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22 September 2011

Some, too fragile for winter winds

Some, too fragile for winter winds
The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold –

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look,
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,
Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father—
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.
                                                                         - F 91 (1859)   141

Most people raised in a predominantly Christian environment will remember Jesus reassuring his disciples about God’s love:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. ... Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matt. 10:27-31). Luke presents this version: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" (Luke 12:6).  A copper coin, or ‘farthing’, was a very small Roman coin worth less than a U.S. quarter. What we are to take from this is that God loves his creation so much that even a lowly sparrow is noted and observed; no sparrow ‘falls’ unless it is God’s will.
With all this in mind, Dickinson’s poem is rather shocking. Most of the poem is a rather conventional portrayal of a cosy grave—except that here the grave is like a tender and thoughtful mother. She tucks the little children in, making sure they are warm, as many of them died as a result of ‘winter winds’ and were ‘often cold’. In the second stanza the human mother image becomes a bird mother who protects the babies in her nest from pesky schoolboys and hunters. And it’s a good thing the grave is so tender and caring because ‘the Father’, despite what Jesus said, did not even notice these little sparrows!
The death of children is hard to conceive within the auspices of an all-powerful, all-loving God, and Dickinson doesn’t try to justify it here. Instead she writes a tear-jerker poem. I find the last line particularly poignant: the little lambs did not live to find their home, their ‘fold’ over the course of a life. Again, this goes contrary to the familiar image of Jesus out hunting for the little lost lamb. Of course, Jesus was himself the ‘lamb of God’ as he was the blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity. But we won’t try to work that bit of theology into the poem. It’s enough to notice that Dickinson doesn’t seem convinced of the Bible tales’ applicability to actual children.
How Jesus is often portrayed.
Dickinson wasn't buying it.
Art by Penny Parker
Poetically, the poem coheres with rhymes of ‘cold’, ‘bold’, ‘cold’, and ‘fold’ running through. It begins with a grave spondee – “Some, too”­ – followed by a trochee to further emphasize the seriousness of the subject. The trochee to iamb pattern gives an anapestic feel to the third lines as well as the first line of the first two stanzas.

An altered look about the hills—

An altered look about the hills—
A Tyrian light the village fills—
A wider sunrise in the morn—
A deeper twilight on the lawn—
A print of a vermillion foot—
A purple finger on the slope—
A flippant fly upon the pane—
A spider at his trade again—
An added strut in Chanticleer—
A flower expected everywhere—
An axe shrill singing in the woods—
Fern odors on untravelled roads—
All this and more I cannot tell—
A furtive look you know as well—
And Nicodemus' Mystery
Receives its annual reply!
                                                               - F 90 (1859)   140

As I write this Spring is nosing about in Christchurch, New Zealand where I live. Ignoring the recent earthquakes that crumbled many nearby cliffs, the hills do have ‘An altered look’. Green is dusting their flanks and large swaths are blooming in the crayon yellow of gorse and broom and saltbush (all invasive exotics, alas, but healthy and colorful nonetheless).
Strutting chanticleer
            Dickinson takes a break here from the death theme of previous poems to sing to Spring. As she looks around the woods and hills of Amherst she sees the bright slanting light of spring, notes the lengthening days, and sees the first hints of flowers. At least there is a ‘vermilion foot’ and a ‘purple finger’—and ‘A flower expected everywhere.' The fauna is waking up as well: the fly is ‘flippant’, the spider back to spinning, and the rooster strutting his stuff.
            She addresses the reader directly towards the end when she says “A furtive look you know as well”. Since she began the poem by pointing out the ‘altered look’ she is adding a twist here by saying the look as the hills don their spring colors is furtive. Spring is slipping in with a finger and a footprint. The poet just knows the rest of us have noticed it!  Nicodemus, who famously asked Jesus how it could be possible for a man to be born again when Jesus said that doing so was necessary, is answered: You can be born again as surely as the hills wake and the flowers are born again and the animals do what animals do in spring: create new life. The earth is born again each year in spring.
            The poem is written with eight rhyming trimeter couplets. –and lots of dashes. Love the dashes—don’t you – 

20 September 2011

Soul, Wilt thou toss again?

