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27 December 2011

If pain for peace prepares

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what "Augustan" years
Our feet await!

If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?

If night stands first—then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!

When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!
                                                           - Fr 155 (1860)  J150

There is one underlying idea here: that the difficult prepares us, or at least precedes, the good. Pain, for example, prepares for the peace of “Augustan” years – that is, years of quiet reflection. Cold winter prepares the anemone bulbs to raise their lovely flowers in presage of spring. Long, dark nights bring such longing for sun, developing our eyes, that “Noons blaze” in glory.

There is a mathematical element here as the amount of difficulty is related to the amount of resultant good.  With all the pain we suffer in life, there must be many peaceful years ahead. Winters (at least New England winters) can be so harsh that the anemones are uncountable in their spring profusion.
               The poem builds climactically to the dramatic “Noons blaze!” The first two lines of each stanza are in stately iambic trimeter, setting a solemn tone. The last line of the first two stanzas are are dimeter iambs, rounding off the question with an image: the struggling person with tired feet; the counting of the anemones.
               But then the last two stanzas end with rhyming spondees: “What gaze!” and “Noons blaze!” The excitement, I think is to let us know that the poet has something else in  mind than a bright noon after a dark night. How brilliant heaven will seem, lit by “a thousand skies”, when we leave the darkness and toil of earth

25 December 2011

She died – this was the way she died

She died – this was the way she died.
And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun –
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.
                                  - F154 (1860)  150

The whole poem turns upon the third and fourth line – otherwise it is banal. The poet no doubt had the image of a small woman or perhaps just a girl, modest suitcase in hand, headed “for the sun.” It is a nice image with its brave but humble traveller headed East, the direction of morning and rebirth. But then the image is wrecked for me by having “Angels” noticing (the clichéd, even in Dickensonson’s day, “spied”) “Her little figure at the gate.” I suppose this is disappointing because we began with the death of an ordinary person, a girl or woman, and a small one at that. Not a power figure. But she is aiming at the sun – a grand destination! We expect something exciting or interesting to happen as the modest meets the great and divine.
            But all that happens is that she ends up at some gate – and there’s no reason given to indicate it’s anything other than a rustic garden gate – that the angels eventually open to let her in.
            The last two lines don’t even make much sense. If you know someone has died, why would you go looking for her “Upon the mortal side”?  As for the first two lines, we expect some interesting detail about “the way she died,” but instead we only get “And when her breath was done.” After that the little wench is off to the sun.
            I’d have to toss this poem in with some of the others already reviewed here that talk about some humble woman or girl’s death in a sweet but banal way.

24 December 2011

“Sown in dishonor”

“Sown in dishonor”!
Ah! Indeed!
May this "dishonor" be?
If I were half so fine myself
I'd notice nobody!

"Sown in corruption"!
Not so fast!
Apostle is askew!
Corinthians 1. 15. narrates
A circumstance or two!
                                                                  - F153 (1860)  62

Dickinson takes on the Apostle Paul! He is “askew” – not straight, off the mark. “Not so fast,” big boy. The Bible chapter in question is Paul’s analogy of wheat seeds growing into wheat compared to our earthly (corrupt) bodies, “Sown in dishonor,” that ‘grow’ into heavenly, spiritual bodies. Dickinson’s tone of frank sarcasm is pretty bold for a nice lass of Amherst, 1860, especially one raised in a conservative Christian household.
            Dickinson addressed this poem to Sue, her best friend and sister in law. I suspect there may have been a picture or article of some sort enclosed, indicated by the italicized “this” in the third line. Maybe it was a picture of Sue herself: if Dickinson were “half so fine” she wouldn’t give a fig what anybody thought.  Or perhaps it was an article about some noble act or about some selfless person.
            Here are some pertinent verses from 1 Corinthians 15:
St. Paul
37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
 43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
So what “circumstance or two” is the poet referring to in the last line of the poem? Perhaps she is implying that the moon and the stars do not represent corruption or dishonor relative to the sun, or the earth relative to the heavens. Likewise, our earthly bodies are not born in dishonor (a very modern idea, really) and can be quite wonderful. In other poems Dickinson refers to her reluctance to leave this world with its birds and bees and flowers for the next, no  matter how gloriously spiritual it might be.
            The first two lines of both stanzas are really separated tetrameter lines that begin with the trochee of “Sown in.” The lines are separated to emphasize the scoffing of “Ah! Indeed!” and “Not so fast!”  The “Apostle is askew!” line is a great one. By leaving off the article “the,” Dickinson achieves a very fun iambic assonance – and it’s just a darn good line, anyway.

