging effortlessly in the sky beyond her windowpane.
Guillotine, 1854 German model
        The second metaphor takes a little detour from the anthropomorphizing. Here, rather than a lady, the moon is like the severed head of a flower. Something holds it steady in the breezy sky, but that something seems "finer" than the mathematics of mass and distance that "bind" natural philosophers such as Isaac Newton. The flower moon is "upheld" – not having to labor at her own celestial position.
        In another twenty years Dickinson will write a poem likening frost to a "blonde Assassin" that beheads the flowers in "accidental power" and then "passes on" [F1668]. I wonder if the image of this stemless flower head was working in the back of her mind. 

Both images sever the head from earthly sustenance. The moon Dickinson regards is not a living being as we know women and flowers to be. Nor is the head a severed mind in the way we stereotype ivory-tower intellectuals or scientists. Dickinson makes that very clear in the following stanzas. The moon head has no hunger, does not concern herself with her looks, has no diversions, no concerns over "little Mysteries" such as Life and Death and what does or doesn't come after death. 
        Instead, she is completely engrossed in her own being and milieu: her shining and the sky through which she moves. There is no opening for human connection. While classic and romantic poets and playwrights typically link the moon with romance, mystery, and the supernatural, Dickinson's moon is entire to itself.  As if to underscore this point, the poem ends with the moon vaulting "out of Gaze", following her "superior Road" of blue.
The poem is a meditation on the heavens and heavenly bodies as absolutely unconcerned with human life. They fascinate and even obsess us – but the feeling is not mutual.

It is a striking poem. Written in basic ballad form, it unfolds as the story of a brief moment when the poet confronts a full moon from her window. Dickinson's vision is unique – who else would see a guillotined head? And Dickinsons "with a Silver practise – / She vaulted out of Gaze" is a line as fine a description of a rising moon as anything by Shelley or Wordsworth. I also like the little sketch of the "Lady in the Town" feeling quite justified lifting up her lorgnette to frankly examine a stranger. But while this might discomfort a stranger, the moon takes no notice of it whatsoever.

09 March 2015

The Soul that hath a Guest

The Soul that hath a Guest
Doth seldom go abroad —
Diviner Crowd at Home —
Obliterate the need —

And Courtesy forbids
The Host's departure – when
Upon Himself – be visiting
The Emperor of Men —
            F592 (1863)  J674

This poem was addressed to Dickinson's sister-in-law "Sue" and signed "Emily". With that in mind, it seems Dickinson is providing a rationale for not visiting or going out. How could she "go abroad", afterall, while hosting "The Emperor of Men"? It wouldn't be courteous at all. Dickinson makes two justifications for staying home: In the first stanza she explains there is no need to go out because better company is at hand. In the second, she says it wouldn't be courteous to do so. 
        The reader must speculate about just who "Himself", the "Emperor of Men" might be. I've read several commentaries, each with a different answer. One says the Diviner guest is her own divine soul. I would take that to mean that she is, on a deep level, wanting that company and concerned about driving it away. Our daily persona, our workaday interior life can certainly be on hold while we go out and about. We probably just take it along with us wherever we go. But Dickinson has in earlier poems described an inner sanctum, a forge where the soul burns at a white heat To be in the presence of that Soul requires all one's attention. If blessed with its accessible presence, how could you leave it?
        Another commenter suggested Dickinson was so caught up in Shakespeare or one of her other favorite authors, that she couldn't be torn away. Shakespeare, in this case, would be the Emperor of Men. I like this reading because it matches the wry tone of the poem, especially the second stanza.  
        The third reading is a more literal one: the poet feels she is in the presence of a divine visitor such as the spirit of God or even Jesus. To me, this interpretation seems too ponderous for the poem.  I would suggest that Emily is simply referring ironically to her stern and august father – a deeply religious man, he would provide a "Diviner Crowd" – except that he wouldn't be a visiting Guest.

But then I can imagine various scenarios. Perhaps Sue, her sister-in-law, and her brother Austen (the couple lived next door) were hosting Samuel Bowles or some other fine "Emperor of Men" – and Dickinson was wryly acknowledging that they couldn't come to call with such a divine guest. 

That masculine "Himself" in reference to the soul might mean a man is the Soul in question – or it might just be Dickinson being grandly and generically human.

Readers? What think you?

