Search This Blog

30 June 2014

For largest Woman's Heart I knew —

For largest Woman's Heart I knew —
'Tis little I can do —
And yet the largest Woman's Heart
Could hold an Arrow — too —
And so, instructed by my own,
I tenderer, turn Me to –
                       F542 (1863)  J309

Dickinson sent one copy of this poem to Sue, her sister-in-law and beloved (although at times estranged) friend. The short poem is full of mystery. Why is the first line in the past tense? What is it that the poet might want to do while seemingly regretting that there is "little" she can do? What sort of arrow is Dickinson envisioning: a Cupid's arrow of love or the sharp arrow of pain and grief? The heart can hold an arrow "too" – what else did it hold? And finally, how is one to complete the last thought?
Woman defending herself against Eros
by William Adophe Bouguereau (about 1880)

One reading might have Dickinson writing directly to and of Sue. She has the largest heart. Perhaps it is so large that Dickinson finds herself rattling around in it along with myriad others and there is not much she can do about it. Yet despite the (gossiped about) flirtatious nature of Sue, she could harbor Cupid's dart. Instructed by her own heart, the poet, feeling more sympathetic by this contemplation, turns herself to … perhaps to her own rich inner life or to a philosophical and generous understanding and acceptance of Sue.

I’m not sure what the honymic rhyme of "too" with "to" adds to the poem, but it doesn't seem accidental. 

Any comments on this poem are indeed welcome!

28 June 2014

The Test of Love — is Death —

The Test of Love — is Death —
Our Lord — "so loved" — it saith —
What Largest Lover — hath
Another — doth —

If smaller Patience — be —
Through less Infinity —
If Bravo, sometimes swerve —
Through fainter Nerve —

Accept it's Most —
And overlook — the Dust —
Last — Least —
The Cross' — Request —
                                                     F541 (1863)  J543

 Readers in Dickinson's devout Protestant community would have been quite familiar with the Bible; consequently they could easily flesh out the well-known New Testament verses this poem draws from. Without these verses the poem seems sketchy; with them, we find the poet asking for toleration and perhaps forgiveness in the name of love.
The first line about the "Test of Love" draws on John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Another relevant New Testament text is John 15:13 – "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Having established that the willingness to die – or have the "only begotten Son" die – proves Love, Dickinson claims that what God or Jesus, the "Largest Lover", has done, a person can do as well. She hastens to qualify this, however. A human has "smaller Patience" simply because human lives are short (a nice insight); we have less courage because of "fainter Nerve". So although we might think we would do everything for another, even to the point of death, our human frailties get in the way.
Soul of the Sunflower, 1870, Elihu Vedder

The last stanza seems to me to switch from a general discussion of divine versus human to a direct request. A paraphrase of the first two lines might read: Accept that humans can be mostly (but not perfectly) loving, patient and brave; "Overlook" human frailty. So far so good. But what of the last two lines? Here Dickinson refers to other New Testament teachings. "Least" draws from Matthew 25:40, where Jesus claims, in a parable about helping the neediest people, that "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."  
        The cross' request, perhaps the "Last" thing that Jesus said, would be one of the seven  sayings  that Jesus reportedly made as he was being crucified. Of these, only one can be considered a true request: from Luke 23:34 – "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." Dickinson may be exhorting her readers to be more tolerant, loving, and forgiving; but to my ear it sounds as if she is asking for a bit of forgiveness herself. Perhaps her patience faltered and she lacked a bit of courage. I am one of the least, she says; I've failed in some way, but I would still die for you. Remember the lessons of the New Testament. Understand, forgive, and still love me.
        I struggled with this poem until reading it as a personal plea from the poet. As a general discussion it seems disjointed, even annoying. As a heartfelt plea, though, I find it moving and even beautiful. The last line calls out in the name of the cross of crucifixion – which might have been schmaltzy but with the bareness of the lines, the number of words and phrases left out, it has more poignancy than pathos.

Each line in the first stanza ends in a slant rhyme of "Death" – a quiet sound that contrasts with the abundance of "L" sounds: Love, Lord, loved, Largest, Lover". The contrast of a complex even difficult sound (the "L", dropped or missing from many languages and language variants, seems unfinished, the tongue poised behind the upper teeth as if ready to spring into a new sound) with the long, quiet fricative "th", emphasizes the end words. "Death" casts a shadow over the entire first stanza until the final word, "doth."
        The second stanza trips by more quickly with an AABB scheme and the fast perfect rhyme of "swerve" with "Nerve". The third stanza reverts to the AAAA slant-rhyme pattern of the first. Once again the end words are emphasized, not only by rhyme but by the decisive sibilance of the "st" sounds. The final word, "Request," which I argue is the point of the poem, is doubly emphasized in picking up both the long "e" of "Least" as well as the slant rhyme with "Most" and "Dust."

02 June 2014

If What we could — were what we would —

If What we could — were what we would —
Criterion — be small —
It is the Ultimate of Talk —
The Impotence to Tell —
F540 (1863)  J407

Some might call it griping, others wishful thinking, still others confiding. No matter what you call it, I think Dickinson nails it here. Sharing what you want but don't have is "the Ultimate of Talk". It's how we sort out our priorities, discuss strategies and alternatives, take or give consolation, bond with friends, gain encouragement, or simply vent.
        Doing or getting what you want, on the other hand, might be rewarding and satisfying, but it doesn't make for great conversation unless you are phoning home. Dickinson didn't live in a culture that valued boasting – and neither do we, except for brag-rappers or professional wrestlers. And then again, fulfillment, like virtue, is its own reward. 

Confidence, Daniel Ridgway Knight, 1899
The concept of the poem seems simple, but try to say as much as concisely. Dickinson does so through eclipsis (leaving out words) and parallel structure. Textbook grammar might suffer but textbooks be damned! The sense of the poem is clear, and a sentence such as "It is the Ultimate of Talk – / The Impotence to Tell –" is just fun. The phrase rolls off the tongue and then the mind enjoys a bit of a romp to sort it out. 
        Dickinson pairs "the Ultimate" with "The Impotence" and follows both with a short prepositional phrase: "of Talk" and "to Tell". The parallelism is capped by the fun word "Impotence" – a stuffy sounding word that, at least to modern ears, suggests a very particular type of inability to get "what we would".
        The parallelism of the first line sets the lighthearted tone of the poem with its singsong cadence and multiplicity of "w" sounds: what, we, were, what, we, would. The last two lines trip to "t" sounds: It, Ultimate, Talk, Impotence, to, Tell.