Soul, Wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost indeed—
But tens have won an all—

Angel's breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee—
Imps in eager Caucus
Raffle for my Soul!
                                                   - F 89 (1859)   139

The poet’s intellect or rational mind here interrogates her Soul. The Soul may or may not “toss again”—commit itself to something that is of great interest to both Angels, who wait breathlessly to record the outcome of the toss, and Imps who are eagerly raffling for a chance to own the Soul should the toss go their way. This would seem to indicate the stake is Heaven or Hell.
            The interestingly ambiguous word is “again” of “toss again”. It implies the Soul has already tossed once and the Self is asking if it won’t give Chance another go. For this is clearly not a rational choice. The gambling metaphor is quite specific, even down to the ratio of “Hundreds” versus “tens”. Clearly the odds are stacked in favor of the Imps as the Hundreds have ‘lost’ –which would be Hell, while only tens have ‘won an all’ – which seems clearly to mean everlasting life in Heaven.
            But if all this is so clear, why would the Soul leave all to a toss of a coin? Heaven seems a sure-fire commitment when given only the two alternatives. I think the poet may be contemplating another type of action or commitment whose eternal impact is unknown. For example, the commitment to Poetry and Truth may be a Heavenly choice—but it might also be wrong, wrong, wrong (to listen to preachers of the day who would only permit sanctioned sorts of poetry). In this case since one cannot know for sure the eternal impact of the choice, the Soul may as well toss for it.
            I think, however, that Dickinson is looking at the type of Christianity, the nature of her relationship to God. Having  tossed once before for the conventional –the church-going, hymn-singing, etc. variety, she is saying, shall we try something else? It may be better—in fact our salvation may depend on it—but there’s no way to know. I believe Dickinson did toss again and go in favor of her own iconoclastic beliefs where Bees stand in for God and the Woods for church, and where she more and more dedicates her life to thinking and imagining beyond the doctrine of her time and even (at this stage) begins the slow process of withdrawing from the public world. She took ‘the road less traveled’, and her poetry increasingly challenges, questions, and bruises itself upon questions of God, the soul, and what it means to be alive. I hope her toss took her to the Paradise she so often wrote of.

Heart not so heavy as mine

Heart not so heavy as mine
Wending late home—
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune—

A careless snatch—a ballad—
A Ditty of the street—
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet—

It was as if a Bobolink
Sauntering this way
Carolled and mused, and carolled—
Then bubbled slow away – 

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way 
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why – 

Tomorrow –  night will come again—
Perhaps – tired and sore—
Oh Bugle, by the window
I pray you stroll once more!
                                                - F 88 (1859)   83

The poem is about the power of music (which ‘has charms to heal the savage breast’, as William  Congreve would have it), and indeed the poem itself is full of sound and meter effects that align it to music as well.  Let’s have a go.
            Stanza one sets the scene. The poet is at home, despondent, but then hears someone whistling a tune outside. To capture this in senses as well as in words, Dickinson begins with heavy, tired-sounding meter—a couple of spondees (“Heart not”, and “late home”) combined with the breathy “h” sounds that slow everything down. Then we shift to the more quick and merry “w” alliterations: “Wending”, “window,” “Whistled”.  The poem goes apace from here, much more chipper.
            I particularly like the quartet of “B”s that anchor the poem. First we have, in stanza two, a “ballad” that is so sweet that, in stanza three, the “Bobolink” might have sung it before he “bubbled” away. The sound is cheerful “as if a chirping brook” were chirping it’s dance tunes (stanza four). Then in the last stanza we have the “Bugle” – which is another way of referring to the whistler. So there are the Ballad, the Bobolink, the brook, and the Bugle. How could anyone stay depressed with all that action going on outside the window?

19 September 2011

“They have not chosen me” – he said –

“They have not chosen me” – he said –
“But I have chosen them”!
Brave – Broken hearted statement –
Uttered in Bethleem!

