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31 August 2013

The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —

The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor threaten a Hat —
He's a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —

If He leave a Bur at the door
We know He has climbed a Fir —
But the Fir is Where — Declare —
Were you ever there?

If He brings Odors of Clovers —
And that is His business — not Ours —
Then He has been with the Mowers —
Whetting away the Hours
To sweet pauses of Hay —
His Way — of a June Day —

If He fling Sand, and Pebble —
Little Boys Hats — and Stubble —
With an occasional Steeple —
And a hoarse "Get out of the way, I say,"
Who'd be the fool to stay?
Would you — Say —
Would you be the fool to stay?

                                                                    F494 (1862)  J316

This delightful anthropomorphism of the wind is full of rhymes and fun. The wind may be here or there, come "from the Orchard" or from farther away; may climb trees like a child and leave pine cones at the door as a momento; may go out with the workers in the field and pick up the odor of clover; and may get up to all kinds of mischief. In the end, though, he is not to be trifled with. The gust that blows off a boys hat can turn into a gale that takes the steeple off a church. Would you be fool enough to stand in his path?
       Each stanza is full of rhyme, and that contributes to the playful tone. In the first stanza: today, play, hay, very; and that, hat, and that. In the second, Bur, Fir, Fir – which is related to door, Where, Declare, and there.The third stanza has Odors, Clovers, and Mowers –related to Ours and Hours; and then Hay, Way, and Day. In the fourth, Dickinson gives us Pebble, Stubble, Steeple; and way, say, stay, Say, and stay. You've got to love a poem that rhymes Pebble, Stubble, and Steeple.

Some of the images are amusing, too, such as the wind threatening a hat (Johnson's version has it joggling a hat, which isn't as amusing), or occasionally flinging a steeple along with the usual sand and hats.
Scything Hay, near Bowland Forest, UK
    But for me, the main charm of the poem is its sweet drollery. Dickinson addresses the reader directly as if discussing a familiar village character. That wind is inconstant. "Rely on that," she adds, knowing we've all known such restless characters. She deduces the wind has come from a fir, but challenges the reader to locate the tree. Impossible to know just where he's been, she knows. And just like an idling husband or father, if we notice that he smells suspiciously as if he'd been lolling about in the meadow, why "that is His business – not Ours." Finally, when he comes blustering by, the reader is certainly wise enough to just get out of the way.

My favorite line: "sweet pauses of Hay." It doesn't make literal sense (and I have no idea how this reads to those of you using translations), but it captures the rhythm of the mowers scything the meadow, accompanied by the sweet smell of cut grass and clover.

30 August 2013

When I hoped, I recollect

When I hoped, I recollect
Just the place I stood —
At a Window facing West —
Roughest Air — was good —

Not a Sleet could bite me —
Not a frost could cool —
Hope it was that kept me warm —
Not Merino shawl —

When I feared — I recollect
Just the Day it was —
Worlds were lying out to Sun —
Yet how Nature froze —

Icicles upon my soul
Prickled Blue and Cool —
Bird went praising everywhere —
Only Me — was still —

And the Day that I despaired —
This — if I forget
Nature will — that it be Night
After Sun has set —
Darkness intersect her face —
And put out her eye —
Nature hesitate — before
Memory and I —
                                      F493 (1862)  J768

Dickinson recalls three important days each characterized by a different emotion. She may be outlining the chronology of a narrative: first hope, then fear, then despair. But there really is no need for a single narrative. Each emotion may have its own distinct story. Each one is granted two quatrains (although Despair's are formatted together for a single, double-length stanza, no doubt to intensify it).
       The last stanza is difficult, so I tried to work out a paraphrase as a springboard.

I remember just where I was standing when I had hope. It was at the west window. The rough, cold air felt good. Neither sleet nor frost made me too cold. It was my hope that kept me warm, not some wool shawl.

I remember the very day when I was afraid. The sun was shining on all the world, yet somehow Nature was freezing me. Icicles prickled blue and cool upon my soul. Birds were singing in praise everywhere. It was only me that was still.

And the day that I despaired? I am as unlikely to forget that day as Nature would be to forget that night follows sunset, that darkness covers the sun's face and puts out her golden eye. Nature will pause before my memory does.

