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31 August 2011

Went up a year this evening!

Went up a year this evening!
I recollect it well!
Amid no bells nor bravoes
The bystanders will tell!
Cheerful—as to the village—
Tranquil—as to repose—
Chastened—as to the Chapel
This humble Tourist rose!
Did not talk of returning!
Alluded to no time
When, were the gales propitious—
We might look for him!
Was grateful for the Roses
In life's diverse bouquet—
Talked softly of new species
To pick another day;
Beguiling thus the wonder
The wondrous nearer drew—
Hands bustled at the moorings—
The crowd respectful grew—
Ascended from our vision
To Countenances new!
A Difference—A Daisy—
Is all the rest I knew!

                                                           - F72 (1859)  93


This might be titled “Death of a Good, Christian Gardner.” The poet reflects on a man’s death on it’s first anniversary. It was memorable to her, not for any fuss made over it, for there was none, but for the cheerful tranquility and calm the dying man showed. He was cheerful to those who came from the village, was resting quietly, and had made his peace with God.
            Dickinson makes sure to point out how he specifically complimented the Roses and talked about picking more. But this is a metaphor for moments of beauty in “life’s diverse bouquet”—the roses we find in life are to be cherished. As he was dying he hoped to find new sorts of Roses in the afterlife. And as he made these pius homilies, the ‘wondrous’ advent of death approached. Dickinson again returns to the image of a soul setting out to cross a sea: hands here ‘bustled at the moorings’ as his friends and loved one helped ease his way.
            Death for these New Englanders would be experienced quite differently than for many of us. Whereas we might have nurses and a spouse nearby, here there was a ‘crowd’ to watch him die. At the end, she sees a difference in his countenance as the living man becomes a corpse. The Daisy, unlike the beautiful Platonically eternal Rose, is a simple graveyard flower. All that remains of the mystery and of his assumed ascension into Paradise is this homely little flower soon to be planted in the ground.
            The poem is written in iambic trimeter, a meter well suited to a conversational tone.

My friend must be a Bird

My friend must be a Bird—
Because it flies!
Mortal, my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a Bee!
Ah, curious friend!
Thou puzzlest me!
                                      - F 71 (1859)  92

On the face of it the poet is talking to a mysterious animal friend. It flies like a bird, it dies like a mortal being, but it has stinging barbs. But no one believes Dickinson is writing about an odd animal. Consensus has it that she is describing her dear friend and sister-in-law Sue. Sue flies away at the drop of a hat, loving to take vacations and travel. She was known to occasionally lance someone with her tongue, although in Dickinson’s case such ‘Barbs’ might have been rather mild as Dickinson was particularly sensitive to Sue’s words and deeds.
It doesn’t seem like a healthy friendship when one friend is perceived as stinging the other and the stung one then writes immortal poetry about it. Take it as a warning when having a writer as a friend!
Thy rhyme seems a bit lazy: the word ‘friend’ is repeated, and “Bee” is cleverly rhymed with ‘be.” And the idea that the friend is mortal because ‘it’ dies is rather weak as unless the friend is dying, how does the poet know? If the poet assumes the ‘friend’ is mortal, then why point out that it dies? I think the poem was written in order to point out the Barbs. 

29 August 2011

So bashful when I spied her!

So bashful when I spied her!
So pretty—so ashamed!
So hidden in her leaflets
Lest anybody find—

So breathless till I passed here—
So helpless when I turned
And bore her struggling, blushing,
Her simple haunts beyond!

For whom I robbed the Dingle—
For whom betrayed the Dell—
Many, will doubtless ask me,
But I shall never tell!
                                              - F 70 (1859)  91

Here the poet turns an image of a Fallen Eve into an image of forcible abduction to describe her theft of a flower for an unspecified recipient. The poem begins innocently enough. A flower is bashfully hidden amid its protecting leaflets. The analogy to Eve is signaled by its being ‘ashamed’ as Eve was ashamed to appear naked before God and so is usually seen with fig leaves artfully draped about her to hide her nakedness. But things take a turn for the worse in the second stanza. Instead of a romantic knight or other benign figure tenderly plucking the flower for someone who will love it, the poet pretty much deflowers it, carrying it ‘struggling’ and ‘helpless’ away from its simple home.
The last stanza tells us it is all a bit of a lark. The flower taken from the Dingle (a wooded valley or dell) is but a gift for a friend. But the imagery has shifted yet again. From Eve hidden in shame, to a helpless maiden forcibly abducted, we now see the poet as a thief and betrayer. The tone, however, is far from dark. Instead it is mischievously ironic: the slight and gentle poet no doubt carefully picks and tends to the bud but enjoys donning the mantle of brigand and cad for the amusement of her audience.

Within my reach!

