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23 January 2015

We see — Comparatively —

We see — Comparatively —
The Thing so towering high
We could not grasp its segment
Unaided — Yesterday —

This Morning's finer Verdict —
Makes scarcely worth the toil —
A furrow — Our Cordillera —
Our Apennine — a Knoll —

Perhaps 'tis kindly — done us —
The Anguish — and the loss —
The wrenching — for His Firmament
The Thing belonged to us —

To spare these striding spirits
Some Morning of Chagrin —
The waking in a Gnat's — embrace —
Our Giants — further on —
                                 F580 (1863)  J534


The poem begins as a simple claim that we see "Comparatively" – through contrast and likeness. The Berkshire Hills, for example, are impressive on their own, but travel to Switzerland or view Edward Church's exotic and panoramic paintings of the Andes (the "Cordillera") as Dickinson surely did, and they would seem much more homely and modest. 
The poem presents revelation in such terms.  One might live so close to a Sagamatha, or Mt. Everest, that it seems just a towering "Thing". The entirety of it is too big for our scale, too shrouded in clouds, and so we cannot even 'grasp' the segment we are familiar with. But in the poem's metaphoric dawn, the clouds burn off. The revelation of the full mountain – the towering epiphany it represents – comes with such a searing blaze of truth that our quotidian existence seems "scarcely worth the toil". The once-grand Cordillera now seems no more remarkable than a farmer's furrow.

But then Dickinson pivots to what strikes me as the Fall and Adam and Eve's resultant loss of Paradise. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge against the instructions of God, they were cast out of Eden to live in suffering and toil. We have no personal memories of this casting out, no racial memory of Paradise – and that is a good thing. How else could we endure? And so it is indeed "kindly – done us" by that same God that those paradisical days are lost in the veils of time and myth. Else, we would be living daily with "Anguish", "loss", "The wrenching – for His Firmament" – and for, most keenly, "The Thing belonged to us".
Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden


Dickinson employs some of her sharpest sarcasm in the final stanza. God's kindliness is to spare those "striding spirits" – poets and mystics and dreamers – "Some Morning of Chagrin" in realizing the magnitude of loss. This is biting understatement as it stands, but Dickinson sharpens it further. The "chagrin" isn't just remorse and regret but the waking up realizing we are in a "Gnat's – embrace". We are in the furrows. Those high peaks, those giants, those angels – they are all "further on". 
Unlike her Calvinist peers, Dickinson's bitterness isn't directed against Eve as the vessel of Sin, but against the one who wrenched paradise away from humanity's grasp. It's a very physical, even violent verb. The Lexicon list of meanings is grim: " Confiscation; grabbing; wresting; violent seizing; taking away by force". That towering "Thing" we glimpse is our lost patrimony of Paradise.

This reading is congruent with Thomas Cole's famous 1828 painting "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" which Dickinson was no doubt familiar with (Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p 69-70).


Dickinson addresses brief glimpses of heaven in "I've known a Heaven, like a Tent" [F357] where heaven appears, dazzles, then "Pluck[s] up its stakes, and disappear[s]", leaving "no Figment of the Thing / That dazzled, Yesterday".  But there is no wrenching away in that poem, perhaps (if my reading of the current poem is correct) because its subject is heavenly heaven rather than the earthly paradise of Eden.

Dickinson addresses the suddenness of insight or epiphany in "Our lives are Swiss" [F129] where at times we get a glimpse of a much larger – and yearned for – world. In that poem there are "Curtains" that shield us from that unattainable vision. Again, that poem lacks the bite of this one. It has a yearning tone for what is glimpsed, but no sense of loss or anguish.
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17 January 2015

The Soul unto itself

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend —
Or the most agonizing Spy —
An Enemy — could send —

Secure against its own —
No treason it can fear —
Itself — its Sovereign — Of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe —
                          F579 (1863)  J683


Dickinson writes here about how self mastery and self dereliction play out at the deepest level ¬– within the soul. She presupposes a multiplicity of manifestations within the soul –which in its complexity and emanations we might today think of as the psyche. 

Dickinson depicts a multiplicity of selves in various other poems.  In  "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—" [F407], finding "Ourself behind ourself, concealed" is cause for fright. Encountering one's own self in some "lonesome Place" is worse than finding an assassin in the bedroom.
In "If your Nerve, deny you" [F329], the "you" is a sort of Controller positioned above the "Nerve" as well as the soul. "If your Nerve, deny you – / Go above your Nerve" …/  If your Soul seesaw – / Lift the Flesh door". I've been calling this sort of controller entity the aware Self. 
Al Sayed
In this gnomic little poem there is an inner Soul that seems to be at the mercies of a more active soul. This active soul might be a lordly or "imperial friend" to the inner, but it might also be a corrosive, invasive force, a "Spy" – one Dickinson finds as "agonizing" as any sent by an enemy. Who better knows our vulnerabilities and weaknesses? Who best, then, to undermine our self sovereignty with agonies of doubts and fears?


