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31 March 2012

I stole them from a Bee –


I stole them from a Bee –
Because – Thee – 

Sweet plea – 

He pardoned me!
                                                            F226 (1861)  200

One is tempted to gnash one’s teeth over a poem like this. Stole what from a Bee? There aren’t a lot of options: honey (combs), stings, buzzing or humming, or flowers.  Regardless, the poet is expressing happy relief. Someone, a “He,” has pardoned her. By use of the legal term “pardon” rather than “forgiven,” the  “He” is portrayed as a judge. This legal gloss is reinforced by the word “plea” – which is what lawyers do in court. We also have the poet making a confession: she “stole them,” whatever they are.  
We have to work hard for meaning here because the grammar is difficult and words seem to be intentionally omitted. But correctness here doesn’t matter at all. The poem was not written for publication and is certainly not among anthologized works. So just enjoy it! For fun I re-write the poem with what I’m proposing are elided words and clarifying punctuation:
I stole them from a Bee
Because of Thee.
Sweet plea,
He pardoned me!

A sweet plea to a hungry bee
The “Sweet plea” is just too close to “sweet pea” to be ignored. And sweet peas are definitely bee magnets. I propose that the poet has “stolen” some sweet peas for a friend, the “Thee,” despite the claims a busy bee had on the flowers. She made a “sweet plea” about her theft of the sweet peas to the bee, and he pardoned her. That makes the poem a fun one.
An alternate gloss would be that she has stolen the happy buzzy humming from a bee because she has plead as sweetly as possible to someone for forgiveness for something and forgiveness was granted. But I think the word play on a courtroom scene as well as the sweet plea/sweet pea twist suggest a light-hearted poem rather than a small melodrama.
            I enjoy some of the poetic techniques. The first line trots off in a nice iambic trimeter. It trips off the tongue. But then things thicken up fast with a lot of adjacent accented syllables. I underline them here: BecauseThee – / Sweet plea – / He pardoned me! In addition, each line ends with a rhyme of “Bee” – reinforced by the assonance of “Sweet” in the third line. The effect is that the first line is read as a hurried whisper – a confession; the rest of the short poem must be read slowly and with emphasis as befitting a parody of great relief.
            

30 March 2012

I'm "wife" – I've finished that –


I'm "wife" – I've finished that – 

That other state – 

I'm Czar – I'm "Woman" now –

It's safer so – 



How odd the Girl's life looks

Behind this soft Eclipse – 

I think that Earth feels so

To folks in Heaven – now – 



This being comfort – then

That other kind – was pain – 

But why compare?

I'm "Wife"! Stop there!
                                                            F225 (1861)  199

In a society that values marriage highly and spinsterhood not at all, the creative spinster finds outlets in work, art, or else just thumbs her nose at society. Sometimes she is profoundly lonely. Emily Dickinson took joy in her poetry, her baking, her nephews and family, her garden – and in love. In this poem she imagines what it would feel like to put girlhood and spinsterhood behind. By the time this poem was written she would certainly have been considered a spinster.
            The frustration she has with her current status comes through loud and clear when she calls it “That other state.” In comparison, to be a “wife” is to be a “Czar” and a “’Woman.’” The change is put in cosmic terms: it’s an “Eclipse.” As a wife she is able to view life from the sunny side and look back on the Girl who on the far side sees only a dark disk hiding the sun. But it is a “soft” eclipse as if in one step a girl goes from the dark to the light. The transformation seen from the bright, wife side she likens to life after death. The “folks in Heaven” look back on earthly people and see them as “odd,” not fully aware. That’s how the “Girl’s life looks” to a married woman.
People felt sorry for the poor
spinster who must stay in
perpetual girlhood.
            But not only odd: the poet says “It’s safer” to be a wife. The 19th-century girl and spinster must worry about protection, income, and their place in society. Women didn’t yet have the vote, couldn’t hold many jobs except low paying ones. Think of what it might mean in a fundamentalist country today to be a woman: you are considered inferior to a man, you are considered easy prey by the unscrupulous. But we needn’t go that far. Dickinson wouldn’t have been in real danger as she had a strong and caring father and brother. She came from an educated and affluent family. And in actuality, Massachusetts had more unmarried women than other states, many of whom announced their rejection of marriage on principal or because they wanted the freedom. But several of Dickinson's other poems talk about being adrift or lost, and many talk about loneliness and pain. Perhaps she meant it would be safer to have an anchor and a soul mate.
            The state of marriage she consequently calls “comfort” while the other is “pain.” But then in a flippant ending, as if to quash any challenges and questions – from her own mind as well as from others – she says, “I’m ‘Wife’! Stop there!” ‘Nuff said, in other words. The ending ties in nicely with the first line where she says “I’ve finished that.” The dreamy and thoughtful second stanza contrasts with the abrupt conviction of the first and last. The lines are longer, too.
            The rhyme scheme is AABBCCDDEEFF – all of them slant rhymes: that/state; now/so; looks/Eclipse; so/now; then/pain; compare/Stop there. One nice touch is the repeated “that” in the first and second lines. It gives an almost stuttering effect: that…that…other state. The effect underscores the belittlement of spinsterhood. Not long ago we still called unmarried women 'old maids' – so we can't feel too smug.

