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05 October 2016

Undue Significance a starving man attaches

Undue Significance a starving man attaches
To Food —
Far off — He sighs — and therefore — Hopeless —
And therefore — Good —

Partaken — it relieves — indeed —
But proves us
That Spices fly
In the Receipt — It was the Distance —
Was Savory —
                             F626 (1863)  J439

 I have to admire Emily Dickinson who is an imagist and metaphorist of the very first rank, who knows how to start off a poem with a killer lead, but who can also begin the first stanza of a poem with 'Undue Significance' and the other stanza with 'Partaken'. Her father and brother were both lawyers and I imagine she acquired both an ear for legalese and a sound sense of formal logic. The phrases signal the rather dry, abstract tone of this poem about hunger and desire.
        Dickinson emphasizes the legal diction by reversing the grammatical order of the first line. It wouldn't sound too interesting as "A starving man attaches Undue Significance / To Food".  The "Undue" is trochaic, making the line even more weighty. Dickinson proceeds to include two 'therefore's, a 'proves' and a 'Receipt'.  It is an attempt at drollery, I believe, making the case that anticipation beats fulfillment.
        She wrote two similar poems within a year or two of this one, using quite different diction: In "Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (F310), Dickinson develops a series of vivid metaphors to illustrate how heaven is always unattainable. It is an apple hopelessly out of reach, a forbidden property, etc. Robert Browning wrote, and Dickinson might very well have read, "Ah, but a man's reach must extend his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for" ("Andrea del Sarto", publ. 1855). Browning, though, is getting at reaching for an unattainable level of artistic excellence. Dickinson, on the other hand, yearns for the ineffable.
        In 'I had been hungry, all the Years –' (F439), she uses, as she does in the present poem, the analogy of hunger for desire, but she does so with concrete details: crumbs and bread, tables with 'Curious Wine', berries and bushes, roads and windows. She concludes that poem with the aphorism that "Hunger – was a way / Of Persons outside Windows – / The Entering – takes away." Hunger here represents a yearning for completion, for the satisfaction of a gnawing desire; yet the object of that yearning and desire is misplaced. Having access to the Table and the 'Curious Wine', having touched and tasted the feast, having had the 'Plenty', the speaker finds herself feeling 'ill – and odd'; she ultimately realizes that it is not the food that takes away the hunger but the access to food. Once seen clearly, the feast loses its appeal. It does not satisfy.
Emilio Longoni, "Reflections of a Starving Man", 1894

Dickinson is clearly no gourmand. In this poem she portrays herself as no simple gourmet, either. She prefers the longing for the food in all its spicy savour to the tasting. Indeed, having tasted, she loses interest in the foods' flavor altogether. That opening "Undue Significance" is almost like a wagging finger. Satisfying your hunger is a bodily satisfaction and need. But the body is a simple thing, she reminds us, compared to imagination. That's where the real spice is. That's where the real satisfaction can be found.

I don't find that a particularly remarkable insight. Further, I find much of the poem plodding and bare. A starving man is introduced, but he is not a real entity but rather staked out in some culinary desert as an example. The only action word is "fly" and that is what spices theoretically do once we stick a fork in the longed-for food.

02 May 2016

Forget! The lady with the Amulet

Forget! The lady with the Amulet
Forget she wore it at her Heart
Because she breathed against
Was Treason twixt?

Deny! Did Rose her Bee —
For Privilege of Play
Or Wile of Butterfly
Or Opportunity — Her Lord away?

The lady with the Amulet — will fade —
The Bee — in Mausoleum laid —
Discard his Bride —
But longer than the little Rill —
That cooled the Forehead of the Hill —
While Other — went the Sea to fill —
And Other — went to turn the Mill —
I'll do thy Will —
                                    F625 (1863)  J438

Much of this poem is ambiguous, but here is what is clear: the poem strives to assure a beloved that the speaker will always be faithful, will always "do thy Will". Most of the ambiguity involves who the speaker is and who the accuser is. Is the speaker accusing a beloved – or denying accusations? I've written and discarded many words of commentary arguing for first the one and then the other.
        But! I am going to take the simplest route because it is simplest and therefore has some traditional claim to credibility. Besides, the fun (if you could call it that) of the poem lies not in the theme of constancy but in the riot of rhyme. For sake of argument, I'll assume the poem is structured to contrast the speaker's constancy with that of a fickle lady and a fickle Rose.