The final dash leaves us in an unending loop of painful memory. We've seen in earlier poems that Dickinson finds despair the most crippling and paralyzing emotion (most recently in F484, "From Blank to Blank").  The violence of the last stanza is rather staggering. In the poet's despair, night isn't just the darkness that follows day, but darkness putting out the eye of the sun and intersecting her face as if slicing it away. It's as if every night the sun suffers a violent eclipse. Perhaps Dickinson is projecting what or whoever caused her despair onto the sun that is so punished.
photo: Alina Rogers
    After that last stanza, the prickling icicles of fear don't sound so bad. Those lines, "Icicles upon my soul / Prickled Blue and Cool" is wonderful. There is the physical sensation of cool prickling, the visual image of blue icicles, the apt analogy of fear to icicles – and then the sound of the words. The whole poem is trochaic, but the trochees beginning these two lines are particularly effective, emphasizing the ice and the prick. The quick sound of "Prickled" is followed by the long, slow sounds of "Blue and Cool." That's interesting in itself, for prickling is a quick sensation, while something blue and cool suggests a more static environment.

Nature reflects and responds to the speaker throughout the poem. The poet's hope is able to protect her against cold and sleet. Nature uses her fear to turn a hot day freezing cold. Nature re-enacts her despair every night be obliterating the sun. It is a comment, perhaps, about how consuming emotions are.

28 August 2013

To offer brave assistance

To offer brave assistance
To Lives that stand alone —
When One has failed to stop them —
Is Human — but Divine

To lend an Ample Sinew

Unto a Nameless Man —
Whose Homely Benediction
No other — stopped to earn —
                                                                            F492 (1862)  J767

Perhaps there is one in every family or circle of acquaintances. One individual goes his or her own way, standing, ultimately, alone. We might have tried to reason with this individual or offer persuasions to join the norm, but that doesn't mean that we won't go to great lengths to offer assistance when it is needed. We feel a bit committed to someone we have been involved with to such an extent. We can't just watch them suffer or get into trouble. It's human to try to help.

        That's the first stanza. In the second, Dickinson presents a different scenario. Here there is a "Nameless Man," whom apparently no one knows. When this poor soul needs some help most people just pass by. While it is human to help the "Lives that stand alone," it is "Divine" to help the nameless and unknown. I think Dickinson means "Divine" in the sense of inspired and with great spiritual qualities (this is similar to Pope's usage in "To err is human; to forgive, divine").

Now for a different reading:

       In the first stanza the assistance offered is "brave." I don't think this means "daring" or "valiant" so much as the old-fashioned meaning of "loud" and "flashy." Read with that connotation, the rest of the stanza becomes tinged with cynical irony. Perhaps we are happy to help those who ventured out despite our efforts – because we can then feel both a rightness about our earlier actions and a righteousness about helping them.
William Ramirez Valenzuela
     But the second man? He needs some physical help, some "Ample Sinew." No one is lining up to earn his humble thanks, though. That would take a Jesus or Buddha or … a Good Samaritan. That's where I think Dickinson is taking us in this poem – to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In that parable (used by Jesus to exemplify the concept of "neighbor" to a lawyer), the only person to help a man beaten and left for dead is a Samaritan, a despised outsider to the Jews of the day. A priest and his assistant  crossed the road and passed by, giving the poor man a wide berth. No doubt they were concerned about a trick and an ambush, or about ritual purity (should the man be dead).

       It is not religion, not the pius, not most of us who will minister to the poor when they need it most, but people without regard for their status – other outcasts, perhaps; Samaritans. (Odd that we really only know of Samaritans by this parable and so they are always "Good."

I think Dickinson was thinking about these lessons as she wrote the poems in this fascicle. In the previous poem she wrote about a dying soldier, ending it with

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

She, humble in her own way as a retiring spinster, can nonetheless imagine herself freely giving of herself to help the dying and downtrodden. The poem challenges us to do likewise.  


26 August 2013

The World — feels Dusty

The World — feels Dusty
When We stop to Die —
We want the Dew — then —
Honors — taste dry —

Flags — vex a Dying face —
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend's Hand —
Cools — like the Rain —

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

                                                              F491 (1862)  J715

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" – so goes the familiar phrase from the Anglican burial service. It is based on the biblical account in Genesis of how God created humanity out of the dust of the earth. It is no wonder, then, that the world "feels Dusty" as we die – although the wonderful phrase is all Dickinson. Dickinson goes on to note that we "stop to Die" as if death is a way station on the soul's passage. Honors are not what is wanted at this juncture: they "taste dry" as if they, too, are dust. It is the ministry of a friend that satisfies the soul's thirst and eases the way.

