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28 June 2011

There is a morn by men unseen—

There is a morn by men unseen—
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May—
And all day long, with dance and game,
And gambol I may never name—
Employ their holiday.

Here to light measure, move the feet
Which walk no more the village street—
Nor by the wood are found—
Here are the birds that sought the sun
When last year's distaff idle hung
And summer's brows were bound.

Ne'er saw I such a wondrous scene—
Ne'er such a ring on such a green—
Nor so serene array—
As if the stars some summer night
Should swing their cups of Chrysolite—
And revel till the day—

Like thee to dance—like thee to sing—
People upon the mystic green—
I ask, each new May Morn.
I wait thy far, fantastic bells—

Announcing me in other dells –
Unto the different dawn! 

                                                                     J24,  Fr13 (1858)

This seems like a light fantasy of Paradise--maids dancing and playing in eternal May. The grassy grounds are perfect and the games are accompanied by birds who fled where summer goes. Dickinson seems sure of herself--"There is a morn by men unseen" she declares and then describes the idyllic scene confidently. This is where maids keep their innocence (except for the 'gambol I may never name' -- which sounds bewitchingly naughty), the tired villagers once more walk with light step, and the birds once again find warm sun.
     But in the last stanza there is suddenly another presence--one who dances and sings--and revels like the Chrysolite-swilling stars (chrysolite is a golden-yellow peridot gem). The poet waits for that someone's 'far - fantastic bells' to ring on her own demise, announcing her into 'other dells' and different dawns.
     Perhaps this someone is the childhood girlfriend lost to Dickinson when she was but a young maid herself. It is pleasant to think that ones friends are gamboling on a gorgeous lawn. But the ending is surprisingly sad: May Day is supposed to be happy and yet the poet waits for death -- or at least for transformation into some frolicking version of paradise. 
     The rhyme and measure are straightforward and conventional: 6-line stanzas with pairs of tetrameter interrupted by a third and sixth line of trimeter. It's a small variation on hymn or ballad verse, adding two extra lines to the standard four. The rhyme scheme is AABCCB. 
    I do like a few of the images: summer's bound brows, the stars swinging their cups of Chrysolite, and the fun meter of the dancing feet that begins the second stanza: "Here to light measure, move the feet"-- which I scan as a dactyl followed by a trochee and an amphimacer (long - short - long). It is indeed 'light measure'.  

27 June 2011

I had a guinea golden—

I had a guinea golden—
I lost it in the sand—
And tho' the sum was simple
And pounds were in the land—
Still, had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye—
That when I could not find it—
I sat me down to sigh.

I had a crimson Robin—
Who sang full many a day
But when the woods were painted,
He, too, did fly away—

Time brought me other Robins—
Their ballads were the same—
Still, for my missing Troubador
I kept the "house at hame."

I had a star in heaven—
One "Pleiad" was its name—
And when I was not heeding,
It wandered from the same.
And tho' the skies are crowded—
And all the night ashine—
I do not care about it—
Since none of them are mine.

My story has a moral—
I have a missing friend—
"Pleiad" its name, and Robin,
And guinea in the sand.
And when this mournful ditty
Accompanied with tear—
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here—
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind—
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.
                                                                  -  F 12 (1858)

Dickenson calls this a 'ditty' and that seems about right to me. The iambic trimeter establishes the lightness as do the word inversions such as "Beneath the sun may find" and "I sat me down to sigh." She summarizes her point for us in the last stanza: she is writing to a friend she misses and she playfully says he should repent of his absence. 
     I don't know who she is writing about. The usual suspects didn't live in faraway countries. Samuel Bowles traveled widely, so perhaps it was to him.
her little "Troubadour"
- Tom Grey
     The three images she picks are each of interest. The guinea she has lost is worth about $5 US dollars -- or 21 shillings. Even though pounds were freely available, she, being frugal, valued it. But not enough to not lose it. The interesting part is that she did lose it. Would the missed friend be complimented by being compared to a guinea when there were plenty of pounds? Or to being carelessly lost? Perhaps Dickinson didn't realize she would miss it until she had lost it.
     The next image is of a springtime robin who came and sang until full summer came, painting the woods with flowers. The robin then leaves on its migratory path and although other robins come each spring and sing the same songs, her heart belongs to that first one. Here, it is the robin who leaves the poet, headed to the next port of call. Meanwhile, the poet waits.
     The third image calls on the heavens as one of the seven Pleiads is missing. This has some astronomical basis as only six of the Pleiades are visible. The Greeks had it that all seven were transformed maidens--although they all ended up bearing children. One of the seven, Merope, had a child by a mortal man, however, and so faded away. Why Dickenson would address a poem to a man but name him as the missing Pleiad is a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps she is writing instead to a school friend or another woman and included the masculine reference ("his mind") at the end as a tease, a red herring. It's difficult to believe she would be writing to Sue as she never undervalued Sue so much as to misplace her like the golden guinea.