Ah, but when the Soul is sovereign and "Secure against its own", then that inner soul should "stand in Awe". Dickinson herself expressed a kind of awe in "Through the straight Pass of Suffering" [F187] where the martyrs' souls are steadfast as a compass needle is to the "North Degree".
        "The Soul selects her own Society" [F409] shows a different sort of sovereign soul. This one is self contained, self directed – and extremely discriminating. 

16 January 2015

The Angle of a Landscape —

The Angle of a Landscape —
That every time I wake —
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack —

Like a Venetian — waiting —
Accosts my open eye —
Is just a Bough of Apples —
Held slanting, in the Sky —

The Pattern of a Chimney —
The Forehead of a Hill —
Sometimes — a Vane's Forefinger —
But that's — Occasional —

The Seasons — shift — my Picture —
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake — to find no — Emeralds —
Then — Diamonds — which the Snow

From Polar Caskets — fetched me —
The Chimney — and the Hill —
And just the Steeple's finger —
These — never stir at all —
                    F578 (1863)  J375

This poem is an interesting contrast to the previous one where she views heaven as a small town where everything is downy and dewy. Here, the poet considers only the small view afforded by the gap between a window curtain and the wall. Although she can only see a small portion of a few things, the tableau offers a richness and complexity entirely missing from the charming scene of heaven. The minimalism of items reminds me of one of her last poems:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
                                            (F1779,  J1755; undated)

Dickinson claims the mind can extrapolate an entire ecosystem given a single bee and its one clover. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." In the current poem, the speaker finds jewels, opulence, and a meditation on time by looking out one "ample Crack" each morning. She goes on to create an interesting tension between the richness of living systems and the static patterns of the manmade.

Portrait of Lady Ponsonby in Venetian costume
by Liotard,1742-43

Compared to the vast panoramas of Edward Church and the majestic landscapes of Connecticut and Hudson river painters of her day, Dickinson's slice of window affords a very limited vantage – and one that forms an interesting parallel with her life. While some of her loved ones lived very expansive and social lives; while some were avid travellers or uprooted themselves to another continent, Dickinson was beginning to draw into herself and hearth. Yet her daily glimpse of apple bough, chimney, hill, and weather vane tip are sufficient to vault her imagination into realms more vast and penetrating than those of her compatriots.

She begins the poem by setting the scene. Whenever she wakes she sees a small "Angle" of the landscape that "Accosts" her eye as if it were as rich as the costly velvets and satins of Venetian nobility. Yet she sees nothing more than an apple bough, the brickwork of a chimney, the crest of a hill, and "Sometimes" the point of a weathervane. Her brief sketch conveys the warm red of apples and the brown of its branch, the ruddy bricks of a chimney lined in white mortar, the foliage or meadow of a hill, and the dark arrow of the vane. Rich and Venetian indeed!
New England steeple, by Heather Wilkinson Rojo
As the seasons progress the apple tree first loses its apples, then its emerald leaves. These are replaced by winter's snowy diamonds. In contrast to the apple bough, the chimney and hill remain the same. In an interesting shift, we reenvision the weathervane as part of a church steeple. So while the "Vane's forefinger" shifts in and out of view depending on the wind, the "Steeple's finger" never moves at all. 
        Dickinson scholar Cynthia Wulff and noted critic Helen Vendler make quite a bit out of the static vision that remains once the snow has fetched the diamonds from their "Polar Caskets". 

Wulff begins her reading by seeing the landscape in a role of violence: it "pushes its way into the speaker's bedroom and 'Accosts [her]". At the end, Wulff concludes, the static landscape is little more than a "Design of desolation" (Emily Dickinson, p.287-8). "All that remains is the immovable, elemental structure – an outline sketched with mutilated remnants". 
        Vendler contends that the poem initially brims with life but ends with death, moving "from wedding garment to shroud" (Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentary, p. 159-60). She reads the poem as a "heartbreaking picture of a once-enhanced Nature which, with the death of its participatory observer, itself suffers rigor mortis." 