Within my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village—
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go—
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!
                                        - F 69 (1859)

This refrain of just having missed something reminds me of countless fishing and mushrooming trips where someone invariably pipes up, “You should have been here yesterday!” In this case the poet recounts how she might have walked through the village into the meadow and found the ephemeral Violets. However, she didn’t chance that way. 
 Dickinson might have been talking about one of her favourite flowers, the violet, or else the Violet-tip butterfly (polygonia interrogationis), The latter  has a surge of lovely lavender across its back wings in the summer. It is even more ephemeral than the flower because it flits around and can blend unseen in the shrubs and nettles it enjoys. In fact, I’m going to argue for the butterfly as the subject for the following reasons: first, they ‘go’ in the meadows, something that flowers, which can only sit, do not; second, the fingers are ‘striving’—and although you might have to strive to find a wild violet, your fingers wouldn’t have to strive to pick it. 
But it’s not a particularly important point for this poem. Rather, Dickinson is talking about chance and choice. We often lose a chance for something because of small choices we make.
The first five lines speak of something the poet would have wanted, something in town, but nothing heavy or else she couldn’t have ‘Sauntered as soft away’ as she had come. The last four lines compare this to Violet hunting:  you have to be there at just the right time. Timing accounts for quite a bit in the scheme of this poem. Dickinson would certainly have encountered the idea in her Shakespeare readings, particularly in Lear and Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Violet-tip Butterfly (from NABA.org)
Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Dickinson avoids the martial and heroic imagery of Shakespeare with the remarkably homely analogy of village walks and Violet hunting. She may also be talking (again) about the meaning of life and death. As in F 67 where the poet arrives at the deathbed too late, so here the poet misses the the passing of a soul, an ‘unsuspected Violet’ that has gone into the meadow. But in this case she has been too early as the ‘striving fingers’ were there ‘an hour ago’. 

28 August 2011

Some things that fly there be—

Some things that fly there be—
Birds—Hours—the Bumblebee—
Of these no Elegy.

Some things that stay there be—
Grief—Hills—Eternity—
Nor this behooveth me.

There are that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the Riddle lies!
                                          - F68 (1859)

Dickinson rhymes Bumblebee with Elegy, be, Eternity, and me.  Super! Especially linking the busy buzzing bumblebee with Eternity—but then in earlier poems we have seen the Bumblebee stand in for God. God, the busy bee.
     The poem is simply constructed: three stanzas of three lines each,  and with just two exceptions each line in trimeter. Reminds one of the Trinity, no? And indeed, the mysteries of the heavens are the point of the poem.
            The first stanza informs us that the poet won’t be writing about things that fly—and notice that there is a triplet of items listed, one abstract and two concrete nouns. The second stanza says she won’t be writing about ‘things that stay’ – and again a triplet list. Joy and Love don’t make the list; Dickinson chooses “Grief” for the emotion that, like Hills and Eternity, stay.
            The third stanza doesn’t give us much help either as she mentions the Resurrection (those ‘resting’ in the grave shall rise), but then says she can’t explain it. It is a Riddle and a very very quiet one at that.
            As to the two lines not in trimeter: those are the two list lines. Both begin with spondees and caesaras (two accented syllables interrupted and followed by a pause) and conclude with feminine endings that linger on the tongue. In fact, the line that follows each list line ends in two unaccented syllables – a pyrrhic foot. This strengthens the rhyme with the line before.

26 August 2011

Delayed till she had ceased to know—

Delayed till she had ceased to know—
Delayed till in its vest of snow
Her loving bosom lay—
An hour behind the fleeting breath—
Later by just an hour than Death—
Oh lagging Yesterday!

Could she have guessed that it would be—
Could but a crier of the joy
Have climbed the distant hill—
Had not the bliss so slow a pace
Who knows but this surrendered face
Were undefeated still?

Oh if there may departing be
Any forgot by Victory
In her imperial round—
Show them this meek apparreled thing
That could not stop to be a king—
Doubtful if it be crowned!
                                                                - F 67 (1859)

