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23 January 2015

We see — Comparatively —

We see — Comparatively —
The Thing so towering high
We could not grasp its segment
Unaided — Yesterday —

This Morning's finer Verdict —
Makes scarcely worth the toil —
A furrow — Our Cordillera —
Our Apennine — a Knoll —

Perhaps 'tis kindly — done us —
The Anguish — and the loss —
The wrenching — for His Firmament
The Thing belonged to us —

To spare these striding spirits
Some Morning of Chagrin —
The waking in a Gnat's — embrace —
Our Giants — further on —
                                 F580 (1863)  J534


The poem begins as a simple claim that we see "Comparatively" – through contrast and likeness. The Berkshire Hills, for example, are impressive on their own, but travel to Switzerland or view Edward Church's exotic and panoramic paintings of the Andes (the "Cordillera") as Dickinson surely did, and they would seem much more homely and modest. 
The poem presents revelation in such terms.  One might live so close to a Sagamatha, or Mt. Everest, that it seems just a towering "Thing". The entirety of it is too big for our scale, too shrouded in clouds, and so we cannot even 'grasp' the segment we are familiar with. But in the poem's metaphoric dawn, the clouds burn off. The revelation of the full mountain – the towering epiphany it represents – comes with such a searing blaze of truth that our quotidian existence seems "scarcely worth the toil". The once-grand Cordillera now seems no more remarkable than a farmer's furrow.

But then Dickinson pivots to what strikes me as the Fall and Adam and Eve's resultant loss of Paradise. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge against the instructions of God, they were cast out of Eden to live in suffering and toil. We have no personal memories of this casting out, no racial memory of Paradise – and that is a good thing. How else could we endure? And so it is indeed "kindly – done us" by that same God that those paradisical days are lost in the veils of time and myth. Else, we would be living daily with "Anguish", "loss", "The wrenching – for His Firmament" – and for, most keenly, "The Thing belonged to us".
Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden


Dickinson employs some of her sharpest sarcasm in the final stanza. God's kindliness is to spare those "striding spirits" – poets and mystics and dreamers – "Some Morning of Chagrin" in realizing the magnitude of loss. This is biting understatement as it stands, but Dickinson sharpens it further. The "chagrin" isn't just remorse and regret but the waking up realizing we are in a "Gnat's – embrace". We are in the furrows. Those high peaks, those giants, those angels – they are all "further on". 
Unlike her Calvinist peers, Dickinson's bitterness isn't directed against Eve as the vessel of Sin, but against the one who wrenched paradise away from humanity's grasp. It's a very physical, even violent verb. The Lexicon list of meanings is grim: " Confiscation; grabbing; wresting; violent seizing; taking away by force". That towering "Thing" we glimpse is our lost patrimony of Paradise.

This reading is congruent with Thomas Cole's famous 1828 painting "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" which Dickinson was no doubt familiar with (Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p 69-70).


Dickinson addresses brief glimpses of heaven in "I've known a Heaven, like a Tent" [F357] where heaven appears, dazzles, then "Pluck[s] up its stakes, and disappear[s]", leaving "no Figment of the Thing / That dazzled, Yesterday".  But there is no wrenching away in that poem, perhaps (if my reading of the current poem is correct) because its subject is heavenly heaven rather than the earthly paradise of Eden.

Dickinson addresses the suddenness of insight or epiphany in "Our lives are Swiss" [F129] where at times we get a glimpse of a much larger – and yearned for – world. In that poem there are "Curtains" that shield us from that unattainable vision. Again, that poem lacks the bite of this one. It has a yearning tone for what is glimpsed, but no sense of loss or anguish.
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1 comment:

  1. I love "The waking in a Gnat's- embrace-

    I think of the towering poetic brilliance of ED that she confined to her father's house and ultimately to her bedroom dresser drawer and at some level the bitterness she must have felt with such comparative obscurity.

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