I could not have told it,
But since Jesus dared,
Sovreign, know a Daisy
Thy dishonor shared!
                                                             - F 87 (1859)

Jesus, soon before his crucifixion, told his disciples that he had chosen them—soon afterwards they ran off from the soldiers, leaving Jesus captured. Later still, Simon Peter would claim he never knew Jesus. That is the background of the “Brave – Broken hearted statement”.  The emotions are emphasized alliteratively with a string of ‘Bs’: “But”, “Brave”, “Broken”, “Bethleem”.
            The poet sees this behavior as dishonoring Jesus and in the second stanza she confesses that she, too, has been similarly dishonored.  Referring to herself as “Daisy”, a humble yet hopeful name, she tattles directly to God the Father. Dickinson again uses alliteration to emphasize the point: “dared”, “Daisy”, “dishonor”.
            I suspect this is one of those poems that gets written when you’ve just been snubbed or otherwise slighted by those you consider your most special friends. One doesn’t have to read too many Dickinson poems or letters to find that she does indeed feel a bit left out and neglected from time to time. 

18 September 2011

For every Bird a Nest—

For every Bird a Nest—
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round—

Wherefore when boughs are free—
Households in every tree—
Pilgrim be found?

Perhaps a home too high—
Ah Aristocracy!
The little Wren desires—

Perhaps of twig so fine—
Of twine e'en superfine,
Her pride aspires—

The Lark is not ashamed
To build upon the ground
Her modest house—

Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?
                                                                     F 86 (1859   143

Dickinson presents us with a parable here: The Wren and the Lark. She gently teases the little wren for seeking an exquisite nest high up in the tree, “too high”, when  lower  “boughs are free” and other birds have contentedly, one presumes, established their “households” there. The wren’s “pride aspires” to the finest twigs and twine—in fact to be an Aristocrat of birds! The wren, of course, is the symbol of the small and humble—and Dickinson even identified herself  in a letter to her mentor Thomas Higginson  as “small as the wren”. This may be her self-deprecating humour: I may just be a wren looking for finery high up in a tree, writing and sending you poetry.
            But I think her true identity is the Lark. Of all the birds, the lark is reknowned for flying very high and nesting quite casually on the ground. Even though not as nightengale-ish as the European skylark, the American Eastern Skylark has a beautiful song and it is among the first to be heard in the  morning, calling out over the fields and gardens. And so Dickinson, I think, would  choose to view herself—flying high with her poetry, her verses singing, “dancing around the sun” she so often included as a symbol of intellectual and spiritual illumination or as a symbol of divine or royal authority.
            There is a fondness for both birds, though: the lark for all its passion, love, and carelessness about worldly wealth; and the little wren for aspiring and desiring a fine nest high in a tall tree. It is a “Pilgrim”—and that is a good thing. Maybe Dickinson sees herself as the wren yet envies the lark.
            At any rate it is a charming poem. 

17 September 2011

Whose are the little beds, I asked

Whose are the little beds, I asked
Which in the valleys lie?
Some shook their heads, and others smiled—
And no one made reply.

Perhaps they did not hear, I said,
I will inquire again—
Whose are the beds—the tiny beds
So thick upon the plain?

'Tis Daisy, in the shortest—
A little further on—
Nearest the door—to wake the Ist—
Little Leontoden.

'Tis Iris, Sir, and Aster—
Anemone, and Bell—
Bartsia, in the blanket red—
And chubby Daffodil.

Meanwhile, at many cradles
Her busy foot she plied—
Humming the quaintest lullaby
That ever rocked a child.

Hush! Epigea wakens!
The Crocus stirs her lids—
Rhodora's cheek is crimson,
She's dreaming of the woods!

Then turning from them reverent—
Their bedtime 'tis, she said—
The Bumble bees will wake them
When April woods are red.
                                                                     - F85 (1859)  142

Red Bartsia, John Johnston
This lovely poem takes us to the slumbering winter garden and woods. Who knows which flowers lie in which bed? Who remembers where the anemone is, or the daffodil? (I love the ‘chubby Daffodil’.)  The poet, strolling about the woods and town, meets only with coy demurrals when asking this question. But, persistent, she asks again and this time Mother Nature herself speaks up. She is portrayed as a Mother indeed: she is rocking the many cradles of the baby and slumbering plants and humming lullabies for them. She admonishes the poet to be quiet but indulges her by giving her a tour: look, Daisy is closest, there is Leontoden (dandelion), etc.  And finally, she tells the poet that this is the flowers’ bedtime until Spring when the “Bumble bees will wake them”.
Epigaea (arbutus)
            The poem is quite regular in structure and meter and rhyme. And perhaps it isn’t the deepest poem in the world; nonetheless, it brings a smile to my face!

