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26 April 2020

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –


The Martyr Poets – did not tell –
But wrought their Pang in syllable –
That when their mortal name be numb –
Their mortal fate – encourage Some –

The Martyr Painters  – never spoke –
Bequeathing – rather – to their Work –
That when their conscious fingers cease –
Some seek in Art – the Art of Peace –
                                                            Fr665 (1863)  J544


In this hymn-like poem Dickinson pairs "Martyr" Poets and Painters who, like religious martyrs who died rather than betray their beliefs, died to this world so that their works might live. She uses the past tense throughout the poem, so presumably is thinking of poets and painters past rather than present or future.

These artistic martyrs poured their souls into compositions rather than conversations: the Poets 'did not tell' and the Painters 'never spoke'. They also spent their health. We know from her letters that Dickinson admired John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – both poets associated with the Romantic Movement and both of whom kept writing through poverty and the illnesses that consumed them. Both wrote poems about truth and beauty.
Posthumous portrait of John Keats, William Hilton 
            In "On a Grecian Urn", Keats embodies that urge to 'seek in Art – the Art of Peace'. The poet describes the painting on the urn and how its depictions 'dost tease us out of thought', concluding with the famous lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
            In Browning's "A Vision of Poets" the foreheads of true poets were 'royal with the truth'. They gave their lives for their work; they did not compromise for fame or popularity even if they starved for it. 'These were poets true", she writes, "who died for Beauty, as martyrs do / for Truth – the ends being scarcely two."


It's hard to know just which poets and painters Dickinson might have had in mind. I couldn't find any Dickinson scholars who discussed it. Neither does the poem delve into or offer much in the way of artistic aesthetics or content that might engender martyrdom. It is likely enough that the self-sacrifice of health, popularity, and material comfort might be what she intends.

The poem is written in a different meter than Dickinson typically employs. Rather than the common hymn meter of much of her poems (four-line stanzas alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter and rhyming abcb), this one is all in iambic tetrameter with an aabb rhyme. Although I don't particularly like this poem I do very much enjoy the first two lines with the tell / syllable rhyme.

22 April 2020

Rehearsal to Ourselves

Rehearsal to Ourselves
Of a Withdrawn Delight —
Affords a Bliss like Murder —
Omnipotent — Acute —

We will not drop the Dirk —
Because We love the Wound
The Dirk Commemorate — Itself
Remind Us that we died –
                                                            FR664 (1863)  J379

In this short and powerful poem Dickinson addresses readers directly using the third person plural. We are all, she implies, familiar with the behaviour pattern of rehashing / rehearsing a deep grief or pain resulting from a 'Withdrawn Delight'.
            One ambiguity at the heart of the poem is whether someone else did or caused the withdrawing or whether the 'we' who self sacrificed. Neither do we know the least bit about the Delight – what category of pleasure it might belong to, for example; or whether it was something frequently savoured or a unique delight interrupted. I don't think any of these questions, however, are germane: Dickinson is more interested in what it feels like and why we do it.

What does rehearsing the Withdrawal of the Delight feel like? A "Bliss like Murder – / Omnipotent – Acute." Okay, so that's a line worth thinking about. 'Omnipotent' is a word associated with the Christian God: All-Powerful. It also might mean 'overpowering' in this context, the biblical deity association adding resonance. 'Acute' here would mean 'intense'. The ED Lexicon adds to that, 'penetrating' and 'sharp'. The 'Bliss', then, would be intense and powerful – sharp and overpowering. Could a murder feel like that? It might, and it might in the exact moment feel like that no matter which end of the knife one wields. It doesn't surprise me that Dickinson's imagination takes her to even this dark place.
            But even if Murder does feel like that, how does simply rehearsing it arouse the same sensations? Her explanation lies in the second stanza. We keep experiencing the Bliss because "We will not drop the Dirk." We keep probing with it because "We love the Wound." We don't want it to heal. If we have one great focus in life, one great love, then to lose it would mean the death of something central to us. With Dirk in hand we can remember the intense moment when what we most delighted in was no longer accessible to us. We can ache with what might have been, what should or could have been. We are truly alive. That is why the Dirk is kept. It keeps the Wound – and us, alive.

