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24 May 2015

The Manner of its Death

The Manner of its Death
When Certain it must die —
'Tis deemed a privilege to choose —
'Twas Major Andre's Way —

When Choice of Life — is past —
There yet remains a Love
Its little Fate to stipulate —

How small in those who live —

The Miracle to tease
With Babble of the styles —
How "they are dying mostly — now" —
And Customs at "St. James"!
                           F602 (1863)  J468

Dickinson makes the rather unremarkable claim here that if people know they are to die they would like some control over how they die. This seems obvious to modern readers to whom end-of-life options, living wills, and suicide pacts have become familiar topics. In fact, Dickinson's last stanza anticipates the "privilege to choose" afforded to many terminal patients today.
Dickinson begins the poem by referring to a person facing certain death as an "it" as if he or she were already a corpse or a specimen to be examined. She writes in the passive voice: There is not a subject who deems it a privilege to choose or want to "stipulate" "Its little Fate". Rather it is deemed; rather, Its "little Fate to stipulate". Even in the last stanza it is not the active voice where the living enjoy gossiping about the latest style in dying. Instead Dickinson continues in the passive. She dispenses with subject altogether, musing about a rather disembodied "Miracle to tease / With Babble of the styles".
This passive and disembodied voice introduces a clinical distance between the poem and its subject – the very embodied people who face death and long to arrange it with some dignity. Dickinson uses Major Andre (1750 – 1780) as an example. A British officer popular in the colonial society of Philadelphia and New York, Andre was involved in Benedict Arnold's treason. After being captured in civilian clothes behind American lines, he was sentenced to a spy's death by hanging. Andre appealed to George Washington, asking for a soldier's death by firing squad, but Washington rejected this request.
While the terminal and the condemned might deeply desire the ability to stipulate the nature of their fate, Dickinson notes that this desire, or "Love", is quite "small in those who live". Her milieu was more deeply religious. Death was in God's hands. It would be incongruous to "Babble" about dying as if it were a fashion one might copy from the royalty at St. James palace.

The poem is written in three four-line iambic stanzas with three lines in trimeter and the third line in ttetrameter. The second stanza's last line is separated, giving it weight – emphasizing how seldom the living think about death. This adds to the irony that Dickinson's example of Major Andre is one where the condemned man was not granted the death he chose but rather the shameful death he so dearly wanted to avoid.
Dickinson uses internal rhymes and alliteration that subtly directs the poem's flow. There is "Major Andre's Way", a rhyme that slows down the brisk matter-of-fact diction of the first stanza. The almost droll rhyme in "Its little Fate to stipulate" emphasizes the littleness of the manner of death as contrasted with the actuality of death. The second stanza is also full of "l" alliterations: life, love, little, stipulate, small, and live.
The final stanza is startling in the contrast of "Miracle" with "Babble" as if Dickinson were marveling at the ultimate banality of people discussing death as a style one might copy from the fashionable. Yet for me the poem isn't dismissing such babble as wrong, but rather getting at something between a traitor's wish and the latest fashion trends. We should, I think Dickinson implies, give more thought to our own deaths.
Certainly Dickinson did. She at least was able to stipulate at great length the manner of her burial: dressed in a white gown, placed in a white casket, she was carried not down the main street but through the garden and meadows behind her house to the family plot in the cemetery she contemplated from her window in her childhood home on West Street.

22 April 2015

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins –

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins – 
The Positive — of Bells —
When Cogs — stop — that's Circumference —
The Ultimate — of Wheels.
                                                   F601 (1863)  J633

In this wisdom poem Dickinson presents mortal life as a prelude to a better state in the hereafter.

From Hanford Mills, NY, 1840-1967
Bells prepare us for the church service – that's the "Positive". Without the service the bells are meaningless, although often lovely to hear. The second two lines provide a second metaphor. Cogs enable machinery to generate movement and work. The sawmills of Dickinson's day used a simple system of cogwheels and water wheels. As long as the cogwheel runs the water wheel turns. When the cogs stop, the mill stops, too. But what is left are the wheels, the essence of which is the circumference. This is the "Ultimate" aspect of wheels, for its bounds take in all the work potential and, in Dickinson's metaphor, the entire circle of existence. 

 I like the dashes Dickinson puts around "stop" in the third line. They enforce the stop.  The short, hard word, "Cogs" preceding it reinforces the effect. After "stop" the rest of the poem is in perfect iambs with "Circumference" rolling nicely into "Ultimate".

It's a thoughtful poem, compressed, vivid, and rewarding the bit of work to let the images expand in your mind. 

16 April 2015


I would just like to take a moment, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and celebrate the completion of 600 commentaries. I only have 1189 left.