The ‘surrendered face’ of the dead woman indicates that she didn’t die confident in imminent Paradise and the joys of heaven. Instead, she was defeated: ‘Doubtful’ if she were to have the crown symbolic of the exalted state of expired saints.
            The tone of pity has almost a patronising air. If only, the second stanza suggests, the ‘bliss’ of faith had arrived earlier, the ending would have been quite different. The speaker is sad because the woman who died had a ‘loving bosom’ and so was probably a mother and devoted wife. Yet, looking at her corpse, the poet dismisses her as a ‘meek apparelled thing’  that might serve as an example to others to urge them to faith.
            The first stanza says that something or someone was delayed for an hour. The last line seems to say that it was ‘Yesterday’—as if the woman died ‘today’ an hour or so after midnight. But it is also the speaker who was delayed, along with Yesterday. Yesterday’s dinner and attendant duties, or perhaps Yesterday’s inclement weather delayed the speaker. But by the time she arrives the woman had died.
            The second stanza gives several alternatives that might have improved the moment of death: if the woman had known in advance, she might have been better prepared; if the speaker or other friend of good faith had arrived in time to encourage her, her spirits might have been uplifted; and finally, if the bliss that comes with awareness of the paradise that lies just ahead had been there before death, the woman would have had a joyous death.
            The third stanza is a bit troubling. Here it is suggested that Victory, the triumph over the grave by attainment of heaven, is unreliable enough that some ‘departing’ souls may not receive a visit. That’s not very comforting! What is to be done for these poor souls? Why, show them the dead housewife, ‘this meek apparelled thing’ and that should scare them into bliss! hmmm… I don’t think so. The last lines make it plain that meekness can undermine faith. This woman was so weak she doubted that she would receive a crown. That’s not faith. She just went ahead and died without waiting for the crowning moment of passing over. So instead of a glorious spirit, what remains is just an ‘apparreled thing’: a heap of filled clothes.
            This is another of those poems that today would not give anyone comfort. But those crazy Victorians had a sort of romance with death, so perhaps these sentiments would have sparked nods and assenting murmurs.

25 August 2011

Baffled for just a day or two—

Baffled for just a day or two—
Embarrassed—not afraid—
Encounter in my garden
An unexpected Maid.

She beckons, and the woods start—
She nods, and all begin—
Surely, such a country
I was never in!
                                                - F 66 (1859)

This poem was sent with a rosebud to a friend. It speaks of the great love Dickinson had for her garden. An early rose, a signal to the woods that Spring is here, transports her to a different place—a country she was never in before. I like the image of the young rose beckoning and the trees and woodland flowers all begin their own adornment in response.
            The question in the poem lies in the first two lines. The speaker has been baffled, but only for a ‘day or two’, and she is quick to say that it isn’t fear that she also feels, but embarrassment. We aren’t told what has baffled the speaker, why she is embarrassed, or why she should specify that she isn’t afraid. Does it have something to do with the Hollands – for it was Mrs. Holland to whom the poem and bud was sent. Or does it refer to a general state of mind: the speaker feels among the trees and plants of her garden a natural reticence, akin to embarrassment, that we feel when among those we venerate but feel are above us in some way. She is baffled by the subtle changes she sees until she encounters the early rose, harbinger of Spring.
            The last line is a bit awkward. Dickinson ends with a barely accented preposition employed, seemingly, in order to have something to rhyme with ‘begin’. Not a good enough excuse and not a good enough line! But it works for me that she drops the subject in the first three lines so that the first words are important verbs: “Baffled”, “Embarrassed”, and “Encounter”. It sets up the narrative nicely: the baffled and embarrassed state of mind, the encounter with the flower, and then the second stanza begins the alteration with the flower having the joy of all the action. At the end, the speaker’s mood is one of happy wonder. 

24 August 2011

Once more, my now bewildered Dove

Once more, my now bewildered Dove
Bestirs her puzzled wings
Once more her mistress, on the deep
Her troubled question flings—

Thrice to the floating casement
The Patriarch's bird returned,
Courage! My brave Columba!
There may yet be Land!
                                          - F 65 (1859)

The poet sends her dove out over the ocean with a troubling question. The dove, it is implied, is to bring back an answer. The dove is confused: where is she to go? where should she take this question?
from catholicbible101.com
            The second stanza, a reprise, adds to the metaphor: The poet, urging her confused Dove onward, reminds the bird that Noah’s dove ventured out and returned three times in its search for land. The poet’s ‘brave Columba’ (Latin for ‘dove’) should hope for land, too.
            The Dove is a traditional symbol of the spirit. Sending your spirit out over ‘the deep’ would be searching for the answers to deep questions: death, afterlife, nature of the Divine, etc. Since Noah was on the deep in an ark (here, the ‘floating casement’) following God’s command, we infer that the poem’s speaker is concerned with faith – something solid as land.
            While ‘Clolumba’ is another word for dove, it also conjures up Columbus—another explorer on the deep with an important question. Noah built his ark on faith, Columbus launched his flotilla on faith, too.
            The poem might be read as a tale of sending a real, human messenger several times on a fruitless mission. “Land”, then, would be finding the intended recipient. Perhaps Dickinson had been trying to get a message to someone. Perhaps she was waiting for an answer—for the Dove to return with the olive branch.
            The spondees “Once More” that begin the first and third line establish a sense of urgency. 

23 August 2011

Heart! we will forget him!