The Dirk is not only murderous but a commemoration of the murder. We are introduced to the idea of death by the word 'Murder' in the first stanza. We then meet the Dirk and, finally, in the last line, death. The Withdrawn Delight caused a type of death; reliving the deep pain is like pressing ourselves against the dagger. The pain is real and reminds us not only that we died – but that we live.

The bird that presses her breast
against the thorn to sing
This is the opposite of the 'formal feeling' that comes 'after the great pain' in poem Fr372. There the feeling is like a 'Quartz contentment, like a stone –." I don't know how Dickinson could travel from a 'formal feeling' to a 'Bliss like Murder' in the space of one year, but I am not surprised. She was surgical in exploration of human emotion and response and she didn't hesitate to operate on herself. She may have experienced both or neither of the responses to great pain but it didn't matter because one of her great poetic gifts is to truly see the unclothed self.

I also think that she was imaginatively engaged by material from her books on saints, her Bible, her Shakespeare, classics, and poets. I am very tempted to read this poem as a response to the legend of nightingales that lean into thorns to inspire their beautiful, plaintive songs. While one branch of this legend comes from Persia where the nightingale presses its breast against a rose thorn because of unrequited love for the flower, another comes from Ovid's Metamorphosis (Book 6) where king Tereus cuts off his sister-in-law Philomela's tongue after raping her. The gods ultimately turn her into a nightingale. In Sydney's poem "The Nightingale", which Dickinson might very well have been familiar with, he refers to the nightingale who "Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making."

Just so, the dagger and the Bliss – and the emotions strong as murder to remind us all that we are alive.

11 April 2020

I fear a Man of frugal Speech –

I fear a Man of frugal Speech —
I fear a Silent Man —
Haranguer — I can overtake —
Or Babbler — entertain —

But He who weigheth — While the Rest —
Expend their furthest pound —
Of this Man — I am wary —
I fear that He is Grand —
                                                                   Fr663 (1863)  J543

This poem asks to be read aloud. The hymn meter (alternating iambic tetrameter / iambic trimeter lines) is, for Dickinson, highly regular and the slant rhymes not too slant. The poem trips lightly on its poetic feet, contributing to the tone of its dry, ironic wit. The irony, of course, is in presenting the silent, thoughtful man as the man to fear.

I'm rather with Dickinson on this one. When I was a lass and even Dickinson's 33 years when she penned this, I too was a bit wary of the 'Man of frugal Speech' who weighed his words. It's much easier, even fun, to parlay with the ones who present themselves with an argument to confront or the ones who enjoy friendly banter. I would indeed be afraid I'd be deemed a haranguer or babbler to Dickinson's Silent Man. My own burbled-out thoughts – even if not babbling or haranguing –  might be found wanting.
              
The last line of the poem provides the rationale for the speaker's fear: The Silent Man might be frugal with speech because he may be 'Grand' – that is to say, per the essential Emily Dickinson Lexicon, 'noble' or 'lofty'. He thinks before he speaks; he weighs his words and the words of others. He, no doubt, is not the popular guest, although perhaps the most respected.
            Dickinson uses a metaphor of commerce in this last stanza. As one might weigh the goods before expending money on them, so one can weigh thoughts before expending words on them. The Haranguer and Babbler (and most of us) will squander words, spend them all at the drop of a hat ('Expend their furthest pound'), while the Man of frugal Speech ponders words: are they relevant? True? of Value?

Edward Dickinson: Emily's father, Amherst
College Treasurer, and US Congressman   
I wonder if this poem expresses some of Dickinson's feelings towards her father, Edward Dickinson. Perhaps the foremost citizen of Amherst and practically essential to its well-being, he was known for his rectitude, character, and  dignity. In a sermon that eulogized him after his death, Reverend Jonathan L. Jenkins said that "our friend and father was a silent man" (The Life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall, p.68).