There is a very interesting article about unmarried women in New England in the 1800s here.

29 March 2012

An awful Tempest mashed the air –


An awful Tempest mashed the air – 

The clouds were gaunt and few – 

A Black – as of a spectre's cloak

Hid Heaven and Earth from view.



The creatures chuckled on the Roofs – 

And whistled in the air – 

And shook their fists – 

And gnashed their teeth – 

And swung their frenzied hair –



The morning lit – the Birds arose – 

The Monster's faded eyes

Turned slowly to his native coast – 

And peace – was Paradise!
                                                            F224 (1861)  198

The Northeastern U.S. can get hit pretty hard by stray hurricanes that make their way up the coast in the summer. More often, though, they get pelted by Nor’easters – which can come during any season. In this poem Dickinson shows off  her chops in a traditional ballad about a monster storm. Traditional ballads make use of alternating trimeter and tetrameter lines (sometimes combined into longer lines). That would be lines of 8 and 6 syllables (4 and 3 poetic feet).
            By way of comparison, here are a couple of stanzas from one of the most famous ballads: “Sir Patric Spens,” first recorded in the 18th century but describing an incident in the 13th.

They had not sailed a league, a league, 

A league but barely three, 

When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud, 

And gurly grew the sea. 



The anchors brake and the top-masts lap, 

It was such a deadly storm; 

And the waves came o'er the broken ship 

Till all her sides were torn.

I think Dickinson’s poem holds up very nicely; I only wish she’d gone on and made a bit of an epic out of it. Alas, after a few exciting descriptions of fiends, monsters, and specters, the storm  peters out overnight leaving a heavenly and no doubt very welcome peace.
            A lot of the excitement comes from the very vivid verbs Dickinson wields. The “Tempest mashed the air”; demonic creatures chuckle, whistle, shake their fists, gnash their teeth, and – best – swing “their frenzied hair.” That last description calls up the image of bushes and small trees whipping about in the terrible wind. The chuckling and whistling and gnashing of teeth are very aural: you can hear the sound of the wind rattling the windows and whistling down the chimney. But the visuals are most impressive: we have a “Monster” with a “gaunt” and “Black” spectre’s cloak sweeping in and darkening the sky so that even the earth is hard to see. He comes with attendent “creatures” that seem quite crazed. But finally, after the long night is over and he is worn out by all the exertion, the Monster turns his sleepy eyes away from town and heads back to sea.

