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16 April 2015

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.

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