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31 July 2011

There is a word

There is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man—
It hurls its barbed syllables
And is mute again—
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted Brother
Gave his breath away.

Wherever runs the breathless sun—
Wherever roams the day—
There is its noiseless onset—
There is its victory!
Behold the keenest marksman!
The most accomplished shot!
Time's sublimest target
Is a soul "forgot"!

                                                                                   J8,  Fr 42 (1858)

By use of quotation marks around the word 'forgot' at the end of the poem we know it is the word described in the first stanza that bears a sword and hurls its 'barbed syllables'. I find the first stanza metaphor a bit weak: the word both bears a sword and hurls deadly syllables--but then itself falls. Be that as it will, it is a deadly word and can kill even a decorated soldier. Being forgotten in this sense reminds me of being left behind, in the sense that the saved are spared and go to glory while the rest are forgotten by God and left to die. Cheerful thought! But it is perhaps better than thinking of soldiers left behind on the field of battle to die, forgotten by their mates.
     The second stanza goes into more description about this killer. It has a 'noiseless onset' during the day--anywhere and everywhere. It is always victorious. But then there is a switch: instead of the word wielding a sword and hurling barbs, Time becomes the marksman. The 'soul "forgot"' is its target. What to make of that?
     Perhaps the poet is telling us that being forgotten is a function of time. It is, almost by definition, a quiet doom. It is only when the sufferer comes to awareness, articulates his fate as having been forgotten, that he is pierced by the word. It is a particularly cruel vision to have Time, the abstract entity often considered as something that heals all wounds, become a killer targeting the forgotten, and yet there is truth in it. The longer one is forgotten the more undermining it becomes. 
     A copy of the poem was sent to Sue, and while it is tempting to think that Dickinson meant the poem as a barbed reminder of Sue's neglect of their friendship, it seems overly histrionic. I think Dickinson typically addressed a deeper question even when making a limited point to a correspondent. Here, because the broadness of the sun's entire range--which leaves it breathless because it must run--the subject is clearly not just one woman forgetting another, but the Forgotten everywhere. Wherever the sun shines, there has someone fallen victim to having ceased to matter. For when we do matter we are not forgotten. Those who realize their fall from grace (they are no longer among the 'saved'), are as good as dead. 

Dickinson divides two tetrameter lines into two dimeter lines: the first two, thereby emphasizing the 'word'/'sword' rhyme; and the fifth and sixth, emphasizing the 'fell' / 'tell' rhyme. She does not break the tetrameter line that begins the second stanza, despite the internal rhyme of 'runs'/'sun' because keeping it together gives the sense of the breathless sun.   

30 July 2011

I often passed the village

I often passed the village
When going home from school—
And wondered what they did there—
And why it was so still—

I did not know the year then—
In which my call would come—
Earlier, by the Dial,
Than the rest have gone.

It's stiller than the sundown.
It's cooler than the dawn—
The Daisies dare to come here—
And birds can flutter down—

So when you are tired—
Or perplexed—or cold—
Trust the loving promise
Underneath the mould,
Cry "it's I," "take Dollie,"
And I will enfold! 
                                                           - F 41 (1858)

