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04 September 2019

He parts Himself — like Leaves —

He parts Himself — like Leaves —
And then — He closes up —
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup —

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose —
And then does Nothing —
Then away upon a Jib — He goes —

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon —
Uncertain — to return Below —
Or settle in the Moon —

What come of Him — at Night —
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance —
What come of Him — That Day —

The Frost — possess the World —
In Cabinets — be shown —
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss —
An Abbey — a Cocoon —
                                                                                            J 517 (1863)  Fr655

This riddle poem charms me. And I learned, well, relearned, something. By the final stanza of the poem I was visualizing butterflies – and why not? they are one of Dickinson's "B" triad along with Bees and Birds – but once I started thinking (and looking stuff up, let's face it) about that last line, I realized the creature had to be a moth. Butterfly caterpillars pupate as a chrysalis; it is the moth caterpillar that creates cocoons for its pupa. All that being said, however, since we usually see butterflies in the day, behaving just as Dickinson describes, and most moths come out at night, I don't think she was focusing on taxonomy here.  

I love the beginning of the poem: "He parts Himself – like Leaves –". It not only has a soft, lilting quality, but introduces a note of mystery. With "He," Dickinson plants the notion of a person parting himself. I lingered over the line before moving on. The idea of parting myself makes me think of body and soul, or two different personas. There's a fascination in the image, the leaf simile gentle and lovely.
            In the next line He is closing up. Still a mystery. But when the creature is revealed to be atop a buttercup, I knew it for a butterfly. We've all seen them among the flowers opening and closing their wings. It's a beautiful sight.

So begins a day in the life of a butterfly/Moth. It balances upon the buttercup to sip nectar. It must be fairly big, something in the order of the Cecropia silkmoth or an Eastern swallowtail, for when it flies to a rose it bowls it over. Undaunted, it heads for the sky, its triangular silhouette when it closes its wings reminiscent of a jib sail on a racing boat.

High in the air it pauses, "Suspended in the Noon" (such a wonderful phrase!) while contemplating whether to flutter back down to earth or fly up to the moon. Light as spirit, poised between two realms, the creature gives us a focal point to contemplate the same choice. Do we flit about the flowers, doing nothing if we choose – but oh so alive! Or do we follow the beckoning amber hands of the moon?


Photo by Srithern, on Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth stanza Dickinson waves away the bulk of lepidopteran life: moth laying eggs, eggs hatching, caterpillars pillaging the garden and, finally, weaving silken cocoons for shelter as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves at the cellular level. She skips over all this, I think, because it's the last stanza's distilled image of the moth in its cocoon that is what she's after. The cocoon itself might be found either in the cabinets of collectors (and perhaps Dickinson was one) or in a protected cabinet-like nook outside.
             Moth-to-cocoon is a simple story, one of hibernation or even rebirth rather than transformation: the moth, it is implied, is ensconced in its silken swaddling, hopefully to emerge in spring.

It's the "hopefully" that Dickinson hints at in the last two lines. She uses two metaphors for the cocoon: "Sepulchre" and "Abbey". The first is an image of death and burial. The second, a church that typically has tombs, but also where resurrection and the afterlife are taught. Is the insect – are we – to be thought of as moldering in a grave or awaiting rebirth?

It's easy to skip over this rather somber reflection. Dickinson may have wanted to simply emphasize the cosiness of the cocoon and the pleasing image of the free-flying butterfly/moth tucked up for the night. But the poem ends with winter, its secret inside the cocoon inside a cabinet.

19 August 2019

Guest Dickinson Bloggers!

Dear Readers -
I recently attended the annual Emily Dickinson International Society conference in Asilomar. What a great event! The speakers and panels were full of poetry, revelatory and insightful commentary, and scholarship. I even met some Prowling Bee readers!

One of the readers is a professor from Columbus State University in Georgia. He wrote me the following letter a few weeks before the conference and I was very happy to meet him there in person:

This past spring I taught a class on Dickinson's poetry.  For their final project, I gave them the option of creating their own "prowling Bee"-like blog (I referred them to your site and they used it quite a bit, I think).  I thought you might be interested in the results.  Here are some of their blogs:  
not Conclusion, Jacque Hutch 
Diving into Dickinson, Casi Turner 
A Bullet Hit a Bird, Alex Proft 
The Midsummer Mind  
Lenses of Literature, Rachael 
Kind regards,
Patrick Jackson 

Readers, I read through the blogs and I highly recommend them. Each student presents several poems along with very thoughtful explications. These are mostly poems I haven't gotten to yet, so it's great to offer them here. Each student blog has a unique style and each writer definitely has their own voice. There are some real treasures to be found!