First the explication.
        The speaker adopts a tone of shock and disbelief. The Amulet lady claims to have forgotten the love token at her breast because it had been there against her breath so long she forgot it. Will the next step be some treasonous infidelity against the giver of the amulet? Or has she already committed some treason because the Amulet (and thus its giver) has been so taken for granted?
        The second stanza continues the speaker's show of outrage. Here the Rose has denied her Bee Lord her constancy because she wanted to Play, or she was seduced by some rascal Butterfly, or just because there was some Opportunity while the Lord was out of town (while the Bee's away the Rose will play).
Popular in both men''s and women's jewelry in Victorian
times, the mustard seed symbolized religious faith
    Dickinson compresses what might have been two stanzas into one for the third stanza.  In it we find that while the forgetful, possibly treasonous lady will fade and the Bee at last discard his over-playful Bride (who might well be the lady with the Amulet), the speaker will be faithful to her own beloved longer than streams keep running. The last line, "I'll do thy Will" recalls the line from the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done", and is such a turn in point of view from third person to second that the entire poem might be re-read as a letter to God. The Amulet might well contain a mustard seed – symbol of faith; the Bee the same life-giving pollinator Dickinson uses for God in earlier poems.

And now the rhyme!
The first line's rhyme of "Forget!" with "Amulet" is just fun. The ticking "t's" also underscore the playful tone – which undermines any sense of real outrage or sarcasm: Forget, amulet, forget, it, Heart, against, Treason, twixt. "Treason twixt" is particularly fun. "Twixt" is just fun to look at, let alone say.
        You can claim the first stanza as all in slant rhyme, although the argument would rest rather tenuously upon the final 't' sound. But in the second stanza there is no arguing against Bee, Play, Butterfly, and away. The first word of the stanza, "Deny" sets this up, and the longest word, "Opportunity", reinforces it.
        The next three lines features fade, laid, and Bride as rhymes, adding to that the long 'a' of 'lady. Dickinson also uses an alliterative 'l' in: lady, Amulet, Mausoleum, and laid. The final five lines end in very simple true rhymes: Rill, Hill, fill, Mill, and Will.

Find what meaning you will in the poem, I found it, in order, maddening, playful, interesting, earnest, and maddening.

27 March 2016

What care the Dead, for Chanticleer —

What care the Dead, for Chanticleer —
What care the Dead for Day?
'Tis late your Sunrise vex their face —
And Purple Ribaldry — of Morning

Pour as blank on them
As on the Tier of Wall
The Mason builded, yesterday,
And equally as cool —

What care the Dead for Summer?
The Solstice had no Sun
Could waste the Snow before their Gate —
And knew One Bird a Tune —

Could thrill their Mortised Ear
Of all the Birds that be —
This One — beloved of Mankind
Henceforward cherished be —

What care the Dead for Winter?
Themselves as easy freeze —
June Noon — as January Night —
As soon the South — her Breeze

Of Sycamore — or Cinnamon —
Deposit in a Stone
And put a Stone to keep it Warm —
Give Spices — unto Men —
                                                     F624 (1863)  J592

Dickinson gives no sign of cheer in this bleak poem about death. It is not a cosy rest in a snug coffin or a return to the bosom of earth. Nor is there any indication that departed souls have found a better place. Everything is cold and still, senseless.
  The poem begins with a heavy iambic phrase that will be repeated throughout the poem: "What care the Dead". The accented syllables are so stressed that it is almost an effort to say them, as if invoking the heavy, weighted immobility of the dead. In the first two stanzas Dickinson offers Morning with its rooster herald and its purple sunrise. But it is too late for the dead. Sunrise colors are now as blank to them as the surface of a new wall (perhaps that of a crypt) – and the risen sun is cool as its smooth marble.
  Summer makes its appearance in the next two stanzas but also to no avail. The cold snow of death cannot melted or wasted by even the solstice sun. If only a bird could find a tune that could be heard in the grave it would be forever 'beloved' and 'cherished' by Mankind. Dickinson, whose poetry reveals a deep love of birds, reminds us by these passages of the joys of being alive. There is the sky with all its colors, the warmth of the sun, the "thrill" of birdsong.
  The final two stanzas reflect on the coldness of death. Why should the dead worry about winter when they are as frozen in June as January? Winters' effects are as likely to disturb them as spices from the south, delivered on the wind, are to penetrate their stony tombs beneath their stony markers.