Sorry, but this one is a bit like Corpse Bride, at least in that the poet envisions herself dying young and waiting for a special person, Dollie, to whom she has made a 'loving promise'. "Dollie" was one of her pet names for Sue, her best friend and then sister-in-law (that had to be a bit awkward at times, particularly since Dickinson was very effusive and passionate about Sue). 
     We begin with the scene: Dickinson went to Amherst Academy and would pass by the graveyard on her way home to the house where she lived until she was 25. The graveyard is the village that is so very still. 
     She is talking to the reader from the grave. In the second quatrain, she informs us that by the great Dial of life and time, she died earlier than most people. A very romantic notion to the Victorian, to die a maiden and so young!
     However, she paints a rather attractive picture: rather than calling it deathly still or cold, it is instead "stiller than the sundown" and "cooler than the dawn". Wouldn't you like to visit? In addition, daisies 'dare' to grow there and birds visit.
     The last stanza is six lines and as it unfolds we realize the poet is addressing a single person, "Dollie". It is a macabre scene: The beloved Dollie, or Sue, is drawn to the charms of the place and to the grave of her former friend. In despair--or rather if tired, perplexed, or cold--Dollie simply cries out to the grave and the dead friend will 'enfold' her. It's an interesting choice of word, implying Dollie will be subsumed by the dead poet. We might normally think of the "mould" as subsuming--or consuming--a corpse, but here it is merely a counterpane. Crawl under the covers, dear--I'm waiting for you!
     The last verse has the strongest rhymes, complete ones: cold, mould, enfold. The other stanzas make liberal use of slant rhymes: school / still; come / gone; and then sundown / dawn / down (okay, not all slant). The last stanza also is trochaic--accents on the first syllable--versus the iambs of the other stanza. The strong rhymes and trochees help build the climactic ending where the still living friend throws herself (kills herself?) into the enfolding embrace of the departed poet.

28 July 2011

I haven't told my garden yet—

haven't told my garden yet—
Lest that should conquer me.
I haven't quite the strength now
To break it to the Bee—

I will not name it in the street
For shops would stare at me—
That one so shy—so ignorant
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it—
Where I have rambled so—
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go—

Nor lisp it at the table—
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the Riddle
One will walk today—
                                                                 - F 40 (1858)

The question Dickinson poses here is a familiar one: if you knew you were going to die would you tell anyone or keep it to yourself? Her answer is 'no'-- she will walk through that Riddle, that passageway from this world to the next without a hint to anyone.
     In the first quatrain the poet reasons that it would be too hard on her to confess to the garden and the Bee (which often stands for Nature's god, pollinating and watching over everything). Dickinson was known more for her garden than for her poetry while she lived, and her time in it was precious. In letters and other poems she says she says that earth is 'so like to heaven, that I would hesitate, should the true one call away' (L 85). Announcing her departure to the garden would weaken her resolve. She would have to 'break it to the Bee', so she anticipates that it would be hard on the garden and its denizens as well.
     Next she considers telling her news in town, but is too inhibited. She is known for being shy, even ignorant, yet here she is about to take the ultimate journey. While others fear death, why should one shy woman have 'the face' for it? True to her reputation, she is too shy to mention it.
     She even resists giving her news farther afield, beyond town and garden. The forests are 'loving' and would perhaps be sad. The hillsides might miss her rambling. And finally, she doesn't want to tell her loved ones or even a stranger.
     The poem is almost a heroic fantasy: the shy poet, ready to face the unknown country beyond death, keeping this greatest secret all to herself. We see her connection with nature--it knows her and will miss her--and she it. No people are named: not father or brother or beloved sister-in-law Sue. She merely dismisses them as being 'at the table'. She doesn't mention a traveler or neighbor, but alludes to them by saying she would not 'lisp' or whisper it 'by the way'. Her eyes go from garden to Bee to shops, to hillsides and forests, to table and 'way'.

Except for the first tetrameter line, the poem is written in iambic trimeter which gives the poem its light, sing-song-y quality. The center of the poem, the last word of the second quatrain is 'die' and the word lands there  like a stone, suddenly introducing an irony between the subject matter and the tone of the verse. 

I never lost as much but twice

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels—twice descending
Reimbursed my store—
Burglar! Banker – Father!
I am poor once more!        
                                                               - F 39 (1858)  49

