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31 January 2012

As if some little Arctic flower

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem –
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer –
To firmaments of sun –
To strange, bright crowds of flowers –
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in –
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom!
                                                            - F177 (1860)

I sent this poem to my husband who has gone to the Arctic and been involved in the effects of global warming on vegetation. And if the Arctic does (granted global warming) become decked with fields of flowers inching up from more southern latitudes – complete with birds – “What then?” Well, only “your inference therefrom!” Make of it what you will, in other words.

            But I’m pretty sure Dickinson wasn’t referring to climate change but rather to the idea of a modest little  poet, a very reclusive one not known for overt Christian piety (despite the fundamentalist revival occurring in her village during her life). She preferred a more quiet spirituality that took its most inspired shape from nature – much as John Muir did. Chancing upon Eden, which is how Dickinson often refers to Heaven, after the delights of her own private garden, the poet/flower would be "puzzled." Not awed or ecstatic or surprised, just puzzled as if there is a continuum between heaven and earth. Definitely not Christian theology. 
            What would happen? “Why nothing,” the poet says in a little surgical dig at those who would be surprised to see this particular little flower wander in. It would be right as rain, completely unremarkable. Except, she adds, for what some fictive gossipy “you” would make out of it. Perhaps the “you” would infer that the narrator had been a more orthodox believer than previously thought. Perhaps you might infer that some heavenly clerk made an error. But maybe, just maybe "you" would infer that all those sermons and all those strictures so tightly adhered to were, um, unnecessary.
      I like the colorful image of "continents of summer" lit by "firmaments of sun" and crowded with flowers and birds. What makes it particularly nice – much nicer than the heaven of previous poems where Dickinson scavenges the traditional images of  hosts of angels on golden streets – is that a little reclusive rogue like Emily Dickinson might just wander in.

30 January 2012

If I could bribe them by a Rose

If I could bribe them by a Rose
I'd bring them every flower that grows
From Amherst to Cashmere!
I would not stop for night, or storm –
Or frost, or death, or anyone –
My business were so dear!

If they would linger for a Bird
My Tambourin were soonest heard
Among the April Woods!
Unwearied, all the summer long,
Only to break in wilder song
When Winter shook the boughs!

What if they hear me!
Who shall say
That such an importunity
May not at last avail?
That, weary of this Beggar's face –
They may not finally say, Yes –
To drive her from the Hall?
                                                - F176 (1860)  179


To paraphrase: the squeaky wheel gets the oil. If you  make a pest of yourself, if you are just persistent enough even if you drive everyone crazy, you may well end up achieving your goal. Here the poet doesn’t ever specify her goal but it is something she wants pretty bad. She’s willing to bribe, and the example she gives is roses that she would single-mindedly hunt until every single flower between here and upper India were in her hot little hand. Nothing would stop her – and no one!
Roman Beggar Woman
Edgar Degas
            The second example she gives is that of bird song. She would play her “Tambourin” like a bird in the woods not only through spring and summer, but winter, too. In fact, winter would only spur her to “wilder song.”  So at least metaphorically, those she opportunes are flower and bird lovers. Lucky for Dickinson who was also a flower and bird lover. No doubt, though, in reaching for a metaphor she reached for the beloved things around her.
            In the last stanza she is saying, so what if they hear me and grow tired of me? The strategy might work if only to get rid of me – “drive her from the Hall.” It is left to the reader to deduce who “They” may be. I’m happy with the ambiguity, though. By not spelling it out she leaves the poem open enough for readers to supply their own heartfelt desires. Surely many of us would be willing to make a pest of ourselves, go all out, give 101 percent, for that goal we dream of.
            But what might the poet be wanting? A few things spring to mind: Inclusion in the lives or in important events by people she loves (perhaps the Bowles or Austin and Sue); or maybe publishers who might publish her poetry (and this is a strategy modern poets adopt as well – wear the poetry editor down until she finally publishes something); or – and this seems too easy, Heaven. She would really really like to get to heaven. I like this interpretation because she refers to herself as a “Beggar” and that is traditionally a metaphor for a supplicant for paradise. Also, the idea of a “Hall” where one petitions is akin to some of her other imagery of heaven where there are hosts of angels, buildings, hierarchies, etc. Dickinson also commonly refers to angels, and they are typically the sort of angel to whom bird song and flowers would appeal. Ultimately, however, who knows?
            Dickinson makes a lot of use of rhyme although there isn’t a rhyme scheme: In stanza 1 it is AABCDB; stanza 2 is AABCCD; and stanza 3 is ABACDDC. Metrically, the poem is straightforward. Each stanza has two iambic tetrameter lines, a trimeter, two more iambic tetrameter lines followed by a final trimeter. The last stanza divides the first tetrameter into two lines in order to better emphasize her need for courage: “They” might hear her!
            Another emphasis comes with the spondee, the two adjacent accented syllables, in the last stanza: “say, Yes.” These two syllables are key to the poem and so deserve the emphasis.
            Whatever it was Dickinson wanted, I for one hope she got it!

