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30 October 2016

I think I was enchanted

I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl —
I read that Foreign Lady —
The Dark — felt beautiful —

And whether it was noon at night —
Or only Heaven — at Noon —
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell —

The Bees — became as Butterflies —
The Butterflies — as Swans —
Approached — and spurned the narrow Grass —
And just the meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer —
I took for Giants — practising
Titanic Opera —

The Days — to Mighty Metres stept —
The Homeliest — adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
'Twere suddenly confirmed —

I could not have defined the change —
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul —
Is witnessed — not explained —

'Twas a Divine Insanity —
The Danger to be sane
Should I again experience —
'Tis Antidote to turn —

To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft —
Magicians be asleep —
But Magic — hath an element —
Like Deity — to keep —
Fr627 (1863)  J593


This beautiful ode to poetry includes all that makes poems so deeply powerful. In praising the transformative effect of 'that Foreign Lady' – English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (according to better scholars than I) – Dickinson makes plain her own ability to enchant, displace, and transform. For me, and no doubt countless others, "Foreign" could be replaced by "Amherst", for when I first truly dipped into Dickinson's poems, I, too, found that the "Dark – felt beautiful". 
I love that phrase about the Dark. A simple interpretation would be that Brownings' work introduced a tangible beauty into the dark room and that it shed an uncanny light of insight and recognition. But "The Dark"  encompasses more than an unlit room. Dickinson might be meaning the hidden places, even the abyss, that she herself came to frequent in many of her own poems and where she so often threads her way, like Ariadne negotiating the labyrinth to the Minotaur at its heart.

Dickinson begins this poem as if in intimate conversation with the reader. We see the "sombre Girl" first reading from the Foreign Lady in the dark of her room. There would only be the flickering flame of an oil lamp or candle to light the words. Perhaps she was gulping down "Aurora Leigh", a poem-novel whose eponymous heroine struggles, as Virginia Woolf wrote, with "her conflict as an artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom" – as well as with her desire for passion and truth. Such themes and struggles might well have made compelling reading for Dickinson.
Whichever ones they were, the poems shed such a "Lunacy of Light" that it might have been the noontime sun or else some interior sun at midnight; the girl couldn't tell. Mundane reality fell away as she read. What was known and simple became enlarged and glorious. Her mind shifted in the way one can suddenly see two profiles in place of a goblet except that her shift was deep in the mind, deep inside "Where the Meanings are" (Fr320).

Peter Birkhäuser's "Anima"
The poem is full of female power and this theme is introduced in these first two stanzas: Lunacy (as a certain divine madness), the Foreign Lady and sombre Girl, the enchantment, and the moon (so clearly suggested by 'noon at night' – the word 'noon' itself invoking 'moon'), are each traditionally associated with the Feminine. Dickinson later invokes witchcraft, too – and it would have only been 170 years since witches were hanged in Massachussetts. The transformations depicted in the middle of the poem not only do double duty in exemplifying Barrett Brownings' effect and Dickinson's poetic prowess, but remind us of the transformative aspect of the feminine: birth, seed to fruit, the creative and generative Muse. 

In the first of these transformations bees metamorphose first into butterflies and then into swans. The vision has sound effects: the ordinary "Tunes" of nature – bees buzzing, breezes whispering through the grass and shrubs, grasshoppers whirring, birds singing, etc. –  become a grand and giant opera. In the third transformation Dickinson leaves the birds and the bees behind, focusing on the days themselves. No longer creeping along in their petty pace they were now dressed to the nines and stepping grandly in time to the swelling orchestra. A Jubilee might be a big festivity, but the Dickinson Lexicon lists another meaning: the "fiftieth year in the Old Testament calendar, when slaves are granted liberty and debts forgiven [Leviticus 25]". This is transformation indeed.

When Dickinson writes that the result of her 'enchantment' was a "Conversion of the Mind" she may be crediting the Foreign Lady as her poetic progenitor. The change was indefinable and indelible; something like sanctification which is a holy consecration. Dickinson reinforces the sacredness of the conversion by referring to it as 'Divine Insanity', a topic she was examining only a few poems ago in "Much Madness is divinest Sense" (Fr620). It is, the sombre Girl realizes, what is considered sanity that poses the real danger. Should she find herself succumbing to it, however, she has the antidote right at hand:  "Tomes of Solid Witchcraft – that is to say, books of poetry. The poet/magician may be asleep in death, but her magic/poems live on in divine immortality.

5 comments:

  1. Your essay explains well this difficult poem.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in June, 1861 -- so I your thoughts on "Magicians be asleep" seem right to me.

    Several competing metaphors run through the poem. The first is magic contrasted to mundane, ordinary reality ("enchanted" v. "somber", "Giants / Titanic opera" v. "meanest Tunes", "Solid Witchcraft", "Magicians", "Magic".

    The second is sanity contrasted to insanity. But here, sanity is on the side of the Dark ("noon at night" and insanity is linked with images of daylight and rationality ("Lunacy of Light", something beyond words -- "I had not power to tell"). Later in the poem this insanity is a positive ("Divine Insanity") and sanity / rationality is a "danger" that threatens to reverse the transformation described in the poem.

    The third is spiritual transformation -- a dream-like metamorphosis. Noon becomes night, bees (an image of industriousness) become butterflies (image of transformation) become swans (image of beauty). The change is a "Conversion", blessing or "Sanctifying" the soul. Noon becomes "Heaven". Insanity becomes divine -- with an element "like Deity".

    It is such a beautiful poem. Homely days are anthropomorphized into "Giants" with "Mighty Metres stept". The poet lacks the "power to tell" -- what is experienced is "witnessed -- not explained". the experience is "suddenly confirmed" but not graspable by reason.

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    1. Thank you - I particularly like your depiction of the dream progression.

      As an aside: I think the opening of this poem, the first stanza, is one of my favorites among Dickinson's opus. And I say that believing that one of Dickinson's many strengths is her opening lines. In this case the rest of the poem seems to follow organically. Unlike many of her poems there isn't a searing and startling line that suddenly transforms the poem. You can see Robert Frost as a sombre boy reading the lines.

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  2. I love this poem: the imagery, the figures of speech, and of course everyone likes reading about being magically transported by beauty and inspiration.
    For the same reasons your explication is beautiful and a pleasure to read. Your blog is a laudable enterprise, valuable to me as a follower. I'm gratified to have discovered this site.
    Lee Silverwood

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    1. Thank you, Lee! I had never read this poem before coming across it in this sequence. I loved it immediately. I like the pensiveness of it.

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  3. Another example of ED's brilliance is that she conveys abstract thoughts with an economy of words that is breathtaking. In this poem, I love the first two lines of the second stanza, in which she is bending and twisting time effortlessly. She is describing our reaction to her own poems; maybe she saw that coming too!

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