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26 June 2015

A Night — there lay the Days between —

A Night — there lay the Days between —
The Day that was Before —
And Day that was Behind — were One —
And now — 'twas Night — was here —

Slow — Night — that must be watched away —
As Grains upon a shore —
Too imperceptible to note —
Till it be night — no more —
                                                            F609 (1863)  J471

Dickinson depicts a sleepless night using a rather numbing repetitive structure in the first stanza and a very slow pace in the second.  The first stanza could be paraphrased as "It was night." Dickinson stretches the notion out every which way, expanding on the notion of "night" as if counting sheep. The night is between two days: there is one Before and one Behind. It all seems one with the endless night.
painting, Lois Lang
            Dickinson sprinkles various rhymes throughout the stanza, increasing the repetitiveness. There are the repeating Day/Days and Night, plus two "and"s and four uses of "was".  "Lay" rhymes with "Day" and all the whispery "w" sounds seem to beg for drowsiness to take over: between, was, was, were, One, now, 'twas, was. There's not an active verb in the entire stanza. One imagines the poet lying in bed making a little chant about the situation.
The second stanza creeps along in a wearier voice. "Slow – Night – " is a very slow spondee with its long vowels and dashes. Long vowels predominate: slow, night, away, grains, shore, too, note, night, no, more. Watching the night away is as tedious as trying to discern the individual grains of sand on the beach. The moments seem endless.

I feel sleepy just studying this poem.

23 June 2015

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem
'Twas sorry – that we were —
For where the Holiday – should be –
There publishes – a Tear —

Nor how Ourselves be justified —
Since Grief and Joy are done
So similar — An Optizan
Could not decide between —
                           F608 (1863)  J329

Tears of joy and tears of grief – the manifestation of both emotions is so similar that the most discerning individual, or even an eye doctor, can't tell which is which. I personally find this an exaggeration, but Dickinson builds this light little poem around the conceit.
Who is happy here?
Photo, Mauricio Lima, Getty Images, 2012

        It's a familiar irony: we are overflowing with happiness, experiencing a "Holiday" of feeling. In the first stanza it is a stranger who can't tell that the crying person is experiencing joy. In the second it is an "Optizan" – a great made-up word – who can't distinguish between the two emotional extremes.
         I do like Dickinson's observation that "Grief and Joy are done / So similar" as if emotions are things one does as well as feels. Perhaps there is a very fine line between extremes. Surely if we have a sudden rush of joy it is because the potential for grief lay equally close to the surface. The strong potentials evoke similar responses.  
         Dickinson uses a very regular ballad form for the poem. You could sing "Yellow Rose of Texas" to it. The first two lines emphasize the emotions rather than the people: "So glad … / Twas sorry…"

David Preest says this is one of three poems Dickinson sent Samuel Bowles who had taken a trip to Europe in 1862. This one might have been the one she wrote on his return.

20 June 2015

I think the longest Hour of all

I think the longest Hour of all
Is when the Cars have come —
And we are waiting for the Coach —
It seems as though the Time

Indignant — that the Joy was come —
Did block the Gilded Hands —
And would not let the Seconds by —
But slowest instant — ends —

The Pendulum begins to count —
Like little Scholars — loud —
The steps grow thicker — in the Hall —
The Heart begins to crowd —

Then I — my timid service done —
Tho' service 'twas, of Love —
Take up my little Violin —
And further North — remove –
                                                                    F607 (1863)  J635

When I first read this poem I imagined a beloved friend or family member coming for a visit by train. The longest hour would be the wait between the train (the "Cars") arriving at the station and the arrival home of the coach sent to pick the passenger up. In this reading the end is rather sad. Rather than join in the joyful greeting, the narrator goes upstairs. Her "little Violin" would be her voice and perhaps a gestating poem. This is consistent with what we know of Dickinson: when one of her dearest friends, Samuel Bowles, arrived after a long time abroad, Dickinson would not venture out to greet him, but retreated upstairs to her room and wrote a poetic note.
But I think it more likely that the poem depicts a household scene when someone dies. People would have arrived by carriages of some sort (the "Cars"), either to wait for the funeral hearse (a literal "Coach") or else for a death watch, death arriving here in a metaphorical coach as in "Because I could not stop for Death". Either way, death watch or gathering for a funeral procession, the hour that they wait is the "longest Hour".
Home funerals were held in the parlor

