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01 July 2011

As if I asked a common Alms

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand—
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn—
And it should lift its purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn! 
                                                        - F 14 (1858)


This poem, written as a statement and reprise in common hymn form, has the implied form "It was..." followed by two sets of "As if"s  and then two consequences of the "as ifs". In the first series she says that [something] is akin to asking for a penny from a stranger and receiving a kingdom, bewildering her; and in the reprise that that something is like asking the East for morning–-for the sun does rise in the east–and getting dawn. 
     Although the first comparison seems on the face of it more impressive -- expecting alms and getting a kingdom--than the second where she asks for morning and gets what one might expect, dawn, we are meant to see that dawn is more spectacular. The Orient lifts its purple dikes, yet instead of a flood of dawn that might drown, she denotes it as a force that shatters her. A very unexpected verb. A kingdom, she implies, is a paltry thing compared to the force of a purple dawn sky suddenly lifting to reveal the blazing sun.
     The poem was sent to Thomas Higginson as part of the series of letters where she asks him to be her Preceptor. He recognized her unique abilities yet would have not been entirely pleased by the slant rhyme of Morn and Dawn.
     Part of the concision of the poem, and thus its power, lies in her neglecting the "It was" implied subject of the two images. Perhaps she was implying that Higginson becoming her preceptor would be like an unimagined kingdom or dawn. But to me it seems she is talking about insight or epiphany. She goes outside to enjoy the early morning and is overwhelmed by magnificence. This in itself is an epiphany: Nature has incredible power over emotions and imagination--especially if you're Emily Dickinson and extremely sensitive. The sun has been used as the eye of heaven by Shakespeare and by the Greeks, but experiencing the metaphor as if it were truth is an experience for true poets.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your running commentary, Susan, which I've followed for several years, though I don't believe I've commented in turn (here) before. For now, I only want to call attention to the phrase "my wondering hand." Given that this poem was eventually, as you allude to, followed immediately by ED's query, "But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?" we may well understand the "wondering hand" as the proferred, questioning poem and the "hand" with which/in which it is written.
    Beyond or apart from that, I find a "wonderful" ambiguity in the way "my wondering hand" fluctuates between a
    tentative asking and a being overcome.

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    Replies
    1. It's a lovely phrase, 'wondering hand.' You've helped me see the poem in a new way. I think there is a strong self-referent there. Right now I'm reading a couple of books of ED poems interpreted through the lens of Zen -- and the assumption that unknowing, accidentally, Dickinson (can't remember the precise term) became enlightened or had an ego transcendence.

      It's an interesting way to reread poems and it certainly is relevant here. The speaker asks for common things but beholds magnificent things. Perhaps, along your line of thinking (I think), she is embarking on poetry or a poem and then the floodgates open and she is 'Shatter[ed] with dawn'.

      I'm really loving this poem. Thanks for commenting on it.

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