25 June 2011

Nobody knows this little Rose—

Nobody knows this little Rose—
It might a pilgrim be
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it—
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey—
On its breast to lie—
Only a Bird will wonder—
Only a Breeze will sigh—
Ah Little Rose—how easy
For such as thee to die! 
                                                             - F 11 (1858)

I wonder how the recipients of flowers felt about these little accompanying poems. I read somewhere that during her life, Emily was more known for her gardening than for her poems. This one might make the recipient a bit uneasy with its almost maudlin ending where the "Little Rose" dies, disappointing not only Bee, Bird, and Breeze but poor Butterfly who made a long journey just to lie on the breast of the flower.
     But this is a parable of the life and death of humans as well. A loved one may die, to be held up to God, in the prime of her beauty, missed by friends near and far. Yet the death of just another flower, just another common person--despite the joy their beauty brings, is a small matter. The allusion to God comes early as the second line suggests the Rose might be a pilgrim, or at least  might have become a pilgrim had not its life been cut short. Dickinson even adopts the role of the Savior by plucking the little pilgrim from its 'ways' and lifting it up--to God. She is the one who decides which flower will live and which will die.
   The poem is knit together by several devices:
  - repeated rhymes, primarily those that rhyme with Bee and Butterfly
  - alliteration: Bee, butterfly, breast, Bird, Breeze
  - and repeated phrases ("Only a ...").
          The first four lines use Ballad form and trip off the tongue with their lilting iambs. But the next and mirroring lines begin dactyllaly, and that gives the long "o" of "Only" extra emphasis: "Only a Bee will miss it-- / Only a Butterfly. This underscores the irony. We are intended to bemoan the loss of Bee and Butterfly, Bird and Breeze--just as we would pity those mourning a dear departed one.

If I had received a rose with that poem I would feel a bit guilty. But then I would gratefully tape the poem above my desk.

24 June 2011

Garland for Queens, may be—

Garland for Queens, may be—
Laurels—for rare degree
Of soul or sword.
Ah—but remembering me—
Ah—but remembering thee—
Nature in chivalry—
Nature in charity—
Nature in equity—
This Rose ordained!

                                                            - F 10 (1858)

     This sounds like another poem where she has enclosed a flower to a friend--in this case a rose.
The sentiment is nice but hardly profound: Queens may be awarded garlands and heroes may get laurels, but nature--chivalrous, charitable, equitable nature--has remembered such ordinary folk as 'me' and 'thee' and provided the rose. The rose was considered by Dickinson and indeed Victorian culture in general to be among the most perfect of nature's offerings. 
     The poem's heart contains three feminine rhymes based on the couplet ending with 'me' and 'thee': chivalry, charity, and equity. The triad echoes the famous motto of the French revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, which would have been known to Dickinson.
     The Rose is ordained, which gives it an almost sacerdotal quality, as if it were a holy emissary of nature. Later Dickinson poems also have a rose standing for perfection of some sort.

If recollecting were forgetting,

If recollecting were forgetting,
Then I remember not.
And if forgetting, recollecting,
How near I had forgot.
And if to miss, were merry,
And to mourn, were gay,
How very blithe the fingers
That gathered this, Today! 
                                                          - F 9 (1858)

Emily has again enclosed flowers in a letter to Samuel Bowles. She tells him in this bit of verse that she misses him and is sad. She employs lots of word play, employing opposites to make her point. Except, well, it doesn't quite hang together in parts, at least the way I parse it:
- recollecting = forgetting: since she "remember[s] not" (forgot, in other words), that means she actually remembered. 
- forgetting = remembering: since she almost forgot, that means she actually almost remembered.
Perhaps the point was that she did remember him but, alas, came close to forgetting. 
I suspect this is a private communication that only the two of them would understand. There might have been some banter between them earlier about remembering and forgetting. There is also the insight that both forgetting and remembering imply their opposite. For how can one remember if there weren't a point at which that which was remembered was out of mind? And forgetting--and nearly remembering--also suggest the knowledge that is to be forgotten. 
     But those first four lines really only serve to set up the main point which is in the last four. Here there is a clear ironic equation:
  - miss = merry
  - mourn = gay
If that were truly the case, then the sadness the poet felt in missing the recipient as she picked the flowers would be cheerfulness. 
     The rest of the poem is easier; the rhyme and meter are even easier. The heart of this passage is conveyed alliteratively: miss, merry, morn; gay, gathered. The entire poem has a singsong quality that gives it a light-hearted quality. Clearly she believes the flowers will be well received.