       The flags in the second stanza represent war. Soldiers die under them and for them, but they ultimately bring no comfort, no sense of glory. Instead, they "vex" the dying. Dickinson was writing in the midst of the Civil War, and this one line succinctly – and with great understatement – de-glorifies war. It is a direct rejection of the famous lines from Horace that Dickinson no doubt read: "It is sweet and right to die for your country."

        These lines were often quoted at the beginning of World War I, but poet Wilfred Owen demolishes them in his powerful 1918 " Dulce et Decorum Est " which concludes:  

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thessaly's Vale of Tempe
   Owens is much more explicit than Dickinson. Yet her poem also suggests that it is a bitter thing to die under a flag. Neither it nor even the honors he may have achieved bring him any peace in the end. That requires the soothing hand of a loving friend.
    In the concluding stanza, the poet addresses either a generalized "you" or a particular person. She wants to minister to the dying – to ease the thirst and apply a soothing balm. It is a hymn and a call: If you care for the dying, be there for them. There was a poet, equally great, writing at the same time, who did just that: Walt Whitman who volunteered to work as a nurse on the battlefield and at hospitals.

  - Hybla is a town in Sicily famed since antiquity for its bees and honey. Romantic author Leigh Hunt's 1883 booklet, "A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla," draws from myth and Greek poet Theocritus in discussing the restorative properties of this honey.

  - The "Dews of Thessaly" are probably a reference to the lovely pools and waters of the Vale of Tempe – located in the north of Thessaly (a region of modern Greece).   John Lemprière in his Classical Dictionary gives this description of Tempe:
… The poets have described it as the most delightful spot on the earth, with continual cooling shades, and verdant walks, which the warbling of birds rendered more pleasant and romantic, and which the gods often honored with their presence.
  - Aaron Copland uses this poem in his 1950 composition "Eight poems of Emily Dickinson." This is a performance of the poem with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint-Paul Chamber Orchestra conductred by Hugh Wolff (note that Copland changes "Thessaly" to "thyself" and "Hybla" to "Holy").

21 August 2013

Rest at Night

Rest at Night
The Sun from shining,
Nature — and some Men —
Rest at Noon — some Men —
While Nature
And the Sun — go on —

                                                           F490 (1862)  J714

If by "Rest" Dickinson means "death" (at least for people) then this is a rather sad poem despite its blasé tone. If, however, "Rest" means "Rest" or "sleep," then the poem is rather a sly commentary on party animals and lazybones. This is one of Dickinson's epigrammatic poems.
    There are two parallel parts: the first, "Rest at Night" sketches the norm. The sun rests at night as do the rest of Nature "and some Men." Notice that humanity is not assumed to be part of Nature. Notice that clearly some folks are excepted; these are either the party animals – up all night – or the dead. In the second section we are told that Nature and the Sun go about their business at Noon, but that "some Men" will be resting.  These are either the lazybones (a class with a lot of overlap with "party animals") or the dead.
Catching up on sleep. Late night?
    The parallelism is quite intrically woven into the poetry. Each half has seven metrical feet and begins with an inverted verb phrase (Rest …) followed by the verb's subject. The one element that is repeated is "some Men": they can rest either – or both – at night and at noon. Clearly humanity is distinct from Nature. While the natural world lives by cycles of light and weather, humans can remove themselves from the cycles altogether.
            I should add, though, that if the poem is about death coming either at night or day, then there is no distinction to be made. Men who die are simply coming to the end of their life cycle and taking part in the larger circle of life.

I don't think that Dickinson is talking about death in this poem, though. I read it as droll and slyly sophisticated, a witticism very much in the epigram style.

My Faith is larger than the Hills —

My Faith is larger than the Hills —
So when the Hills decay —
My Faith must take the Purple Wheel
To show the Sun the way —

'Tis first He steps upon the Vane —
And then — upon the Hill —
And then abroad the World He go
To do His Golden Will —

And if His Yellow feet should miss —
The Bird would not arise —
The Flowers would slumber on their Stems —
No Bells have Paradise —

How dare I, therefore, stint a faith
On which so vast depends —
Lest Firmament should fail for me —
The Rivet in the Bands