I'm not sure if you can leave comments on the student blogs via this site, but please feel free to leave any comments below.

Check it out!


17 August 2019

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides –

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro' it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it –
                              J516, Fr 654 (1863)

Dickinson begins by presenting Beauty as an essence, something drawn from Plato's Forms, timeless and unchangeable. Our mortal senses, part of the physical world, recognize and respond to it, but we cannot create it, neither can we grab hold of it or otherwise own it. As Dickinson puts it, Beauty Is. The capitalization in 'Is' matters.

In Plato's Symposium, Sophocles links love to our response to beauty and traces its evolution: at first, love is a response to the beauty of a particular body; it then becomes more generalized, seeing and loving beauty in all bodies. As we mature and become more wise we recognize the beauty in more abstracted things: Souls, laws and institutions, knowledge, and finally we recognize and love Beauty itself in its ideal form.

Some have also seen the first stanza as hearkening back to Keats' "Ode on a Grcian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  But I don't think Dickinson is making that point. If she is channeling anyone besides Plato (whose writing and philosophy would have been familiar to her, if not from her academic studies then from lectures and discussions), I think it would be Emerson.
        It is Emerson the transcendentalist who seeks the still center where beauty abides, who writes, " within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related …" ("The Oversoul", 1841). Even more to Dickinson's point, he says that Beauty "cannot be handled. … It instantly deserts possession and flies to an object in the horizon" (The Conduct of Life, 1860).
        But perhaps most in tune with Dickinson here is his depiction of Beauty as "hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky" (The Conduct of Life).

Having pretty much condensed the notion of ideal Beauty into three lines, Dickinson writes a pivot line, isolating it between the first three lines, preventing an initial quatrain, and the following quatrain to which it is linked by both grammar and sense.

However, cleave ultimately as it may to the second quatrain, "Overtake the Creases" is initially grasped as linked to the opening lines by means of the perfect rhyme of "Creases"with "ceases" and also because "Overtake" seems a continuation of chasing. But then we read on and find ourselves on a gusty day in a meadow creased by the fingers of the Wind. We might, for the sheer joy of it, for the beauty of it, try to overtake the Wind, but a "Deity" will make sure it never happens.

In isolation, "Overtake the Creases" is a wondrously ambiguous and mysterious phrase. What are the Creases, one wonders. I immediately thought of seams, of liminal space between one thing and another – between the physical and the ideal, the chasing and the not chasing. But then I meet the meadow and meaning wobbles. I've been pivoted from the third to the second person. I've moved from the abstract to the Real. I've come from the Ideal world into one with a Deity who might be the Christian God or who might be a casual symbol of the laws of nature.

If I look at the poem on the page, my attention is drawn to that isolated imperative: Overtake the Creases. What I read are two reasons not to: first, because Beauty disappears when pursued; second, because it is impossible to ever catch it. What is Dickinson really suggesting we do? Try to overtake? Or let it be? I think she is saying 'both' – or somehow just implanting the notion that sometimes, some critical time, we should go for the creases.

02 August 2019

No Crowd that has occurred

No Crowd that has occurred
Exhibit — I suppose
That General Attendance
That Resurrection — does —

Circumference be full —
The long restricted Grave                                                       [long] subjected
Assert her Vital Privilege —                                                   [Assert] His Primogeniture
The Dust — connect — and live —

On Atoms — features place —
All Multitudes that were
Efface in the Comparison —
As Suns — dissolve a star —                                                 [Suns -] annul

Solemnity — prevail —
Its Individual Doom
Possess each separate Consciousness —
August — Absorbed — Numb —                                        [August-]  Resistless– dumb

What Duplicate — exist —                                                    [What] scenery
What Parallel can be —
Of the Significance of This —                                                [the] stupendousness
To Universe — and Me?
                                                            J515, Fr 653 (1863)

This poem describes a slice of Judgment Day (from the Bible's Rev 20:1-15) . It begins in a rather droll way, the tone conversational as if the speaker were making an offhand remark on the topic of large gatherings. She ultimately concludes, unremarkably, that Judgment Day will be the largest and most significant gathering ever in the whole Universe --  and also – but with a question mark –  the most significant event to herself.

It is that question mark paired with the droll opening tone that may expose the poem to the If of faith and doubt.