The poem's tone is sad, bitter, and elegiac. I see the poet at graveside or imagining herself at graveside contemplating death. With the Civil War losing tens of thousands of soldiers in the year this poem was written, it's no wonder Dickinson's thoughts would turn to the dead. With this in mind, a second, expanded reading of the poem is possible.
Original and current Purple Hearts with their ribbons
  Dickinson begins by invoking the War. Sunrise colors are a 'Purple Ribaldry – of Morning'. The word play on 'ribbon'  (per Dickinson Lexicon) and 'morning' for 'mourning', along with the color purple, suggests the Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded to the wounded or killed in battle. The award began as the Badge of Military Merit in the Revolutionary War,  became the Medal of Honor in the Civil War, and the Purple Heart after WWI. Its color began as purple and is purple still. Sunrise pours the purple heart of mourning over the dead, vexing them. Too little, perhaps, and much too late. 
  The second stanza continues with memorialization. The stone masons build crypts, monuments and tombs for the dead – all of which are as meaningless or 'blank' as the Purple Ribaldry of Morning. The stone walls have no more warmth for the dead than the impotent sun. 
  The wrongness of these deaths is mirrored in the meter. While the poem is written in regular ballad meter, that last line of the first stanza is extremely irregular. It should be three iambic feet, just like all the rest of the stanzas' closing lines. Instead, Dickinson added "of Morning". The extra syllables and the trailing, unaccented ending (a "feminine" ending in poetry terms) call attention to themselves. We are meant to see the dawn colors as those of mourning – and to read what follows as memorial. That "Tier of Wall" isn't just a new wing off the kitchen. 

  It might be too much to read the One Bird's tune as "Taps," the solo funereal bugle call that originated in the Civil War, but that's what I hear when I read the poem as part of Dickinson's war opus. 
  The final image of the poem conjures a fragrant breeze from the South that is as likely to donate its spices as the dead are to care about winter. Despite being teasingly scented with spice, there is no way the southern wind is going to sweeten the sleep of the Union dead. The imagery and diction here make this a difficult stanza and I'm not confident in my interpretation. Dickinson's use of "Men" certainly makes no distinction between those of the North and those of the South.
  But what care the Dead about these distinctions of North versus South, about valor in battle? Their eternity is a cold blank.

The notion that the dead are senseless, that time has lost meaning, that they are in a blank, cold, quiet place indefinitely if not forever, is found in a few other Dickinson poems. In "As far from pity, as complaint" (F364) Dickinson describes the dead as being "numb to Revelation", as "far from time – as History"; and while the corpse is unresponsive, "Color's Revelations break – and blaze – the Butterflies!"
  Dickinson pens a couple of stanzas on the same theme in "A long – long Sleep – A famous – Sleep" (F463). Here the dead "bask the Centuries away" but never respond to morning, "Nor once look up – for Noon". Perhaps the most famous of these poems is "Safe in their alabaster chambers" (F124) where the dead sleep through eons as "firmanents – row" and "Worlds scoop their Arcs". 

Dickinson in these poems reminds us in an awe-full way to open our eyes and use all our senses while we are still living under the sun. I am reminded of Solomon's wisdom book, Ecclesiastes – a Biblical book Dickinson no doubt studied – particularly Chapter 9. Here, after discussing the finality and equality of death ("All things come alike to all"), Solomon advises his readers to "eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart," and that "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest." 
This is also the chapter where Solomon instructs us to "Let thy garments be always white". I'd love to look at the Dickinson family bible just to see the notes and underlinings …

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.