Her — last Poems —

Her — last Poems —
Poets ended —
Silver — perished — with her Tongue —
Not on Record — bubbled Other,
Flute — or Woman — so divine —

Not unto its Summer Morning —
Robin — uttered Half the Tune —
Gushed too full for the adoring —
From the Anglo-Florentine —

Late — the Praise — 'Tis dull — Conferring
On the Head too High – to Crown —
Diadem — or Ducal Showing —
Be its Grave — sufficient Sign —

Nought — that We — No Poet's Kinsman —
Suffocate — with easy Wo —
What, and if Ourself a Bridegroom —
Put Her down — in Italy?
F600 (1863)  J312

This tribute to the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was written about two years after Browning's death. Dickinson particularly admired "Aurora Leigh" (a verse novel published in 1856) and purportedly memorized whole sections of it. She kept a framed picture of Barrett Browning on her bedroom wall.
        Dickinson begins with the remarkable and hyperbolic claim that poetry died with Browning. Even robins, Dickinson's "Criterion for Tune", can't achieve "Half the Tune" of Browning. Dickerson continues by acknowledging that her tribute is "Late" and that any praise she offers would fall short. Browning's poetic head is "too High". Her gravestone will have to suffice as memorial ornament.
        Even Dickinson's grief lacks meaning or value. She is "No Poet's Kinsman"  without rights at another poet's grave. On a deeper level she may be claiming her independence: she claims no  poetic lineage from Browning or anyone else. I think that is right, too. For all that scholars can point to this or that influence from Browning or Tennyson, or whomever, Dickinson's voice, meter, and gift of metaphor are singular.
        In something of a paradox, Dickinson writes that she is suffocating "with an easy Wo" – as if her grief were oppressive but bearable. She ends the poem by wondering what she might have felt as Barrett Browning's husband, preparing the body, burying her, and giving her honor. That, she implies, would not be an easy woe.

Yet for all the extreme but dignified praise, the phrase "Put her down" lacks tenderness or even regard for graveyard solemnities. Did Dickinson mean to introduce a note of disapproval for the way Robert Browning eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, taking her to Italy (although Italy was chosen as a more healthy place for Barrett Browning's lung problems)? Did she resent his growing fame that was beginning to eclipse Elizabeth's? Or did Dickinson simply mean that it fell to him to arrange coffin, grave and the final lowering of the casket? Still, the phrase has a vegetable quality as if Barrett Browning had been transplanted first through the elopement, then at death.

There's another odd note to my ear in the bubbling and gushing. To be the best bubbler of flute and women; to be a better gusher than a robin, seems … not exactly damned by faint praise, but not as if Barrett Browning's work was exactly in Dickinson's style. While Barrett Browning's poetry "Gushed too full for the adoring", Dickinson's poems tease, startle, and mystify. I doubt she would want the word "gush" in any juxtaposition with her own work.
        I also think Dickinson is using "Woman" restrictively here. Barrett Browning isn't said to be more divine than flutes or poets, just "Flute – or Woman". And the women poets getting published in the paper or giving performances during Dickinson's lifetime often did bubble and gush.

So I have mixed feelings about this tribute. On the one hand it is straightforward praise. On the other, there is a bit of distancing, even critique, mixed with the grief at Barrett Browning's death.

Here are two poems from the Springfield Republic, March 1, 1862. The first is an early version of one of the few published poems of Emily Dickinson. The second is from a contemporary (who I am guessing is a woman). Dickinson's poem bears the passage of time. It's still widely anthologized. The second, is, well, a gushing sort of prayer.

March 1, 1862, pg. 2
The Republican.

The Sleeping.
                    Safe in their alabaster chambers,
                    Untouched by morning,
                       And untouched by noon,
                    Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
                       Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

                    Light laughs the breeze
                    In her castle above them,
                       Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
                    Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
                       Ah! What sagacity perished here!
                    Pelham Hill, June, 1861.
The Shadow of Thy Wing.
               Weary of lifes great mart, its dust and din,
               Faint with its toiling, suffering with its sin,
               In childlike faith my heart to Thee I bring,
               For refuge in
the shadow of thy wing.

               Like a worn bird of passage, left behind
               Wounded, and sinking, by its faithless kind,
               With flight unsteady, seeking needed rest,
               I come for shelter to Thy faithful breast.

               Like a proud ship, dismantled by the gale,
               Her banners lost and rifted every sail,
               In the deep waters to Thy love I cling,
               And hasten to the refuge of Thy wing.

               O Thou, thy people
s comforter alway,
               Their light in darkness, and their guide by day,
               Their anchor
mid the storm, their hope in calm,
               Their joy in pain, their fortress in alarm!

               We are all weak, Thy strength we humbly crave;
               We are all lost, and Thou alone canst save;
               A weary world, to Thy dear arm we cling,
               And hope for all a refuge
��neath Thy wing.