27 March 2012

Morning – is the place for Dew –

Morning – is the place for Dew – 

Corn – is made at Noon – 

After dinner light – for flowers – 

Dukes – for setting sun!
                                                            F223 (1861)  197

The Duke out for dinner
after sunset
Dickinson was a nature lover even from within the perimeters of her home and town. She traveled  few times in her youth and twenties but soon became a stay-at-home – eventually never leaving her property at all! But one can see quite a bit from home – or at least one can in rural areas or in 19th-Century towns. And so Dickinson would encounter the morning dew as she wandered outside in the morning. At noon she could watch the heat begin to ripen the corn in her garden. “Dinner” here would refer to the midday meal. After dinner, then would be the full heat of the day when all the flowers have opened up and turned their faces to the sun.
            But all that natural stuff falls by the wayside when it comes to sunsets. Their royal reds, golds, and purples suggest nothing less than dukedom.
            But to be fair, Dickinson may well be referring to the great eagle-owl of Europe, Bubo maximus­ – a relative of the Great Horned Owl – who was known as a Duke owl. That’s more likely and more in keeping with the poem, isn’t it? And this Duke would indeed come out after the sun sets in order to hunt down his dinner.

26 March 2012

Dying! Dying in the night!


Dying! Dying in the night!

Won't somebody bring the light

So I can see which way to go

Into the everlasting snow?



And "Jesus"! Where is Jesus gone?

They said that Jesus – always came – 

Perhaps he doesn't know the House – 

This way, Jesus, Let him pass!



Somebody run to the great gate

And see if Dollie's coming! Wait!

I hear her feet upon the stair!

Death won't hurt – now Dollie's here!
                                                            F222 (1861)   158

This is a poem of interest mainly to those interested in Dickinson’s personal life. However, since much of Dickinson’s poetry is written as specific responses to the pains and pleasures of her life, biographical  material is helpful. What’s of biographical interest in this poem are her irreverence towards “’Jesus’” – which adds complexity to what we know of her spirituality since in numerous other poems she is tender and humble towards him – and her dependence on Dollie / Sue Austin. There is a cycle of “Sue” poems in which Dickinson professes her love and need for Sue or else her sense of neglect and suspicion. As recently as poem F218, You love me – you are sure, she was hoping Sue would be honest about whether or not she returned Dickinson’s love.
Antarctic whiteout – impossible
to know which way to go
            Here, the poet proposes that dying would be like passing into “everlasting snow.” Snow means various things in Dickinson poems: purity, virtue, poetry (the white pages), and heavenly / angelic. It is the “heavenly” aspect that the poet faces as she dies. But rather than facing a welcoming parade of snowy angel wings or fluffy clouds surrounding Paradise, the dying person faces an ominous whiteout as she seemingly loses consciousness. She calls for light so that she won't be lost, as if there is such confusion after death that a guide is needed.
            The assumed guide would have been Jesus, but the narrator dismisses the idea with scorn. She puts "'Jesus'" in quotation marks as if he were an amusing fiction. Then she italicizes the name as if the line is sarcastic. He “always” comes to ease the transition between life and death, but now he is is nowhere to be seen. The sarcasm continues: maybe he “doesn’t know the House” – as if he would need a map. Then, mockingly, she calls out as if she were a policeman at the scene of a crime calling out to the crowd to let the doctor pass.
            Jesus doesn’t come, but that is all for the good because the narrator can hear Dollie coming up the stairs to the bedroom, and Dollie will somehow accomplish what the narrator doubted Jesus could do: ease the passing from the living to the dead. “Death won’t hurt” as long as Dollie is at her side. She will be the light and the guide. This is a pretty huge burden to place on your friend! Small wonder that Sue might be accused of neglect towards Emily Dickinson.
           
The poem begins with an echo of Blake’s famous poem, “The Tiger," which begins,
TIGER, tiger, burning bright             
In the forests of the night,             
What immortal hand or eye             
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

and then after painting a grim and deadly portrait of the fierce tiger, Blake wonders:
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Dickinson almost surely was familiar with this poem. But this one of hers lacks the seriousness of Blakes and makes a failed stab at a light tone. 

25 March 2012

He was weak, and I was strong – then –


He was weak, and I was strong – then – 

So He let me lead him in – 

I was weak, and He was strong then – 

So I let him lead me – Home.



'Twasn't far – the door was near – 

'Twasn't dark – for He went – too – 

'Twasn't loud, for He said nought – 

That was all I cared to know.