22 June 2011

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,

When Roses cease to bloom, Sir,
And Violets are done—
When Bumblebees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the Sun—
The hand that paused to gather
Upon this Summer's day
Will idle lie—in Auburn—
Then take my flowers—pray! 
                                                           - F 8 (1858)

This poem was sent to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and long-time friend of the Dickinsons. He and his wife Mary were recipients of many of Emily's letters and poems. 
     In this one she is making a statement similar to that of Herrick's "gather ye rosebuds while ye may": take the offered flowers now, for life passes soon enough. "Auburn" probably refers to a cemetery in Cambridge.
     It is likely she included flowers in the same letter that held this poem, and it's a lovely bit of verse.
     The poem equates Summer with life: after the roses and violets are spent and the bumblebees retired for the year, the poet, too, will pass on. But there is a continuity here. Death isn't the end of everything. the bumblebees pass beyond the sun--there is a place for them to go. And the deceased poet isn't cold and lifeless but simply idling.

21 June 2011

Summer for thee, grant I may be

Summer for thee, grant I may be
When Summer days are flown!
Thy music still, when Whipporwill
And Oriole—are done!

For thee to bloom, I'll skip the tomb
And row my blossoms o'er!
Pray gather me—
Thy flower—forevermore! 
                                                                  - F 7 (1858)

Here Dickinson personifies herself as the humble, hardy, and early-blooming anemone. She wants to be her loved one's summer in winter, his music when birds are gone. This is like the delight brought by anemones--colorful flowers that bloom when all else might still lie under snow, and all the more valuable because of it.
The lovely anemone
     But the second stanza puts a slightly darker tint to the poem: here it seems the loved one is dead and so the blossoms must be rowed over--the anemone delivers herself to that far shore rather than depositing them graveside. 
     The poem emphasizes eternal life: the loved one is no longer dependent on the seasons for blossoms and bird song, and his him/herself ready to 'bloom' in paradise. The anemone itself, harbinger of spring, represents a triumph over death. This powerful image is what Dickinson wants to take for herself--to be the anemone, a forever flower. I read somewhere that Dickinson liked the 'humble' flowers such as anemone, but here the anemone is glorious and brave.
     Written in hymn stanzas—quatrains in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter—Dickinson uses several internal rhymes to give the poem a song-like quality:
  - thee / be
  - still / whipporwill
  - bloom / tomb
  - row / o'er
  - me / anemone
       My favorite part of this poem is the phrase "row my blossoms o'er."  It delivers a beautiful visual while at the same time indicating the love Dickinson bears for the poem's subject.

20 June 2011

Adrift! A little boat adrift!

Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

So Sailors say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dusk was brown
One little boat gave up its strife
And gurgled down and down.

So angels say -- on yesterday --
Just as the dawn was red
One little boat -- o'erspent with gales --
Retrimmed its masts -- redecked its sails --
And shot -- exultant on!
                                                                               - F 6 (1858)

Here we have two competing versions of what happens to the little boat: Sailors say it sank at dusk (the "So Sailors say" can be read as "Sailors said that"), while angels say that the little boat (we assume it is the same boat) fixed itself and "shot' on exultantly. The tension in the poem comes from the first stanza where we see the little boat adrift with night coming and no help in sight. We read this to mean a soul floundering with death at hand. Other citizens of the sea only see a sad death, sadder when we think of the soul gurgling 'down and down' as opposed to ascending to heaven.
     But! even though the soul was tired and had even been defeated by the storms of life, it managed to right itself at the end and go on, we assume, to heaven. Dawn is the arising of the sun, life and birth;whereas dusk is nightfall or death, so Dickinson is not making the symbolism difficult here. 
     She uses the ballad or hymn structure for the first two quatrains with the second and fourth lines rhymed. The last stanza is five lines with the third and fourth lines rhymed. The extra line, "And shot--exultant on!" provides the happy ending to the ballad. It could be a refrain if this were indeed a hymn.
     The imagery is conventional: the sea of life, the little boat of the soul, the storms of life, the need to adjust the sails; and so is the message. It's a nice little poem, but not one of my favs.