The second stanza flatly depicts what Revelations describes. The Grave, long portrayed (by many, including Dickinson herself) as a passive receptacle for the deceased to wait, "safe in their alabaster chambers" (Fr124), until the final Resurrection, here asserts "her Vital Privilege": to reassemble the scattered 'dust' and atoms of the dead into their recognizable former bodies.
            Although there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth, neither is it a happy crowd. We see no joyful reunions, no reconstituted flesh revelling in the touch of a breeze, or bird song (should there be enough atoms left for birds). Instead, Dickinson paints a picture of the numb solemnity of a solid mass of humanity just before the moment of judgment.
            She ends the poem rhetorically asking if there could every be anything like such an event, anything comparable to its significance both to the Universe and to herself. While the questions are simple they just don't reflect, for me, the tone of someone truly contemplating their doom. Judgment Day feels far-fetched, the scene too dispassionate. It is like Eliot's Prufrock squeezing "the universe into a ball" and rolling it "towards some overwhelming question" only to have the listener shrug.
            This may be exactly the effect Dickinson intended. It may well have been a reaction against a religion she was never quite comfortable with

Puritan/Calvinist Christianity emphasized the afterlife: the threat of hell and a hope of heaven. The threat was never made more clear than in Jonathan Edwards' 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Throughout the (very long) sermon, Edwards paints a fearsome picture of damnation – and even of God: "The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire."
William Blake's "Judgment Day", 1808
Echoes of this famous and fiery sermon reverberated in Dickinson's life whether at home, away at school, or in her local church. She experienced a wave of revival that made similar calls for parishioners to stand and make a clear declaration of conversion. Although her family and most of her friends did so, Emily Dickinson did not.

Her letters contain a few mentions of fiery sermons. One was disturbing:
The minister today … preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those, meaning Austin and me, who behaved improperly – and somehow the sermon scared me, and father and Vinnie looked very solemn as if the whole was true, and I would not for worlds have them know that it troubled me … . He preached such an awful sermon though, that I didn't much think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day, and then you would not speak to me, according to his story. The subject of perdition seemed to please him, somehow. (Letter 175 to Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Holland, Nov. 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 124) 

Another sermon, no doubt intended to scare the devil out of parishioners, was laughed at by the whole family, including Dickinson's conservative and dignified father:
The rest have gone to meeting, to hear Rev Martin Leland. I listened to him this forenoon in a state of mind very near frenzy, and feared the effect too much to go out this afternoon. The morning exercises were perfectly ridiculous,  and we spent the intermission in mimicking the Preacher, and reciting extracts from his most memorable sermon. I never heard father so funny.  … He said he ran out of meeting for fear somebody would ask him what he tho't of the preaching. He says if anyone asks him, he shall put his hand to his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, and cry, Unclean – Unclean!! ( Letter 125 to Austin Dickinson, June 1854; Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, pg. 104-5).

In this poem, Dickinson does not describe salvation, damnation, God's mood, nor how humanity and the Universe came to this pass. Instead there's a sort of latent eeriness, certainly a lack of affect, in her depiction of corpse dust – and there would be countless tons of it –reconfiguring into a mass of long-ago bodies. The underlying question is, I think, Why? Why the big production? Why at all?

            I realize this poem can also be read as a stately and somber depiction of Judgment Day. Christanne Miller discusses how the uninflected verbs (verbs without tense, here used ungrammatically) such as "Exhibit," "be full," and "Solemnity – prevail," "undercuts any clear sense of time or of number. … Those crowds do still exist, and resurrection is … ongoing, universal, like the poem's verbs" (Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Gramnmar, p.68-9).
            Yet to me, even the meter works against the solemnity. There is an over-regularity, an over-stressing of iambic trimeter, that affects a reader's mood. The first stanza in this poem, with its strong meter, it's rhyme of "suppose" and "does", it's dry "Exhibit" and "General Attendance" all establish a wry mood. "Resurrection" appears anticlimactically in the last line of the stanza.

So, Reader, what do you think? A subtle undercutting of Judgment Day? Or a carefully-crafted serious treatment of it?

03 July 2019

That I did always love

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived — Enough — *[I] did not live

That I shall love alway —
I argue thee * [I] offer
That love is life — *[love] be
And life hath Immortality —

This — dost thou doubt — Sweet —
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary —
J549, Fr652 (1863)

Short as it is, the poem makes me think of Shakespearean sonnets. We have arguments for love that outlasts time, a potentially doubtful beloved, and plenty of Elizabethan thees and thous sprinkled throughout. We even have something that sounds a lot like a closing couplet.

L.W. Willingham

John Drury, in The Poetry Dictionary, writes that historically sonnets often present "an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief." The first sonnets, Drury says, were composed and exchanged in the early 13th century by Sicilian notaries (lawyers of the day) and their Emperor, Frederick II. 