Time here seems a grasping creature of mortality. As the dying person meets her Joy and the immortal night of death arrives (or perhaps the blessing of interment), Time is "Indignant" and tries to stop the seconds from passing by blocking the hands of the clock. Yet its efforts are futile. Even that "slowest instant" when a moment seems to last forever passes and time resumes. The pendulum begins to swing again, ticking loudly to count the time. As if all is now in synchrony, the beating heart becomes full, crowded with feeling as mourners can be heard crowding in the hall. The carriage has arrived.
In terms of narrative, the ending is anticlimactic. We have the resumption of time, the increased movement of the crowd, the crowding of the heart … and then the mouse-like departure of the narrator. Her service was "timid", her violin, "little". Rather than stay or continue on with the others, she "remove[s]" herself "North" from the scene as if putting away the fancy plate.
Until that last stanza the voice of the poem seemed to be that of the poet writing in a detached, contemplative tone as if generalizing about the experience of death. But then Dickinson switches to the voice of someone present in that longest hour. Perhaps this person is a musician called upon to play soothing or uplifting music at such times. Or perhaps she is a family member, this is her own house, and her "little Violin" refers to her tears and expressions of grief.
But if we think of the narrator as Dickinson herself, we see the poet imbibing the sense of death, the feelings of the mourners, the strange abeyance of time. We see her disengaging from the public role at the end, removing herself, to return to the harsh truth of the North from where many of her poems come.

Note: One Victorian custom was to stop the clocks at the moment of death. Then the body would be constantly watched for three or four days. This would be the wake – in case the dead isn't really dead and wakes up. The family of the deceased would meanwhile provide the undertaker with information about how many carriages will be needed for the funeral procession. These would include the hearse carriage, and conveyance for family, pall bearers, and clergy – depending on what the family could afford.

As to the stopping of the clocks, I suspect  W.H. Auden had the stopping of the clocks in mind when he wrote this famous poem in 1936:

              Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

15 June 2015

Except the smaller size

Except the smaller size
No lives are round —
These — hurry to a sphere
And show and end —
The larger — slower grow
And later hang —
The Summers of Hesperides
Are long.
                          F606 (1863)  J1067

While it is easy, Dickinson implies in this short poem, for "smaller" lives to reach a satisfying completion before they pass on, "larger" souls have a longer process. Dickinson refers to the fabled Garden of the Hesperides (the Daughters of the Night) whose golden apples confer immortality.
        The first half of the poem depicts the exception to Dickinson's claim that "No lives are round". In contrast to the large Hesperian apples she invokes at the end, we can imagine little crab apples – among apples the smallest, roundest, and among the first to ripen. Some people likewise peak early. They have their day while the rest of us are flailing about, but their "show" is soon over. There are also those content with simple lives within the strictures of their times. Never deforming or chafing into rough edges, they too ripen quickly.
Garden of the Hesperides
Frederick Leighton, 1891
        Most people, however, struggle to establish themselves, exploring the myriad paths they find before them and often becoming battered in the process. But it is not these whom Dickinson emphasizes in this poem. When she invokes the Hesperides, she invokes the few who ripen slowly into some real greatness and immortality.
        It's helpful here to look at the history of this poem. It was first sent to Susan Dickinson, perhaps accompanied by apples [Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry, James Robert Guthrie, p. 88]. Later, in early 1866, she included it in a poem to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L316):
"I will be patient – constant, never reject your knife and should my slowness goad you, you knew before myself that
Except the smaller size … ".

Ah… among those lives slowly growing golden and pendulous within the sacred orchard are poets, one of whom is Dickinson herself. And might some of those smaller apples be lesser poets? If so, Dickinson was taking a true measure of her worth. Her poetry endures and the appreciation of it continues to widen while poets regularly published in her day have by and large dropped from the tree. (Dickinson claims to have never read Whitman – oh, if only she had and detailed her response in one of her famous letters!)