Heart! we will forget him!
You and I – tonight!
You must forget the warmth he gave –
I will forget the light!

When you have done pray tell me,
That I may straight begin!
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!
                                              - F 64 (1859)

When you miss someone, the poem implies, there are two parts: the heartache and the loss of intellectual and spiritual stimulation. The poet speaks as the mind/soul addressing her heart, exhorting it to do its part. She has gathered up her resolve and wants the forgetting to be done now – ‘tonight’! It’s the heart’s job to forget the emotional warmth, and this must be done before the mind/soul can begin to let go of the 'light'.
It is not certain of whom Dickinson is writing – if indeed there is someone specific she had in mind. She was extremely fond of two men at this point, Rev. Charles Wadsworth and Samuel Bowles. Wadsworth she met in 1855, and Bowles she met just a year or so before this poem. Both men were happily married, so perhaps she wanted to forget the ‘warmth’ and ‘light’ out of a sense of prudence.
The poem doesn’t have a melancholy air, however. The exclamation marks lend it the feel of a rallying cry. And there is a bit of ironic humor in the second stanza. Of course the heart will not forget him tonight—and the “I” knows it.
Trochees begin several lines, and the strong initial emphasis supports the cheeky pep-talk feel of the poem. The third and fourth lines have an anapaestic feel as trochee gives way to iambs and they trip lightly off the tongue. As a final poetic touch, the seventh, penultimate line ends in an unaccented syllable, a feminine ending, that lends support to the fear that the heart is ‘lagging’. The line is lagging a bit, too!

21 August 2011

I keep my pledge

I keep my pledge.
I was not called—
Death did not notice me.
I bring my Rose.
I plight again,
By every sainted Bee—
By Daisy called from hillside—
by Bobolink from lane.
Blossom and I—
Her oath, and mine—
Will surely come again.
                                                        - F 63 (1859)  46

One can read this poem in two ways—the specific and the metaphoric. Read for its specifics, we see the poet standing by the grave of someone dear to her. She has a Rose in her hand, the symbol of beauty and life. She pledges from her familiar trinity of nature words (that start with ‘B’!): Bee, Bobolink, and Blossom, that she will come back. It’s a lovely statement of constancy—although she was not called by Death, she will keep the memory of the departed one alive.
            And yet… the opening lines alert us to something deeper going on here. To be ‘called’ in the Puritan tradition means one has been selected to be saved. No every person is, and not every person who is called will answer the call. The ‘pledge’ is to pledge one’s heart, life, and soul to the Christian God and Jesus. Today we simply call it being saved. Interestingly, a few years earlier a revival had swept Amherst and many citizens wrote out a pledge. Emily’s family and friends did, but Emily did not.
            Instead, Dickinson makes her own pledge: not in the church venue or according to what her peers were doing, but to her favored church: that of the hillside and lane, that of the ‘sainted Bee’ and faithful Daisy, and chorister Bobolink. In poems F22 and F23, she links such natural emblems to her worship and sense of the divine. Her Rose, a flower she often uses to symbolize life or hope (among other things), is bound to ‘surely come again’—and so is the poet. The Blossom, of course, returns every season. that is it’s ‘oath.’ Likewise, the poet says she too will come again. The poet expects a resurrection, a blooming in the better world of Paradise.
            This idea is supported in F54 where she breathes in the fragrance of a blossom and is transported to the ‘fadeless orchards’ where one can hear the lovely song of the bobolink and see the Rose in its ideal entirety.

20 August 2011

There's something quieter than sleep

There's something quieter than sleep
Within this inner room!
It wears a sprig upon its breast—
And will not tell its name.

Some touch it, and some kiss it—
Some chafe its idle hand—
It has a simple gravity
I do not understand!

I would not weep if I were they—
How rude in one to sob!
Might scare the quiet fairy
Back to her native wood!

While simple-hearted neighbors
Chat of the "Early dead"—
We—prone to periphrasis,
Remark that Birds have fled!
                                                               - F 62 (1859)

Constructed as a puzzle, the poem isn’t hard to figure out. The ‘it’ here is clearly a corpse, a young one at that. Considering how the death of her young nephew devastated Dickinson in later years, this poem takes a remarkably cavalier tone.
In fact, the poet here expresses her sense of superiority over the ‘simple-hearted neighbors’ who fuss over the dead body and talk about how young the departed was. The poet finds their weeping ‘rude’ and has a better way of saying ‘early dead’, i.e., “Birds have fled!”. “Periphrasis” means to say something in a long-winded or roundabout way, so I think that the “We” of the penultimate line refers to poets. Poets see corpses as empty or dead trees whose birds have flown away. Birds traditionally represent the spirit, so the analogy is that the soul has flown from the body. Dickinson calls this figurative speech periphrasis, but it seems more like fun with words—and it seems a bit out of place in a poem about the death of a young person.
The quiet fairy in the room might also be the soul. The sobbing might bring it back to its body, its ‘native wood’, and that would be wrong, presumably. The fairy might also represent the natural forces of the world, and too much sobbing insults the natural flow of things—including death. 