Day knocked – and we must part – 

Neither – was strongest – now – 

He strove – and I strove – too – 

We didn't do it – tho'!
                                                            F221 (1861)  190

Isn’t this just the way with new lovers? First one partner is bashful, or “weak,” and then the other. To be strong, typically, would be to resist temptation while to be “weak” is to give in.  But the poet here associates strength with the drive for sexual completion. First the narrator is the strong urging one. She invites him in. But then she has second thoughts, perhaps, while his valiant manhood asserts itself. And so, she, weakly trying to resist temptation, gives in to him and lets him lead her “Home.” That is a nice way of saying the union was deeply satisfying – more than just a gratification. It had the sense of rightness and belonging as coming home.
A famous pair of lovers who had
trouble parting at dawn
            The second stanza sets up a series of parallel structures: “’Twasn’t” this or that. The door was handy and the dark hardly mattered for they were together. The lover didn’t say anything – and that was just fine for the narrator because she didn’t want to know anything he might have said. They were, by that time, communicating on a deeper level.
            But then, like Romeo and Juliet who hear the lark sing and know they must part, the lovers hear the knock of dawn. Alas, both were “weak” and although they each tried to separate, neither had the strength. The last line has a delicious ambiguity: “We didn’t do it – tho’!” In today’s vernacular the line might be read as indicating that although they spent the night together they had no sex. Cuddle points! It seems more likely, though that when “Day knocked” and they tried to part, they couldn’t do it. They lingered together, the naughty pair, dawdling in bed doing who-knows-what.
            The poem lacks the Christian and maidenly virtues espoused by most good citizens of the day. It’s more in line with the delight Walt Whitman professed for all things physical. However, it may be that like Whitman, the chaste poet is simply celebrating the heady bliss of love and desire.
 I can’t help being reminded of a few verses from 2 Corinthians (6-10), though, and I wonder if Dickinson didn’t also have these verses in mind. Paul is writing to the Corinthians who are part of his long-distance ministry. He says he won’t boast about his “surpassingly great revelations” (a sly way of not boasting, no?) but instead will boast about his weakness, his “thorn in the flesh” – and don’t we all wish we knew just what that thorn was! Anyway, he reports that when he prayed to be free of the weakness that the Lord “said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And so Paul concludes that he “delights in weakness … For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Read with these verses in mind the poem becomes quite funny in its Paul-like conflation of weakness with strength.
            In any case, the zig-zagging role reversals of who is weak and who is strong – but how they both got what they wanted, is all quite delightful. I like the verb “strove” in the last stanza. It lends a Herculean sense to their struggle to separate. All in all it’s a light treatment of secret passion, as if two children got away with something forbidden and wonderful.  

It's such a little thing to weep –


It's such a little thing to weep – 

So short a thing to sigh – 

And yet – by Trades – the size of these

We men and women die!
                                                            F220 (1861)  189

While some folks’ lives may be full of derring-do and heroic deeds or noble self sacrifice that achieves great ends, most of us live, as Thoreau (Dickinson’s contemporary who died a year after this was poem was written) wrote in Walden, “lives of quiet desperation.” Shakespeare had MacBeth say upon learning of his wife’s death:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Girl with a Dead Canary Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time.

Here, the poet measures lifetimes by such “little” and “short” things as weeping and sighing. These are the “Trades” – or trade goods – that mark the passage of our days. And then we die! Happy thought! Although the poet might have chosen happier words such as “laugh” or “smile,” and we know that Dickinson was apt to laugh and smile (in addition to tears and sighs), she was not out of tune with the literary conventions of her time where women were considered the dainty sex, sentimental and liable to swoon or faint at any small shock – let alone weep or sigh.
            Another of Dickinson’s contemporaries, Walt Whitman, sounded the polar opposite tone as he celebrated himself and all things wild and manly and strong. He was as far from Puritan Amherst as could be:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

The poem is a simply ballad-style quatrain

23 March 2012

My River runs to thee –


My River runs to thee – 

Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?


My River wait reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!