                                                                        F489 (1862)  J766

Dickinson is having a bit of fun with faith, pretending she does not take sunrise for granted. No doubt she really believed that the sun would make its appointed rounds every day. But in this poem, like many quantum physicists, she is not so sure that the sun would do this if unobserved. And who is a better observer than a poet? Like many a Christian Scientist, she knows that faith is what makes things happen. (I hope physicists and Christian Scientists will forgive the poetic license!)
    Dickinson begins the poem with a grand claim: her "Faith is larger than the Hills" and so as they darken in the evening it falls to her to guide the Sun through the purpling light, through the night, and back again the next morning as she were at the helm of a great steamboat that led the Sun on his rounds (a variant on the chariot of Helios). The sun then lights up the weather vane (probably on the church steeple where it catches the first light of morning), then the hills, and then the rest of the world.
Weathervane on North Amherst Church
Should the sun not do this, the birds would just keep on sleeping, the flowers remain closed up, and the morning church bells not ring. Therefore, the poet drolly concludes, she cannot "stint" on her faith. Let it not be on her head that such a calamity should occur. She is a rivet in the bands (switching metaphor here) that keep the sun on his course. If she fails in her faith, the machinery of the world is weakened. I am reminded of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is dying and but readers (or watchers) are told that if they believe in fairies, she will live. I think there is much truth to the notion that the world's great ideas are generated and maintained in collective belief.
    I suspect that in addition to writing about the lovely sun (which she has done in several previous poems), Dickinson may be employing a bit of irony: faith isn't needed at all to explain many wonderful things about the world. I'm pretty sure she knew the sun would rise with or without her faith. Perhaps faith, by corollary, isn't needed at all to prod God, either.

18 August 2013

You constituted Time —

You constituted Time —
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself —
'Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute — removed
The Relative away —
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry —
                                                             F488 (1862)  J765

For a poet classified as "lyric" by many scholars, Dickinson can be extremely abstract. This poem is full of abstract nouns: Time, Eternity, Revelation, Absolute, Relative, Deity, and idolatry. That's almost one per line! I wonder if part of her fluency with the abstract didn't begin as she grew up with the legal language of a lawyer father and a brother studying to become a lawyer, as well as within a religion characterized by contracts.
       The poem is divided into two considerations of worship. The first stanza is nostalgic: the poet looks back at the awe-struck love she once had for someone. "You constituted Time," she writes, and what better way is there to say that someone filled your life, that your days and weeks and even minutes were tolled according to the beloved's actions, that to be with the beloved was to be in a state that transcends time – which Dickinson denotes "Eternity." The beloved was her deity.
       The key word of the poem comes in the second stanza where the poet must "adjust" her "idolatry" to the "Absolute." The "Deity" of the first stanza is not the "Himself" of the second. As Absolute, he came to overshadow – he "removed" – the "Relative" deity worshipped in the poet's "slow" and inexperienced youth. The first experience was powerful and consuming, but the beloved was still in the class of mortals and could be compared to others. The poet's love for this mortal, dependent as it must be on external and internal variables, functions as a precursor to what she experiences with the Absolute.
Georgia O'Keefe, Blue Flower, 1918
  This Absolute focuses the poet's attention on himself in order that she adjust her deficient or even defective idolatry of the rival deity. While this may be read as purposeful, I think Dickinson may have meant that just the awareness of the Absolute supplanted her worship of the beloved mortal. And while it is easy to think that Dickinson is contrasting the way she felt about a man or woman with how she came to feel about God, it is also easy to read the poem as a mature love supplanting an earlier love. Where I grew up we called these intense early loves "puppy love." Such love teaches us what it means to open up to another, to be flooded with desire and awe, and to be transported to that timeless zone where love abides.
       It is also easy to focus on that word "adjust" as a signal that the former love was for Sue – her dear and passionately loved friend, her neighbour, and her sister in law. Such a forbidden love would, by the mores of the day, need adjustment.
In "Just Once! Oh least Request!" (F478), Dickinson writes a droll poem to Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson deeply loved, addressing him playfully as "Sweet Deity" and asking "Adamant," a "God of Flint," if he wouldn't accept a barrel of apples. Despite its light tone, I use this poem as an example of a human Absolute because it was written in the same period of time (if Franklin's assessment of chronology is correct). That being said, however, the poem just prior to that, "He fumbles at your Soul" (F477) – is a poem which I take to be about the almost brutal power of a male God.
       As usual, Dickinson's poetry defies easy explication.

The poem has a simple and regular construction: four-line stanzas in a modified ballad format. Lines A, B, and D are in iambic trimeter; while C is tetrameter. Dickinson uses slant rhymes for B and D lines. I particularly like that three of those rhyming words rhyme with each other – and are abstract nouns: Eternity, Deity, idolatry.

