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13 September 2011

She bore it till the simple veins

She bore it till the simple veins
Traced azure on her hand—
Til pleading, round her quiet eyes
The purple Crayons stand.

Till Daffodils had come and gone
I cannot tell the sum,
And then she ceased to bear it—
And with the Saints sat down.

No more her patient figure
At twilight soft to meet—
No more her timid bonnet
Upon the village street—

But Crowns instead, and Courtiers—
And in the midst so fair,
Whose but her shy—immortal face
Of whom we're whispering here?
                                                                           - F 81 (1859)  144

This and some of the next ones are simple and sweet reflections on the death of a good woman. This particular woman was long suffering—wasting away from some illness over many years. The poet tells us she is ‘timid’ and ‘patient’ and ‘shy’. It’s sad to hear about how she became so translucently thin that the veins showed and the dark circles under her eyes were, at the end, pleading—one assumes for death to finally come. And it was a gentle death, the woman simply ‘ceased to bear it’ and sat down with the Saints.
            But what makes this a distinctly inferior poem is that after portraying such a simple, meek soul who used to trot about the village streets, Dickinson suddenly thrusts her amid ‘Crowns’ and ‘Courtiiers’. Somehow I doubt that this was the sort of Heaven the little woman wanted. What was Emily thinking?  I go back to my earlier idea that Dickinson would kill time by writing out a supply of these anodyne death poems in case of need.
            Other aspects of the poem are regrettable as well. The first images of blue tracery on the hands and purple ‘Crayons’ around her eyes conjures something clownish, and the reader has to beat this image down with a stick once encountering the ‘timid bonnet’ on her patient errands. Then there are the distorted-English passages that close the second and third stanzas. Dickinson is better than this. Let’s move on.


  1. Hey there, some pity for the Poet, now her own subject in this! I am probably wrong but for me the puzzle is solved by standing purple crayons. The woman in the poem is looking to the purple columns of evening and entering heaven.

    1. Well, that's a better image, for sure. But I still can't shake the pleading purple shadows around her eyes...

  2. Hi Susan, I agree that this is not one of Dickinson's most memorable poems. There are nevertheless some interesting uses of vocabulary, which have evocative resonances and a degree of poignancy.

    In the opening stanza, it is striking that the defunct human body is described in artistic terms, as illustrated by the phrases 'Traced azure', which refers to the frozen veins, and 'purple Crayons', which evokes the dark rings around the weary eyes. Seen through the creative eyes of the poet, the deceased body thus becomes curiously objectified and strangely aestheticised. The colour 'azure' that describes the veins appears, at first glance, somewhat incongruous given that this hue is more often associated with the skies and celestial realms. Yet, given the ethereal connotations of 'azure', the reference can here be seen to aptly bridge the gap between the corporeal and the spiritual, connecting the frozenly inert body with the imminent state of the soul in heaven.

    Other words are employed to clever effect within the poem, such as the phrase 'timid bonnet', which refers to the female subject of the poem. The fact that one encountered her 'bonnet' rather than her gaze or face heightens her diffident nature when alive; we are given the sense of the meek lady casting her face downwards or hiding under her head covering, perhaps in an attempt to disguise her suffering and world-weariness. It is interesting that this coyness takes on a greater amplitude in the afterlife, developing from timidity to shyness. Indeed, the dead can be seen to harbour the ultimate "shyness", being ever elusive to the human eye to which they no longer appear.

    The adjective 'patient' is interesting, too, for it not only conveys the female subject's forbearing nature, but also alludes to her long-term suffering due to an apparent medical condition or illness, from which she (perhaps desperately) sought release. Indeed, the adjective 'patient' and word 'pleading' possibly imply that the deceased individual suffered too long in this life, and that the final release did not come soon enough.

    I do agree that the humility and meekness of the deceased female individual appears, at first glance, to be at odds with the richness and regality of the conceived heaven. However, an eternity of bountiful, even over-compensatory, reward is arguably more tolerable than an afterlife of impoverishment. Furthermore, given the intimation that the female subject was almost yearning for release from her former corporeal self, any state (even one of excessive extravagance and courteous "cordiality") would perhaps be preferable to her former bodily, woe-stricken existence. The abundance accorded to the deceased female individual in heaven has the effect of elevating her to a higher rank, and the words in the final stanza 'so fair' (suggesting not only the beautiful but also the just) imply that this elevation is fully merited. And yet, this whole conception of a bountiful heaven is undercut by the question mark at the end of the poem, which reminds us that the afterlife, in all its intangibility, can only ever be a matter of conjecture after all.

    1. Well, this is a bit of lemonade-making, but you make good points. I was a bit hard on this poem so I appreciate your going back through it with a better eye.

  3. ED, in an introspective mood, tries to imagine how others will see her in old age. Will veins on the backs of her hands bulge and her eyes sink into purple sockets when daffodils have come and gone uncountable springs? Evenings, as she shuffles softly down village streets, will passers-by think her patient, timid, and shy? They may whisper now, but her fair face will be immortal for generations yet to be.

  4. The crayon line isn't so jarring if you take it in historical context. The modern children's implement that we associate with the word hadn't been popularized yet. Crayons at time were a variety of slender pastel sticks used by serious artists. No clowning associations would have arisen among ED'S contemporary readers.

    1. Thanks for that -- informative and illuminating for this poem.