Again – his voice is at the door –
I feel the old Degree –
I hear him ask the servant
For such an one – as me –
I take a flower – as I go –
My face to justify –
He never saw me – in this life –
I might surprise his eye!
I cross the Hall with mingled steps –
I – silent – pass the door –
I look on all this world contains –
Just his face – nothing more!
We talk in careless – and in toss –
A kind of plummet strain –
Each – sounding – shyly –
Just – how – deep –
The other's one – had been –
We walk – I leave my Dog – at home –
A tender – thoughtful Moon –
Goes with us – just a little way –
And – then – we are alone –
Alone – if Angels are "alone" –
First time they try the sky!
Alone – if those "veiled faces" – be –
We cannot count –
I'd give – to live that hour –
The purple – in my Vein –
But He must count the drops – himself –
My price for every stain!
274 (1862) 663
There is a haunting, Gothic quality to this poem. We have a mysterious stranger in the parlour asking for the narrator. He is no stranger to her, though, for she knows his voice and goes to greet him. There is quite a bit of history between them although they haven’t seen each other for a long time. The two take a walk, by themselves except for the moon, which soon disappears, leaving them alone in the dark.
The power and attraction of her feelings for this man are so strong that she would slit her wrists to spend that hour once more. But, in true Gothic form, slitting her wrists isn’t quite enough. As her blood drops and stains the ground or her dress, the man must count every drop. It is a morbid and gruesome sort of commitment or pact that she is trying to extract. She may die, but he will have logged her death drop by drop.
The poem begins in an air of mystery: “Again – his voice is at the door.” We feel we are entering into a story. What does the poet mean, though, by the narrator feeling “the old Degree”? I think the answer lies in poem F194, “Title divine is mine,” where she writes
Title divine, is mine.
The Wife without the Sign –
Acute Degree conferred on me –
This is the poem where the narrator was “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – / In a Day” and “Betrothed – without the swoon.” Her “Degree,” then, involves a real sense of marriage – even if not an earthly or legal union. The sadness in the “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – / In a Day” line is touched on when the narrator says in this one that she feels “the old Degree.” That “Title divine” is no longer current. Things have changed. The old relationship is gone. And yet, just the sound of his voice awakens it all again.
The story continues. The narrator puts a flower in her hair as evidence she is who she is. Her life now is different – and he might not recognize her. This reminds me of how Dickinson began to wear only white dresses and to spend her days only on her family’s property. This new white-clad and retiring woman “might surprise his eye!”
We go with the narrator as she walks to the parlour, unsteady on her feet. She silently enters the room and then in an expression of great love says that when she sees her beloved she sees “all this world contains – Just his face…”
|Antique plummet (plumb bob)|
The next line is pure Dickinson: “We talk in careless – and in toss.” The truncated phrases are perfectly clear and delightfully suggestive. The man and woman speak superficially, as if carelessly discussing health and weather and the local news. They toss out words and phrases. And yet in all this conversation they are searching each other. Dickinson says there is “A kind of plummet strain.” A plummet, or plumb bob, is a device for measuring the depth of water or for establishing the center of a structure during construction, or for determining the degree of straightness. In their careless talk, both parties are sounding each other out, shyly trying to find out how much depth was in the other’s seemingly casual remarks. The image is of two plummets (plumb bobs, if you must, but the name is so silly sounding) each observing and taking the measure of each other as they strain downward.
Then the two go for a moonlight stroll. The narrator wants no distractions and she feels perfectly safe, for she leaves her dog at home. Dickinson’s dog, Carlo, was a big Newfoundland who was her usual walking companion. But, again the Gothic detail, the moonlight doesn’t last long. Soon the couple is in the dark without their moon chaperone. But there is no sense of alone-ness. The poet uses ecstatic, heavenly imagery to convey the sense that the couple is not alone because their love is a palpable and supporting presence. An angel, her first example, is not really alone the first time he ventures to fly for he is part of the divine emanation and would not fall. Neither are the dead saints alone for they have joined together “on High.” And so love will bear them up; love joins them with the many lovers eternalized in fable, poetry, and story: Dante and Beatrice, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or Eloise and Abelard.
It must have been a very bittersweet time, this moonlit and dark reunion between two who loved each other extraordinarily. The poet would give “The purple – in my Vein” to relive it. And yet… there is a price. In “Title divine” the poet calls herself “Empress of Calvary” – implying that she has suffered a great deal for the title. In this one she is willing to suffer again, even die; but this time she is not willing to suffer by herself. The beloved must be there with her, counting every drop of her pain.