16 August 2013

He told a homely tale

He told a homely tale
And spotted it with tears —
Upon his infant face was set
The Cicatrice of years —

All crumpled was the cheek
No other kiss had known
Than flake of snow, divided with
The Redbreast of the Barn —

If Mother — in the Grave —
Or Father — on the Sea —
Or Father in the Firmament —
Or Brethren, had he —

If Commonwealth below,
Or Commonwealth above
Have missed a Barefoot Citizen —
I've ransomed it — alive —

                                                                          F486 (1862)  J763

Just a few poems ago Dickinson wrote being moved by a little bird with a pleading look and giving it some crumbs. Here she writes of helping a homeless boy. She employs quite a bit of pathos in the poem, quite openly tugging at our heartstrings. We see a young boy, crying a bit as he tells his story. Despite his young age, his face was scarred. Perhaps because he was offered kindness and a kiss, his face "crumpled." It was his first kiss – except for the snowflakes that filtered into the barn he shared once with a bird.
       The narrator then calls out to anyone who might have a claim on the boy: mother, father, God, brothers, an earthly community, or even a heavenly community. She wants them to know that she has rescued this "Barefoot Citizen."

What's interesting to me is how Dickinson slips in "Father in the Firmament" among the missing parents (dead mother, sailor father out at sea), and Heaven along with earth. Is God no better than a deadbeat Dad or impoverished sailor who may not even know of his wife's death? Is Heaven no better than an earthly community that too easily loses track of its most needy members? 
Steiglitz: Venetian Boy, 1887
  The last line, with its emphasis on "alive," reads as an indictment of all of the above. Religion, society, parents, even God have failed the boy. "It" is alive, but the narrator makes no claim beyond that. We are left to wonder what the narrator and the boy will do next. Will she send him on his way? Will she make sure he is cared for? What would we do? It's likely that after so many deadly battles in the ongoing Civil War, there were probably many stories of homeless urchins dependent on the kindness of strangers.

I also wonder if Dickinson hadn't been reading the following passage in the family Bible, or had recently heard a sermon on its topic of helping the unfortunate.

New International Version (NIV)
Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

15 August 2013

The Whole of it came not at once —

The Whole of it came not at once —
'Twas Murder by degrees —
A Thrust — and then for Life a chance —
The Bliss to cauterize —

The Cat reprieves the Mouse

She eases from her teeth
Just long enough for Hope to tease —
Then mashes it to death —

'Tis Life's award — to die —

Contenteder if once —
Than dying half — then rallying
For consciouser Eclipse —
                                                                      F485 (1862)  J762

This poem just doesn't work for me. The first stanza starts well enough with its metaphorical language about love and pain and the the bliss that cauterizes the "Thrust" of pain. But then we get the tired cliché (perhaps it wasn't tired in 1862, though) about the cat playing with the mouse. The final stanza says it's better to die once than twice. 

Mouse about to get mashed

The take-away from this poem? Why get your hopes up only to have them dashed?

One odd thing about his poem is the line about the cat mashing the mouse to death. It just makes a weird visual in  my head. 

**Note: A commenter does a much better job than I did with this poem. (It was late, I was grumpy...)

From Blank to Blank —

From Blank to Blank —
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet —
To stop — or perish — or advance —
Alike indifferent —

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed —
I shut my eyes — and groped as well
'Twas lighter — to be Blind —
                F484 (1862)  J761

Dickinson sends this missive from a dread place – perhaps depression, perhaps grief. One of our greatest psychological explorers, Dickinson can burrow so deeply into her psyche that at times she emerges out the other side in a vasty and musical cosmos; other times she is wrecked in some strange or wretched state, and sometimes she is stuck in some endless, mindless mire. This poem comes from the mire.
       She has to push her feet along as if they were mechanical contraptions that have to be operated. There is no destination, no point of departure, no sights to be seen along the way. She started in a blank and encounters nothing other than blanks. When she looks ahead she sees an indefinite vista of blanks and so prefers to grope her way along rather than trying to see where she is going. Whether she stops or continues or even dies seems of no matter. She is "indifferent" to her options.