One Sister have I in our house,

This poem comes from a letter to sister-in-law and beloved friend, Sue, on her 28th birthday.

One Sister have I in our house,
And one, a hedge away.
There's only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

One came the road that I came --

And wore my last year's gown --
The other, as a bird her nest,
Builded our hearts among.

She did not sing as we did --

It was a different tune --
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June.

Today is far from Childhood --

But up and down the hills
I held her hand the tighter --
Which shortened all the miles --

And still her hum

The years among,
Deceives the Butterfly;
Still in her Eye
The Violets lie
Mouldered this many May.

I spilt the dew --

But took the morn --
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers --
Sue - forevermore!
                                                                       J14,  Fr 5 (1858)

While Emily Dickinson's sister Vinnie came from the same mother as Emily and, like many younger sisters wore her older sister's hand-me-downs, in this poem Emily claims her friend and sister-in-law Sue Dickinson as a full sister, too. As teenagers the two young women wrote passionate letters to each other and initiated a literary friendship that would bind them through even the most difficult emotional patches of their relationship. It was Sue who prepared Emily for burial, chose the flowers for her hair and hands, and composed a truly perceptive and radiant obituary

        As Emily sees it, when Sue entered the Dickinson lives she built a nest in their hearts. She was different, had had an entirely different upbringing, had been orphaned, had traveled, and had an exotic appeal that Emily refers to in several poems, most particularly "Your Riches – taught me – Poverty" (F418). There was trouble ahead for them, for sure. But at least in this poem the lovely Sue is still nesting in their hearts.
        One can argue, however, that the strain of Dickinson having 'lost' her beloved best friend to her brother lies beneath the lines, but even if so, Dickinson is clearly praising the sister that lives just 'a hedge away' in Evergreens – the gracious home the Dickinson father built for Austin and Sue. The fifth stanza praises Sue's enduring youthful beauty. Violets last only a season – except for those in Sue's eyes. Her violets are still there.
        And yet this stanza with its talk of 'deceit' may be hinting at more than youthful beauty that confounds nature. Sue "hum[s]" amid the family, drawing the Butterfly, Emily, close with tempting nectar. Scholars have argued the extent and nature of the early affection between the two girls, and the violets that "Mouldered" in Sue's eyes may be a discreet reference to that. "Smoldered", a word associated with passion, is an easy ear and eye substitution for moldered. The butterfly, hoping for live, smoldering violets, finds only the decaying remnants.  
Sue Dickinson

        Nonetheless, in the last stanza Dickinson seems to take the long view: while she 'spilt the dew' and perhaps let a beautiful dewdrop slip through her fingers, she 'took the morn'--kept a more mature and longer relationship. And Sue is a 'star' --one in a million.
        The poem is written primarily in iambic trimeter with the second and fourth line of each quatrain rhyming--or at least featuring a slant rhyme. Dickinson is justifiably known for her slant rhymes, which weren't so common when she was writing as they were to become. Enjoy: away / me; gown / among ; hills / miles; star / forevermore.
        Also note that the fifth stanza, the looking-back one, has six lines, four of them in dimeter. The dimeter allows her to bring the rhymes closer together: "And in her Eye / The violets lie", for example has the feel of a popular song, particularly when followed by the alliterations in the following line of Mouldered / many / and May. The next stanza also begins with dimeter, thus ending the poem as more a love song than a formal poem.

19 June 2011

I have a Bird in spring

from a letter to Sue, about 1854 (before Sue married Emily's brother Austin)

We have walked very pleasantly - Perhaps this is the point at which our paths diverge - then pass on singing Sue, and up the distant hill I journey on.

I have a Bird in spring 
Which for myself doth sing -- 
The spring decoys. 
And as the summer nears -- 
And as the Rose appears, 
Robin is gone. 

Yet do I not repine 
Knowing that Bird of mine 
Though flown -- 
Learneth beyond the sea 
Melody new for me 
And will return. 

Fast in a safer hand 
Held in a truer Land 
Are mine -- 
And though they now depart  
Tell I my doubting heart 
They're thine. 