15 September 2011

On such a night, or such a night,

On such a night, or such a night,
Would anybody care
If such a little figure
Slipped quiet from its chair—

So quiet—Oh how quiet,
That nobody might know
But that the little figure
Rocked softer—to and fro—

On such a dawn, or such a dawn—
Would anybody sigh
That such a little figure
Too sound asleep did lie

For Chanticleer to wake it—
Or stirring house below—
Or giddy bird in orchard—
Or early task to do?

There was a little figure plump
For every little knoll—
Busy needles, and spools of thread—
And trudging feet from school—

Playmates, and holidays, and nuts—
And visions vast and small—
Strange that the feet so precious charged
Should reach so small a goal!
                                                                     - F 84 (1859)  146

Dickinson addresses both the ordinariness and pathos of the death of children. These must be good Puritan village children as they are very quiet—so quiet that when they die no one really notices. The little figure whose soul slips away while rocking on a chair is not remarked on. Others just think the rocking has become more quiet.
            Perhaps good Puritan families were more stoic than modern families, for the poet asks: “Would anybody care”? and “Would anybody sigh”? The implied answer is that, no, it was just a meek little figure. The word “figure” has a distancing effect, and for pathos it is always, three times, a “little figure”. But the real pathos is saved for the last two stanzas. Imagine, the poet says, that for all those little graves there was once a “little figure” going to and from school, playing and dreaming of the future in “visions great and small”. The small vision is consonant with the early death: the little grave, “so small a goal”.
            The grim, gray ordinariness of death is evoked by the quiet chants of “On such a night, or such a night,” and “On such a dawn, or such a dawn”.  There is no sense of tragedy except in the irony of the “precious” hopes ending at the grave.  No drama. The children simply slip away or die in their sleep. 

This heart that broke so long—

This heart that broke so long—
These feet that never flagged—
This faith that watched for star in vain,
Give gently to the dead—

Hound cannot overtake the Hare
That fluttered panting, here,
Nor any schoolboy rob the nest
Tenderness builded there.
                                                - F 83 (1859)

Like F 81, this poem paints a dreary and pathetic picture of a dead woman. It feels like a practice piece, as if Dickinson had tired of reading cheesy funeral poems and thought, “I can knock one of these out in half the time and it would be twice as good.” Nonetheless, it isn’t interesting reading. We have a broken-hearted but hard-working person of great faith. Alas, the faith was ‘in vain’ as the hoped-for star (some hoped-for event? The Second Coming?) never came. However, for all the deprivations and disappointments, at least the deathbed experience was free from harm. The Hound couldn’t hurt the little fluttering and panting hare there, nor could nasty little boys cause any harm.
            The poem is written in standard hymn form: 4-line stanzas of alternating tetrameter and trimeter Fairly loose slant rhymes are used: “flagged” / “Dead”; “here” / “there”. 

13 September 2011

We should not mind so small a flower—

We should not mind so small a flower—
Except it quiet bring
Our little garden that we lost
Back to the Lawn again.

So spicy her Carnations nod—
So drunken, reel her Bees—
So silver steal a hundred flutes
From out a hundred trees—

That whoso sees this little flower
By faith may clear behold
The Bobolinks around the throne
And Dandelions gold.
                                                                                - F 82 (1859)

n autumn our thoughts turn to winter. There is bit of melancholy in the air as Nature retrenches. Dickinson views this and other seasons as representations of life itself. Spring brings Resurrection after the Death represented by winter. Autumn, then, is a time of preparation.
New England Gentian
Viridian's Blog:
            Enter the gentian (or some other small, late-blooming flower; Judith Farr in her lovely book The Gardens of Emily Dickinson argues it is the gentian). Instead of helping us look forward to death and resurrection, it reminds us of Summer’s heyday. Small it may be, but the flower has a delicious spicy fragrance and its nectar inebriates the hungry bees.
            However, the poet reminds us that this very abundance can help spark our visions of Heaven. The vision Dickinson sketches for us is likewise simple and homely: Bobolinks and dandelions will ornament God’s throne.