The poem is very tightly constructed. The first two lines are a divided tetrameter line. Dickinson breaks the line after "Blank – " taking advantage of the blank white space at the end of the line to reinforce her meaning.
        Dickinson's house was a lawyerly one: both her father and brother were lawyers, as were many of their friends (including Judge Otis Lord, a late-life lover of Dickinson). She would have been very familiar with the blanks on legal documents, the space left empty for lack of content. Dickinson here is treading from one blank to another, occupying that region of emptiness.
       In "Our share of night to bear" ( F116 ), Dickinson also refers to blanks:

Our share of night to bear—
Our share of morning—
Our blank in bliss to fill,
Our blank in scorning—
These blanks indicate potential: we each have a bit of darkness, a bit of morning in our lives; we will have both bliss and scorn. But in the current poem, the poet is not moving from one potentiality to another but from undifferentiated blanks. The path is "Threadless"; the reference is to the famous myth where Theseus who was able to find his way out of a maze by following the thread he'd unspooled going in. The poet has no such thread to guide her.
       It's no wonder, then, that her feet move mechanically. We saw them do this in "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –" ( F372 ):

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
Regardless grown
The underlying cause of the torpor in that poem is pain; we are unsure what it is in the current poem. Both offer a trio of what the sufferer has grown indifferent to. In "Pain" it is "Ground, or Air, or Ought"; versus "To stop – or perish – or advance." The stakes seem a bit higher in this poem. Further, in "Pain," there was the "letting go" at the end that seems to promise at least some release. In this one Dickinson recollects a seemingly interminable period of depression, presenting it in a somewhat objective and descriptive manner. If something were gained or learned, the narrator isn't telling. She is simply describing what it is to be in the midst of a numbing blankness.
The second stanza begins with another divided tetrameter line, this time divided to emphasize the word play with "end" and "ends": the first a noun and the second a verb. "If" the narrator gained what she thought were an end, she discovered it wasn't an end after all. The end was really further ahead, just as hikers think they've finally come to the summit of the mountain only to find another summit looming in front of them. The poet, in a moment of clarity, saw an indefinite expanse of ends. That is when she shut her eyes, preferring to grope her way along.
      Dickinson uses "lighter" to good effect in the final line with its twin meanings of "less heavy" and "brighter." Her world of blankness is brighter with her eyes shut; the oppressiveness of her path is less when she cannot see it.

There is a word for what the narrator experiences, and Dickinson gives us that word in  F355: "It was not Death, for I stood up." After describing the dismal condition she finds herself in ("As if my life were shaven, / And fitted to a frame"), the narrator concludes with a word of diagnosis:

But, most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
To justify—Despair.
Despair is an unearned thing in Dickinson's lexicon. It is "An imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air" ("There's a certain Slant of light"  F320 ). She follows where it leads, even if only from "Blank to Blank," chronicling her journeys and couching them in evocative language and metaphor. In this poem I see the traveler plodding through an unending series of bare, snowy peaks. There is a timeless quality that is outside good and bad, cause and effect, start and finish. The experience is simply … Blank.

13 August 2013

Most she touched me by her muteness —

Black-capped chicadee:
Massachusetts state bird
Most she touched me by her muteness —
Most she won me by the way
She presented her small figure —
Plea itself — for Charity —

Were a Crumb my whole possession —
Were there famine in the land —
Were it my resource from starving —
Could I such a plea withstand —

Not upon her knee to thank me
Sank this Beggar from the Sky —
But the Crumb partook — departed —
And returned On High —

I supposed — when sudden
Such a Praise began
'Twas as Space sat singing
To herself — and men —

'Twas the Winged Beggar —
Afterward I learned
To her Benefactor
Making Gratitude

                                                                   F483 (1862)  J760

If Dickinson wrote a bird poem that was not sweet, I don't know of it. In this one the poet has granted a little feathered "Beggar" a small crumb. I picture a little house wren or chickadee hopping up boldly – as I have no doubt that Dickinson regularly scattered crumbs for the birds that frequented her garden. This particular bird "presented her small figure" as if pleading for a crumb. After she received it she seemingly flew away. That would have been the end of the story except that the poet was then surprised by a flow of song so delightful and unearthly that it sounded to her as if Space was singing to herself.
    She later learns that it was the bird singing to her in gratitude. Awwwwww.

Dickinson adds a bit of interest to this poem by hiding the identity of the beggar until the middle of the poem. Until then the reader may well be picturing a woman, hungry and poor, begging for a bit of charity. The first half is written in iambic tetrameter and features quite a bit of repetition for rhetorical effect. The second half, birdlike, is shorter and quicker: iambic trimeter with lots of run-on lines (enjambment) to keep it moving.

The poem is consistent with earlier Dickinson works about the church of nature where the little birds are choristers. In this one, she herself plays the Goddess.

