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22 April 2015

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins –

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins – 
The Positive — of Bells —
When Cogs — stop — that's Circumference —
The Ultimate — of Wheels.
                                                   F601 (1863)  J633

In this wisdom poem Dickinson presents mortal life as a prelude to a better state in the hereafter.

From Hanford Mills, NY, 1840-1967
Bells prepare us for the church service – that's the "Positive". Without the service the bells are meaningless, although often lovely to hear. The second two lines provide a second metaphor. Cogs enable machinery to generate movement and work. The sawmills of Dickinson's day used a simple system of cogwheels and water wheels. As long as the cogwheel runs the water wheel turns. When the cogs stop, the mill stops, too. But what is left are the wheels, the essence of which is the circumference. This is the "Ultimate" aspect of wheels, for its bounds take in all the work potential and, in Dickinson's metaphor, the entire circle of existence. 

 I like the dashes Dickinson puts around "stop" in the third line. They enforce the stop.  The short, hard word, "Cogs" preceding it reinforces the effect. After "stop" the rest of the poem is in perfect iambs with "Circumference" rolling nicely into "Ultimate".

It's a thoughtful poem, compressed, vivid, and rewarding the bit of work to let the images expand in your mind. 

16 April 2015


I would just like to take a moment, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and celebrate the completion of 600 commentaries. I only have 1189 left.

Her — last Poems —

Her — last Poems —
Poets ended —
Silver — perished — with her Tongue —
Not on Record — bubbled Other,
Flute — or Woman — so divine —

Not unto its Summer Morning —
Robin — uttered Half the Tune —
Gushed too full for the adoring —
From the Anglo-Florentine —

Late — the Praise — 'Tis dull — Conferring
On the Head too High – to Crown —
Diadem — or Ducal Showing —
Be its Grave — sufficient Sign —

Nought — that We — No Poet's Kinsman —
Suffocate — with easy Wo —
What, and if Ourself a Bridegroom —
Put Her down — in Italy?
F600 (1863)  J312

This tribute to the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was written about two years after Browning's death. Dickinson particularly admired "Aurora Leigh" (a verse novel published in 1856) and purportedly memorized whole sections of it. She kept a framed picture of Barrett Browning on her bedroom wall.
        Dickinson begins with the remarkable and hyperbolic claim that poetry died with Browning. Even robins, Dickinson's "Criterion for Tune", can't achieve "Half the Tune" of Browning. Dickerson continues by acknowledging that her tribute is "Late" and that any praise she offers would fall short. Browning's poetic head is "too High". Her gravestone will have to suffice as memorial ornament.
        Even Dickinson's grief lacks meaning or value. She is "No Poet's Kinsman"  without rights at another poet's grave. On a deeper level she may be claiming her independence: she claims no  poetic lineage from Browning or anyone else. I think that is right, too. For all that scholars can point to this or that influence from Browning or Tennyson, or whomever, Dickinson's voice, meter, and gift of metaphor are singular.
        In something of a paradox, Dickinson writes that she is suffocating "with an easy Wo" – as if her grief were oppressive but bearable. She ends the poem by wondering what she might have felt as Barrett Browning's husband, preparing the body, burying her, and giving her honor. That, she implies, would not be an easy woe.

Yet for all the extreme but dignified praise, the phrase "Put her down" lacks tenderness or even regard for graveyard solemnities. Did Dickinson mean to introduce a note of disapproval for the way Robert Browning eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, taking her to Italy (although Italy was chosen as a more healthy place for Barrett Browning's lung problems)? Did she resent his growing fame that was beginning to eclipse Elizabeth's? Or did Dickinson simply mean that it fell to him to arrange coffin, grave and the final lowering of the casket? Still, the phrase has a vegetable quality as if Barrett Browning had been transplanted first through the elopement, then at death.

There's another odd note to my ear in the bubbling and gushing. To be the best bubbler of flute and women; to be a better gusher than a robin, seems … not exactly damned by faint praise, but not as if Barrett Browning's work was exactly in Dickinson's style. While Barrett Browning's poetry "Gushed too full for the adoring", Dickinson's poems tease, startle, and mystify. I doubt she would want the word "gush" in any juxtaposition with her own work.
        I also think Dickinson is using "Woman" restrictively here. Barrett Browning isn't said to be more divine than flutes or poets, just "Flute – or Woman". And the women poets getting published in the paper or giving performances during Dickinson's lifetime often did bubble and gush.

So I have mixed feelings about this tribute. On the one hand it is straightforward praise. On the other, there is a bit of distancing, even critique, mixed with the grief at Barrett Browning's death.

Here are two poems from the Springfield Republic, March 1, 1862. The first is an early version of one of the few published poems of Emily Dickinson. The second is from a contemporary (who I am guessing is a woman). Dickinson's poem bears the passage of time. It's still widely anthologized. The second, is, well, a gushing sort of prayer.

March 1, 1862, pg. 2
The Republican.

The Sleeping.
                    Safe in their alabaster chambers,
                    Untouched by morning,
                       And untouched by noon,
                    Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
                       Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

                    Light laughs the breeze
                    In her castle above them,
                       Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
                    Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
                       Ah! What sagacity perished here!
                    Pelham Hill, June, 1861.
The Shadow of Thy Wing.
               Weary of lifes great mart, its dust and din,
               Faint with its toiling, suffering with its sin,
               In childlike faith my heart to Thee I bring,
               For refuge in
the shadow of thy wing.

               Like a worn bird of passage, left behind
               Wounded, and sinking, by its faithless kind,
               With flight unsteady, seeking needed rest,
               I come for shelter to Thy faithful breast.