Bobolink, Barry Kent MacKay

            Written in standard hymn form (4-line quatrains in alternate tetrameter and trimeter lines), the poem is bracketed by two references to the flower: the first, ending line one is “so small a flower,” and the second ends the first line of the last stanza: “this little flower.” The first stanza is about loss—the lost Garden, with its echoes of Eden, while the last stanza is about entering the eternal garden of Paradise. 

She bore it till the simple veins

She bore it till the simple veins
Traced azure on her hand—
Til pleading, round her quiet eyes
The purple Crayons stand.

Till Daffodils had come and gone
I cannot tell the sum,
And then she ceased to bear it—
And with the Saints sat down.

No more her patient figure
At twilight soft to meet—
No more her timid bonnet
Upon the village street—

But Crowns instead, and Courtiers—
And in the midst so fair,
Whose but her shy—immortal face
Of whom we're whispering here?
                                                                           - F 81 (1859)  144

This and some of the next ones are simple and sweet reflections on the death of a good woman. This particular woman was long suffering—wasting away from some illness over many years. The poet tells us she is ‘timid’ and ‘patient’ and ‘shy’. It’s sad to hear about how she became so translucently thin that the veins showed and the dark circles under her eyes were, at the end, pleading—one assumes for death to finally come. And it was a gentle death, the woman simply ‘ceased to bear it’ and sat down with the Saints.
            But what makes this a distinctly inferior poem is that after portraying such a simple, meek soul who used to trot about the village streets, Dickinson suddenly thrusts her amid ‘Crowns’ and ‘Courtiiers’. Somehow I doubt that this was the sort of Heaven the little woman wanted. What was Emily thinking?  I go back to my earlier idea that Dickinson would kill time by writing out a supply of these anodyne death poems in case of need.
            Other aspects of the poem are regrettable as well. The first images of blue tracery on the hands and purple ‘Crayons’ around her eyes conjures something clownish, and the reader has to beat this image down with a stick once encountering the ‘timid bonnet’ on her patient errands. Then there are the distorted-English passages that close the second and third stanzas. Dickinson is better than this. Let’s move on.

12 September 2011

I hide myself within my flower

I hide myself within my flower,
That fading from your Vase—
You—unsuspecting—feel for me—
Almost—a loneliness—
                                                        - F 80 (1859)

Dickinson’s skill at compression is employed brilliantly here. The first line sketches a division between the speaker’s private, true self and outer, public self. The inner person has agency and can reveal or hide herself at will—in this case choosing to hide within the outer . The feminine petals and sweet scent disguise the presence of the real speaker within.
Then we have the image of the Vase—another feminine image (at least certainly in Freudian terms). It holds and surrounds cut flowers to showcase their beauty. This, however, necessitates the flowers’ severance from life-giving soil and their consequent ‘fading’. 
The subject of the poem, the ‘You’, knows that flowers fade and will be tossed out, but she doesn’t know there is a real consciousness hidden there that will be tossed out as well. Yet subconsciously she will become aware of an alteration, a withdrawing of the speaker, and feels ‘Almost – a loneliness –’. That ‘Almost’ is a heartbreaker.
What I find most intriguing about this short poem is the expressed intent of the speaker:  “I will withdraw myself from you, leaving only my persona, a shell that fades, so that while you won’t suspect anything you will, at a deeper level, feel the loss.” It is as if the speaker had been shunned in some way by the subject and will quietly effect her small retribution, the almost-loneliness of the subject. The speaker, hiding within the flower, will be watching. It is what today we might call a passive-aggressive choice: to fade—wither, lose vitality and reality—rather than make a more direct confrontation or leaving.