My Wheel is in the dark!

My Wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

My foot is on the Tide!
An unfrequented road—
Yet have all roads
A clearing at the end—

Some have resigned the Loom—
Some in the busy tomb
Find quaint employ—

Some with new—stately feet—
Pass royal through the gate—
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!
                                                F 61 (1859)

Here we have a mishmash of metaphors. Dickinson would get much better at consistency later. In the first metaphor the poet likens life to the wheel of a paddle boat turning in the dark. Its paddles drip with water as it goes ‘round and round’. And so our days are filled with the sights and sounds of life as the years go round. We know we are on a journey, for the paddle boat travels somewhere and life must travel to its end, but we don’t know where we’re headed.

Paddle boat with its 'dripping feet'

The second metaphor introduces a Tide and likens it to an unfrequented road. Tides go in and out and since boats typically avoid the strongest flows, are ‘unfrequented’. This tide has a clearing at the end. The assumption here is that the tide is a road and since roads have clearings at the end (do they really?), so the tide will as well. It’s a call to faith: yes, the Tide is going out, but be of good cheer and venture forth for there is surely a clearing at the end.
The third stanza metaphor goes back to the water, but this time in a different guise. The Loom here refers to the portion of an oar that terminates at the handle  (the blade is the other end that terminates in the paddle). This is a different boat than the one with the  paddle boat of the first stanza. This one must be rowed, and while some people paddle on to the other side, others get weary and give up. I’m not sure what ‘quaint employ’ are embarked on by some, but perhaps it is being a ghost, or just hanging out as Dickinson describes in other poems where she chats with the occupant of a neighboring grave, or waits patiently for a loved one to join her. I like the idea of a ‘busy tomb’, however. It’s sort of a cosy limbo.
In the last stanza we leave the water behind to see the Faithful walking in stately fashion through the pearly gates. They are now ‘royal’ and don’t take the time to let those of us toiling at our Wheel in the dark or venturing into the Tide or paddling away know what lies on the other end. The gate, of course, stands for Heaven.
While the first, second, and fourth stanzas all have four lines, the third has only three. Perhaps Dickinson didn’t want to say what the entombed are up to in there.

If she had been the Mistletoe

If she had been the Mistletoe
And I had been the Rose —
How gay upon your table
My velvet life to close!
Since I am of the Druid —
And she is of the dew —
I'll deck Tradition's buttonhole —
And send the Rose to you.
                                                                - F 60 (1859)

This was sent as a note to Samuel Bowles, a beloved (some say very beloved) friend. It sounds like a Christmas letter with the mistletoe reference and the idea of decking someone’s buttonhole; a rose may well have accompanied the note. She says as much in the last line.
            The poet begins by identifying herself as "Mistletoe" and imagining she might have traded places with the Rose. She clearly takes pride in her druidic mistletoe-ness, however. The mistletoe lives on and feeds off the oak, whereas the lovely cultivated Rose depends on dew and other water that must be supplied. While dew is lovely it is ephemeral; beautiful woodland oaks, on the other hand, are heavy and enduring. They would  be prominent among the sacred groves, or nemetons, of the druids. In his Natural History, which Dickinson would have read, Pliny describes the oak and mistletoe rite:
The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing.... Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon....Hailing the moon in a native word that means 'healing all things,' they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.
          When the poet says she is a Druid, she isn’t saying that she is a pagan or magician, but rather identifying with their practice of worshipping outdoors, of studying the  mysteries, of being withdrawn from gay society life. She is also saying that had she been a rose and come to Bowles, rather than staying at her sacred groves at Amherst, it would have killed her, or at least the essential part of her. No, better for her to send the rose.
       There may be another message in this poem. Bowles and Dickinson's sister-in-law, the vivacious Sue, had an ongoing flirtation. Sue fits the Rose description pretty well. "I couldn't be like her," Dickinson is implying. "I'm more wild and woodland than velvet and table. But for Christmas, I'll "send the Rose to you." And that would be her nod to the Samuel Bowles-Sue Dickinson flirtation.

Could live—did live—

Could live—did live—
Could die—did die—
Could smile upon the whole
Through faith in one he met not,
To introduce his soul.