12 August 2013

Wolfe demanded during dying

Wolfe demanded during dying
"Which obtain the Day"?
"General, the British" — "Easy"
Answered Wolfe "to die"

Montcalm, his opposing Spirit
Rendered with a smile
"Sweet" said he "my own Surrender
Liberty's beguile"

                                                                    F482 (1862)  J678

On 13 September 1759, two years into the French and Indian War (the Seven Year War: British and Americans against the French, Canadians, and various Native American fighters), English Major General James Wolfe defeated the French Marquis de Montcalm and troops in the crucial battle for Quebec. Wolfe died at the end of the battle itself, although it took three bullets to bring him down. Historians claim Wolfe rejected medical attention, preferring to concentrate on the progress of the battle. Someone called out, "See them run!" "Who?" Wolfe asked. When he was told it was the French in retreat, he gave a further order and then died. 
Death of Montcalm

Death of Wolfe

Montcalm was also shot and was taken off the field during the French retreat. He died the next morning. According to historian Francis Parkman, when Montcalm was told he would not survive, he said, "So much the better. I am happy that I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec."
         Dickinson provides a brief sketch of the two deaths in parallel stanzas. The first stanza is Wolfe's who dies with ease, knowing his troops were victorious and his efforts not in vain. He must have also been aware of the importance of the battle. Once Quebec was taken by the British, Canadian days as a French colony were numbered.
         The second stanza is Montcalm's. He also finds it easy to die. His "Liberty" is death; it beguiles him and he surrenders himself to it – relieved, perhaps, to not have to personally surrender his army and the city.
         I'm not sure what it signifies, but Wolfe's stanza is full of "d" sounds: demanded, during, dying, day, and die. Montcalm's, on the other hand, is dominated by "s" sounds: Spirit, smile, sweet, surrender. The "d"s are more bold and maybe manly, perhaps, while the "s"s are more soothing. Wolfe goes out a warrior, while Montcalm, a man seeking his peace.
         This is not one of Dickinson's top-tier poems. The concision – truncated grammar and elisions – don't lead the reader anywhere. I think she was simply interested in the two deaths and how they might be succinctly characterized.

11 August 2013

Fame of Myself, to justify,

Fame of Myself, to justify,
All other Plaudit be
Superfluous — An Incense
Beyond Necessity —

Fame of Myself to lack — Although

My Name be else Supreme —
This were an Honor honorless —
A futile Diadem —
                                                                      F481 (1862)  J713

The poem is a bit difficult to read. Intuitively, it seems to want to read as the poet's statement of artistic inte
Thurible with incense
grity: if she believes her work is good, then any fame she achieves is a bonus, "An Incense / Beyond Necessity." If, however, she finds her work lacking, she would find even the highest honors "honorless" and the crown of her reputation "A futile Diadem."

    In  F455 , Dickinson claims her poetry is a gift from the "Gods," one she "never put down." Is it any wonder then, that she guards the integrity of her poetry?

Unfortunately, getting to this interpretation requires torturing the poem:

"If I can justify my fame to myself, then …"  and "If my fame lacks justification, then although … ." I get the sense that Dickinson wrote a memo to herself, a two-column comparison titled "Fame of Myself." That has a rather lofty tone to it versus, say, "My Fame" – which doesn't sound interesting at all!

The lofty tone of the poem is further maintained by the word "Incense." Dickinson was surely familiar with the various Biblical injunctions to use incense because it offered "a pleasing odor to the Lord" (Lev.2.1). It has been ritually used in the Roman Catholic Church since antiquity and is not uncommon in other denominations and religions. So while the [godlike] poet would be pleased by the incense of fame – if justified, it is "Superfluous." What matters most to this poet is her own assessment.

10 August 2013

He fought like those Who've nought to lose —

He fought like those Who've nought to lose —
Bestowed Himself to Balls
As One who for a further Life
Had not a further Use —

Invited Death — with bold attempt —
But Death was Coy of Him
As Other Men, were Coy of Death —
To Him — to live — was Doom —

His Comrades, shifted like the Flakes
When Gusts reverse the Snow —
But He — was left alive Because
Of Greediness to die —
                                                            F480 (1862)  J759

Perhaps responding to stories from the frontlines of the Civil War, Dickinson writes a short ballad-form poem about a soldier who throws himself into battle as if he has a death wish, only to endure unscathed. Although a conventional soldier narrative would have us cheer his survival, Dickinson leaves us with nothing to celebrate. Many have died and the one who lives is foolish, even greedy.