With all due respect to Wulff, I don't see the landscape as pushy. The speaker does says it "Accosts my open eye", but the Lexicon defines "accost" as "encounter", "speak to", or "approach" – any of these definitions make more sense in the poem than "aggressively confront", which "accost" often means today. Instead, I take the speaker to be rather dazzled by what she sees. Dickinson is making the point that there are riches in an apple bough and hill, in the patterns of bricklaying and the occasional glimpse of a weathervane as it charts the winds. The vision, which might seem banal to some, is opulent to her (Vendler's word).
        I also don't find the last stanza to be describing "mutilated remnants" or "rigor mortis". Dickinson may be contrasting life with death: non-living things are fixed whereas the living things have various fates. Humans will die. The view out the window may go unobserved or the house itself might be altered or taken down. The apple tree cycles through its changes and will eventually die. The weathervane might outlive a human but will eventually grind to a halt.
        But I think Dickinson is simply contrasting the dynamic changes of the season against the backdrop of more permanent fixtures. The apple bough is the focus, the feature of most interest. The weathervane is also of interest,  as its entry into the tableau is only occasional and so to be looked forward to. The rest is backdrop. The chimney, the hill, and the steeple's finger, upon which the weathervane is anchored, "never stir". I like that the changeable vane is more interesting than the steeple. 
      These contrasts provide rich and inspiring morning viewing. I find the poem an excellent  reminder to look closely beyond my own window.

12 January 2015

I went to Heaven –

I went to Heaven –
'Twas a small Town –
Lit – with a Ruby –
Lathed – with Down –

Stiller – than the fields
At the full Dew –
Beautiful – as Pictures –
No Man drew –
People – like the Moth –
Of Mechlin – frames –
Duties – of Gossamer –
And Eider – names –
Almost – contented –
I – could be –
'Mong such unique
Society –
              F577 (1863)  J374

Dickinson seems to be describing a saccharine Christmas card in this light poem. Picture the classic little Christmas-card town, blanketed with snow, lit by a great star or perhaps the moon. There is usually a snowy meadow and charming hamlet. If there are people they are sedate and peaceful, or if children, innocent and wide-eyed. No one appears to be working unless it is a man pausing from cutting firewood to admire the sky. I like to gaze at such pretty scenes and would be "Almost – contented" to live there.


     Dickinson, of course, adds her great poetic dexterity to limning this sketch that differs in only one important way from the card I described: she is describing Heaven. She would find a kindred spirit in G.B. Shaw who wrote, "heaven is the most angelically dull place in all creation" The Statue, Man and Superman, Act III [Don Juan in Hell]. Of course, Shaw was being quite tongue in cheek – but so is Dickinson who I think is lampooning popular conceptions.
Elizabeth M. Kurella

She creates a very static heaven. It is "Stiller – than the fields / At the full Dew" and its people no more dynamic than the lace moths from Flanders. Their duties are feather light, and even their names are soft and downy: Celestine, maybe, or Alma for the feminine; Aurelius or Sebastian for the masculine. 
She is tactfully droll at the end. She could be "Almost" content among "such unique" people. Yes, and Tom Sawyer enjoyed the Sunday School picnic.

For your enjoyment: a Youtube  of Carla Bruni singing the poem accompanied by lots of stills of winged and gossamer maidens.

10 January 2015

The difference between Despair

The difference between Despair
And Fear, is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been —
The Mind is smooth —
No Motion — Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust —
That knows it cannot see —
                                    F576 (1863)  J305

Dickinson has explored the numbness of despair in earlier poems. Here she depicts it through contrasting similes. The difference between Despair and Fear is like the difference between a wreck and its aftermath. The reader must expend thought on the wreck and its aftermath to determine how to assign Despair and Fear for she introduces one set in seemingly the reverse order of the other. 
        At least that was the conclusion my first reflection on the poem led me to: fear is like the terror at the "instant of a Wreck"; despair is like the deathly-still water that swallows and conceals it, a state of mental depletion and paralysis. To continue with Dickinson's second simile, despair is like a stone eye that knows it cannot see, something like the "Quartz contentment" that follows the "great pain" depicted in an earlier poem ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes",  F372).
        Yet further reflection led me to also appreciate the similes in the order Dickinson presents them. Perhaps the moment of wreck is like a moment of despair when all hope is lost. Perhaps the aftermath is like the unrelenting and underlying fear that catastrophe might strike again. The mind retreats from seeing, blindering itself as one blinders a skittish horse. Knowing it cannot see the smash-up and debris, the mind stills into a motionless state. Dickinson says it is "Contented" but qualifies that contentment as that of the self-blindered: it is like the eye of a statue, but one that knows it cannot see, knows it would be even more fearful if it could.  
Bust of Sophocles, whose famous
protagonist blinded himself



Yet earlier poems, such as F372 mentioned above, support a reading of the poem that likens fear to the wreck and the aftermath to despair. In "From Blank to Blank" [F484], the mind is likewise "smooth", the narrator likewise taking some comfort in blindness: "'Twas lighter to be blind". In "I lived on Dread" [F498], Dickinson presents fear as a useful state, one that stimulates the soul, urging it on whereas "To go without the spectre's aid / Were challenging Despair." Together, the three poems (and there are others) depict despair as a state of being "numb – and vitalless" (F498).  