29 January 2012

I cautious, scanned my little life –


I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what would last till Heads like mine
Should be a’dreaming laid.

I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo - my priceless Hay

Was not upon the "Scaffold" –
Was not upon the "Beam" –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.

Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity's guiltless –
My business is, to find!

So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?
                                                - F175 (1860)  178

Winnowing Wheat
followingthevoicewithin.blogspot.com
The poem takes as its beginning the separating of the wheat (the good part) from the chaff (the bad, husky parts), which is a Biblical metaphor. The poet pauses in her life and takes a careful, “cautious” stock. She threw out (“winnowed”) what she thought transient and put aside in a supposedly safe place what she thought would endure her entire life.
            The safe place, though, the “Barn” (in keeping with the agricultural metaphor of wheat), turns out not to be very safe at all, for when she goes to look at her treasures they are gone. Interestingly, rather than thinking she was just a failed or careless “Farmer,” she becomes a “Cynic.” She even wonders if God is guilty!
            The reader is wondering all this time just what these treasures are. In the last stanza she refers to them as “Hearts” yet also as a singular “Thee.” As she ransacks everywhere looking for it/them as it is her “business” to find them, she addresses them directly: How is it with you? Are you still here in the place “Love provided Thee?”
            The Barn is clearly a metaphor for her own heart for love has provided this barn and what other holding place does love offer besides a heart? We know that Dickinson loved several people who faded for one reason or another from her life: Sue, another couple of girlfriends, and a couple of men friends (mentors, Masters) who died. We also know that she came to adopt a more flexible even doubting approach to religion than that she had grown up with and which surrounded her. It seems to me that she is either referring to her beloved people or her religious values (chastity, faith, submission, etc.) and when she found them lost (or at least not valued as much), she became cynical. Thus her comment that the Deity might not be “guiltless.”
            Alternatively, she may be referring to those people she once loved. She was a “thriving Farmer” of loving relationships, but after she put the friendships away for safekeeping, they vanished. One can be cynical about love in much the same way one becomes cynical with religion. There has to be something actually “there” or  you lose faith.
            The last two lines have quite a bit of pathos. They reflect the last hope against deep disappointment. Perhaps the treasures are there but the poet just can’t see them. At any rate, it is too often the poet’s lot to not be satisfied. Satisfaction doesn’t breed poetry quite as easily for most people as longing – or even cynicism.