               Like a proud ship, dismantled by the gale,
               Her banners lost and rifted every sail,
               In the deep waters to Thy love I cling,
               And hasten to the refuge of Thy wing.

               O Thou, thy people
s comforter alway,
               Their light in darkness, and their guide by day,
               Their anchor
mid the storm, their hope in calm,
               Their joy in pain, their fortress in alarm!

               We are all weak, Thy strength we humbly crave;
               We are all lost, and Thou alone canst save;
               A weary world, to Thy dear arm we cling,
               And hope for all a refuge
��neath Thy wing.

12 April 2015

We do not play on Graves —

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn't Room —
Besides — it isn't even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We're fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —
                                                                  F599 (1863)  J467

Although Dickinson writes here with a childish voice, the poem depicts the very real fear adults have of death.
        The child speaker mentions several reasons why the playmates avoid graves for their games. First, the lack of room. While a church graveyard might be be a bit small for play, there is the deeper claustrophobia of the grave itself. Dickinson has written before of being trapped forever in that small, dark place, "Untouched by morning – / And untouched by noon" ["Safe in their alabaster chambers" F124]. To be in the presence of graves is to be reminded of the cramped and buried bones.
        The children also complain that the ground over the graves isn't "even" and that it "slants". While this literally might refer to the settling of the earth, the mounding of the graves, or the tombstones grown akilter, it also suggests the slant and uneven sense of untimely or unwelcome death. Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War. In addition to the deaths of children and young women (too often during childbirth), there were the many young men killed in battle. No wonder the ground seems uneven and slant.
        Worse, perhaps, than the uneven and restricted space are the people who come to place flowers on the graves. Their faces "hang" with grief (another echo of death) to the extent the children worry their hearts will drop right out. Such sorrowful hearts are so heavy they might "crush our pretty play". Bummer! But Dickinson makes a sharp point: it isn't only children who wish to avoid the deeply grieved. Adults, too, feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.
In the end, the children move their games away "as far / As Enemies", for death is the enemy of the young. They look over their shoulders from time to time to make sure of the distance. And so we all, Dickinson implies, look over our shoulders for the shadow of the grave.

The childish tone of the poem is supported by a series of rather breathless "and"s – five of them, reminding me of the way children will talk of something scary. The poem bubbles rather evenly along, impelled by the 'and's, until grinding to a halt at "Occasionally" – a long, unpoetic word bracketed by dashes. It's almost spooky: we only look occasionally – but maybe we should look more often. Look! There's Death right on our heels!
There is a hint of the Gothic in that and in the ironic contrast between the children and the graveyard they avoid – and even in the dropped and crushing heart.  Further, I wonder if Dickinson was penning a response poem to the heavy meditations of the Graveyard poets, popular in the 18th century. Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" is one of the best and most enduring of this school (which many consider a precursor to the Gothic).

Another example, pictured here with an illustration by William Blake, is a selection from Edward Young's "Night Thoughts".

How richly were my noontide trances hung
With gorgeous tapestries of pictured joys,
Joy behind joy, in endless perspective!
Till at Death's toll, whose restless iron tongue
Calls daily for his millions at a meal,
Starting I woke, and found myself undone.
Where's now my frenzy's pompous furniture?
The cobweb'd cottage, with its ragged wall
Of mould'ring mud, is royalty to me:
The spider's most attenuated thread,
Is cord, is cable, to man's tender tie
On earthly bliss; it breaks at every breeze. 
"Night Thoughts", object 4; 1797

I like Death's "restless iron tongue" and "frenzy's pompous furniture". I picture Dickinson reading such poems (both at home and at school, no doubt) and deciding to re-imagine the topic in her own inimitable way.

05 April 2015

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
                                                                       F598 (1863)  J632

Each stanza of this popular poem provides an interesting metaphor to ponder, each one manifesting the wonders of a three-pound human brain encased in its dark skull. The first two stanzas deftly channel into the final where Dickinson engages cryptically in the ongoing theological question of whether God is created in the brain or the brain is created by God. (By "brain" I am reading "mind" throughout the poem. Dickinson's using "brain" adds interesting contrast: the compact physical thing versus the diffuse and abstract.)
The first stanza goes up and wide, spanning the heavens: the "You", no doubt a generalized reference to the reader, can stare at the sky day and night, experience weather and seasonal changes, and take it all in "with ease" and space to spare. In Dickinson's container metaphor the brain can hold not only the sky but "You" as if it had unlimited storage capacity. 
Next, Dickinson likens the brain to a sponge. It can absorb an entire sea just as a sponge might sop up a bucket of water. The brain here is the limitless blue of sea and sky.

Balance scales; photo by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez 
        So far the brain is wide and deep; it can contain and absorb. The third and final stanza makes the startling claim that its weight is "just the weight of God". We don't think of either consciousness or God as having weight and neither did Dickinson. But perhaps that is her point. Can a brain greater than sky or sea affect on its own the unfurling of a rosebud or the safe return of a soldier to his family? Can God? Is it possible that there is some fundamental unity between consciousness/brain/mind and God, or that more particularly the first engenders the other? I can't imagine Dickinson writing that last stanza without those questions in mind.
But if there is any difference – and Dickinson notably includes an element of doubt – it is what distinguishes "Syllable from Sound". While syllables are always sound (or written representations of sound), sound is only occasionally syllables. Perhaps Dickinson is implying that humans give voice to creation and creation's Source.

I love this thought-provoking poem.