Various learned people have speculated as to who was buried in the sod, but as there is no consensus and as it doesn't fundamentally affect the poem one way or the other, I want to just dive into the poem itself. The most striking part, of course, is where she calls God "Burglar! Banker–Father!" It seems a bit blasphemous. But we understand that when someone is torn with grief they call out wildly. This poem has the feel of a wild call of grief.
     The first line provides the key to the story: I paraphrase it as "I've only lost as much as I just lost two other times before." The loss alluded to here is echoed more powerfully in the last line where she is 'poor once more!' The first two losses were to death. There is an interesting ambiguity about 'the door of God'. Is she standing before the graves, calling that the door -- the gateway, perhaps, to heaven? Or is the door simply a figurative one? At any rate she was beggared by the loss of two friends or dear ones and went to the very door of God for relief. 
     The poem is structured around an economic conceit that is further developed in the second stanza. While in the first, the poet was beggared by loss, in the second her storehouse of dear ones is reimbursed--by descending angels, no less. One thinks of angels delivering babies rather than beaus, so perhaps there were births to compensate for the deaths. But then there was a third loss that once more beggars the poet. We do not see her standing as a beggar before God here but almost lashing out at Him. This loss is probably not to death but to separation or alienation and that can be more embittering. She first calls God a Burglar: he has robbed her of a dear one. Then, 'Banker' -- He can call in the loan or grant reimbursements; He can raise the interest rate; He knows the solvency of her soul. And finally, she calls out to God the Father. 
     There is actually a bit of scripture for the odd Trinity: The Lord's Second Coming is to come 'like a thief in the night' according to the apostle Paul. We are also instructed in the New Testament to store up our treasures in Heaven--with the divine Banker. And Father is the familiar divine Patriarch.

What gives the lines extra punch, besides the alliteration and the whiff of blasphemy, is the syllable emphasis. While the rest of the poem is in garden-variety iambs, this line with the trochaic emphasis on the first syllables: BURglar! BANker--FAther demands to be read with some heat. The poet may be 'poor once more' (a reinforcing internal rhyme) but she is not meekly beggaring herself this time. 

27 July 2011

I never told the buried gold

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill—that lies—
I saw the sun—his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

He stood as near
As stood you here—
A pace had been between—
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

That was a wondrous booty—
I hope 'twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

Whether to keep the secret—
Whether to reveal—
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail—

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e'en divide—
Should a shrewd betray me—
Atropos decide! 

                                             J11, Fr 38 (1858)

 While Dickinson often employs the sun to represent spiritual or intellectual illumination, or as the Deity, here she at first glance paints the sun as a pirate that plunders during the day then crouches over his 'prize' before sailing away like Captain Kidd. One pictures the slanting light of the sinking sun painting the hillsides in gold, the color at least as vivid as that of ingots uncovered by the shovels of treasure hunters.
This sunset's gold is in both the hill and the water.
photo by author (Mt. Pleasant, New Zealand)
     The first line should be read as meaning, "I never told anyone about the buried gold..."  Simply by the use of 'buried' one intuits that Dickinson had more in mind than just depicting the glories of light. To me it suggests an internal epiphany, a treasured moment when Truth, illumination, seemed so near a snake could have spanned the distance and bitten her. She questions, as we should, whether this 'booty' was 'honest gained' -- or whether it was false, or at least falsely obtained (versus, perhaps, having to toil and labor for insight?). 
     At any rate, the epiphany is within her, a secret for the time being. Should she reveal it? Even as the poet thinks about it, she worries that the truth could flee, as the notorious pirate Captain Kidd escaped from those who hoped to capture him. A poet, however, captures her truth in poetry, and Dickinson does so, although sometimes she scatters clues throughout her poems that are as ambiguous and difficult to pin down as the enigmatic clues on a pirate's treasure  map. 
     In the last stanza she contemplates asking advice from a 'shrewd' or cunning person, and concludes that the shrewd would either advise her to divvy up the precious knowledge or else use it to betray her. The stakes are high. Atropos, whom the poet calls on at the end, is the eldest of the three Fates, the one to whom is granted the power to decide the manner of death and cut the thread of life. Clearly Truth should not be given away lightly. Dickinson, an avid Bible reader, would have had in mind Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: 
     Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast
     ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them
     under their feet, and turn again and rend you. 