Could go from scene familiar
To an untraversed spot—
Could contemplate the journey
With unpuzzled heart—

Such trust had one among us,
Among us not today—
We who saw the launching
Never sailed the Bay!
                                                           - F 59 (1859)

The poem starts with the tolling of bells—two dimeter lines of spondees kick it off. And sure enough, the bells have tolled for a believer. The poem is written as a send-off and tribute to the faith of the departed. It may be that Dickinson’s whole heart wasn’t into the compliment here of someone contemplating the journey into the ‘undiscovered country’ with an ‘unpuzzled heart’—for surely Dickinson spent much of her life as a poet grappling with the mystery of what that journey is and where it might take us. She is probably being quite serious when she says that no one here today (as if this poem was written to be read on a funeral day—perhaps attached to some flowers, or at least as if it were attached to some flowers or even read to the assembled mourners) had his uncomplicated faith in the ‘one he met not’. Her own faith was certainly more complicated.
            The last stanza repeats the common metaphor of the soul being launched into the sea of death to reach, hopefully, the other side where peace and eternal life await at last.

17 August 2011

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady—my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!
                                                       - F 58 (1859)

I’m not overly fond of this poem, but I do like ‘swang’ as past tense of ‘swing’. It’s true I can relate to the first line, especially when working for my last boss, but I didn’t think to marshall the prayers of passers by.
Dickinson uses martial imagery to convey the potential in every day to be a decisive moment. The soul is about to shoot an arrow and so must be steady. The people are to be marshaled in service of their country. The Day is a bullet, a ‘common ball’.
            The poet takes the role of both recruiter and infantry: she calls for reinforcement and she also fights. The question to ask, then, is what battle, what stakes, and what enemy? It’s easiest if starting from the end. The soul’s arrow is a prayer. The supplicant must aim it properly as there is much at stake – heaven vs. hell, perhaps. The prayers of others are bullets and they might help tip the balance of the battle so that the soul is victorious. So what is the cause for the battle? Since the poet is calling for help as another day dawns, we can surmise she battles for the will to continue rather than surrender, or perhaps with the will or ability to believe in Heaven. Each day becomes a battle for her soul. As nations have fallen or been saved by a simple call to arms (perhaps Dickinson is referring to the Revolutionary War where resistance was sometimes organized on the spot), so the poet calls on reinforcements.
            All those spondees in the first line (“Day! Help! Help!) and all those exclamation marks give the impression of shouting. But it is a tongue-in-cheek sort of shouted alarm. After all, who would holler for help because it’s another day? And so although the poem’s idea seems grave and important, the piece on the whole seems almost flippant.

15 August 2011

Who robbed the Woods –

Who robbed the Woods –
The trusting Woods?

The unsuspecting Trees

Brought out their Burrs and Mosses –
His fantasy to please –

He scanned their trinkets – curious –

He grasped – he bore away –

What will the solemn Hemlock –
What will the Fir-tree – say?
                                                   - F 56 (1859)

A variant of this poem uses the first person: “I robbed the Woods” and later “I grasped”, etc. It is no secret that Emily Dickinson (often with her younger sister Vinnie) would look for plants in the woods to bring to her own home and garden, and here the poet wonders just what the woods might think about that.
She uses some playful anthropomorphisms: the Woods are ‘trusting’, the Trees ‘unsuspecting’. Just as the homemaker sets out her decorations and art, so the Woods puts its “Burrs and Mosses” on display. They even have trinkets to enjoy. But the trusting homemaker is sometimes robbed, and here the Woods are robbed as well. We see the nature hunter fingering the special moss and such ‘trinkets’ as autumn leaves, birds nests, flowers, and ripe nuts; then taking what best suits him (or her). I like the verb ‘grasped’ here—much more possessive and vivid than ‘takes’ or ‘selects’. For it is grasping, isn’t it, to want the lovelies for ourselves.
Over this scene of petty pilferage the ‘solemn Hemlock’ watches. It does not seem pleased! And while the poet wonders what the Fir tree will say, one doubts if she will lose much sleep over it. I get the feeling Dickinson feels in cahoots with the forest. She’s teasing them here, and teasing herself.
Revising the poem from the first person to the third makes it a bit more universal and a bit more pointed. After all, it’s one thing if one Emily Dickinson takes the occasional bit of moss or plant and another if some general ‘he’ commits the robbery. Who has not been told by some ranger or mother or other authority figure when stopping to pick a flower, “What if everyone took one?”
The poem starts with an accusation underscored by the spondee “Who robbed”. The sting is softened by the two dimeter lines with the repetition of the word ‘Woods’. The last two lines soften any sense of outrage or betrayal on the part of the offended trees by the use of tripping dactyls: ‘What will the … ’.

14 August 2011

I've got an arrow here.

I've got an arrow here.
Loving the hand that sent it
I the dart revere.