I'll fetch thee Brooks

From spotted nooks – 


Say Sea – take Me?
                                                            F219 (1861)  162

The mighty oceans and seas are receptacles for all the rain that runs off the hills and plains into rivulets, brooks, streams and majestic rivers. The water runs downhill, looking for its place of rest at the lowest point. And so the basins that hold the oceans stay full. This love poem comes from a river rushing towards its appointed end, the “Blue Sea” and asking hopefully if it will be welcomed. As if signing a formal letter, the River will “wait reply.” As if a job applicant or someone else asking a great favor, the River hopes the Sea will be gracious.
The Heathcote R. flowing into the
Pacific near Sumner, NZ.
            Just as the ocean is fed by rivers, so rivers are fed by brooks and streams. In order to make herself more welcome, the River promises to “fetch” all its feeder brooks from their shady “nooks,” adding their water to her own. There is a nice play on words here, as “Brooks” might be read as “Books” – which are also kept in little nooks with dappled light from the windows. As this poem was sent to Mary Bowles who was probably a great reader, this allusion would be apropos.
            The poem ends with a childishly playful plea: “Say Sea – take Me?” The question mark turns what might otherwise seem a demand into a sweet request.
            The metaphor is of love. The beloved is like the sea and the river wants only to merge with it. To adorn herself the river will bring the most lovely little brooks to add to the beloved’s glory and contentment. This metaphor was espressed much more concisely in two lines from a letter to Samuel Bowles that have been deemed a poem (#206):
Least Rivers – docile to some sea.
My Caspian – thee.

            Dickinson usually sent her poems to Samuel Bowles rather than his wife, Mary. A bit transparent, perhaps, but women in that era were much more effusive in their protestations of love and affection to each other so perhaps Mary didn’t find anything amiss. It is difficult to overlook a deeper sexuality in the poem, though, in light of other more explicit poems where the sea suggests sexual passion. In “Wild Nights – Wild Nights,” for example, Dickinson writes of throwing out the compass and chart to row “in Eden – / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor – tonight – / In Thee!”
           
Sprinkled throughout the poem, and the poem's primary rhyme, are long "e"s: thee, Sea, me, graciously, Sea, Me. Along with the many "s" sounds, this gives the poem the sound of the sea (“Say Sea – take Me?” has just the sound of a quiet wave gliding up the shore and back) or the sliding of the river through the estuary. The poem is written in rhyming couplets with a final single line that echoes the second line. The slant rhyme of "reply" and graciously" in the second couplet ties "graciously" in to the Sea / Me rhymes as just discussed. 



22 March 2012

You love me – you are sure –

You love me – you are sure –

I shall not fear mistake – 

I shall not cheated wake – 

Some grinning morn – 

To find the Sunrise left – 

And Orchards – unbereft – 

And Dollie – gone!



I need not start – you're sure – 

That night will never be – 

When frightened – home to Thee I run – 

To find the windows dark – 

And no more Dollie – mark – 

Quite none?



Be sure you're sure – you know –

I'll bear it better now – 

If you'll just tell me so – 

Than when – a little dull Balm grown – 

Over this pain of mine – 

You sting – again!
                                                            F218 (1861)  156