         Dickinson would also have been very familiar with New Testament parables where deep lessons are couched in stories and analogies. In later years Dickinson would re-visit truth-telling in her famous poem "Tell the truth but tell it slant". Just so, Dickinson's truths aren't bartered on the street corner in the anodyne verse common in her (and our) day, but rather buried deep within her poems. Legions of scholars and readers like me have been digging through them ever since, looking for that buried gold.

The poem is written in hymn form: quatrains alternating in tetrameter and trimeter--except for the second quatrain where she divides the first tetrameter line into two dimeter lines for emphasis. She draws the reader into the immediacy of the experience by saying the sun was as close to me as you are now. It is a very nice way of including the reader as one who has shared the experience.

25 July 2011

By Chivalries as tiny

By Chivalries as tiny,
A Blossom, or a Book,
The seeds of smiles are planted –
Which blossom in the dark. 
                                                                         - F 37 (1858)

Haven't we all had the lovely feeling of lying in bed thinking of a little gift or thoughtful gesture from a special someone? One hopes at such times that the little gift was meant to imply some special feelings or relationship, and thus the Blossom blossoms.
            By use of the word "Chivalries" we are led to think of the gifts as coming from a man. But the poet can't effuse to the giver. Instead she accepts the gift – -perhaps it is given to her by another hand or through the post – and only allows the smile to bloom when she is alone at night in her room.
            Both flowers and books are fraught with meaning. Victorians had a whole language of flowers, so whether the blossom were a daisy or a rose or a common dandelion, the recipient would know the intended meaning. Likewise, a book of romantic verse or a handbook of exotic garden plants would each communicate something unique. The 'Chivalries', therefore, while symbolic are hardly 'tiny'.
             I like the idea of planting the seeds of smiles. I'm reminded that often a thoughtful gesture isn't responded to--not overtly, anyway. But perhaps the seed of a smile has been planted, and knowing that is quite good enough.
            Now that I say that, I'm reminded that Dickinson herself was a giver of such gifts. She famously enclosed flowers in letters, and often sent baskets to those in need of cheer. Perhaps this poem was also her insight into the value of her 'tiny' gifts.

24 July 2011

If I should die,

If I should die,
And you should live—
And time should gurgle on—
And morn should beam—
And noon should burn—
As it has usual done—
If Birds should build as early
And Bees as bustling go—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
'Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!
                                                                          - F 36 (1858)

Dickinson lists all the things that, if continuing after death, should make 'the parting tranquil' and serene. She begins with scenes from the natural world: beaming morning, burning noon, nest-building birds, and bustling bees. She then makes a complete switch to the economic world, saying that if the natural world would so continue then we could take our 'option' and leave worldly 'enterprise. Stock trading will continue as will commerce. 
   She's being ironic, pretending that when lying with Daisies in the grave, she'd be comforted by knowing sprightly gentlemen are wheeling and dealing as usual. Yet there's a correspondence there. The stock trader bustles like the bee, merchants build their enterprises as birds do their nests.
   The best verbs, however, are reserved for the natural world. Compare: gurgle, beam, burn, build, bustling; vs. stand, continue, fly (okay, that one has a bit of life), and conduct.
     In a larger sense, though, the poet says 'if you are still alive and all these other things are not disrupted by my unremarkable death [and, it is implied, life], then I can go when it suits me and not worry about a thing. How lightly the poet imagines her footprint upon this life. And yet it is true of, what, 99.9 percent of us? How many ripples will  mark our passing?
     The poem presents a much lighter approach to death than we see in her other poems. There is no somberness, no great mystery, no ambiguous divine intent, no talk of paradise or the crossing over thereto. But since in the next 1750 poems I'll encounter plenty of that, I think, I'll take the drollery gladly.
     There's a sprightly mix of complete and slant rhymes. Slant: beam / done / option. Complete: go / below; lie / fly; serene / scene. 

22 July 2011

Sleep is supposed to be

Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity 
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand 
Down wh', on either hand 
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be 
By people of degree 
The breaking of the Day.

Morning has not occurred!