23 December 2011

'Twas such a little – little boat

'Twas such a little – little boat
That toddled down the bay!
'Twas such a gallant – gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

'Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast –
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!
                                                            - F152 (1860)  107

On the face of it, the poem describes a tragedy on the sea: a small boat, out for a sedate sail about a bay, was tempted by the idea of a wonderful adventure on the "gallant" sea. Alas, it was then capsized by a "greedy" rogue wave and lost. A large passing ship ("the stately sails") fails to even notice its loss. The central metaphor is of a lost soul, although not necessarily "lost" in the heaven/hell sense. 
     It might be a tale of love: the poet, vulnerable and childlike, “toddled” out in the safe bay of her circle of friends and family but came in contact with some gallant and fascinating man. She was in deep water then, but still sailing along the relative safety of the coast until a rogue wave licked" the boat away, dooming it. The naive narrator was lost and all the sophisticated and “stately” friends never noticed a thing. Was the greedy wave another woman? Or was it something about the man himself – perhaps a greedy wave of passion?

I prefer a different reading, however: instead of a tale of a life capsized by a love affair, it may be a spiritual or intellectual crisis. Dickinson often used the sea or a bay to represent life and a boat as a soul on its journey. In this case something would have lured the little soul away from its quiet and safe journey. The sea, though, also represents a seductive and dangerous passion. Dickinson used the sea in this sense in later poems. And her contemporary, Walt Whitman (whom Dickinson claimed she'd never read) certainly used the sea in this sense. I like to think of Dickinson as tempted away from her safe life by her passion for poetry – which is another way of saying her passion for life and truth. The stately regular folk wouldn’t know how completely this passion for writing would take her, like a greedy wave, far from all the notions and beliefs that comprised the safety of her Puritan environment.

            There are other analogies one could think of, many life experiences to which the poem might apply. Readers have the joy of imagining their own rogue waves as they read. 
          Thee is also the delight of the wonderful verbs: toddled, beckoned, licked.  The repetitions of “little – little,” “gallant – gallant,” and “greedy, greedy” contribute to the image of a baby boat toddling. Never take a ride with a stranger, little girl! 

22 December 2011

Papa above!

Papa above!
Regard a Mouse
O'erpowered by the Cat!
Reserve within thy kingdom
A "Mansion" for the Rat!

Snug in seraphic Cupboards
To nibble all the day,
While unsuspecting Cycles
Wheel solemnly away!
                                                        - F 151 (1860) 61

This bit of whimsy addressing the Most High as “Papa” pleads for the lowliest of creatures to find a haven in heaven. Jesus told his followers that his father’s house had many mansions and the poet would like to make sure that there is at least  a “Snug” “seraphic Cupboard” where the little mouse or rat might “nibble all the day.” It is likely that Dickinson is thinking of herself as just a bit of a mouse who wants just a bit of heaven – something safe and cozy. Perhaps she feels overpowered by something, someone, or just life in general. She won’t require much to be content, no processions or crown or halo; just something to nibble on.
The poem bursts out with four accented syllables as if the excited shout of a child. The first two lines are really one, but Dickinson divided them for greater emphasis. The first stanza continues with lots of consonants and this reinforces the strength and playfulness of the request. there are also several “r”s: Regard, Reserve, and Rat. There is urgency here – the poor little Rat is about to need that cupboard as the Cat has him in its paws.

The mood changes in the second stanza, dominated as it is with “s” sounds: Snug, seraphic, Cupboards, unsuspecting, Cycles, solemnly. The sibilance is lulling, like the hoped-for safety.
Overall, the iambic trimeter reinforce the fable quality of the poem. It’s a nice little story. I can imagine it as a children’s picture book. The last two lines, however, save it from saccharine simplicity. At the simplest level they can be read as “forever.” But Dickinson has unexpectedly complicated the world view here. The “Cycles” – years or other calendar-type units – are “unsuspecting.” The solar system, perhaps even the cosmos, is unaware of what happens in the afterlife. They “wheel” along grandly – a nice contrast to a nibbling little mouse. The irony is nice: the world is solemn while heaven is a darling little nook. At least for a mouse or rat – or bashful poet.