27 January 2012

Portraits are to daily faces


Portraits are to daily faces
As an Evening West,
To a fine, pedantic sunshine –
In a satin Vest!
                                                - F174 (1860)  170


Dickinson must be thinking of those portrait painters who specialized in bringing out the inner interestingness or beauty or whatnot of their subjects. The portrait looks intriguing and fine; the person in the flesh – not so much. It’s hard to look grand or intriguing with your “daily face.”
            The second stanza takes the same idea but applies it to sunset vs. day. The gorgeous skies streaked with pink, lavender and crimson imply an artist’s hand. The sky is beautifully alive and also represents that limnal time between the work-a-day afternoon and the promises of the evening and night.
            In an interesting conflation, she compares the fascinations of sunset to an anthropomorphized day: it struts about pedantically in its “satin Vest” like a satisfied banker about to lecture you on the value of saving. It’s a nice economy: Dickinson gets double use from the image – both from the sun as a smug and satisfied daily presence as well as from the first line with its “daily faces.”  There is a lot packed into this little poem and it has a clever wit that demands a bit of thought.
She uses trochaic meter, perhaps because of the strength of beginning the poem on an accented syllable. “Portraits” is a strong word and kickstarts the poem. The corresponding word, “West,” is given extra emphasis at the end of line two. Because it butts up against another accented syllable, “To,” the tongue lingers over it.
The poem is written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter, so “West” is cutting off the second line one syllable too early (dropping a syllable from a meter scheme is called “catalexis). The last line, similarly, ends with “Vest” and cuts off a syllable. Poets often try to end a line with a strong word, and this one is made even stronger because of the rhyme with West.
And that reminds me of how as a child I remembered which direction the sun rose and set:
The sun is like a bun: it rises in the Yeast and sets behind the Vest.

26 January 2012

Except to Heaven, she is nought.


Except to Heaven, she is nought.
Except for Angels – lone.
Except to some wide-wandering Bee
A flower superfluous blown.

Except for winds – provincial.
Except by Butterflies
Unnoticed as a single dew
That on the Acre lies.

The smallest Housewife in the grass,
Yet take her from the Lawn
And somebody has lost the face
That made Existence – Home!
                                                -F173 (1860)  154

Oh the humble little daisy or dandelion – so easily overlooked or, even if noticed, disregarded as unimportant. Heaven sees her as something, though, and Angels. And on an earthly basis, Dickinson’s triumvirate of Birds, Breeze, and Butterflies appreciate her.
            Like a housewife, she sets up a little home. Her leaves provide shade and even food to snail and grasshopper. Her nectar is sought after by bees and butterflies. Even winds, those widely-traveled cosmopolitan gentlemen, stop by for a visit.
A lonely dandelion
serenityinthegarden.blogspot.com
            Dickinson loved daisies and dandelions so it makes sense that she writes about the little meadow flowers here. But she may also be thinking of herself. As primary caretaker of her mother, as the baker of the house, she was the one who made the family house home. Yet she was just a tiny thing and fancied herself a little humble flower. She even refers to herself in poems and letters as Daisy.
            The poem is written in common ballad or hymn form. The first stanza shows us that the little flower isn’t one among a throng. Instead, she was by herself, and only a “wide-ranging” bee could discover. She would be alone if not for Angels. On the assumption that the flower is standing in for the poet herself, we might read this as Dickinson recognizing that she is alone and only Heaven, angels, and some particularly astute and discerning individual will recognize her value. Common folk won’t. And that was true for Dickinson (at least as far as the discerning individuals were concerned). Her poetry wasn’t for everyone in in her day. She had given up on fame and fortune and being widely published.
            The last stanza tries to make the best of things. Sure the flower is never going to be widely admired or even noticed, but it is critical to someone’s happiness. If she were to truly disappear, the town / family would be much worse off.

At last – to be identified!


At last – to be identified!
At last – the Lamps upon your side –
The rest of Life – to see –

Past Midnight –  Past the Morning Star –
Past Sunrise – Ah, What leagues there were –
Between Our Feet – and Day!
                                                            - F172 (1860)  174 

As if to be alive on earth were to be in the darkness, Dickinson writes here of the “Day” of heaven. In heaven our true selves will be known – we will be “identified.” We will see more clearly too, for the “Lamps” to shine upon the eternal world and truth will be available. We can see “The rest of Life” as opposed to just the day-to-day life here on our little planet.
            But to get there one must travel past Midnight, the Morning Star, and even Sunrise. All of those images are of night, but she is writing of Day. She is meaning death, of course. In the time between death and some sort of awakening (she is not a consistent believer in bodily resurrection) lies an incredible distance. Another way of looking at the distance is to think of the physical feet that are an important part of our earthly bodies and of a spiritual Day. Quite a space separate them!
            The poem is written in a sort of breathless haste as though the poet has had a vision. It also seems as if she is tired of the limited truth we can know while still in our bodies. And so the idea of death is the idea of discovery.