This particular soldier "Invited Death," for to him life was "Doom." Death, however, "was Coy of Him" as if death were a lover playing hard-to-get. Death was certainly not so coy around those who did not seek her out. She certainly did not respond to the "Greediness" of the one suitor, passing him by.
            Bravado under fire makes a good story, particularly when used by charismatic leaders to inspire their soldiers. But this soldier's actions are not heroic – either in motivation or in outcome. We cannot celebrate his survival and his "Comrades" have fallen dead all around him. Dickinson's image is grimly ironic. The magical swirling of snow in a gust of wind here becomes masses of soldiers twisting and falling as they are killed by musket, cannon, and sword. There is almost a maliciousness in the way Death harvests the unwilling and leaves the one who wants to die.

Under the guise of a war ballad featuring a brave soldier, Dickinson leaves us with a bitter sketch of the wasteful perversity of war.

08 August 2013

Because I could not stop for Death—

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—

Since then—'tis centuries— and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—
                                                                   F479 (1862)  J712

There's an interesting distinction in this famous poem between Immortality, which rides with the narrator in Death's carriage, and Eternity, which is their destination. As a teen, Dickinson had no love of Eternity, as evidenced by a letter she wrote to her friend Abiah Root: "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity" (L 10).
    The poem seems to echo this early dread. Death is welcome, particularly coming as a gentleman caller rather than as the Grim Reaper. He was "kindly" and drove "slowly," giving his passenger time to review the mortal life she was leaving behind. That Immortality was also a passenger caused no alarm. It, too, was a passenger and served as a chaperone. In fact, without Immortality, there would have been no conscious narrator; Death would have obliterated consciousness upon his arrival. So Immortality was a welcome companion for this gentle, farewell journey to the grave.
    The poem leaves us paused at the grave (perhaps – Dickinson leaves the narrator's vantage point purposefully ambiguous), the "House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground," for "centuries." In what seems to me a sad coda, the poet adds that even those centuries of pause seem shorter than when she realized her consciousness was not destined for the oblivion of the tomb. There is an undertone of betrayal: the kindly gentleman caller was not going to leave her in an everlasting sleep; his horses were headed to eternity.
    The last stanza gives us no reason to think that the poet's early dread of eternity wasn't warranted. It may be the infinite but not unpleasant tedium of waiting in the grave, as Dickinson described in other poems. In "Safe in their alabaster chambers," for example, the "meek members of the Resurrection" wait while up above "Worlds scoop their Arcs – / And firmaments – row" (F124). It's a comfortable enough image, as is the tomb where Truth chats with Beauty until the moss silenced them  (448) .

In other poems, Death comes as sleep at the soothing hand of a mother putting her children to bed:

The Months have ends – the Years – a knot – (F417)
The Earth lays back these tired lives
In her mysterious Drawers—
Too tenderly, that any doubt
An ultimate Repose–
"Some, too fragile for winter winds"  (F91)
Some, too fragile for winter winds
The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold –
"Where bells no more affright the morn" (F114)
Where tired Children placid sleep
Thro' Centuries of noon
This place is Bliss—this town is Heaven—

This little tippet wouldn't keep you warm
for long

In these three poems, however, the image is of rest and sleep. There is no sleep in the current poem. As in "Safe in their alabaster chambers," the dead wait ... and wait ....

The fourth stanza (omitted by the editors in the first posthumous publication), gives us – and the narrator – the first clue that something is wrong. The third stanza is safe enough: They pass a schoolyard where perhaps the narrator once played, and then "the Fields of Gazing Grain" – which seems to indicate a rather vegetable sameness to adult life. Finally, they pass the "Setting Sun" – long a symbol for the end of life. Ah, but the tricky fourth stanza takes that back. No, the narrator corrects herself; the sun "passed Us."
    The difference is between going into some after-death realm and leaving earth and sun behind, or staying put while the sun continues his rounds. The narrator realizes her mistake: they are staying put! Not only that, but the "Gossamer" dress and the dainty tulle shawl do not keep her warm. The carriage finally pauses at the narrator's final "House," which is the grave with its covering.
    The offhand final stanza suggests that nothing has changed, only that centuries have passed. The poem, which started out in gracious acceptance of Death and his companion, ends in sad resignation.

Poet and critic Allen Tate considered this poem "One of the perfect poems in English," "Flawless to the last detail.... "  Numerous others agree. I was never particularly fond of this poem until studying it for this commentary when I realized just how much thought Dickinson put into concept, form and diction. It would be hard to suggest a single change that might improve the poem. And while there at first seems to be a clear story, with further scrutiny we find that Death retains all its mystery.