21 December 2011

Great Caesar! Condescend

Great Caesar! Condescend
The Daisy, to receive,
Gathered by Cato's Daughter,
With your majestic leave!
                                                - 149 (1860)  102

I simply quote from David Preest here:
According to Thomas Johnson this poem derives from a copy of it sent to Austin, and the mocking, teasing note of these witty four lines is exactly right for one side of her relationship with her brother. The poem perhaps accompanied an actual daisy picked by Emily and sent by her across to the Evergreens. There may be also a little teasing of their father, as Cato was one of the severest and sternest of the ancient Romans.

Julius Caesar
Cato the Elder

This sounds sooo like a little sister ribbing her big bro—and putting in a little dig that maybe “Caesar” is a wee bit like Daddy Cato. Maybe he’d been throwing his weight around. 

20 December 2011

Like her the Saints retire

Like her the Saints retire,
In their Chapeaux of fire,
Martial as she!

Like her the Evenings steal
Purple and Cochineal
After the Day!

"Departed" – both – they say!
i.e. gathered away,
Not found,

Argues the Aster still –
Reasons the Daffodil
                                               - F150 (1860)  60

A puzzle poem! It puzzled me for quite a while. I have a guess but it’s likely wrong. Anyway, here goes.
The “Saints retire” to heaven in bright yellow haloes after they go to heaven and they are as martial as the poem’s subject (and that may be a backhanded way of saying they are not martial at all). So the subject has some yellow or gold, fiery and martial in some way. Sunsets can be red and purple before they disappear, so the subject should also be red and purple and disappear in some sense after sunset. The third stanza is a bit of a stumper. I take it to mean, however, that both the saints and evenings have been “gathered away” where they can’t be found. (I like the academic-legalese of the “i.e.” – she might have said “to wit”!).
            The stodgy Aster is “still” and cannot disappear but certainly can argue about it with the deep and profound Daffodil – who is profound because his bulb is so deep in the ground! Funny.
            Anyway, with reservations I’m voting for the tulip or crocus. Both flowers close up at evening, their pretty faces disappearing. Both can be flame-colored or sunset colored. They are certainly not martial (or at least as martial as Saints). And while the Aster and Daffodil while away the night talking about where the Saints go after death, or where “Evenings steal” away (remember poem, 149 that was asking where Morning lies?), the little day flower is wrapped up and tucked away in sleep.
            I wish I could have said Gladiolus as that flower is sometimes called the Sword Lily, but Glads don’t close for the night.
            Some might say the answer is the sun, but that seems wrong because of the second stanza: the evenings can’t be like the sun… no, just can’t. 

19 December 2011

Will there really be a "Morning"?

Will there really be a "Morning"?
Is there such a thing as "Day"?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called "Morning" lies!
                                                                        -  F148 (1860)  101

Dickinson writes a riff on the travel literature of her day, but does so in a childlike manner asking about “Morning” as if it were a giant moa that someone said existed. It’s tempting to read the poem as either a light-hearted celebration of morning, a sort of existential questioning about the state of mind and entire gestalt of that time of day that follows so gaily upon the dark heels of night; or else as a metaphor for the hope of Resurrection – the morning when Heaven arrives.
            But we read the second line, asking about “Day” and it sounds a tad sarcastic. Of course there will be a morning, no matter how long the night. There’s Day, isn’t there? Whaddya think, eh? And then there is the droll comment about morning perhaps being brought from “famous countries / Of which I have never heard.” That sounds as if Dickinson is remembering travel lectures where some great traveller spoke about “The famous Someplace-or Other” that the audience was too embarrassed to admit they had never heard of.
            So she is “reduced” to asking a “Scholar” or “Sailor” or even “Wise Men from the skies” about morning. Can they in all their wisdom answer such a simple question?  The poet implies that, no, even the wisest men, even the most daring adventurers cannot locate morning on one of their carefully constructed maps.
            It isn’t such a simple question, after all, as to answer it one would have to understand the earth’s rotation on its axis relative to the sun. In fact, morning doesn’t really come from the next county to the east, but is always there in some sense waiting for us to turn into it.
            The poem is written in trochaic meter which imparts both a story-telling feel (think “Hiawatha”) and a nursery rhyme (“Jack be nimble” or “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater”). 