In a serener Bright, 
In a more golden light 
I see 
Each little doubt and fear  
Each little discord here 

Then will I not repine, 
Knowing that Bird of mine 
Though flown 
Shall in a distant tree 
Bright melody for me 
                                                         J5,  Fr4 (1854)

          The letter to Emily's beloved Sue which includes this poem is wrenching. It begins, "Sue--you can go or stay -- There is but one alternative -- we differ often lately and this must be the last. The letter continues in this bitter vein but then ends with this poem that, to me, begins in pain but ends in a state of spiritual gain. Already by this time Dickinson had begun staying very close to home and so her few friends were very important to her. Sue's engagement to Austin was probablyan emotional blow, but not one that Emily couldn't surmount.
          As the poem begins we see her missing the robin of spring--a decoy from the more mature summer of the rose. In the second and third stanzas she philosophically acknowledges that her bird is not lost, but merely 'beyond the sea' learning a new melody before it returns. In fact, the bird (now "they"--perhaps referring to both Sue and Austin?) is better off--in God's hands. This acceptance leads to a crucial difference in the otherwise reprise final stanza. Here the poet is more forceful: instead of "yet do I not repine" she says "Then will I not repine", effectively transforming a philosophical resignation into a desired state.
          Key to this is the fourth stanza--transcendent with its "serener Bright" and "golden light" that remove discord and doubt. Dickinson moves here from the particular--her loss of Robin / loved friend--to a generalized state of grace. In this state she is able to appreciate the song of a bird even in a 'distant tree.' There's a lot going on poetically. The first two stanzas alternate pairs of iambic and trochaic trimeter with a line of iambic dimeter. But in the third through fifth stanzas she substitutes monometer for
the dimeter. The lines are interesting and impactful in themselves:
    - Are mine
    - They're thine.
    - I see
    - Removed
    - Though flown
    - Return
The monometer echoes poetically the fusion of two into one that Dickinson alluded to in her playful Valentine (F 1).  One thing I particularly like about the poem are the really lovely echoes in the parallel lines:
   - And as the summer nears-- / And as the Rose appears
   - Fast in a safer hand / Held in a truer Land
   - In a serener Bright, / In a more golden light
   - Each little doubt and fear, / Each little discord here
Each pair of parallel lines is then followed by a dimeter or monometer line setting up almost a reading and response pattern. The only stanzas that do not have the parallel lines are the two reprise stanzas about the flown bird.
            I can read this poem as a meditation on spiritual maturity reflecting on the temptations , sorrows, and delights of spring; or I can read it as coming to a deeper, less possessive understanding of friendship.

18 June 2011

On this wondrous sea - sailing silently -

On this wondrous sea – Sailing silently -
Ho! Pilot! Ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar -
Where the storm is o'er?

In the silent West
Many – the sails – at rest -
The Anchors fast.
Thither I pilot thee -
Land! Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!
                                                           J4,  Fr3 (1853)

I think Dickinson weaves sound and rhythm and line breaks together in this poem  to create the mood of the sea and the tension of the journey. The first line is sybilant as the sea-- "On this wondrous sea--sailing silently-- and is in trochaic pentameter  with a spondee on "sea - sail..." that slows the line so that I can feel the long ride of the boat on a swell. It's a long line -- 5 feet (iambs) with an extra syllable at the end  (a 'feminine' ending or hypercatalexis for those who must), while the rest of the poem  has only two or three feet. 
She makes extensive use of long vowels, particularly in the first stanza, and this  also reinforces the feel of  open water. The words take time to say: "Ho! Pilot! Ho!"  takes time, not only with the long vowels but with the the spondee of the first two  syllables. The last three lines of the first stanza rhyme with very long sounds: shore, 
roar, and o'er. 
I read the poem as a call and response. The first stanza calls out to the captain,  Jesus, maybe, or an angel--and in the second stanza the captain answers back. It is  fitting that the ship is going to anchor in the West, the horizon where the sun sets.  And the captain reassures his anxious passenger that there are many "sails at rest" 
there. She need not fear.
     This poem was sent to her beloved sister-in-law, Sue, with the title "Write, Comrade,  Write"--which wittily echoes the second and penultimate lines of the poem. It is  thought that she is encouraging Sue to write poems, or perhaps to write Emily back.
I sense the poet exploring her toolbox, taking a rather conventional subject and  approach and making it vibrant with tone and sound.
I'm not the only one who likes the sound of the poem--it has been put to music more than once. Here is a rendition of Daniel Galbreath's chorale version: