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28 September 2014

But little Carmine hath her face —

But little Carmine hath her face —
Of Emerald scant — her Gown —
Her Beauty — is the love she doth —
Itself — exhibit — mine —
             
F566 (1863)  J558

This short poem seems a graceful note to accompany a flower to a friend. It might be a single rosebud or a tulip as neither would yet show the full carmine red of their petals. The scantiness of the emerald gown suggests that there is only a leaf or two on the flower stalk. But sometimes less is more. Besides, the true beauty of the flower is the love with which it is presented. The poet is clothing the blossom with her love and that will make up for any lack of carmine or foliage.

27 September 2014

Reverse cannot befall

Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior —
As soon — Adversity

A Diamond — overtake
In far — Bolivian Ground —
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it — if it found —
                        F565 (1863)  J395

Dickenson claims here that those fine things we develop in our hearts and souls, our inner Prosperity, cannot be harmed the way our wealth or health can be. Our interior substance is no more subject to the  'slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune' than is a buried diamond. 
        The first stanza contrasts the inner and outer prosperity. Dickinson's own family lost a small fortune in her grandfather's time. Her father regained much of it, and consequently the poet probably had good opportunity throughout her life to observe poverty and prosperity in both internal and external manifestations.

        The second stanza introduces the metaphor of a diamond. That precious gem is top of the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, and that means it is pretty impervious. That is Dickinson's metaphor for the prosperous soul. Should misfortune even find it, it has no way, no tool to harm it.

Bolivia, where the fabled Potosi mine is located, is more known for silver than diamonds, but the metaphor doesn't need to be exact to succeed. 

24 September 2014

She hideth Her the last —

 She hideth Her the last —
And is the first, to rise —
Her Night doth hardly recompense
The Closing of Her eyes —

She doth Her Purple Work —
And putteth Her away
In low apartments in the sod -
As Worthily as We.

To imitate Her life
As impotent would be
As make of Our imperfect Mints,
The Julep — of the Bee —
                                                            F564 (1863)  J557

We can no more burn as brightly as the sun than make a julep as tasty as bees' honey. Dickinson likens the sun's course to human lives, but the superlative sun is the first to rise and the last to bed. Restful night is no real compensation for the brightness of her eye. After the purpling light that comes with sunset she puts herself to bed "in the sod" just as humans are laid in the earth for burial.
        Unlike mortals, the sun rises anew every morning. For this and for her brightness, it would be folly to try to "imitate Her life." Likewise, we might make a refreshing drink out of mint, mint juleps to be precise, while the bee makes honey. Its julep is far more perfect.
 
Sun - great; bees - wonderful;
julep - pretty darned good
I love honey, but even with "imperfect Mints," a julep is pretty hard to beat. Start with good bourbon, add sugar and mint to taste and toss in a mound of crushed ice. Yum!

Dickinson assigns the sun a feminine identity rather than the more traditional masculine. Shakespeare, for example, pegs the sun as a "he" as in Sonnet 18 where "Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines". The image of the sun as masculine reaches us from the earliest folklore and philosophy, however. The sun's potency brings life from earth and its fire is reflected in the clash and fire of war. Its light brings reason (traditionally masculine) and its movement (Yang / masculine) spurs the rhythm of days and seasons.

        In this poem, however, the Sun is a busy housewife, putting in long days and going to sleep only after her work is done. She puts herself to bed in contrast to earlier Dickinson poems where Mother Earth tenderly tucks her children "in her mysterious drawers" when their lives are over ("The Months have ends – the Years – a knot –"  [F417]). It is a homely, thoroughly female, and I much prefer it to the idea that the sun is a sky god's eye watching us.

23 September 2014

The Brain, within its Groove

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
'Twere easier for You —

To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills —
                           F563 (1863)  J556

The verbs in the last stanza dramatize the impossibility of a brain ever going back to its comfortable groove or, if you will, rut, once derailed. The first stanza begins calmly, both in language and image. The brain is running "evenly – and true" in its accustomed channel. It encounters some setback or glimpses some new truth or vision, but nothing cataclysmic. It is a "Splinter" not a logjam, not a stick of dynamite. Dickinson's insight is that sometimes a splinter is all it takes to set a life, or at least a mental life, careening out of control.
       
The second stanza looses the calm current of the millrace. The floodwaters "slit" the hills, an image managing to be surgical, violent, and yonic at the same time. A turnpike has been "scooped" out of the earth as if a giant trowel has been wielded against the landscape. The last image is that of the mills and factories "trodden" into oblivion. It is wild nature against the careful constructs of man. Such a flood can never again be tamed to its small channel.

It depicts perhaps part of the poet herself and helps account for the energy beating against the bounds of language in her poetry.

11 September 2014

'Twas Love — not me —

'Twas Love — not me —
Oh punish — pray —
The Real one died for Thee —
Just Him — not me —

Such Guilt — to love Thee — most!
Doom it beyond the Rest —
Forgive it — last —
'Twas base as Jesus' — most!

Let Justice not mistake —
We Two — looked so alike —
Which was the Guilty Sake —
'Twas Love's — Now Strike!
                                                                F562 (1863)  J394

In this ironical poem, Dickinson lashes out at a lover who seems to have blamed her for loving him too much. In a neat rhetorical twist, she separates herself from the quality of Love. It's a courtroom drama, appropriate for a poet in a lawyerly family. The poet plaintiff begins by naming Love as the culprit, the one who "died for Thee". He, Love, is the "Real one". The poet, then, is the seemingly rational one who would never give over her life to someone.  

Perhaps the argument has a parallel to cases where the defendant blames the passion of the moment – rage, jealousy, fear – in seeking to avoid the severest penalty. Part of the poem's irony is that unlike those negative emotions, the speaker is trying to throw Love under the bus.
  The irony sharpens to heavy sarcasm in the second stanza: " Oh, and it was such guilt, wasn't it, to love you more than anything. Yes, that dooms it beyond anything else; love should be the last thing forgiven. Why, my Love was almost as base as Jesus'!" 
The poem concludes with a direct address to the Judge. The speaker and Love may seem like the same person, but which one is guilty? Which one had the most at stake? Why, it was love. Dickinson ends the poem with a farcical urging for "Justice" to "Strike" the guilty love right away. Since Dickinson introduced Jesus into the poem, it is hard not to remember that he, like poor love, suffered capital punishment.

It's a difficult, highly compressed poem. I may be reading it all wrong. David Preest shares this reading, but I read a first-page snippet from scholar Bernhard Frank in Explicator who said that the "thee" (addressee) and the "He" (referent) are God and Christ. That's all the snippet showed, so I am unable to follow the argument. I assume that in the first stanza Jesus is dying for his father, God.  
I'm sticking with Preest here. The speaker at the end is almost daring the judge/lover to strike down love. There's an impudent tone to it that seems fitting in a poem to a lover not wanting such intensity, perhaps, from the woman.

09 September 2014

Trust in the Unexpected —

Trust in the Unexpected —
By this — was William Kidd
Persuaded of the Buried Gold —
As One had testified —

Through this — the old Philosopher —
His Talismanic Stone
Discerned — still withholden
To effort undivine —

'Twas this — allured Columbus —
When Genoa — withdrew
Before an Apparition
Baptized America —

The Same — afflicted Thomas —
When Deity assured
'Twas better — the perceiving not —
Provided it believed —
                   F561 (1863)  J555)


Advising us to "Trust in the Unexpected" is a far different thing than to simply expect and be ready for the unexpected. The latter is prudent while trust seems rash – even if one believes in beneficial divine intervention or great favors from fate. If Dickinson is urging the reader to trust in the unexpected, she does not make a strong case for it. In fact, I'm not sure what to make of this poem, even the first line, so I'll take it stanza by stanza, each being a separate example.
        First, Captain Kidd is known for burying treasure, not finding it; the treasure he did bury he never got to enjoy. His career was riddled with ill fortune and ended with his neck in a noose. Dickinson would have been familiar with him, as Kidd patrolled the New England Coast on behalf of New York and Massachusetts provinces in the late 1600s. He later buried chests of gold and silver on New York's Gardiners Island before sailing to Boston to be tried for piracy. Consequently, what Dickinson means by his being "persuaded of the Buried Gold" isn't clear to me. Perhaps this was a story current in Dickinson's time. But if he were persuaded that there was buried gold to be had, why would this example count as trusting the unexpected? What is Dickinson getting at?
The Alchymist in Search of the