14 December 2011

A science—so the Savants say

A science—so the Savants say,
"Comparative Anatomy" –
By which a single bone –
Is made a secret to unfold
Of some rare tenant of the mold,
Else perished in the stone –

So to the eye prospective led,
This meekest flower of the mead
Upon a winter's day,
Stands representative in gold
Of Rose and Lily, manifold,
And countless Butterfly!
                                                         - F147 (1860)  100

I can hear the poet reading this and pronouncing “Comparative Anatomy” in grand, puffy tones. In this latest and greatest science (of 1860) paleontologists and archeologists can deduce an entire animal from just one bone. We see this in museums: here in New Zealand a moa leg bone serves as the basis for reconstructing the entire giant and alas extinct giant ostrich. The science is handy not only for dead animals found decomposed under ground or leaf litter, but also in fossils.
Meadow, Amherst, MA
            But Dickinson champions the naturalist as one with similar skill but without the pompous name. A naturalist out and about  with an “eye prospective” in the middle of winter need see only one little dandelion (the “gold” “representative”) in order to describe the ecology of the meadow. Where the non-naturalist sees one little weed, the naturalist “sees” the roses, lilies and various Lepidoptera that will populate the meadow in spring. 

13 December 2011

All overgrown by cunning moss

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of "Currer Bell"
In quiet "Haworth" laid.

This Bird – observing others
When frosts too sharp became
Retire to other latitudes –
Quietly did the same –

But differed in returning –
Since Yorkshire hills are green –
Yet not in all the nests I meet –
Can Nightingale be seen –

                                                         - F146 (1860)  148

Charlotte Bronte
Wikipedia Commons
This poem, written in honor of Charlotte Bronte on the fourth anniversary of her death, uses the central metaphor of Bronte (Currer Bell was her pen name) as a bird. First she is buried in a “little cage” in the Haworth churchyard. It seems sadly neglected, weedy and overgrown; but Bronte became more revered and famous as the years passed – much like Dickinson herself.
In the second and third stanzas Bronte is free like a bird. She migrated when the weather got cold. Alas, though, this bird did not return. In the last line, the poet identifies the Bronte bird as a nightingale – whose song is considered by many to be the most lovely of any bird.
When the poet writes that she has never found this nightingale “in all the nests I meet” I suspect she means she has been hoping to find another writer’s “voice” as compelling and beautiful as she found Bronte.
Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847 when Dickinson was 17. It became one of her most favored books. While Jane Eyre was immediately successful, reviews turned harsher when it became known that Currer Bell was really a woman. Like Dickinson, Bronte and her sisters led quiet village lives.  I’d love to think the Brontes and Dickinson might have met, but an ocean separated them.
Johnson provides an alternate second and third stanza to that published by Franklin (above). In this version Bronte has survived a difficult life to reach Heaven (alluded to as “the Asphodel”). Accustomed as she was to the harsh Christianity of her father, its sounds would fall “soft … Upon her puzzled ear”. These are the alternate two stanzas:

Gathered from many wanderings—
Gethsemane can tell
Thro' what transporting anguish
She reached the Asphodel!

Soft falls the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear—
Oh what an afternoon for Heaven,
When "Bronte" entered there!


04 December 2011

A little East of Jordan

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return!

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me"—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
"Peniel" Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!
                                                                                  - F145 (1860)  59

The poem refers to the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling the angel of God. Jacob prevailed over the angel and not only received a blessing but was rechristened with the name Israel – and obviously his name as progenitor of the Jews is still highly current. Now this wrestling match was years after Jacob had tricked his older twin, Esau, into selling Jacob his inheritance for a bowl of porridge. Jacob had moved away but now was headed back for his father’s funeral – and to claim his ill-gotten estate, no doubt. He had told Esau and Esau was coming after him with a large posse.
            The first stanza sets the scene, the main difference between the poem and the bible verses being that instead of Jacob being identified as the wrestler, the poet calls him “A Gymnast.” Perhaps that is because Jacob could squirm out of some pretty tight corners – and also perhaps because he was able to wrestle the angel.
Joseph and Angel
by Delacroix
            They wrestled all night until dawn was “touching mountain” and the Angel “begged permission” to stop. This is how Jacob was able to secure his blessing. When the blessing is given (3rd stanza) then the heavens flare with light, swinging the clouds beyond the spot on “’Peniel’ Hills” where wrestling match took place. It suddenly became very clear to Gymnast Jacob that he had been wrestling with the Divine.
            Interestingly, we typically say we “bested” someone if we beat them; here the poet says the Gymnast “worsted God.”  But I think the meaning is the same.
            Also interesting in this poem is how the first three stanzas gallop along in iambic trimeter, ballad form and pace: you could easily read them aloud as a story. The fourth stanza, however, switches to trochees and the pace suddenly slows down. This stanza contains two great themes from Dickinson: light and battling with God. It works, with this in mind, that Jacob has been transformed into a gymnast, for  everyone must battle with God. Those who can keep their strength over the long haul will earn their blessing and the skies will open for them. Others may not prevail and might receive “heavenly hurt” (F320)  from the divine light of God.