            Having been raised by a serious and taciturn man, Dickinson would know about the depth; she would know about the contrast between such a person and the ones with clever prattle. But despite the many words written about how oppressive it must have been in the Dickinson household, it must always be remembered that Emily Dickinson adored her home, hated to be away from it, and in her letters frequently expressed her joy and appreciation for the entire family as a unit – including her father.

04 April 2020

I had no Cause to be awake—


I had no Cause to be awake—
My Best—was gone to sleep—
And Morn a new politeness took—
And failed to wake them up—
But called the others—clear—
And passed their Curtains by—
Sweet Morning—when I oversleep—
Knock—Recollect—to Me—

I looked at Sunrise—Once—
And then I looked at Them—
And wishfulness in me arose—
For Circumstance the same—

'Twas such an Ample Peace—
It could not hold a Sigh—
'Twas Sabbath—with the Bells divorced—                        [Bells] reversed
'Twas Sunset—all the Day—                                              ['Twas] Sundown

So choosing but a Gown—
And taking but a Prayer—
The Only Raiment I should need—
I struggled—and was There—
                                                            Fr662 (1863)  J542


Jine Wang, a Chinese scholar, writes that this poem is among those where Dickinson espouses suicide as a "possible solution to pain."  I've struggled against that reading but without complete success. The last stanza seems to suggest, at least superficially, that the speaker waged a successful struggle to join the dear departed in a peaceful, eternal Sabbath sunset.
            The poem boldly begins with the opposition of those who will not wake to those whom Morn awakens -- and the speaker wondering why she/he is awake. She feels no reason to rise when her 'Best' lay buried. The year this poem was written, 1863, saw some of the war's bloodiest battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga. So while the Best might be friends and family, they might instead be Civil War dead. We do not know.
            We also do not know who the speaker is. Dickinson makes it clear that when she writes in first person "it does not mean – me– but a supposed person" (L268). Except for the Gown at the end, the speaker might be a soldier thinking of his fallen comrades. She might be a grieving woman Dickinson read about or imagined, or someone who has lead a hard and difficult life. Or herself. But what is common to all is the yearning for peace.
 
Civil War ambulance: the roof unrolls into side 'curtains'
The first stanza, two stanzas compressed into one, looks from the present to both the past and the future. The speaker wakes in the present but then thinks of those whom Morn quietly passes by – a 'new politeness' towards the newly dead. The 'curtains' of the dead might be grave clothes or crypts or it might be the curtains on funeral and ambulance wagons. Then the speaker addresses Morn directly about a future time when she herself (or he) will 'oversleep'. Don't pass me by then, she asks; instead, Knock and remind me about how I once felt about death, or at least about a death-like state
            The next two stanzas are the story of those feelings. They start with another morning. The speaker looks at the Sunrise and then looks at 'Them' – the same 'them', presumably, who are the sleepers in the first stanza: the dead. When she regards the sleepers she wishes she were in their circumstances: the Peace is so pervasive, so full, that it 'could not hold a Sigh.' It was a Sunday but instead of church bells ringing in both morning and evening, they rang only at night – it was 'Sunset – all the Day'.

This introduces the poem's contrast between morning and evening – the beginning of life and ventures and actions versus the letting go into timeless sleep and death. In a transcendental sense, this isn't the sleep of the dead waiting in their silk-lined coffin for some distant Resurrection ("Safe in their alabaster chambers –" Fr124), but rather the cessation of striving and suffering. Nor is it a space of negation but rather of ampleness. It is into this eternal Ample Peace that the speaker, with only Gown and Prayer, has struggled to arrive. It is the making of this decision that she asks 'Sweet Morning' to remind her of.
           
One reading of this poem, and one that avoids the complications of past, present, and future in the reading I just described, is that the speaker struggled to enter the Amplitude not through death but through a meditative or trance state.

Frankly, Reader, none of my thinkings and jottings, and squintings and analyzings lead me confidently through the stories in this piece. Like so many of Dickinson's poems, it is enigmatic at the core, its meanings kaleidoscopic. I welcome your thoughts.