That shall Aurora be— 
East of Eternity— One with the banner gay— 
One in the red array— 
That is the break of Day!

                                                                     J13, Fr 35 (1858)

It is tempting to read this poem as a contrast between normal sleeping and waking and that final waking with all the trumps and angels when the Faithful will be called to heaven. That is the real Morn despite what the worldly people think.

     However, this poem was described by Dickinson (in a letter to her friends the Hollands) as a note to her father who apparently used to knock on her door before daylight to wake her up. She prefaced the poem by writing:
      ‘To my Father –
       to whose untiring efforts in my behalf, I am indebted for my morning hours
       – viz – 3.AM to 12. PM. These grateful lines are inscribed by his aff. Daughter.’ (L198)

Read in this way, the poem reveals the animated and playful Dickinson described by those closest to her. It also hints at a close relationship with her father -- at least one that could bear teasing. "Look, Daddy, morning hasn't happened yet, okay? You know, that time when the big bright ball bounds up in the sky from the eastern part of the sky? Pretty clouds and all? That's morning."
     An image that intrigues me but that I can't quite figure out is that of the host of witnesses standing on either side of the grand station that sleep is. When I nod off I don't see many people... but then maybe Dickinson did, and a host of her friends and loved ones helped speed her on her way to sleep.

21 July 2011

Taken from men -- this morning --

Taken from men -- this morning --
Carried by men today --
Met by the Gods with banners --
Who marshalled her away -- 

One little maid -- from playmates --
One little mind from school --
There must be guests in Eden --
All the rooms are full --

Far -- as the East from Even --
Dim -- as the border star --
Courtiers quaint, in Kingdoms
Our departed are.

                                                               - F 34 (1858)
A schoolgirl dies and is buried the same day. The poet holds out a lovely scenario however: the 'little maid' is met by, interestingly, 'the Gods' who hold banners. We envision almost a warlike procession as she is 'marshalled' away.
     Eden, or Paradise is as far from us as east is from west. Dickinson uses "Even" as a short form for "evening" -- and also as an echo of "Eden" two lines earlier. We also think of evening time as closing time: the sun is going down, businesses are closing--and in this case a life is ending. The east, on the other hand, is the place of dawn and rebirth. Is it any wonder our departed souls seem 'quaint' there? Or, less politely, probably like country cousins.
     I haven't done my homework on this, but the poem reads as one meant to console a bereaved family. I do question the plurality of "Gods" however. Was it a bit of mischief?

Whether my bark went down at sea—

Whether my bark went down at sea—
Whether she met with gales—
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails—

By what mystic mooring
She is held today—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the Bay.
                                                         - F 33 (1858)

Dickinson divides this metaphor of a soul being likened to a small boat into two stanzas. The first reminds us that there is no way to know what will befall the soul on its journey once free of the body. There are three alternatives presented, however: 1) sink and drown, implying a lack of spirit; 2) go down in a big storm, implying a fighting spirit albeit defeated; or 3) by careful tacking and calm intent arriving at Paradise, implying a flexible, amenable spirit. 
     I don't really think Dickinson is preferencing the enchanted isles option. To reach it means bending "docile sails". Docility means meekness, teachability, obedience--especially when coupled with the word "bent". One suspects Dickinson's spirit is not there.
     The second stanza refocuses us on the Now. Here we are on the Bay rather than the sea. And we are still alive rather than a post-mortem soul on its journey. Dickinson even supplies the word "today". We are reminded to think about why and how you are alive. What sort of mooring precisely is the "mystic mooring" and why is the soul/bark moored at all? The eye, the window of the soul, needs to think about these questions.