03 December 2011

I never hear the word 'Escape'

I never hear the word 'Escape'
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars,
Only to fail again!

                                                                                  - F144 (1860)  77

There are two escapes described here. The first is the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response. A bird will quickly fly away when it senses a cat or other threat near by.  The word “Escape” triggers this response in the poet: if she just hears the word she imagines herself taking flight.
            The second stanza is the more somber type of escape that is associated with imprisonment. Yes, soldiers have been able to batter down their prison walls, `a la the Bastille, but most prisoners must simply wait, day after day, year after year, for their release. And so the poet feels imprisoned. Despite the hopelessness of the attempt she still tries, in childish hope, to shake or pull the bars loose.  This time the trigger for these feelings of trapped helplessness come over the poet when she hears of prisons – it reminds her of her own.
Agustín Víctor Casasola:
Mirada y memoria
            One can read this as a soul being trapped in a body and wanting to fly free. Birds are typically symbols of the spirit and of freedom. But it may also remind us that life for a uniquely creative woman in her day and place would be very challenging. Especially when Father, Mother and brother exert pressure on the woman to stay home and tend the sick, the kitchen, and the garden. Although Dickinson voluntarily withdrew from larger society, eventually staying within her own property line, her real confinement was in, dare I say it?, not being a man and free to tramp about the world as her male friends did. The creative women she knew were either quite conventional or looked at askance in polite society (her friend and sister-in-law Sue). Better, perhaps, to stay at home and let the mind run free than to battle as George Eliot and other Victorian creative women did for freedom and respect. The fact that Mary Anne Evans took a male pseudonym speaks volumes about that.

Exultation is the going

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses –
Past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?

                                                                                  - F143 (1860)  76

This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems, probably because of the first two lines. It speaks, I think, of the “Exultation” the poet imagines the soul would feel when finally set free from its mortal coils. But I also think it speaks to anyone who ventures into unknown territory or takes on an entirely new way of life. There is a certain exultation as the familiar landmarks are left behind.
            In the mountains mentioned in the second stanza, it is hard to see the sea. The horizon is constrained by the peaks and hills – unlike the dome of the sky one sees when out on the ocean. But the sailor doesn’t know that feeling of constraint anymore than the angels could understand the joy of the newly liberated soul.
            The poem mixes iambs with trochees to good effect. The trochees of “Past the” emphasize the movement, and the first-syllable emphasis on “Exultation” starts the poem off with a feeling of  expansion.

02 December 2011

Cocoon above! Cocoon below!

Cocoon above! Cocoon below!
Stealthy Cocoon, why hide you so
What all the world suspect?
An hour, and gay on every tree
Your secret, perched in ecstasy
Defies imprisonment!

An hour in Chrysalis to pass,
Then gay above receding grass
A Butterfly to go!
A moment to interrogate,
Then wiser than a "Surrogate,"
The Universe to know!

                                                                                  - F142 (1860)  129

Dickinson is a poet concerned with transformation and what better symbolizes transformation than the cocoon where within its gauzy walls a caterpillar is transformed into the ethereal butterfly. Dickinson’s Amherst garden was a haven for butterflies and birds and here the poet begins by discovering cocoons all around: up in the trees, in the shrubs and flowers, and even in the grass.
            Butterflies and moths typically emerge from their chrysalis, and then their cocoons (if they had a cocoon – not all do, most famously the Monarch) after months of metamorphosis and waiting. The “hour in Chrsalis to pass” that the poet refers to here is no doubt the time needed for the butterfly to emerge from either chrysalis or cocoon and then wait for its wings to dry and harden. (A wonderful 20-minute film showing the complete lifecycle of  the gorgeous crecopia moth can be seen here:
            The butterfly waits until its hardened wings can bear its weight and then “gay above receding grass” it leaves the ground behind and takes to the air. It has given us “a moment” to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the marvel of life and the life force, but then in its own special wisdom – better than ours which is often only indirect or “Surrogate,” it goes to explore the “Universe” in ways that we never could.
Spicebush butterfly emerging

01 December 2011

She died at play

She died at play –
Gambolled away
Her lease of spotted hours,
Then sank as gaily as a Turk
Upon a Couch of flowers –

Her ghost strolled softly o'er the hill –
Yesterday, and Today –
Her vestments as the silver fleece—
Her countenance as spray –