Ultimately I think Dickinson chose aesthetics rather than strict parallelism in her ordering of Despair and Fear. Leaving "Despair" at the end of the first line leaves a sadness hanging in the air; one pauses at it; white space follows it. There is an assonance with "Fear" in the second line that balances it. Further, it establishes one of her typical meters: lines one, two, and four in iambic trimeter; line three in iambic tetrameter. 

The poem is composed as two stanzas put together (Johnson has them split). Dickinson does vary the meter in the second stanza for emphasis. "The Mind is smooth" is only two poetic feet; the first part of the next line, "No Motion", metrically goes with it. Breaking up the line forces us to focus on that image of smoothness. It isn't right. The mind seems lobotomized. The long-vowel spondee of "No Motion" further emphasizes the wrongness of the image. 

I don't think this is Dickinson's most memorable poem on Despair but it is particularly effective in using the unconstructed simile of a wreck and its aftermath to convey emotion. Each reader must fill in just what it means to experience and outlive catastrophe.

08 January 2015

I'm saying every day

I'm saying every day
"If I should be a Queen, Tomorrow" —
I'd do this way —
And so I deck, a little,

If it be, I wake a Bourbon,
None on me – bend supercilious —
With "This was she —
Begged in the Market place — Yesterday."

Court is a stately place —
I've heard men say —
So I loop my apron — against the Majesty
With bright Pins of Buttercup —
That not too plain —
Rank — overtake me —

And perch my Tongue
On Twigs of singing — rather high —
But this, might be my brief Term
To qualify —

Put from my simple speech all plain word —
Take other accents, as such I heard
Though but for the Cricket — just,
And but for the Bee —
Not in all the Meadow —
One accost me —

Better to be ready —
Than did next Morn
Meet me in Aragon —
My old Gown — on —

And the surprised Air
Rustics — wear —
Summoned — unexpectedly —
To Exeter —
                                        F575 (1863)  J373

Dickinson is a poet of many things, and here she is a poet of delight. This is a poem of dress up and pretend without any bite or twist. The game is to dress and talk like the nobility in case she were to miraculously become a queen. "Better to be ready", she says, than to be caught in her "old Gown" and gawking in "the surprised Air / Rustics – wear" when they are unexpectedly summoned to court. 
Real Queen: Catherine
of Aragon
        Does the poet give any reason for playing this game? No. But it's fun and the fun becomes apparent as the poem progresses. It's all about dress up, not governance or royal privilege. 


First, Dickinson must deck herself out "a little" so the nobles won't superciliously sneer about her begging in the marketplace the day before. She loops her apron in, perhaps, swags that mimic fancy court dress styles. Then she pins the drapes with pretty yellow buttercup flowers. Content that those of higher rank won't outshine her, she then turns to her speech.
        She pitches her voice high, probably in simpering tones. I love her metaphor here: she perches her tongue "On twigs of singing". Divine. Next, because she might have a very "brief Term" to make a suitable impression, she adopts a fancy accent. 
Would-be queen
        All this effort goes for very little show, however, as the poet's only witnesses in the meadow are the Cricket and the Bee. But, she cheerfully concludes, it's best to be prepared. 

Dickinson scatters end rhymes throughout the poem and varies the stanza lengths and meters, giving the poem a casual, spontaneous air. I can see her delivering this poem to a young audience, curtseying, speaking in some funny accent, and brandishing some buttercups.

01 January 2015

I know lives, I could miss

I know lives, I could miss
Without a Misery —
Others — whose instant's wanting —
Would be Eternity —

The last — a scanty Number —
'Twould scarcely fill a Two —
The first — a Gnat's Horizon
Could easily outgrow —
                                                        F574 (1863)  J372

Dickinson is making a comparison between the people she cannot do without, no more than two, to those she could miss without any misery. While I want to read the poem as saying that there are oodles and oodles of folks she could do without, a close reading is less clear.
        The last two lines are a bit ambiguous: could the number of lives missed "Without a Misery" "easily outgrow" the gnat's horizon? If so, then the expendable lives could easily outgrow a radius of, say, a couple of feet (the scope of a bumblebee, according to one source). That's a small base to start with and although the phrasing doesn't limit the number of people, it doesn't necessarily follow that it includes almost everyone the poet knows. It might as easily mean ten people as a hundred. 