In its expression of fearful insecurity in love, the poem mentions two kinds of pain. The first is the dull ache of dread. The narrator fears that the love object, Dollie, doesn’t truly love her despite Dollie’s implied claim to the contrary. This fear causes an anticipatory pain that one “grinning morn” the “Sunrise” – or Dollie – will be gone, or that some night when the narrator needs Dollie, she won’t  be there. The “windows dark” seem to indicate that Dollie might be gone for good.
Some night the house might be
completely dark...
            The second pain would be worse, for it would be the “sting” of betrayal. Dollie might insist that she surely loves the narrator. This loving assurance provides a “Balm” – a soothing ointment  that provides a pleasant relief from the pain of insecurity. But should Dollie “Sting – again” the underlying pain would be much worse. Stings offer a sharp, acute pain, whereas insecurity is a chronic pain. Betrayal would cause the first and increase the second. “Just tell me so” now, the poet writes, and save me that grief.
            In  “Come slowly—Eden!” (F205) Dickinson writes of a bee losing itself in Balm as a metaphor for sexual completion. This imagery is twisted in this poem. Here the Balm is false reassurance and Bee doesn’t hum around the chamber of  its beloved flower but rather stings.
            To take the poem from the general to the personal, “Dollie” was a pet name for Sue, Dickinson’s sister-in-law, object of her very intense desire (possible romantic, possibly physical, possibly just intense love). Their relationship had its roots in an extremely warm youthful friendship, adoring on Dickinson’s part. Imagine how complicated this became when Sue married Dickinson’s brother Austin! And then the marriage started going south.
            But tensions between the two women were growing. It isn’t hard to imagine Sue, a mother, wife, and social figure, trying to disentangle herself from whatever form her youthful affair with Emily Dickinson took. Dickinson on her part was becoming disenchanted with Sue’s high-society ways and her perceived ‘neglect’ of Dickinson.
            Sue may not have read this poem while Dickinson was alive, although she was a recipient of hundreds of others. It would be like spilling your heart out in an email and although it felt good to do it you ultimately decide not to hit the “send” button.
            But Richard Sewall notes in his biography of Dickinson that sometime in the 1860s Emily stopped visiting Sue and Austin’s house, The Evergreens. She stayed away for 15 years. Only 300 feet separated their two doors.

21 March 2012

The Bumble of a Bee


The Bumble of a Bee

A Witchcraft, yieldeth me.

If any ask me “why” –

'Twere easier to die

Than tell!



The Red upon the Hill

Taketh away my will –

If anybody sneer,

Take care – for God is here – 

That's all!

The Breaking of the Day –
Addeth to my Degree –
If any ask me “how” –
Artist who drew me so –
Must tell!
                                                            F217 (1861)  155

This poem seems to crack and splinter as what seems to be three regular iambic trimeter quatrains each end in a monometer line – with an exclamation mark. Glancing at the poem, the reader would expect that the monometer line would add a twist or an important emphasis. However, this isn’t always the case. Additionally, the poem seems dashed off in a heat, as if the poet had come running to her room breathless from the transport of a bumble bee or sunset or sunrise.
            We begin with how the “Bumble of a Bee” has the effect of witchcraft on the poet. She can’t explain why, though – it would be “easier to die.” A critical reader might think that this is precisely the poet’s portfolio – to take something like bee sound and somehow make the readers feel and understand how spellbinding it can be. But, okay, we’ll have to take Dickinson’s word for it here. (In an earlier version, Dickinson wrote “The Murmur of a Bee.” I think “Bumble” is a much more delightful choice.)
A lovely, sacred beehive – lot's of bumbles!
            The second stanza finds the poet challenging anyone who would “sneer” at her for being entranced by a sunset glazing the hill with red. “Take care,” she warns. “God is here.” Whether God is there because of the beauty of this particular sunset or because God is immanent in the world (vs. being cooped up in a church), is not clear. I suspect she is implying that God is especially there at that moment of beauty. The poet seems a bit smug about it. Her will is taken away while others sneer. She closes the stanza abruptly: “That’s all!” Subject closed.
            In the final stanza we learn that daybreak adds to the poet’s “Degree” of rapture (one supposes). Again she doesn’t venture any insight into what the rapture, or whatever, is but once again we have to take the poet’s word for it. Unless, that is, the “Artist” – God –who is responsible for making the poet who and what she is chooses to explain for her.
She’s a bit snappish in this poem as if tired of people commenting on or criticizing her propensity to lose herself in nature and landscape. But as readers of Dickinson’s poetry we get a very fine sense of just what these raptures are. Time and time again she writes about bees and sunsets and sunrises. Her poems ring with just what witchcraft is in the Bee’s bumble, or why the sunset leaves her without will.
             


20 March 2012

On this long storm the Rainbow rose –


On this long storm the Rainbow rose –
On this late morn –  the sun –
The Clouds –  like listless Elephants –
Horizons –  straggled down –

The Birds rose smiling, in their nests –
The gales –  indeed –  were done –
Alas, how heedless were the eyes –
On whom the summer shone!