The poem's pace mirrors the images. The smaller apples are dispatched with the quick-reading "hurry to a sphere" after which the poem moves with an almost heavy grandeur achieved by long vowels and dipthongs: show, larger, slower grow, and later.

The two-syllable last line, "Are long", hangs in its open space like the slowly ripening apples.

07 June 2015

I am alive — I guess —

I am alive — I guess —
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory —
And at my finger's end —

The Carmine — tingles warm —
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth — it blurs it —
Physician's — proof of Breath —

I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — commonly — it is —
So Visitors may come —

And lean — and view it sidewise —
And add "How cold — it grew" —
And "Was it conscious — when it stepped
In Immortality?"

I am alive — because
I do not own a House —
Entitled to myself — precise —
And fitting no one else —

And marked my Girlhood's name —
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine — and not mistake —
And try another Key —

How good — to be alive!
How infinite — to be
Alive — two-fold — The Birth I had —
And this — besides, in — Thee!
                           F605 (1863)  J470

This ambiguous and interesting poem begins as did the robin in the previous poem – in a "doubtful Tone".  It ends in triumphant affirmation. What transpires between to bridge from one mood to the other is difficult to determine.
        "I am alive", the poet states flatly, adding a dampening "I guess".  Three pieces of evidence follow: her hand is full of morning glory flowers, her fingertips are rosy and warm, and her breath is evident as she breathes across a glass. Morning glories open in the morning and die by evening; consequently, they often are used as symbols of mortality. Victorians also used them to signify love and affection. In this poem Dickinson might be calling on both meanings.
Morning Glory – among the most
feminine of flowers

        The poem then takes on a more emphatic tone, as if the narrator has been reassured by her own evidence. The "I am alive – because" line that introduces the next two sections looks at evidence beyond her own body.  She sees that she is not in a coffin laid out for visitors to look at. Neither is she in a crypt or grave – marked with her "Girlhood's name".
        Finally convinced, the poet exclaims, "How good – to be alive!" as if at least momentarily she really had thought she died. The poet then expands on birth and death: she is not only alive, but alive "two-fold" having been born as a baby and then reborn in some other entity, the "Thee" of the last line. 
        Rebirth in Christian redemption is foundational to Christian evangelicals and was certainly familiar to those living during the revivals sweeping Amherst and other New England communities in the 1850s. Is this the meaning of the poem? 

In "It was not Death, for I stood up" [F355], Dickinson goes through another list of proof through negatives. In a state of despair, she feels as she were frozen or dead, in a state "most, like Chaos – stopless – cool – / Without a Chance…". If this poem is a description of dying to the world, then perhaps another poem, "I'm ceded – I've stopped being Theirs" [F353] provides some insight into how Dickinson perceives being reborn. 
In that poem Dickinson rejects her infant baptism and the faith into which she was born as all "finished". Her second birth is "consciously, of Grace – / Unto supremest name". In this rebirth she exerts her "Will to choose, / Or to reject". What she ends up choosing is "just a Crown".

Dickinson embeds the same same ambiguity in that poem as in the current one. Has she experienced or chosen a rebirth into Christianity? Poetry? Truth? Circumference? A lover?
        Although a religious rebirth seems the simplest reading, I am drawn to the awakening of romantic and physical love. The poem begins with great physicality, with her fingers as branches, their tips tingly and glowing. She holds a mass of flowers newly opened for their day of sun. She is disoriented as if she had been stunned: she looks around to see if she has died and been placed in a casket or grave. After emerging from this swoon, fully alive and flowered, she feels reborn. While this might represent her church-of-nature union with Jesus, it might mean an earthly lover as well. I have no doubt Dickinson wrote with this ambiguity firmly in her own heart. It is a version of the "infinite" that she has become.