If it is the gnat's horizon that could easily outgrow the number of expendable lives, then there really are only a few people she could miss without misery. If this is the case, the poem is saying, "there are two people I can't do without and a number of folks I don't give a fig about".  
Of the two readings, I prefer the former. It seems a better contrast to the two essential people, and contrast seems to be what this poem is about. But smitten as I am with the phrase "Gnat's Horizon" (which would be great fun to work into a conversation), it just doesn't establish a dramatic contrast. It doesn't allow us to conclude that Dickinson doesn't care for many people.  
Instead I think she is emphasizing how much she cares for two people. It's a bit of hyperbole, but she claims that every moment she misses one of them would be an "Eternity". That's quite a burden for the lucky two. 

27 December 2014

It was a quiet way —

It was a quiet way —
He asked if I was his —
I made no answer of the Tongue
But answer of the Eyes —
And then He bore me on
Before this mortal noise
With swiftness, as of Chariots
And distance, as of Wheels – 
This World did drop away
As Acres from the feet
Of one that leaneth from Balloon
Upon an Ether street.
The Gulf behind was not,
The Continents were new —
Eternity it was before
Eternity was due.
No Seasons were to us —
It was not Night nor Morn —
But Sunrise stopped upon the place
And fastened it in Dawn.
                                      F573 (1863)  J1053



Dickinson is one of our foremost imaginers of death. Sometimes she imagines fading through the centuries in a grave or tucked into the "mysterious Drawers" of earth (F417); sometimes she fancies a glorious and royal Heaven; sometimes she conceives of death as a journey crossing a sea or traversing the "Forest of the Dead" (F453). This poem falls into the journey category and reminds me of "Because I could not stop for Death" (F479). In that famous poem a kindly gentleman caller, Death himself, takes the narrator on an otherworldly carriage ride where she learns only gradually that the carriage horses' heads "Were toward Eternity".  This poem also has a male companion or guide who ushers the narrator into eternity before she realizes it.
  The experience begins – and continues – quietly. Someone asks the speaker if she is his. At first we think he may be a lover and that the narrator is shyly agreeing to an assignation, answering only with her eyes. Eyes are the windows to the soul and the lover sees "yes". When he takes her in his arms and bears her "Before this mortal noise", we know it is an immortal lover, perhaps Jesus. Their journey together sounds marvelous: he carries her as swiftly as if driving a chariot, its wheels carrying them aloft. The narrator seems to enjoy the view, looking down as the world drops away as if they were traveling in the basket of a hot-air balloon. This is an idyllic abduction, a seduction from life. 
        But instead of seeing the familiar landmarks of her life pass before her, as did the narrator in "Because I could not stop for Death," everything she sees is new: there is no more shore line, no more curve of Cape Cod; the land itself is unfamiliar as if she were traversing an entirely different continent. 
At this point she realizes that she is in that "undiscovered country" of eternity, compactly noting that hers was a too-early death: "Eternity it was before / Eternity was due". By having "before" as the last word in the first line, Dickinson creates a nice ambiguity. We first read the line "Eternity it was before us" as if she were looking at an immeasurable vista. But reading on we discover that "before" belongs with the next line: they had reached eternity before it was due. She thinks she has died prematurely. But maybe eternity always seems premature.
        The eternity in this poem is no crumbling granite tomb, no sward of green or boulevard filled with stately angels. Instead, the narrator and her companion become transfixed in one "Place" where it is never winter or summer, never night or morning, but always and forever sunrise. Dickinson portrays it rather dramatically by saying that the sun "stopped upon the place / And fastened it in Dawn". The couple sees the sun about to rise and usher in a new day. Instead, it stops its routine to fasten the place where they wait in eternal dawn as if buttoned together a tableau.
        Dickinson often uses dawn as a metaphor for rebirth or resurrection. But here it is stasis. The rebirth turns out to be the symbol of itself; a constant new day with all the promise that can be no promise. There is no day ahead in which to do things. 
        I cannot tell if Dickinson means the image to be one of cheer or one of diminishment. "Fastened" is rather neutral; it doesn't suggest a joyous state, but neither is it harsh by Dickinsonian standards (think "riveted" or "stapled" – fastening verbs of choice in other poems). It certainly implies a lack of freedom. We fasten something so that it cannot move or go beyond a limited area. We also fasten something to us because we want it always. In that way eternity would be a constant state of awakening.

One could read this poem as if it were an assignation. It is Juliet wanting to fix time forever at daybreak with her Romeo. But perhaps it is a mystic union with the man/god where at the apex all becomes radiantly new in one entire, timeless moment pregnant always with possibility.