12 April 2015

We do not play on Graves —

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn't Room —
Besides — it isn't even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We're fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —
                                                                  F599 (1863)  J467

Although Dickinson writes here with a childish voice, the poem depicts the very real fear adults have of death.
        The child speaker mentions several reasons why the playmates avoid graves for their games. First, the lack of room. While a church graveyard might be be a bit small for play, there is the deeper claustrophobia of the grave itself. Dickinson has written before of being trapped forever in that small, dark place, "Untouched by morning – / And untouched by noon" ["Safe in their alabaster chambers" F124]. To be in the presence of graves is to be reminded of the cramped and buried bones.
        The children also complain that the ground over the graves isn't "even" and that it "slants". While this literally might refer to the settling of the earth, the mounding of the graves, or the tombstones grown akilter, it also suggests the slant and uneven sense of untimely or unwelcome death. Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. In addition to the deaths of children and young women (too often during childbirth), there were the many young men killed in battle. No wonder the ground seems uneven and slant.
        Worse, perhaps, than the uneven and restricted space are the people who come to place flowers on the graves. Their faces "hang" with grief (another echo of death) to the extent the children worry their hearts will drop right out. Such sorrowful hearts are so heavy they might "crush our pretty play". Bummer! But Dickinson makes a sharp point: it isn't only children who wish to avoid the deeply grieved. Adults, too, feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
In the end, the children move their games away "as far / As Enemies", for death is the enemy of the young. They look over their shoulders from time to time to make sure of the distance. And so we all, Dickinson implies, look over our shoulders for the shadow of the grave.

The childish tone of the poem is supported by a series of rather breathless "and"s – five of them, reminding me of the way children will talk of something scary. The poem bubbles rather evenly along, impelled by the 'and's, until grinding to a halt at "Occasionally" – a long, unpoetic word bracketed by dashes. It's almost spooky: we only look occasionally – but maybe we should look more often. Look! There's Death right on our heels!
There is a hint of the Gothic in that and in the ironic contrast between the children and the graveyard they avoid – and even in the dropped and crushing heart.  Further, I wonder if Dickinson was penning a response poem to the heavy meditations of the Graveyard poets, popular in the 18th century. Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" is one of the best and most enduring of this school (which many consider a precursor to the Gothic).

Another example, pictured here with an illustration by William Blake, is a selection from Edward Young's "Night Thoughts".

How richly were my noontide trances hung
With gorgeous tapestries of pictured joys,
Joy behind joy, in endless perspective!
Till at Death's toll, whose restless iron tongue
Calls daily for his millions at a meal,
Starting I woke, and found myself undone.
Where's now my frenzy's pompous furniture?
The cobweb'd cottage, with its ragged wall
Of mould'ring mud, is royalty to me:
The spider's most attenuated thread,
Is cord, is cable, to man's tender tie
On earthly bliss; it breaks at every breeze. 
"Night Thoughts", object 4; 1797

I like Death's "restless iron tongue" and "frenzy's pompous furniture". I picture Dickinson reading such poems (both at home and at school, no doubt) and deciding to re-imagine the topic in her own inimitable way.

05 April 2015

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
                                                                       F598 (1863)  J632

Each stanza of this popular poem provides an interesting metaphor to ponder, each one manifesting the wonders of a three-pound human brain encased in its dark skull. The first two stanzas deftly channel into the final where Dickinson engages cryptically in the ongoing theological question of whether God is created in the brain or the brain is created by God. (By "brain" I am reading "mind" throughout the poem. Dickinson's using "brain" adds interesting contrast: the compact physical thing versus the diffuse and abstract.)
The first stanza goes up and wide, spanning the heavens: the "You", no doubt a generalized reference to the reader, can stare at the sky day and night, experience weather and seasonal changes, and take it all in "with ease" and space to spare. In Dickinson's container metaphor the brain can hold not only the sky but "You" as if it had unlimited storage capacity. 
Next, Dickinson likens the brain to a sponge. It can absorb an entire sea just as a sponge might sop up a bucket of water. The brain here is the limitless blue of sea and sky.

Balance scales; photo by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez 
        So far the brain is wide and deep; it can contain and absorb. The third and final stanza makes the startling claim that its weight is "just the weight of God". We don't think of either consciousness or God as having weight and neither did Dickinson. But perhaps that is her point. Can a brain greater than sky or sea affect on its own the unfurling of a rosebud or the safe return of a soldier to his family? Can God? Is it possible that there is some fundamental unity between consciousness/brain/mind and God, or that more particularly the first engenders the other? I can't imagine Dickinson writing that last stanza without those questions in mind.
But if there is any difference – and Dickinson notably includes an element of doubt – it is what distinguishes "Syllable from Sound". While syllables are always sound (or written representations of sound), sound is only occasionally syllables. Perhaps Dickinson is implying that humans give voice to creation and creation's Source.

I love this thought-provoking poem.

28 March 2015

'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —

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

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

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

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

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

24 March 2015

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 March 2015

The Lightning playeth — all the while —

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

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

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

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

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