                                                                                  - F141 (1860)  75

Imagine a cloudy sky, sunlight pouring through the gaps in the clouds. Might that not be like “spotted hours”? The poem is written as two contrasting riddles and the reader must figure it all out. My best guess is that the first stanza describes the sun. She plays during the day, a summer’s day anyway as there are flowers and the scene is one conducive to play. She has only a certain amount of time – maybe fourteen or fifteen hours – and then she must sleep. But this playful creature isn’t going to sulk; instead she sinks behind the horizon as “gaily” as a child taking a nap on a “Couch of flowers.” With that final image we are meant to imagine the sunset lighting up the garden. The mood is all light and airy and cheerful.
            The “ghost” of the sun would be the moon dressed in her silvery “fleece and strolling over the hill as night falls. The face of the moon is like spray in that the radiating lines from asteroid impacts can be seen – and also in that the silver shimmers like spray from the sea.
Painting by Kamila

            The first two lines are structurally really one line but Dickinson breaks them up to emphasize the rhyme. It has a nursery-rhyme feel to it in keeping with the idea of a small child at play. The words are quick, too, with their slightly syncopated rhythm.  In contrast, the first line of the second stanza is slow: the two adjacent long “o”s of “ghost” and “strolled” along with the sibilance of the “s” sounds in “ghost,” “strolled,” and “softly” all contribute to a moonlight stroll mood.

29 November 2011

Bring me the sunset in a cup

Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning's flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!

Write me how many notes there be
In the new Robin's ecstasy
Among astonished boughs—
How many trips the Tortoise makes—
How many cups the Bee partakes,
The Debauchee of Dews!

Also, who laid the Rainbow's piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite—
Who counts the wampum of the night
To see that none is due?

Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who'll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?
                                                                  -  F140 (1860)  128

I read this poem as a response to the mighty words in Job – the book in the Bible where Job has been tormented to test his faith. Some religious men come to give the miserable Job comfort (he has lost his family, his crops and animals, his health, and his sanity), but they only anger him. After Job cries out, at some length and with great poetic and metaphoric force, God himself finally comes to make an answer. God’s answer to Job is that Job, being human, is in a position to know nothing. God makes his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions, for example:

38:12 Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place …
16 Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
19 Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof …
22 Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail …
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
39: 1  Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
13 Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

William Blake: God answering Job
from a whirlwind
Dickinson’s questions are marvelously rephrased in human, indeed womanly terms – the terms of one who thinks and writes much about birds and skies, mornings and dew. God asks Job if Job has “caused the dayspring to know his place,” while the poet asks “how far the morning leaps” and “Who spun the breadth of blue.” Most of Job is taken up with Job’s sense of suffering, his bewilderment at having been seemingly abandoned by God, and yet his unshakeable faith in God; and with the false comforters’ telling him in various ways that he must have done something to cause his misery, that he isn’t humble enough, etc. All of this speechifying is done in strings of stunning metaphors.
            So, too, does Dickinson employ one metaphor or figure of speech after another. The Bee, greedy with thirst, is anthropomorphized as “The Debauchee of Dews!” The Rainbows rest on “piers” like a giant arch. the planets, “docile spheres,” are led like lambs by fetters of sky (“withes” are supple willow twigs and branches). Stars are “wampum of the night.” There are clearly no answers to Dickinson’s rhetorical questions that would be any different than God’s answer to Job.
            The last stanza has a shift in the nature of the questions. Here the poet, like Job, has turned to question God, asking why she has been imprisoned in a body, her “little Alban [or ‘white’] House” where she is unable to see the true nature of things. Her more piercing question is whether after death there will be “some gala day” when she will be free to transcend mortal limitations and “fly away.” She adds at the end that if she does fly free she will pass “Pomposity” and that I take to mean the false counsel and empty wisdom of the sort of religious men who came to deliver their pompous and self-righteous “comfort” to Job.
            It’s a marvelous poem, full of the delight of life and the passion to understand more. In that, it is like light versus dark compared with Job whose bitterness and misery reveal a soul tortured to the limit. 

Note: Composer and blog reader Ken Neufeld has created a beautiful choral rendition of this poem:

27 November 2011

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—
"Mansions"! Mansions must be warm!
Mansions cannot let the tears in,
Mansions must exclude the storm!