05 June 2015

You'll know Her — by Her Foot —

You'll know Her — by Her Foot —
The smallest Gamboge Hand
With Fingers — where the Toes should be —
Would more affront the sand —

Than this Quaint Creature's Boot —
Adjusted by a stem —
Without a Button — I could vouch —
Unto a Velvet Limb —

You'll know Her — by Her Vest —
Tight fitting — Orange — Brown —
Inside a Jacket duller —
She wore when she was born —

Her Cap is small — and snug —
Constructed for the Winds —
She'd pass for Barehead — short way off —
But as she closer stands —

So finer 'tis than Wool —
You cannot feel the seam —
Nor is it clasped unto of Band —
Nor held upon — of Brim —

You'll know Her — by Her Voice —
At first — a doubtful Tone —
A sweet endeavor — but as March
To April — hurries on —

She squanders on your Head
Such Arguments of Pearl —
You beg the Robin in your Brain
To keep the other — still —
                                    F604 (1863)  J634

Victorians by all accounts enjoyed puzzles. Dickinson enjoyed them, too, and wrote several fine puzzle poems. This one carries on as a puzzle until the very end when it is made explicit that the "Quaint Creature" is a robin.
         The first clue is a description of the foot. "Gamboge" is a saffron yellow pigment made from the resin of the gamboge tree, indigenous to Southeast Asia. It can also simply mean "yellow" or "golden". In the rather curious imagery of the second and third lines, I imagine Dickinson thinking about Chinese writing. She might be imagining a delicate golden hand writing delicate characters in the sand – and deem them larger and clumsier than the dainty tracks of a robin.
         Dickinson continues with the foot, next casting it as a boot connected by a stem to a "Velvet Limb". A ladies' Victorian boot would typically be fastened by buttons, but the poet is ready to "vouch" that this creature's boot has no such thing. It's as if Dickinson had camped out on her lawn inspecting robins as they passed. The soft tibial feathers on the birds' thighs would be the "Velvet" of the limb.
American robin, female
photo by Colin Talcroft
         The poem's next clue, and for many reader's the tip off, is the orange/brown "Vest" of the creature and its duller-colored "Jacket". Most people are familiar with Robin Redbreast – and the paler rust color of the female. And while juvenile robins have a spotted breast, their back and wing feathers are always a sort of charcoal color.
         Three stanzas are given to the bird's "Cap": it fits so snugly you wouldn't know she wears one – until you are quite close. Then you can see the demarcation of head from body that makes the cap. Still, as the boot has no button, this cap has no brim or band.
         The point of the poem, though, isn't the puzzle but in the robin's song; all the other little details are but preparatory.  The first robins of spring have but a "doubtful Tone" – although Dickinson graciously grants that it is a "sweet endeavor". But by the end of April the bird has come into such eloquent abundance of song that she "squanders" them on the listener. They are "Arguments of Pearl", but at last it is too much. The listener wants to enjoy the songs in her head for a while, let the inner robin sing – and hopefully drown out the exuberant real bird.

I can't help but think that Dickinson is writing a bit tongue-in-cheek about herself throughout the poem. In one of her first letters to her "Preceptor", Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she describes herself as birdlike and with hair the same reddish brown as the female robin: " small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur". As to the Gamboge hand, Higginson once likened her handwriting to bird tracks. The opening line of the poem, "You'll know Her – by Her Foot – " may well be a reference to Higginson's comment that her meter, her poetic foot, was "spasmodic".
         But as I said earlier, the point is the song. Dickinson may be assessing her development as a poet. She begins conventionally and sweetly enough, but as the years went by she began producing pages and pages of poetry, her "Arguments of Pearl". To a reader familiar with the Bible, and Emily Dickinson was very familiar with it, this recalls Matthew's warning about casting "your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6). It's a lighthearted comment, one teasing herself as much as ruing her lack of appreciative audience. Perhaps she was thinking of Higginson here, too, imagining that she was squandering poems on him while he was still trying to digest earlier once.
         More than that, though, I suspect that "the Robin in your Brain" is her own songs. Don't drown them out, Robin, she admonishes, with your beautiful singing. I have my own to sing.