23 January 2012

A fuzzy fellow, without feet,

A fuzzy fellow, without feet,

Yet doth exceeding run!
Of velvet, is his Countenance,
And his Complexion, dun!

Sometime, he dwelleth in the grass!
Sometime, upon a bough,
From which he doth descend in plush
Upon the Passer-by!

All this in summer –
But when winds alarm the Forest Folk,
He taketh Damask Residence –
And struts in sewing silk!

Then, finer than a Lady,
Emerges in the spring!
A Feather on each shoulder!
You'd scarce recognize him!

By Men, yclept Caterpillar!
By me! But who am I,
To tell the pretty secret
Of the Butterfly!
                                                                 -  F171 (1860)  173

A charming description of a caterpillar and it’s eventual metamorphosis into a butterfly, Dickinson begins the poem as a riddle but then gives the answer away in the last stanza. I have to quarrel a bit, though. It seems the “fuzzy fellow” does have little feet-like bits. And run? Well, scoot, maybe.
Who says a caterpillar
doesn't have feet?
            The “gait” of the poem is a bit “spasmodic” (as Dickinson herself admitted of her poetry). While most of the poem is in common ballad or hymn form – iambic meter in alternating tetrameter and trimeter – the third stanza goes haywire. It begins with the spondee “All this” and is a catalectic trimeter (missing one syllable) rather than a tetrameter line. But there’s a reason for this as the line is a pivot – we are going to now see the caterpillar begin his dramatic change. The next line is in catalectic trochaic pentameter. There’s a reason for this, too! Dickinson put the “But” in that line that should have been, metrically speaking, in the first. This would have made the first line trimeter and the second tetrameter – still a variance from  the ballad form, but more regular. However, the critical emphasis would be lost. Dickinson wants that line break there, and for good reason, as it further emphasizes the break: the break in the life cycle and the break in the poem. Clever, no?
            I love the “Feather on each shoulder” of what once was the caterpillar. “You’d scarce recognize him!” he’s such a fine dandy now. The poet modestly ends by saying she shouldn’t really reveal the lovely butterfly’s humble beginnings, as if she were talking about a regal beauty who began as a scullery maid and then had plastic surgery.  

21 January 2012

'Tis so much joy! 'Tis so much joy!

'Tis so much joy! 'Tis so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I,
Have ventured all upon a throw!
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so –
This side the Victory!

Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if indeed I fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!

And if I gain! Oh Gun at Sea!
Oh Bells, that in the steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in –
And might extinguish me!
                                                -  F 170  (1860)   172