03 March 2015

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air —
Between the Heaves of Storm —

The Eyes around — had wrung them dry —
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the Room —

I willed my Keepsakes — Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly —

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz —
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see—
                                                                               F591 (1863)  J465

The heavy irony of this poem renders it nearly comical: the last thing a dying person encounters, rather than the face of God or loving human faces is a "stumbling", buzzing housefly. What an anti-climax! Either in service of or mitigating the comedic potential of the irony is Dickinson's calm and precise narrative voice. She describes the scene from a vantage after death as if offering a summary statement, much in the manner we might make a report to the insurance company about some accident or loss.
        I was reminded of how Aldous Huxley took a very ample injected dose of LSD on his deathbed. It's a gamble. What if it had been a bad trip? What if, instead of grandeur, a tunnel of light, the welcoming face of a grand deity – he saw a fly? We'll never know. But what Dickinson is telling us here is that no matter what solemnity you endeavor, no matter what your plans or expectations, death takes what form it will.
Calliphora vomitoria (bluebottle fly)
        Beneath the stumble and bumble is the fact of flies: they are carrion creatures. This one, buzzing around a dying body, is a grim but fitting preamble to the corpse.  I can imagine how everyone in the room, including the dying person, wished to chase that fly outside if not smash it to smithereens. No one likes a fly in the house, especially flying around the face. But what could they do? Get the flyswatter out and attack the fly as it buzzes around the body? What a quandry. I wonder if Dickinson, who at least poetically enjoyed deathbed watches, had ever seen such an interposing fly and mulled over just what it would be like if it happened to her.
        It would be like being jilted. You expect the King in this ultimate moment and instead you get a bluebottle fly. And there's no going back and doing it over.

The poem is full of hearing and seeing. It begins with sound. There is a buzz, a stillness, and breaths. At the end, more buzzing. For sight there are the onlookers' eyes, once weeping but now "wrung…dry". The expected King is to be "witnessed". The Fly is seen at the end, it's uncertain blue body the last sight of the dying speaker. At the end, when the eyes, or Windows, fail, she can no longer look out; she can no longer see at all.

Dickinson writes the poem as a double flashback. The narrator is speaking from somewhere beyond death, recounting that experience. She starts with the fly but then flashes back a bit earlier. Before the fly made its unwanted appearance, there was a stereotypical deathbed scene. The air was still, something ike the calm at the center of a hurricane (fittingly called the eye of the storm). The gathered family and friends have run out of tears and begin readying themselves for the final throes of death – the moment when King Jesus is to carry the soul away to its heavenly abode.
        In her final moments the dying person lucidly makes her final will and testament. All is ready. The next line is one of Dickinson's greats, written in the passive voice as if someone were musing wonderingly at an odd thing. "and then it was / There interposed a Fly". Now we are back in time to when the poem started. The narrative is impelled with two more "and then"s as sight is lost, signifying death.

The incongruity of the poem is, I think, meant to deflate death, to bring it into the realm of daily life. To us death is anticipated as momentous. To the cosmos, or the household biota, perhaps not so much. It would consequently be a mistake to expect some grand, transcendental experience to be carried off without a hitch (which may be why Huxley tried to stack the deck with LSD). For some
In an earlier poem, Dickinson claimed that agony was appropriate on the deathbed ("I like a look of Agony" [F339]). The agony is akin to birth pains as the soul transitions; it is also cathartic for the observers.
        In "A throe upon the features" [F105], Dickinson sketches death as first "A throe", then "A hurry in the breath" and finally "An ecstasy of parting". That is the tragedy of the fly: it kills the ecstasy.

Dickinson's language in this popular poem is in stark contrast to the antics of the fly. She peppers the poem with formal and legalistic terms: the King is to "Be witnessed"; she wills her Keepsakes and signs away "What portion of me be / Assignable" (a rather droll way of categorizing material possessions); even the fly is "interposed" between the light and the poet. The disparity between the language of the deathbed scene and the actions of the antic fly adds to the irony.
        That light is no doubt metaphorical as well as descriptive. Within the light should be some vision, some epiphany; even God. What does it mean when a fly blocks that light? I don't think Dickinson meant it as some divine cruelty. It is not the "June Bee" that disappears into the "mocking sky" after tantalizing us with heaven. Nor do I think it is some degraded image of Jesus. It is, at most, a sign of cosmic indifference to the ultimate moment of life. Rather than a demon battling for possession of a precious soul, there is the same nagging, mundane, buzzing annoyance that plagues one throughout the whole of life.