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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.’

13 comments:

  1. Thanks. Great explanation.

    Victorians tend toward sentimentality. It is in a poem like this that you see that ED was a a poet of her age, a contemporary of Dickens.


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  2. I'm inclined to think that "ransomed it - alive -" refers to committing/remembering it in a poem. So, she paid the boy a penny or some small amount for his story (for a ransom) and committed it to heart, memory, and print.

    She's used the word missed in two aways earlier: overlooked or wanted. Both, could possibly work here. So, if we (society) overlook the urchin, she commits him to memory--ransoms his story for his glory. And, if covetous God above requires urchin's company, she's ransomed the real story of his life--she won't give it up without a fight!

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    1. Shakespeare used the device of "so long lives this and this gives life to thee" (S.18), and perhaps Dickinson was indeed ransoming the boys life by immortalizing him in a poem. Hopefully she also, as you suggest, gave him a bit of food and or money!

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  3. If the ransom was a loaf of bread or a meal, the second definition of miss (as is in covet) works--as she keeps the boy from passing from hunger.

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  4. What do you make of the lines:

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

    I couldn't get it at all in my first three readings. Later, I began to think that the kiss (or grace) was that of gentleness (snow) with a fire (readbrest) of the barn (potentially a cock--male chicken with beautiful red plummage). So, she is describing the urchin's gentleness and resolve--or, some other two sets of characteristics that be paradoxically described in terms of blue (usually calm) and red (usually passion).

    As I write this note, I began to wonder if "no other kiss" might refer not only to that the urchin had known only this one kiss (or love) from the world around him, but that nobody else had received this benediction (or kiss) that he had received--maybe, both in terms of ED writing the poem for him (a kind benediction), but, also, that nobody else is quite like this boy in terms of natural grace (a natural benediction).

    I tend to be, maybe, a bit expansive with my interpretations of ED poems--maybe, only because I think ED had a lot of fun telling the truth, but slant--thereby, reinforcing the truths she saw through comparison. I think she enjoyed employing 'syntactic ambiguity' and 'lexical ambiguity' whenever the ambiguity reinforced each individual interpretation--whenever it was opportune.

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  5. I think the narrator kissed the boy; that was the first time anyone had ever kissed him. Before, he had only known the "kiss" of snow falling on his face. Dickinson poetically places this in a barn where the boy would have taken shelter during the snow. Even so, the old barn lets some snow in. It also lets in birds, for the Redbreast also received 'kisses' of snow.
    I like the contrast you point out between the gentle white snow (although potentially freezing) and the red bird (I assume it is the American robin, widely known as Robin Redbreast, and a warm-weather bird).

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    1. Completely missed that possibility--thanks! Makes the poem much richer interpreting it literally.

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  6. Apologies for coming back to this post after long--it just lingered in my mind for a couple of weeks. Now, I wonder if the "ransomed-it alive-" may just refer to something more.

    "Homely" can refer to not attractive or good-looking--which may not work well here. It can also refer to unrefined, or better simple. It can also refer to pertaining to the home, which is weird, because the two stanzas beginning in "If" make it seem like he's an orphan--completely. "Homely" as a word is awfully close to "homily." Just a simple letter substitution. But, through "ransoming it-alive," the tale may mean that she doesn't like his tale to be the stuff of homilies. This might just work if one considers that in some homilies the "Barefoot citizen" is almost used as a device to increase piety. Almost--I don't think she meant it completely that way, but just that in homilies the "Barefoot Citizen's" story isn't "his" story--he's not the subject in the story, but rather the object of our pity. Here, the poem begins with "He told" and then she ends with "I ransomed it-alive-" Potentially, meaning get your grabby paws off this boy, I've committed his story--it's mine!

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    1. Interesting. I've always read the ending, the "it", as referring to the boy. She's ransomed him -- and perhaps as you suggest, her ransom is immortalizing his tale in this poem.

      I take "homely" simply to mean the boy's simple tale of how he became a homeless orphan.

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  7. I thought she was referring to the baby Jesus: I'm not religious myself but I know her poetry is filled with religious imagery and symbolism and numerous references to Christ, who was born in a manger in winter (flake of snow - divided with the redbreast of the barn). Then she talks about the "father in the firmament" and the "commonwealth above". Of course "ransom" can have a double meaning: it can also refer to redemption from sin. I may be way off base here, but it was the first interpretation that occurred to me when I read the poem.

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    1. Interesting. But the specificity of the boy being a poor orphan (rather than a beloved son of both earthly and heavenly parents), seem to indicate an actual orphan. Plus, it is Jesus who ransoms rather than the reverse, Nonetheless, your point about "ransom" is well taken.

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  8. there's an alternative in the manuscript for lines 7/8: "Then flake of snow, imprinted swift - / When hurrying to the town". I think this validates the influence of Dickens mentioned above. Anyway, thanks for this reading.

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    1. Thanks for this information. I think the Redbreast of the Barn a great improvement, adding color, another being, a spatial location, alliteration, better meter, and a lot more pathos.

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