Something big has happened and the reader is not given much of a clue as to the nature of the big thing. The poet has gambled everything – “ventured all upon a throw!” – and is in a state of ecstatic waiting. There are sixteen exclamation marks in eighteen lines and that is a lot of excitement. Let’s just go through the poem and see if anything comes of it, nosy as we are.
            The stakes must be high because just the waiting to see if the gamble succeeds brings “so much joy!” This despite the fact that  the gambler will be even poorer should she lose than she is now. I suspect that a poor person, keeping to the gambling metaphor, has a better risk/benefit ratio than a person who has much and gambles all, but we’ll let that slide. What she means is that “I have so little that I should hoard what I have rather than gamble it away.” The last half of the first stanza is a bit problematic. She’s ventured, she’s gained (“Yes!”), but also she has “Hesitated so –.”
            I think what the hesitation means is that before the gamble she was hesitating before the risk. She waited a long time before finally taking the plunge. Just doing so means she has “gained.”
            And then the sophistries of rationalization. All the “Life is but Life! And Death […] Bliss … Breath… Defeat” stuff is just a way of saying, “well, let the worst (or best) befall me. It would have been much worse if I had done nothing and stayed forever in the state of hesitation.” It is easy enough to say “to know the worst, is sweet!”, but not so easy to actually live through the worst.
            I’m reminded of a psychologist who said to ask yourself to identify the worst thing that could happen if you took a certain action. Then you should decide whether or not you could handle that worst thing. If you could, then go for it. If not, move on. The poet here seems to skate on the superficial: “Death [is] but Death,” etc. She is essentially dismissing Death and defeat as better than never having ventured (“nothing ventured, nothing gained”).
            This stanza convinces me that Dickinson is not talking about religious matters here. For if she were gambling her immortal soul, then Death and Defeat would not be so easily dismissed. No, she must be talking about Love or Poetry (knowing the poet we can dismiss other types of ventures such as moving to India or buying a business). Let’s move on.
            Although in the second stanza she claims that “Bliss is but Bliss,” in the final stanza she is very detailed about just what success might mean: guns at sea! Bells ringing in the steeple! It would be so exciting that she wants to hear the news of victory slowly for fear it would kill her. It would be like Heaven – you have to die to experience it fully.
Was Dickinson a secret hedonist?
painting by Frank Dicksee
            In thinking about what sort of Bliss is like dying and going to heaven, like guns at sea or bells ringing, what conclusion might you draw, gentle reader? Ah yes, what else but love. Has the poet said or done or written something that makes her feelings (or hopes or intentions) clear? In this case knowing the worst would be better than hesitating and wondering. In this case defeat would mean nothing but defeat. It’s even possible, thinking of the eroticism of poems soon to come as well as in her three “Master” letters (written from 1858 – 1861), that she is thinking of that crowning act of love … In the second “Master” letter, for example, she writes:
“A love so big it scares her [writing of herself as “Daisy” in the previous sentence], rushing among her small heart – pushing aside the blood – and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm – .”

            In poem 185 she writes, “A Wife – at Daybreak – I shall be – / […] / At Midnight – I am yet a Maid – . Imagery in this an other poems continues to relate heaven and sex. In poem 225 she writes, “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that – / […] How odd the Girl’s life looks /Behind this soft Eclipse – / I think that Earth feels so / To folks in Heaven – now – .” Has the poet signalled to some potential lover that she is done hesitating and ready for "Heaven"?

18 January 2012

Wait till the Majesty of Death


Wait till the Majesty of Death
Invests so mean a brow!
Almost a powdered Footman
Might dare to touch it now!

Wait till in Everlasting Robes
That Democrat is dressed,
Then prate about "Preferment"–
And "Station" – and the rest!

Around this quiet Courtier
Obsequious Angels wait!
Full royal is his Retinue!
Full purple is his state!

A Lord, might dare to lift the Hat
To such a Modest Clay
Since that My Lord – "the Lord of Lords"
Receives unblushingly!
- F 169  (1860)  171
Angels in Heaven
Peter Paul Rubens
Sigh. Dickinson is always trying to cheer people up about death. And it is soooo class conscious. I can hardly wait to get back into her more startling and original work. In this poem some “mean” ordinary person (lower class) has died but the poet says that this “Modest Clay” is releasing a spirit that “Obsequious Angels” are waiting for. There will be a retinue and purple regailia – the whole royal razzmatazz. I’m sorry to read that our forebears in New England were such monarchists at heart – and this not even a hundred years after Independence from Mother England!
            I don’t think Dickinson’s heart was really in the poem, anyway. There aren’t any fresh images and even her creative use of rhyme and meter is missing. Bah humbug.

16 January 2012

Ah, Necromancy Sweet!