08 September 2011

New feet within my garden go—

New feet within my garden go—
New fingers stir the sod—
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.

New children play upon the green—
New Weary sleep below—
And still the pensive Spring returns—
And still the punctual snow!
                                                      - F 79 (1859)

There’s a new world each Spring—or at least a rebirth. To Dickinson, this is a type of Resurrection, one that each of us can experience annually. The first stanza here emphasizes the rebirth with spondees beginning with “New”: “New feet” and “New fingers”. We’re meant to really feel the newness. And in fact the images are tactile. Feet are walking in a garden, fingers are in the dirt. It’s a silent scene, with the new bunnies and other garden creatures venturing out and new fingers of spring shoots pushing their way up. But then Robin or some other songster begins to sing. The poet ironically casts this as betraying the solitude, but it is an affectionate jibe at one of her garden favourites.
            The second stanza begins with the same spondeed “New”—but this time a more somber element is introduced. Yes, there are new children out to play, but there also the newly buried. Completing the change in mood to one more somber, the last two lines begin with a plaintive iamb: “And still”. The emphasis on the word ‘still’ underscores the continuity it implies. Despite the deaths (indicated by the ‘Weary’ who ‘sleep below’ and also implied by the “New” feet and fingers that have presumably replaced last year’s denizens), Spring returns. But it is not a joyful, triumphant Spring as one  might expect. Dickinson qualifies it as a ‘pensive Spring’ as if the season of rebirth is not without cognizance of the progression of life feeding on death, death being necessary for new life. The final “And still” brings us the ‘punctual snow!’. Winter doesn’t cool its heels thinking about its ramifications. It comes like clockwork.
The use of these two interesting adjectives—‘pensive’ and ‘punctual’—together with the poetic devices of repetition and meter, show Dickinson’s ability to compact quite a bit of meaning and nuance in what initially appears to be a simple scene.

07 September 2011

As by the dead we love to sit

As by the dead we love to sit,
Become so wondrous dear—
As for the lost we grapple
Tho' all the rest are here—

In broken mathematics
We estimate our prize
Vast—in its fading ratio
To our penurious eyes!
                                                  - F 78 (1859)  88

There’s an interesting mathematical metaphor at the heart of this poem.  The first stanza establishes that we esteem one who has recently died at higher value than those still alive. They are 'wondrous dear'. Dickinson chooses the word ‘dear’ to suggest a high price—and also to take advantage of the word’s other meaning as ‘beloved’.  But this valuation is ‘broken mathematics’ – it doesn’t add up. The ratio of dead friends to living is quite small, yet we consider ‘the prize’ to be ‘Vast’. The poet here may be considering ‘the prize’ to be the heavenly reunion. She indicated as much in an introductory note to the poem which was enclosed in a letter to Mrs. Holland. Dickinson remarked that meeting is worth the parting—and when someone dies we have an even more joyous reunion in heaven, thus more than compensating for the dying.
            Problem words are “fading” and “penurious”.  I read it as follows: As time goes by, the ratio fades and we think less frequently and with less emotion of the departed. The once bright and dominating ratio recedes in our mind. How could it be otherwise? We have to be a bit stingy with our emotional outflow or we would soon be mad. So the word ‘penurious’, like ‘dear’, is doing double duty here: it suggests the need to ration our feelings and it also suggests our earthly eyes’ inability to see the larger truths.
          Not many poets could successfully discuss the death of a dear one in terms of value ratios, but Dickinson pulls it off, I think. Her choice of words evoke both the numbers and the emotion. It's a very preachy-Christian-y, mid 1800's idea: we are better off in Heaven than on Earth. Death is a ticket to this great place and we should welcome the death of our friends as offering us just one more incentive to want to go there. 
            The use of ‘grapple’ is interesting, too. We don’t just mourn the dead, we reach desperately for them, struggling with our hearts and minds to either come to grips with the loss or to try fruitlessly to keep them alive in some way. 

06 September 2011

One dignity delays for all—

One dignity delays for all—
One mitred Afternoon—
None can avoid this purple—
None evade this Crown!