"Many Mansions," by "his Father,"
I don't know him; snugly built!
Could the Children find the way there—
Some, would even trudge tonight!
                                                              - F139 (1860)  127

Dickinson quit attending church, preferring as would John Muir some decades later the temple of Nature. Her Bee might stand in for a preacher or even for God. Birds would sing the hymns and psalms. In this poem the “Wise Men” of the church have preached sermons on something Jesus told his disciples in the Book of John: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
            Her dismissal of the word “Houses” for the grander-sounding “Mansions” indicates a couple of things: first, that even in her own house, her home in which she cocooned herself for the last half of her life, was not a place of simple peace and joy, for “tears” might find their way inside. But in a mansion, “snugly built” there would surely be an everlasting peace and security.
            With some humility the poet admits she doesn’t know Jesus’ Father, but she holds on to the belief that there would surely be mansions in Heaven, for Jesus had said so. Alas, no one living can find there way there – or some, the downhearted and weary who must “trudge” would go there.
            It’s a sad poem with its mix of hope, doubt, and  resignation.  

25 November 2011

To fight aloud is very brave

To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.
                                               - F138 (1860) 126 

Dickinson starts off with a singsong line of iambic tetrameter and then a grammatically rocky transition takes us to the subject of the poem – the heroism of unobserved internal battles. Dickinson never describes what the internal battles are or how they are felt, but rather she sets up a contrast to what they are not.
            They are not like the charge of a Cavalry across the battlefield – which in all its visible and noisy clamor would be to “fight aloud.” Instead, these uncelebrated warriors fight the onslought of “Woe” – a whole cavalry of it. The second stanza then sets up the negative descriptors: that is, we see what the “aloud” warriors receive: if soldiers win, nations see; if soldiers fall, many observe; if they die, their country loves them in patriotism and gratitude. None of this, of course, holds for the fight against despair (which is considered in Christianity to be a major sin – if not the major sin, the unforgivable one). That is a lonely battle – but “gallenter.”
            While the first stanza is written in first person, “gallenter I know,” describing the internal battles of those who battle woe, in the third and last stanza the poet shifts to the inclusive “We.” This is a tacit admission that the poet and everyone else fights this battle. It is also an assumption that her “we” believes – and trusts – in angels. In her mid-1850s Amherst, most all citizens probably did, at least respectable ones.
Gustave Dore, from Dante's
Divine Comedy
            “We trust,” she says, in the “procession” of angels with their plumy wings, their calm progress with “even feet” – no stumbling or prancing, and their brilliant white garments as pure as “Snow.” Dickinson uses the word “Uniforms” as a way of unifying the martial imagery she employed in the previous stanzas.  The contrast between the “aloud” soldiers that the nation depends on and the angels is dramatic – and very skillfully drawn. The soldiers “charge” while the angels have “even feet.” The soldiers have war-like uniforms and weapons while the angels’ uniforms are the white of purity and 

24 November 2011

A Lady red – amid the Hill

A Lady red—amid the Hill
Her annual secret keeps!
A Lady white, within the Field
In placid Lily sleeps!

The tidy Breezes, with their Brooms—
Sweep vale—and hill—and tree!
Prithee, My pretty Housewives!
Who may expected be?

The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The woods exchange a smile!
Orchard, and Buttercup, and Bird—
In such a little while!

And yet, how still the Landscape stands!
How nonchalant the Hedge!
As if the "Resurrection"
Were nothing very strange!
                                                                - F 137 (1860)  74

Dickinson has already written several poems using the wakening landscape in spring as a way of talking about the Christian Resurrection when the dead shall rise. This one is among my favorites because I fancy the image of “tidy Breezes” sweeping the country side with “their Brooms.”
Poppies and Rhodies in Spring
            The “Lady red” and “Lady white,” a tulip and a lily, perhaps, are not really dead but overwintering deep in the ground. Soon they will emerge from the ground, all swept clean of winter’s detritus. Joining them will be the blooms of the orchards, the yellow buttercup, and the migrating birds. The poet lets us see that this is quite a vast change from what is seen in that period just before the tulips bloom: the “Landscape” is still and vacant, the “Hedge” is “nonchalant.” And although the townsfolk don’t realize the great change, they do. They don’t think anything of it – heck, it happens every year. Why, then, the poem seems to ask, is the idea that people might be resurrected so very strange? We have evidence of such a miracle each and every spring.

Who never lost, are unprepared

Who never lost, are unprepared
A Coronet to find!
Who never thirsted
Flagons, and Cooling Tamarind!

Who never climbed the weary league—
Can such a foot explore
The purple territories
On Pizarro's shore?

How many Legions overcome—
The Emperor will say?
How many Colors taken
On Revolution Day?