Ah, Necromancy Sweet!
Ah, Wizard erudite!
Teach me the skill,

That I instill the pain
Surgeons assuage in vain,
Nor Herb of all the plain
Can heal!
                                    -F 168 (1860)  177

At first read it seems as if the poet wants some serious revenge on someone, as if she’s asking the “Wizard erudite” for a really strong voodoo or poison potion. But then on second reading I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t so much want to “instill the pain” as she wants to “still the pain” or “instill the remedy” for an otherwise incurable pain.
Crystal ball for
scrying the dead
            I don’t really think much of this poem. It has awkward rhythm and a varied line length for no apparent reason.  The poem seems, rather, as a call of heart-deep pain. Surgeons and medicines can’t cure it so she is flattering the necromancer “Sweet” and the “Wizard erudite” in hopes they will teach her how to relieve what bothers her.
            It is also likely that she is appealing to God as Necromancer in Chief. Since necromancy involves communication with the dead, it is likely that the pain comes from the loss of a loved one or else from her dread of the future. The dead, according to necromancy, can step in and out of time and so may be consulted about the future.
            The most Christian interpretation would be that she is asking God to heal her pain. 

I'm the little "Heart's Ease"!


I'm the little "Heart's Ease"!
I don't care for pouting skies!
If the Butterfly delay
Can I, therefore, stay away?

If the Coward Bumble Bee
In his chimney corner stay,
I, must resoluter be!
Who'll apologize for me?

Dear, Old fashioned, little flower!
Eden is old fashioned, too!
Birds are antiquated fellows!
Heaven does not change her blue.
Nor will I, the little Heart's Ease –
Ever be induced to do!
                                                            - F 167 (1860)  176

This is a charming little conversation between the poet and one of her favorite flowers, the Hearts Ease. Author Beth Trissel has this to say about the flower:
The modern day pansies are descendants of the wild viola tricolor also called heartsease. There are many nicknames for this plant that include love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, three-faces-under-a-hood, godfathers and godmothers, flower o’luce, banwort, jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me. We have always called the smaller violas johnny-jump-ups.
The poem begins in the voice of the wild viola who is quite cheeky! She doesn’t care about the unpredictable weather of early spring. She’s not like the butterfly and bumble bee who wait for warmer weather. But then she says, a bit coyly, I think, that since she’s just a “little” wildflower she must be resolute because no one will make any excuses for her.
            Ah, but then the poet comes to her rescue. “Dear, old-fashioned little flower,” she says. Don’t change your ways. Eden and birds and heaven are all steadfast and unchanging. And the little flower pipes up and says that she can’t be induced to change, either.
Heart's Ease Fairy
Cicely Mary Barker
            Dickinson liked to identify herself with modest wildflowers – the daisy was among her favorites – and no doubt she is thinking of herself here, too. When the rain falls on her parade and things don’t go her way, she too will just be “resoluter” and keep true to herself. Just like the Heart’s Ease.
            I particularly like the “Coward Bumble Bee” and that “Birds are antiquated fellows.” And I bet Dickinson didn’t even know that dinosaurs were distant forebears of birds – so they really are “antiquated”!
            The poem is written in two tetrameter quatrains and then a third six-line stanza. Dickinson makes use of a few slant rhymes that help keep the poem in a vernacular tone: Ease / skies; Bee / stay; and my favorite, Flower / fellows.

14 January 2012

Dust is the only Secret –

Dust is the only Secret –
Death, the only One
You cannot find out all about
In his "native town."

Nobody know "his Father" –
Never was a Boy—
Hadn't any playmates,
Or "Early history" –

Industrious! Laconic!
Punctual! Sedate!
Bold as a Brigand!
Stiller than a Fleet!

Builds, like a Bird, too!
Christ robs the Nest –
Robin after Robin
Smuggled to Rest!

