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23 February 2012

Speech – is a prank of Parliament –

Speech – is a prank of Parliament
Tears – is a trick of the nerve
But the Heart with the heaviest freight on –
Doesn't – always – move –   
                                                            - F193 (1861)  688

Henry Clay, Senate, 1850
The poem is organized as a series of analogies, with the third, the Heart, standing out for its difference. Parliament, that assemblage of windy politicians, is known for speechifying. Speech is a “prank” of that august group. Maybe we shouldn't take what they say too awfully seriously as much of what is said is just for show.
            Another prank, but this time a “trick,” is tears. If our nerves are worn thin or if we’re very happy or sad, we cry. It is an odd thing, water dripping out of your eyes – an odd trick our nerves play.
            The reader is set up to see what peculiarities the Heart has, but the poet dashes our expectations. The heavily burdened heart can’t budge. No speech, no tears, just a lead weight in the chest. The last two lines are appropriately heavy: “Heart” is a slow word because of the breath needed for the “h” sound; same with “heaviest.” The long “a” sound of “freight” also slows the line down, as do the three accented syllables in a row: “freight on – / Doesn’t.” The poem grinds to a slow halt in the last line. The dashes are like long drawn-out breaths: “Doesn’t – always – move” seems like a freight train coming to a halt.
            Contrast these slowing devices with the quick trip of the alliterative “prank of Parliament” and “Tears – is a trick.” We are meant to feel the heavy heart, and realize that depression or despondency sometimes can neither speak nor even cry.

The poem concluded a letter to Samuel Bowles that reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Bowles.
I cant thank you any more  – you are thoughtful so many times, you grieve me always –  now. The old words are numb – and there a’nt any new ones – Brooks – are useless – in Freshet-time –
When you come to Amherst, please God it were Today – I will tell you about the picture – if I can, I will – 

The impression we are left with is that of grieving paralysis: the narrator is too numb and too heart-burdened to  move.

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