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08 November 2011

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—
That sat it down to rest—
Nor noticed that the ebbing Day
Flowed silver to the west—
Nor noticed night did soft descend—
Nor Constellation burn—
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels—happening that way
This dusty heart espied—
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God—
There—sandals for the Barefoot—
There—gathered from the gales—
Do the blue havens by the hand
Little Nell
Philip V. Allingham
Lead the wandering Sails.
                                                        - F125 (1859)  78

This  might sound like another rather sappy death poem that Dickinson knocked off for a recently departed acquaintance, but she sent this to Sue along with a picture of Dickins’ Little Nell. Now Little Nell, famously died a young (~15) and virtuous death after heroic exertions on behalf of her failing grandfather after the two of them had been evicted from the eponymous old Curiosity Shop. I think this enclosure of a picture of the brave and noble girl puts the poem into the realm of the puckish. It'a a spoof on the poor little lass.
            The metaphors don't quite meld. We start with a “torn” and “tattered heart” as if the heart were made of fabric or paper. This "poor" heart "sat it down to rest" – which is an amusingly clever feat for a heart, particularly a tattered one. Although this heart is also seemingly capable of observing externalities such as sunset and stars, this dying one neither notices nor knows. Instead, it concentrates on “latitudes unknown” – that is, heaven. The introduction of the word "lattitudes" within the same stanza as "tattered" ought to alert us that the underlying metaphor for the heart is a sail on a small boat – an image Dickinson uses in several other poems.
            But in the next stanza the torn heart is somehow “dusty," which might be difficult out in the stormy sea. Fortunately for it, regardless of its personal hygiene, angels just happen to come by. They carry “it to God” where it gets sandals. The last three lines return to the boat metaphor. The “blue havens” or heaven take the “wandering Sails” “by the hand”  to save them from “the gales.” No, it doesn’t work. Not only would it be hard to take a sail by the hand, but the havens are taking the sails to the haven!  I suspect Emily and Sue must have had a good time laughing at Dickins' characterization of poor Little Nell. The poem reminds me of Mark Twain's spoof on Julia Moore's treacly poetry in Huckleberry Finn:


Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping-cough did rack his frame
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.





2 comments:

  1. Even with your interpretation, I think that this could still be a tender description of little nell's resurrection. You would know better than me, would Dickinson most likely write with empathy or with sarcasm?

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    1. Re-reading this poem I'm surprised by my own vehemence. It might indeed be sincere. Dickinson had both the Victorian appetite for schmaltz about children -- but she also had a sharp wit and a gift for irony and even sarcasm that she was willing to wield. So I recant and say that this poem *might* be ironical, a spoof, etc. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.

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