                                                F166 (1860)  153

The mystery of death: that and the dust we are buried in are really the only secrets – at least the primary ones the great thinkers contemplate – because what we believe will happen when we die dictates how we live.
            Dickinson takes a rather playful approach here. She anthropomorphizes Death, marveling that unlike normal folk you can’t go look him up or check out his past by going to his “native town.” Today, of course, we would just Google him. No, Death comes to us fully formed: no father, no childhood.
Scott Gearhart
            In the third stanza she ventures a series of character traits that ‘friends’ or acquaintainces might attribute to him: hard working, few words, on time, calm, bold, and “Stiller than a Fleet” – which I take to mean the stately repose of ships on the water. And what could be “stiller” than Death (or more industrius)? The stanza reminds me of newspaper write ups when some one has died or committed a crime. Different people pipe up to talk about the subject.
            The final stanza introduces the Christian aspect: Although Death might be building his grave nests as fast as he can, Christ “robs” the souls from them. Soul after soul are “Smuggled” to their heavenly rest. It’s kind of fun to see Death as a bird building a cozy nest while Christ is here cast as a grave robber.
             

13 January 2012

I have never seen "Volcanoes"—


I have never seen "Volcanoes"—
But, when Travellers tell
How those old – phlegmatic mountains
Usually so still –

Bear within – appalling Ordnance,
Fire, and smoke, and gun,
Taking Villages for breakfast,
And appalling Men –

If the stillness is Volcanic
In the human face
When upon a pain Titanic
Features keep their place –

If at length the smouldering anguish
Will not overcome –
And the palpitating Vineyard
In the dust, be thrown?

If some loving Antiquary,
On Resumption Morn,
Will not cry with joy "Pompeii"!
To the Hills return!
                                                            F165 (1860)   J175

The poem takes a bit of patience to unravel because Dickinson has left out, as she does in numerous poems, certain grammatical constructions that would transition one stanza and thought to another. The first two stanzas start off simply and clearly, leading the reader by almost imperceptible degrees into an awareness of a seething passion of love and/or rage beneath the surface of the poet (although the case is framed as abstract speculation, I doubt if the poet would be surprised that readers make assumptions about her).
            The last three quatrains are phrased as hypotheticals: if this, if this, if this; and it is up to the reader to make the connections. Okay, let’s go:

If humans are like dormant volcanoes, then the face may be quite still while a “pain Titanic” (referring to Titans and the convulsing pain that followed their utter defeat) smolders within. But like an awakened volcano the pain will eventually burst through, overcoming the “Vineyard” of the body (its living wine and fruits), ultimately causing its death and burial “in the dust.” And yet there is the hope of “Resumption Morn” (and Dickinson takes religious liberties here with the idea of Resurrection – as if life were to simply resume rather than the souls resurrected into a new spiritual state in heaven) where even Pompeii, the fabulous city famously buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius will shake off its ashes in response to the call of a “loving Antiquary” or historian.

 This is the first of several poems Dickinson will write that liken her passions to volcanoes. Unlike later poems, though, this one ends on a note of hope. The historian can recall his beloved Pompeii. Perhaps whoever aroused this passion in the poet will also call her back to life as well.
Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
            Dickinson would have heard quite a bit about volcanoes. Pompeii was being actively uncovered during her lifetime, and Frederick Church’s famous “The Heart of the Andes” had just gone on display in New York and was all the buzz. But she eases into this poem with her homely little bit about never having seen a volcano but having heard travelers talk about them. She transforms what they said into images of war and mythical dragons. The “appalling Ordnance” includes guns as well as “fire, and smoke.” Like a dragon swooping down from its mountain lair, the volcano also takes “Villages for breakfast.” The appalling ordinance and violence is also “appalling man” – a neat bit of grammatical fun as “appalling” is employed first as an adjective and then as a verb.

            Although the torment seems deadly real, readers can be glad for the volcano churning inside Dickinson because no doubt that is where a lot of the poetry came from. 

12 January 2012

I can't tell you – but you feel it –


I can't tell you – but you feel it –
Nor can you tell me –
Saints, with ravished slate and pencil
Solve our April Day!

Sweeter than a vanished frolic
From a vanished green!
Swifter than the hoofs of Horsemen
Round a Ledge of dream!