Philosophers' Stone, Joseph Wright, 1771
        As for the second stanza, no philosopher has ever found the apocryphal stone that would turn lead into gold; perhaps the "old" one "discerned" such a treasure, but that isn't nearly as good as producing or finding one. Even Isaac Newton, a towering genius who studied the Bible and believed in prophecy and divine intervention, was never successful despite his years of alchemical efforts. Was it trust in the unexpected that led him to discern? That discernment, however, seems a result of a philosopher's study, not some happenstance idea – particularly if it never bore fruit.  
        The stanza on Columbus is not clear to me. Perhaps it says that Columbus' trust in the unexpected lured him on even after his home city of Genoa declined to support his proposed journey. He ventured forth even before knowing about the "apparition" later named America. If this reflects Dickinson's intent in the stanza, it still isn't strong evidence to support her claim. Columbus believed he could sail to the East Indies. He wasn't trusting the unexpected but banking on his sense of geography. He never did admit (or realize?) that he had reached a new continental area. It seems likely to me that a sailor venturing into new waters would be armed against the unexpected rather than trusting it. 
        Finally, Thomas is an example of someone who did not trust in the unexpected. Encountering a man who others considered to be Jesus, recently executed and buried, Thomas had to actually feel one of his wounds before offering his trust. In this case, perhaps Thomas should have trusted the unexpected.

Maybe Dickinson is counseling us to trust our inner compass, even if the outcome would be unexpected to the outside world.

Or maybe she is being ironical.

Readers, I hope you have insights to share!

05 September 2014

Did Our Best Moment last —

Did Our Best Moment last —
'Twould supersede the Heaven —
A few — and they by Risk — procure —
So this Sort — are not given —

Except as stimulants — in
Cases of Despair —
Or Stupor — The Reserve —
These Heavenly moments are —

A Grant of the Divine —
That Certain as it Comes —
Withdraws — and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms –
                                 F560 (1863)  J393

This poem shares some of the bitterness of one of her early poems about the painful transience of the divine encounter. There, Dickinson complains that "For each extatic instant / We must an anguish pay" [F109]. Here, the cessation of divinely-granted "Heavenly moments" induces something like opiate or cocaine withdrawal. Coming down from her great high, the "dazzled Soul" finds herself back in her "unfurnished Rooms". 
Dickinson makes the parallel to drug use quite explicit. There is a risk to partaking in divine bliss; only "A few" manage to obtain it. God, or "the Divine", well aware of the danger, doles these moments out. They are only given "as stimulants" when the seeking party is suffering from "Despair" or "Stupor". The Divine grants these moments and always withdraws them. The danger of addiction is mentioned in the first two lines. If these heavenly moments weren't cut short they would come to seem better than heaven itself. Real earthly life isn't a bit like heaven, so such addictive thinking must be kept in reserve.

We can chart these swings from peak to valley in Dickinson's poems. There are poems of Despair, those of stupor or numb paralysis. But there are numerous poems where Dickinson describes bliss, ecstasy, transport, and rapture. Would modern students see evidence of bipolar disorder? Perhaps, but regardless of what engendered these episodes, Dickinson explored them as terra igconita and used them as touchstones for poetic truth. 
Who else could conjure the coming down from a divine high as a "dazzled Soul" finding herself alone in "unfurnished Rooms" as if she had been soaring in high places only to wake up in a drab and deficient habitation of flesh and blood. Such paucity of the flesh is implied, such parsimony of the divine – and such irony in how much emotional force is delivered in a poem that until the last lines reads as an extract from a Catholic or social studies text. 


Sherlock Holmes – who enjoyed cocaine
Dickinson would have some familiarity with the effects of narcotics. During her lifetime, the British Empire was vigorously promoting opium use in China. Cocaine and opiates were famously used by such prominent writers as Thomas De Quincy (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Poets Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Shelley were known to take laudanum on occasion; and Gabriel Rossetti's wife Elizabeth died of a laudanum overdose a year before Dickinson wrote this poem. Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most famous fictional cocaine addict, was also a Victorian creation. Scottish writer and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first started writing about him in the 1880s.  
But while these figures may have hoped drugs would help deepen their perceptions and provide an altered state, Dickinson tastes "a liquor never brewed" and is an "Inebriate of air … / [a] Debauchee of Dew" [F207]. Indeed, she finds something "Transcending ecstasy" in a simple "summer's noon" [F104].