Fell, they will say, in "skirmish"!
Vanquished, my soul will know
By but a simple arrow
Sped by an archer's bow.
                                             - F 56 (1859)

The pen is mightier than the sword or, as here, arrow. The poet has received a “Dear John” type of letter and although it fells her she still values the missive as it came from a loved one’s hand. Another old saw comes to mind: “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Dickinson wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters, eschewing the banal for the deepest observations and feelings of her heart. And so a letter can either transport or slay her. There is nothing ‘simple’ about a slaying letter. One might read the poem as describing a letter shot from Cupid’s bow, the recipient being vanquished by love. While I’d rather think of the poet receiving a love letter, I’m on the side of the “Dear John.” The poet already loves the recipient, so there wouldn’t be much to vanquish. Also, it is not interesting to ‘revere’ a love letter from one you love. It is (moderately) more interesting to revere the one that brings terrible hurt.
My favorite part of the poem is the offhand opening line: “I’ve got an arrow here.” It’s only later than we realize how deadly it was.

To venerate the simple days

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or I,
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

To invest existence with a stately air –
Needs but to remember
That the Acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper Air!
                                      - F 55 (1859)

My favorite part of this poem is the epigram of the Acorn being the egg of forests. It’s a bid odd, isn’t it, that Dickinson capitalizes “Acorn” and “Air” but not “egg” or “forests”? I wonder what her capitalization rubric was. Anyway, one can’t argue with the sentiment: it is easier to honor each passing day if one remembers that it carries away a bit of your life with it.
The second stanza builds upon the first. While the first reminds us of life’s brevity, the second reminds us that like the Acorn we are but lowly forms of the heavenly (“upper Air”) beings we will be in Paradise. Both stanzas are essentially structured with six lines. Although the second has only five, Dickinson has combined two trimeter lines to make the first line—imbuing it with a more ‘stately air’.
One line is repeated: “Needs but to remember.” The repetition helps us remember as well as knits the two stanzas together. The word “air” is repeated in the second stanza. The first time it is the ‘stately air’ we should invest our lives with, our sense of gravity and import. Our daily life matters. The second use is as the very last word of the poem. This time it is to contrast the earthly (Acorn on the forest floor) with the eternal and incorporeal. 

13 August 2011

"Lethe" in my flower,

"Lethe" in my flower,
Of which they who drink

In the fadeless orchards

Hear the bobolink!



Merely flake or petal

As the Eye beholds

Jupiter! my father!

I perceive the rose!
                                                   - F 54 (1859)
Divided in two quatrains, the poem contains an epiphany experienced in an almost trance-like state. The first quatrain has the poet contemplating a flower, perhaps inhaling its fragrance. It is as if she sipped from the river of forgetfulness, the Lethe of Greek myth that caused all who drank from it to forget their former lives. The “Lethe” in her flower transports her to that eternal realm where orchards are ‘fadeless’ and the song of the bobolink– Dickinson’s ‘chorister’ in a future poem – can be heard.
The second stanza is full of wonder, the two exclamation points underscoring the excitement of recognition as she is able to perceive on a higher level. What in her everyday life she saw as an assemblage of fragrant petals, to her now awakened or eternal eye becomes the thing entire—the rose. She first cries out to Jupiter in keeping with the earlier classical reference (“Zeus” would have been the appropriate Greek name, but “Jupiter” works better poetically here), then pivots to the more Christian “my father”.
               The poem is a meditation on the art of knowing. It is more Plato than Keats. While Keats contemplated the Grecian Urn and revealed his abstract epiphany about beauty being truth, truth beauty, Plato would have us understand that while we see the shadow or parts of things, the true reality is the ideal form. In this poem Dickinson shows that what is important isn’t the beauty of the flower, although that may be its transporting quality, but the true nature of the flower in its ideal entirety.

12 August 2011

If I should cease to bring a Rose

If I should cease to bring a Rose
Upon a festal day,
'Twill be because beyond the Rose
I have been called away—

If I should cease to take the names
My buds commemorate—
'Twill be because Death's finger
Clasps my murmuring lip!
                                                                 - F 53 (1859)

Let’s face it. Dickinson has written better poems. This one was purportedly sent to someone along with a rose, so maybe she just dashed something off. The poet shows that the only thing that could keep her from bringing roses to festive events or funerals would be Death. She returns to the silence of the grave in later poems with greater effect (“my granite lip”). Indeed it is hard to imagine the final image of “Death’s finger” clasping her lip. A finger couldn’t grip lips, neither could a finger clasp lips like clasping a necklace. Other versions have ‘Claps” rather than “Clasps”, but that is even more far fetched.
While in the first stanza has the exact rhyme of “Rose” and “Rose” and the perfect rhyme of “day” and “away”, the second stanza has “commemorate” in rhyming position with “lip” and this doesn’t make much of a rhyme.