The quiet nonchalance of death –
No Daybreak –  can bestir –
The slow –  Archangel's syllables
Must awaken her!
                                                            F216  (1861)   194

Archangel Michael
Colin de Coter, 1393
The parting gesture of the storm, a lovely rainbow, welcomes the morning sun. The day promises to be peaceful, unlike the storm the night before. The world is bathed in sun, bird song from the newly-wakened birds, and big puffy clouds slowly disappearing down the horizon as the sky clears. But there is one woman who has died, perhaps during the storm, who is “heedless” now to the  beauties of a clear summer day. No “Daybreak” can rouse her from her grave. It will take the Archangel Michael, thought to be the Archangel of Resurrection and of weighing souls, to finally wake her up.

            Death is not portrayed as a tragedy here, though. Yes, it’s sad that the woman can’t see the new day and its beauties. But she is in a state of “quiet nonchalance” – which doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a good thing, too, as in other of Dickinson’s poems people wait in their graves for eons until resurrection day. In “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” the dead saints wait while “Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And firmaments – row.”
Clearing of a storm
Maurice de Vlaminck, 1912
            The poem is written in standard ballad form. It begins as a traditional ballad: a story is being told and there are elements of drama. It’s very visual in the story telling. But the mood changes in the third stanza when the poet “tells” us that someone has died. The momentum of the poem comes to an abrupt end and we get a bit of a lesson. I’m not sure it adds much to the poem.  

19 March 2012

I shall know why – when Time is over –


I shall know why – when Time is over – 

And I have ceased to wonder why – 

Christ will explain each separate anguish

In the fair schoolroom of the sky – 



He will tell me what "Peter" promised – 

And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of Anguish

That scalds me now – that scalds me now!
                                                            F215  (1861)  193

By accounts in the New Testament, Jesus suffered a lot in his last days: betrayal, flogging, and crucifixion. Of these, Dickinson fastens on the betrayal as the great “woe” that by comparison shall  make her own “anguish” subside from a torrent to a “drop.” Peter was one of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and in fact the one Jesus said would be the cornerstone of the church. On the night when Jesus was captured he had warned them that “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night.” But Peter was adamant:
“Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”
Well, famous last words. Peter did deny even knowing Jesus three times during that long night.

Hopefully the "fair schoolroom of the sky" won't
have a duncecap!
 photo: British School Museum
That’s the background for the second stanza: Peter's broken promise of loyalty unto death. Despite this tip of the hat to the suffering of Jesus the poem is a bitter one. The poet begins with a bit of heavy irony: long after “Time is over” and she – deceased but apparently still self-aware – has ceased to question what happened in her life, Jesus will provide all the information she once desperately wanted. Too little too late! The irony is underscored by casting Christ as a schoolteacher explaining “each separate anguish” as if they were the articles of the Constitution. The “fair schoolroom of the sky” is certainly oozing with irony. We normally think of heaven as Paradise, the Pearly Gates, as some sort of bliss – not a place for school lessons.
            But then after giving an account of, and hopefully a rationale for the separate anguishes, he will put her earthly suffering in perspective by telling her of his betrayal by Peter. The “drop of Anguish” that the narrator will presumably forget is so painful in this life, though, that it “scalds.” Dickinson leaves no doubt about the intensity of the pain: she repeats the claim about scalding just for emphasis. She adds further emphasis by using three accented syllables in a row – “That scalds me now.”
            The wrenching quality of these last two lines is in contrast to the very quiet diction and pace of the first two. Here the alliterative “w” sounds hush the words and lengthen the sound: why, when, wonder, why. Long vowel sounds dominate, further stretching out the lines – as if Time itself has been stretched out: know, why, time, over, ceased, why. The repetitions of “why” set up the echo of “now” that is repeated in the last line.
            The feelings are just part of the human condition. We suffer but hope to someday understand; we hope time will lend perspective; we wonder if there is a Plan that dictates our grief. But, oh, the anguish now; the scalding pain now.