30 August 2014

A Visitor in Marl —

A Visitor in Marl —
Who influences Flowers —
Till they are orderly as Busts —
And Elegant — as Glass —

Who visits in the Night —
And just before the Sun —
Concludes his glistening interview —
Caresses — and is gone —

But whom his fingers touched —
And where his feet have run —
And whatsoever Mouth be kissed —
Is as it had not been —
                  F558 (1863)  J391

This is the flower version of "The Soul has Bandaged moments" [F360] where "some ghastly Fright" caresses the "freezing hair" of the soul and then takes a "sip" from her unmoving lips. But while that experience is portrayed as a ravaging horror, the flowers meet a kinder doom.

They have a marble "Visitor" who comes at night and "influences them. He engages in an "interview" after which he offers caresses or perhaps even a kiss before he takes his leave. While this is one of Dickinson's delightful puzzle poems, it is not hard to determine just who the visitor is. Clues?

1) He is dressed in "Marl" or marble – a white stone often referred to as cold.
2) His "influence" on the flowers leaves them as orderly as marble busts – which is to say, cold and inanimate. Orderly indeed!
3) He leaves them "Elegant – as Glass" – and we can picture the plants encased in a glass sheath, posed in stiff formality.
4) His nighttime visit concludes with the sun.
5) His "interview" with the flowers is "glistening", so we picture them sparkling with the rising sun.
6) The last stanza indicates that his visit is a fatal one. Whatever flower he has touched or kissed is as good as dead.

I've had a bougainvillea visited by this fellow so I know full well it is of old Jack Frost that Dickinson writes.
photo: Ian Kirk

She takes a darker tone in a poem some twenty years later where frost "beheads" a flower "at it's play":
In accidental power –
The blonde Assassin passes on –
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God
(F1669)

But in this poem there is no mention of God, and the flowers are kissed and caressed rather than beheaded. One could perhaps read into this poem the deadly paralysis of the cold lover whose kisses  leave behind a deeply wounded woman. But I don't think Dickinson is making a metaphor for heartless love as much as presenting the irony of the lovely frost that comes in the night and imparts a moment of still but fatal beauty.

I send Two Sunsets—

I send Two Sunsets—
Day and I—in competition ran—
I finished Two—and several Stars—
While He—was making One—

His own was ampler—but as I
Was saying to a friend—
Mine—is the more convenient
To Carry in the Hand—
                    F557 (1863)  J308

This poem has Robert Frost's folksy, anecdotal tone and understated humor. Frost is usually considered to be in Dickinson's lineage (versus Whitman, if you are one to divide American poetry into two bloodlines), but this poem seems a reverse channeling of Frost into Dickinson.


Chichester Canal, JMW Turner, 1828
     It is among one of the many poems Dickinson sent her sister-in-law, Sue, and perhaps that accounts in part for the easy, conversational style. Johnson has this poem following " The One that could repeat the Summer Day" [F549], which takes a more weighty approach to poetic creation versus divine creation. In that poem Dickinson discusses the immortality of a great poem and claims that a good enough summer-day poem would be greater than a summer day itself. Here she settles for convenience. Unlike the vast beauty of a real one, her sunset poems can be folded into a pocket or hand delivered to a friend. 
Dickinson dismisses this insight quite casually, telling her recipient/reader that this wasn't a new or profound insight (as were many of her other poems to Sue), but just a fun little observation she made "to a friend". She drolly sets up the comparison as having had a little "competition" with Day. While he has to labor all day to produce one sunset, she could produce two and throw in a few stars as a bonus.
  The Summer Day poem was also sent to Sue, so perhaps Dickinson wanted to lighten the tone a bit – not seem to take herself so seriously.

It's all quite charming.  


*note: yes, I got this and the next poem out of order. They should have preceded "Through the Dark Sod". A bit of carelessness on my part.