Coach, it insures, and footmen—
Chamber, and state, and throng—
Bells, also, in the village
As we ride grand along!

What dignified Attendants!
What service when we pause!
How loyally at parting
Their hundred hats they raise!

Her pomp surpassing ermine
When simple You, and I,
Present our meek escutcheon
And claim the rank to die!
                                                          - F 77 (1859)  98

Ah, haven’t we all wanted to get a glimpse of our own funeral? They must have been quite grand in Amhurst, for Dickinson describes the funeral of ‘simple You, and I’ in terms reserved for heads of state today. The coffin would be born in a coach with footmen, and as it made its stately progress the cemetery the village bells would ring. A hundred people would attend, raising their hats in final salutation.
            The poet presents death as a coronation into the lordly afterlife. The Afternoon is ‘mitred’ as would be a bishop in h is sacred headdress. There is the obligatory crown and purple garments. The pomp of death exceeds even that attendant on kings, ‘ermine’ being a metonymy for royalty. There is something like a ticket taker, and the newly dead must present identification before they can claim their ‘rank to die’.
            That last phrase puts a bit of a twist on the familiar idea that death is the great leveler bringing kings to worms’ mouths just as efficiently as beggars. Here the meek join the noble.
            Although most of the poem is written in iambs, the last two lines of the first stanza begin trochaically. The effect is to emphasize “None”: everyone gets to get the crown! Dickinson also crafts the next three lines with trochees to open: ‘Coach,” Chamber,” and “Bells”; this adds a sense of action as the deceased ‘ride grand along!’.
          All in all, the poem is conventional for her milieu in that it envisions the afterlife as more important and more glorious than the earthly life. I would guess that this is another comfort poem she intended for the bereaved. I wonder if she wrote some of these in advance to have ready when someone she knew died.

The rainbow never tells me

The rainbow never tells me
That gust and storm are by –
Yet is she more convincing
Than Philosophy.

My flowers turn from Forums—
Yet eloquent declare
What Cato couldn't prove me
Except the birds were here!
                                                  - F 76 (1859)

We are back in the school of nature where the deepest truths are revealed in rainbow, flowers, and birds. Dickinson draws time and again on a natural system of wisdom – witness her Bee as preacher and even as God in earlier poems. She would have been familiar with melancholy Jacque’s speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where he notes that
… this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything (2.1.13).
There is a correspondence between seeing and understanding that is more direct than wisdom couched in the abstract texts of philosophy or the polished rhetoric of statesmen. To see the beautiful rainbow is to see literal evidence of moisture in the air. No explanations or other interpretations are needed. Certainly the rainbow adds beauty and wonder to the heavens, opening the heart to contemplation and inspiring the soul.
            The second stanza continues the theme. Flowers, like rainbows, do not speak yet they return from the cold hard ground of winter every spring. Their presence reflects rebirth, perhaps even resurrection, and a natural progression. Many birds forage through flowerbeds for seeds and then disperse the seeds. The new crop of flowers then bears witness to the presence of birds. Seeing birds and flowers emerge every spring is a powerful message and more eloquent evidence of the nature of life than anything Cato (presumably the Younger) could have presented in his arguments.

05 September 2011

Sexton! My Master's sleeping here.

Sexton! My Master's sleeping here.
Pray lead me to his bed!
I came to build the Bird's nest,
And sow the Early seed—

That when the snow creeps slowly
From off his chamber door—
Daisies point the way there—
And the Troubadour.
                                                - F 75  (1859)  96 
Dickinson has several poems depicting the grave as a cosy home. In F 41 for example, “I often passed the village,” the grave occupant is waiting to enfold a living person in her loving embrace. In this poem the poet’s Master is ‘sleeping’ in his chamber. There is snow on the ground but that doesn’t disturb his sleep. The poet, as befits a student, wants to honor her Master by planting spring flowers and enticing a bird to lay eggs and sing its joyous spring song.. When spring does come the cosy ‘chamber’ will be colorful and cheered by birdsong.
            Spring with its returning flowers and newly hatched birds represents resurrection. And birds, as mentioned earlier, represent the soul. So Dickinson is also symbolically helping the soul on its journey.
            Dickinson’s first ‘Master’ was a young headmaster who died in his twenties. Perhaps she paid a visit to his cemetery and that’s why she needed directions from the Sexton.