19 July 2011

The morns are meeker than they were—

The morns are meeker than they were—
The nuts are getting brown—
The berry's cheek is plumper—
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf—
The field a scarlet gown—
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on. 
                                                               J12,  Fr 32 (1858)

Dickinson's world is very alive: the woods and fields and gardens she loved are depicted as living neighborhoods, full of character and intent. Each season brings its cast of characters and drama.
     Here the poet gives us a charming, witty – and feminine – sketch of autumn. Dawn is a bit tardy now and without the warm exuberance of a summer morning. Nuts, like children in the sun too long,  are turning brown;  berries are filling out and gaining some color, like girls on the cusp of maidenhood. The rose, that elegant snowbird, has absented herself for the duration, while Maple puts on a brave show, decking herself out with brilliant yellow, orange, and red – a much more spectacular display than her simple summer green. The field assembles her gown with fallen maple, sumac and juneberry leaves. 
     The poet wants to join in, so will put on a 'trinket' – a meek sort of jewelry in keeping with the meeker morns. 

     Helen Vendler, commenting on a selection of Dickinson poems, says we see the poet here out for a morning walk. She starts at home noticing the morning, then glances up at the nut trees and down at the berry vines of her own woods, then ventures out to the fields. Vendler also notes that the absence of the Rose belies the gay apparel and plump cheeks of the remaining residents. As Rose is always linked with its anagram, Eros, Vendler concludes that the poem is not only is a playful depiction of autumn but an admission of loss.

At any rate, it's a wonderfully female world. I like that for while Spring is usually linked to feminine procreation and blossoming, I tend to think of Autumn as male. It is a brooding time; harvest always leaves behind empty vines. It is "mankind" who harvests Mother Nature's bounty, and this provides a rather masculine stance. But Dickinson goes all in for Autumn femaleness here. The only male presence are the brown nuts , and they are neatly paired with the plumping berries. Who knows – the Rose might have retired herself more out of propriety than dislike of the cold. Since she is gone the rest of the girls can have some fun. Maple and Field are getting dressed up and now so is the poet.

To him who keeps an Orchis' heart –

To him who keeps an Orchis' heart –
The swamps are pink with June.
                                                                    - F 31 (1858)

This lovely epigrammatic snippet has a neat play on words in addition to the promise that the beauty of swamps in spring time is always part of those whose heart itself flowers. The second line includes the words "swamps" and "pink" -- the swamp pink is a lovely woodland flower loving the boggy wet ground. Dickinson would have been familiar with it as well as the orchis--The Showy Orchid, or Orchis spectabilis.

                      Showy Orchid, or the "Orchis" of the poem. 
                      Photo from

                      The Swamp Pink. 
                      Photo from

18 July 2011

To lose – if one can find again –

To lose – if one can find again – 
To miss – if one shall meet – 
The Burglar cannot rob – then – 
The Broker cannot cheat.
So build the hillocks gaily
Thou little spade of mine
Leaving nooks for Daisy
And for Columbine – 
You and I the secret
Of the Crocus know – 
Let us chant it softly – 
"There is no more snow!"
                                                                   - F 30 (1858)

In the New Testament's Matthew 6:20, just after teaching the Lord's Prayer, Jesus instructs his listeners to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal." Dickinson reframes this from treasure to terms of loss and separation. To lose your life means to find an eternal one. To miss a loved one on earth is only too meet again in Paradise. Part of this Paradise is that you won't be robbed by burglars -- and the other part is you won't be robbed by brokers either! With that in mind we can shovel those graves with gaiety, making sure we allow the flowers to take root there. 
     The secret of resurrection is the same secret of the Crocus which emerges from its bulb each year, the same plant born again. This is possible because there isn't snow underground to damage the bulb. Neither will we, once in the grave, know the 'snow' of earthly tribulations again.
     The poem has a secretive aspect to it. It poses a riddle in the first two lines and later mentions a secret. But the secret is itself oblique: "There is no more snow!" "There" is italicized to help the reader know it refers to a place--under the 'hillocks' – graves. There is a slight edge to this otherwise anodyne ending: the poet, addressing the Columbine and Daisy says, "Let us chant it softly–" Why? Why softly? Why chanted? One pictures a lady among flowers tending a grave, softly repeating her line over and over as if to chant it would make it more likely true.