Modest, let us walk among it
With our faces veiled –
As they say polite Archangels
Do in meeting God!

Not for me – to prate about it!
Not for you – to say
To some fashionable Lady
"Charming April Day"!

Rather – Heaven's "Peter Parley"!
By which Children slow
To sublimer Recitation
Are prepared to go!
                                                F164 (1860)   65

Dickinson treats the “April Day” with sweet reverence. The day, so full of spring and hope and joy presages the joy of heaven. The idea of heaven is introduced in the second half of the first stanza. The poet begins by admitting she can’t adequately express what is so special about April, nor does she expect her audience to do any better. But she calls on the Saints – those departed Christians so long in the grave that their school slates and pencils are “ravished” by time – to “solve” the sense of wonderful reverence. The saints can also give their heavenly perspective, for April is often the month of Easter--rebirth and resurrection.
Spring in Mona Vale
            She goes on from a future stance, looking back on earthly springs as a “vanished frolic” and the days of spring passing as quickly as horses through a dream. The third stanza takes her back to earth and she calls on us to walk in modest awe as if about to encounter the Deity himself. After all, would you stop some “fashionable Lady” and babble on about what a nice day it is? (Well, maybe you would – I would, but this isn’t Victorian era New England). Instead, we should take out our childhood primers (Peter Parley wrote children’s books) so that even if we are “slow” at grasping the sublime, we may be properly prepared.
            The poem begins with a bit of a whisper: “I can’t tell you – but you feel it –,” and then turns into a cheerful anticipation of the joys to come. The first and fourth stanzas echo each other with the “not me – not you” direct addresses to the reader. The entire poem has a comradely air as the poet addresses the reader directly – as if we were strolling arm in arm with Emily Dickinson on a glorious spring day!

10 January 2012

By a flower – By a letter –

By a flower – By a letter –
By a nimble love –
If I weld the Rivet faster –
Final fast – above –

Never mind my breathless Anvil!
Never mind Repose!
Never mind the sooty faces
Tugging at the Forge!
                                                F163 (1860)   109

Here is someone desperate for love. The poet hopes to rivet a relationship one flower and one letter at a time. Her own love has to be nimble – no complacency or sleeping on the job as this longed-for lover is hard to get. The rivet has to be “fast” and completed “faster” than she might have hoped.
            Her “Anvil” is “breathless” from all the effort – her body is the anvil and she is panting from the exertion and desire. Foreget “Repose!” Now, though, what about the “sooty faces” that tug at her “Forge”? She is in a sort of Hell, surrounded by inner demons, but cannot stop herself. 
            The power of this poem lies in the building tension that leads to a revelation of real horror. Dickinson begins quite gently with the flower and letter and “nimble love.” The sudden introduction of the rivet is a bit jarring – it’s an industrial image contrasting with the poet’s sending a flower or letter. It has sinister overtones as if from a scene in Ring of the Nibelungs or Lord of the Rings where something is being manufactured in order to exert some sort of control.
            The second stanza introduces a manic quality. The riveter is breathless and cannot even take a break. She is driven, and the notion is underscored by the exclamation marks. The last two lines, placing the action in the underworld or a Christian Hell, have shock value even thought the poem has been leading inexorably to this point.
Nibelung re-forging Sigfried's magic
sword to regain the Ring
            The meter of the poem contributes to the descent: the three repeating trochees of “By a …” and “Never mind…” take on a breathless rhythm, reflecting the “breathless Anvil,” as if the poet is being lashed. The last line of the first stanza, “Final fast – above –,” are hammer strokes driving the rivet in. The alliterating “f”s (that link back to “faster” in the line before) have a cruel percussiveness that presages the final word, “Forge.”
            It’s a very economical poem – eight lines to get from flowers to the Anvil of the Damned! Every element works together. The question remains, though: did Dickinson write this poem with someone in mind? Sewall suggests Samuel Bowles, but we will never know for sure.