03 September 2011

My nosegays are for captives

My nosegays are for captives;
Dim, long-expectant eyes,
Fingers denied the plucking,
Patient till paradise.

To such, if they should whisper
Of morning and the moor,
They bear no other errand,
And I, no other prayer.
                                                            - F 74 (1859)  95

Dickinson in this and other poems regards herself as a messenger of Paradise. At times her vision of the Afterlife is one of lovely serenity and joy—and even royalty.  There is F 13, “There is a morn by men unseen” where lovely maids dance and stars sip the skies and birds sing. In F 67, “Delayed till she had ceased to know,” Dickinson writes of a woman who died before an uplifting message about the Afterlife could be delivered.
            In this poem she explains that her nosegays  are for those who hold on to this life. These are the faithful old—not the vibrant and active set. Their eyes are ‘dim’ and they are ‘Patient’ and ‘long-expectant’. The poet feels a special calling to cheer them and help their wait. Her only purpose (her ‘errand’ and ‘prayer’) is for the nosegays to spark a bit of hope: the recipient might think of ‘morning’ (resurrection and rebirth) and the ‘moor’. ‘Moor’ comes from the Greek for ‘dark’ and ‘obscure’ and of course in England it conjures up the bogs and fens where travellers run into trouble. Crossing the moor is a way of thinking of death. Morning comes after the crossing.
            The poem is a bit dark. The poet sees people as captives here on earth. They are unable to pluck the flowers that they know exist in paradise. In fact, the scenario is even darker than simply being unable to pick for the captives are ‘denied the plucking.’ Consequently, the poet sends her own nosegays: flowers from her own garden as well as poems that convey her special insights into what lies after Death.
            After all, what could be more cheery than poems like this? Personally, I’d rather have just the flowers (or else read the poems in a book—rather than as a personal message)!

01 September 2011

Angels, in the early morning

Angels, in the early morning
May be seen the Dews among,
Do the Buds to them belong?

Angels, when the sun is hottest
May be seen the sands among,
Parched the flowers they bear along.
                                                                        - F 73 (1859)  94

The poem seems unfinished to me. We have the protecting Angels in the Dews of morning smilingly flying along with their little charges. Perhaps the tykes were in trouble and needed a boost. The Angels enjoy this duty and stoop to pick them up with a smile. But of course, the day is fresh and the buds are so young and lovely.
            In a reprise, the Angels are still at work at the hottest part of the day and here they are in the sands. The flowers don’t do so well there and are parched. We can read this as some people’s lives taking a turn for the worse. They are not in an environment where they can thrive and they aren’t getting the nourishing water they need. The Angels still help them, plucking them and bearing them up. But this time they sigh rather than smile. This task isn’t nearly so enjoyable for them.
          What seems missing to me is a third stanza where the sun is setting and the petals are about to fall but the Angels come and gather up the remains of the flower. In this stanza, instead of "smiling" or "sighing" the Angels might be nodding. Of course, poetically that doesn't continue the "s" sound and the long "i" sound--so maybe that's why Dickinson only has two stanzas. She couldn't think of a good third critical verb to follow 'plucking'.

            Another way of reading this, besides as our guardian angels always being there for us, is as Angels coming for the souls of the newly dead. The poet notes them plucking the little souls and asks, sadly I think, if the Buds are really theirs to pluck. Surely they should still belong to their parents. And in the second stanza they must collect the souls of those who wandered into the desert of life and died of thirst. The angels sigh for they know these poor souls may not make it to Paradise.
            This reading makes more sense to me but it is a bit macabre to think of Angels going out on their morning rounds and smiling as they find the little tots who have died. And of course no one likes to think of the poor parched souls who have very little to look forward to.
            I like the trochees of the third lines of the stanzas: the emphasis on the first syllable lend an extra action to the words so that you can readily visualize the angels “Stooping—plucking—sighing/smiling—flying.”