How many Bullets bearest?
Hast Thou the Royal scar?
Angels! Write "Promoted"
On this Soldier's brow!
                                                                   - F 136 (1860)  73

The poem takes a bit of unpacking because Dickinson leaves out not only explanatory words but words that complete the grammatical structure of a phrase or sentence. The word “Those,” for example, should begin the poem and introduce similar phrases in later lines. (An alternative would be “Whoever”.)
            It begins with a paradox: winners may be less prepared for a crown than losers. Perhaps this is because losers will have been struggling and visualizing a prize or a better life whereas those for whom life has been so easy that they have “never lost” may simply be content to take life as they find it. Likewise, those who aren’t thirsty are not going to go seeking flagons of exotic tamarind. Consequently when the Coronet or flagon appear, the deprived and struggling folk will go for it with gusto.
            Francisco Pizarro is a Spanish explorer known for conquering the Incan Empire. Unsurprisingly his great victories are not as celebrated or romanticized today as they were in Dickinson’s. Her Christian milieu regarded those who effected the often brutal defeat and colonizing of the New World as bringers of civilization to the heathen and  missionaries to save the Indian soul. But it was hard work for the Spaniards and so the poet suggests that those who hadn’t worked for it, “climbed the weary league,” would be unfit to surmount the Peruvian Andes with Pizarro.
            Likewise, the emperor cares about how well his soldiers fought and how successful they were. If they have taken enough bullets and have received “the Royal scar” then they get “Promoted” into heaven.
            The phrase “Royal scar” is the  most interesting part of the poem. The poem works metaphorically as a description of getting to heaven (getting “Promoted”). Getting there means striving daily, thirsting for it, being lost sometimes, fighting against temptation – taken bullets over it. The scar here reminds me of the  poem “There’s a certain Slant of light” that she writes after this poem. In it she describes a “heavenly hurt” that doesn’t leave a scar. That would be a “Royal scar,” I think. But she changes, later, to think it isn’t really a scar, just a hurt. Wanting the divine, feeling the power of God but without knowing or understanding, being as sensitive as Dickinson was, might very well lead to an internal scar—a marking, so to speak, whereas the rest of us just cheerily sing hymns or pray in grief and hope.

23 November 2011

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –
A little trust – a demijohn –
Can keep the soul alive –
Not portly, mind! but breathing – warm –
Conscious – as old Napoleon,
The night before the Crown!

A modest lot – A fame petite –
A brief Campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A Sailor's business is the shore!
A soldier's – balls! Who asketh more,
Must seek the neighboring life!
                                                                        F135 (1860)  159

We get a bit of advice here from that modest though upper-middle-class Emily Dickinson. In a later poem she will say that “hope is the thing with feathers,” but here she doesn’t address hope but having just the necessities: enough, if even barely, to eat, breath, warmth, a “modest lot” in life. Add to that a pinch of “sting and sweet” in the “brief Campaign” of life and that “Is plenty! Is enough!” One doesn’t have to get fat or “portly” on good food.
            In the second stanza she uses two analogies to drive home the message of being content with the business of living rather than on getting ahead or being famous: sailors have to focus on the shore, whether it’s to find it or to land safely on it, or simply to know where their boat is; a soldier must focus on weaponry – musket or cannon balls, or the battle is lost. And just as being good at their business can mean the difference between life and death, so too if we don’t focus on the essentials but instead on obtaining something other than what is needful for life, then we should be searching in the afterlife.
Demijohn(Pottery Barn catalog)
            The exuberance of tone, the exclamation marks, the italics, the parallel structures of  a this and a that, of “Is plenty! Is enough!” are at odds with the sobering advice. It would be a hard life to just have a crumb of bread, a demijohn of drink and just a brief bit of “sting and sweet." Is that what the poet is advocating? Perhaps Dickinson is getting at something else here: A crumb of recognition for her poetry perhaps – and that would go with the “little trust,” for some of her first readers (such as her "Preceptor" Higginson) may have praised her work but fundamentally didn’t trust its soundness. Read as a poet wishing she had just a little bit of respect, the tone can now be read as ironic: she isn’t asking for full-throated praise or fame – just “A fame petite.” The smallest encouragement would help her keep her art alive. She mentions Napolean the “night before the Crown” when he was “conscious”; she may be saying that too much glory and fame are detrimental. She'd like just a little, enough to keep her art alive, so she can focus on her own “business” – poetry.
            Perhaps she is speaking of love, though, and asking for just a crumb to keep her soul alive. But I prefer to think it is her poetry that sparks life in Dickinson and that poetry is to her what shore is to sailors.