Bless God, he went as soldiers,

Bless God, he went as soldiers,
His musket on his breast—
Grant God, he charge the bravest
Of all the martial blest!

Please God, might I behold him
In epauletted white—
I should not fear the foe then—
I should not fear the fight!
                                                                           - F 52 (1859)

Here’s a proper fantasy: the heavenly knight, with musket rather than sword, inspiring the poet to battle, um, Evil, I suppose, or maybe death. And it is a proper maiden in whose voice Dickinson writes: she is thankful that her knight died with his musket in his arms. And now she wants him to be top warrior among God’s army. But it would really help if she could just see him. Yeah, I’d like to see him, too! Unfortunately, when Dickinson wrote this, the Civil War was just around the corner. There would be plenty of young heroes dying a death to Bless God for.
However, it is likely that Dickinson does not mean a literal soldier at all. Perhaps she was writing figuratively about a very dear friend, Benjamin Franklin Newton who died of tuberculosis in 1854. His musket might very well have been his pen. Newton was Dickinson’s first Preceptor. After his death she wrote to his pastor, Rev. Hale:
Mr Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching  me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen, and in a life again, nobler, and much more blessed--. … He often talked of God, but I do not know certainly if he was his Father in Heaven-- Please Sir, to tell me if he was willing to die, and if you think him at Home, I should love much to know certainly, that he was today in Heaven.
The poem and the letter are quite similar, as if Dickinson reworked the letter into poetry five years after writing it. In the poem she asks God if the man died willingly ("as soldiers") and if she could have confirmation of his having joined the ‘blest’—the same questions she had asked Rev. Hale. Rev. Hale apparently gave her reassurance because she later responds:
 I thank you when you tell me that he was brave, and patient, and that he dared to die. I thought he would not fear,  because his Soul was valiant, but that they met, and fought, and that my Brother conquered, and passed on Triumphing, blessed it is to know, and a full heart of gratitude seems slight indeed to bring you, remembering your kindness.

11 August 2011

When I count the seeds


When I count the seeds
That are sown beneath,
To bloom so, bye and bye—

When I con the people
Lain so low,
To be received as high—

When I believe the garden
Mortal shall not see—
Pick by faith its blossom
And avoid its Bee,
I can spare this summer, unreluctantly.
                                                                            - F 51 (1859)

As the poet contemplates her winter garden, thinking about all the flowers that will eventually bloom, she contemplates the similarities between seeds and souls. Like seeds, the dead are sown beneath the soil; like flowers breaking through the soil to bloom, they will emerge in Paradise, immortal.
The third stanza begins with the interesting qualifier “When.” I parse this stanza as follows: In those times when I can believe in Paradise, can by faith alone enjoy its blessings; and if I can avoid stirring up stinging doubt as I do so, then I can willingly forego this life in favor of the next. The implication is that she is not always able to avoid the Bee.
Dickinson so loved her garden and its denizens that she wasn’t always sure she wanted to trade it even for heaven—the very existence and nature of she does not seem completely sure of. 

09 August 2011

It did not surprise me —

It did not surprise me—
So I said—or thought—
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,

Traverse broader forests—
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God's old fashioned vows—

This was but a Birdling—
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?

This was but a story—
What and if indeed
There were just such coffin
In the heart instead?
                                                               - F 50 (1859)
Birdlings stretch their wings and fly to find a new home; comparing this process to young people 'leaving the nest' is a common metaphor. Dickinson begins the poem by applying this philosophic resignation to a friend or perhaps young relative leaving quiet Amherst for a 'gayer' more 'modern' place. Interestingly, she posits exposure to new-fangled ideas versus 'old fashioned' Biblical teachings as breathing in 'Ear'--as if listening were breathing, taking in sound akin to taking in breath.
     Dickinson returns to that idea in her 1862 poem (F 340) "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Here, as the poet begins to swoon or otherwise break down, she hears "Boots of Lead" treading through her brain, and "then Space – began to toll, / As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear,". In both poems the Ear becomes the primary organ. In F 50, it is the filter through which life is understood. The modern Ear would hear God's vows quite differently than would Puritan-influenced Amherst. In F340, the Ear is the only sensory organ and all it hears are the tolling of the Heavens. The conceit gives new meaning to the religious notion of the Received Word.
     The poem continues to say, 'Well, so Birdlings will go their own ways and forget the nest, but what if this Birdling were among my beloved? What then? The poet doesn't answer directly but in the penultimate line substitutes the word 'coffin' for the earlier 'nest'. Would the poet want to confine a beloved in the 'coffin' of the heart? It is tempting to think that the coffin would hold the heart, which would presumably be broken when the beloved bird had flown away, but Dickinson carefully writes of the coffin "in" the heart rather than "of" the heart. It would be burying the Birdling alive, entombed in confining love.