Granted, Dickinson is no lawyer, but she lived with lawyers. Granted, this poem is not fourteen lines nor are the lines in iambic pentameter. Consequently, the arguments are not well developed, but Dickinson cleverly presents only the line of argument rather than the argument itself, thus achieving her trademark compaction.

In the first stanza the speaker claims she always loved the elided (and assumed) You. Her proof? That until she loved she was never truly alive (or alive enough). This is a rather sophististic way of getting around all those years when the speaker did not "always love."  What the Beloved, and at least a few readers, really want, however, is some real Proof, but we suspect the speaker's assertions will have to suffice. Shakespeare would flesh this out a little, but Dickinson holds back.

Having claimed the past, the speaker next argues deductively that her love will always endure: since love is life and life "hath Immortality" her love will therefore be immortal (this would be a valid but perhaps not sound deductive argument, but her point is taken). The ED Lexicon helps us out by suggesting that Immortality in this poem means "Timelessness; an infinite dimension." Love, then, operates outside of time. As Shakespeare would have it, Love is not "Time's fool" (Sonnet 116).

In the final stanza the speaker addresses her beloved directly. It begins with "This" – a pronoun without a clear antecedent. Whether it refers to the argument immediately preceding or to both first and second stanzas is of little consequence. Should the Sweet beloved doubt, then the speaker has nothing else to show but pain and misery.

Overall, the arguments seem half hearted and unconvincing. And surely if the Beloved shows doubts after hearing them, the speaker has other recourse besides donning the anguish of Calvary.

And yet… I like the poem. It reads well and doesn't really call for logical rigor and abundant proofs. The claims make emotional sense and there are some fine lines and phrases. Dickinson weaves the poem together with love and life: four repetitions of "love" and three of some version of "live" or "life". It is another, more subliminal way of saying that love is life.

08 February 2019

Smiling back from Coronation

Smiling back from Coronation
May be Luxury —
On the Heads that started with us —
Being's Peasantry —

Recognizing in Procession
Ones We former knew —
When Ourselves were also dusty —
Centuries ago —

Had the Triumph no Conviction
Of how many be —
Stimulated — by the Contrast —
Unto Misery —

                                                            J385,  Fr651 (1863)

This poem might be grouped with others where either Dickinson claims and celebrates her calling as a Poet or else among those where she recounts a transcendent experience. But while both of those poem groups reflect an almost ecstatic confidence, the current poem seems quite breezy, even condescending, by comparison. The speaker would like to smile after her Coronation, but decides it would be a luxury – and tacky, really –  because in the Procession she would see folks she knew from the distant past, people who "started" with her, and many others – all of whom would be "Stimulated … Unto Misery" by contrasting themselves to her. At least some of those in the Procession, those who began with the speaker, are dismissed as "Being's Peasantry".  Ouch.
St. John sees the crowned saints

Some scholars have suggested that passages in the biblical book of Revelations are the basis of the poem. Cristanne Miller, for example, writes that the poem "probably refers to passages in Revelation such as 2:10, 'be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,' and 20:4, 'And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them … and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years'" (Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them, n. 276, p. 763). Sadly, those people who did not make that first cut must wait in the grave until the second Resurrection where they stand before God for judgment (Revelation 20:12-13). In this reading, the speaker would be figuratively counting herself among the crowned martyrs.
        This may be a sort of triumph fantasy where the person considered by others to be a spiritual risk has found her way to salvation or at least experiencing the mixed emotions when after experiencing an epiphany or transcendent spiritual experience one rejoins quotidean human existence.

It is likely, however, that Dickinson is using biblical language to celebrate the internal coronation she has come to feel as a poet. In “For this—accepted Breath” (J195, Fr230), for example, Dickinson claims an immortal crown because of her calling as a Poet – and a great one – and calls on the archangel Gabriel and the Saints to proclaim it.
        But it is her paean to poets, "This was a Poet" (J448, Fr446), two hundred poems ago, that seems most like the current poem. The notion of immortality is front and center there. The Poet, she asserts, is "Exterior – to Time." The Poet "Entitles Us – by Contrast – to ceaseless Poverty –". Likewise in the current poem, the poet, still bedazzled by that mixture of epiphany and confidence whereby she experienced a personal "Coronation" crowning her poetic calling, looks at those around her, those who are dusty, just as she was "Centuries ago." The dustiness is that of the earth, for without the divine spark, we are but flesh and blood. These are "Being's Peasantry" – those tied to life's appetites, achievements and failures, just as a peasant is tied to a parcel of land.

Poetically, nothing tingles or surprises. But I do appreciate the rhyming pair of "Luxury" and Peasantry.

I would be very interested in readers' opinions. What have I missed?