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31 October 2011

As Watchers hang upon the East -

As Watchers hang upon the East -
As Beggars revel at a feast
By savory fancy spread—
As Brooks in Deserts babble sweet
On Ear too far for the delight –
Heaven beguiles the tired.

As that same Watcher when the East
Opens the lid of Amethyst
And lets the morning go—
That Beggar, when an honored Guest,
Those thirsty lips to flagons pressed –
Heaven to us, if true.
                                                   - F120 (1859)  121

A wonderfully concise poem likening the longing for heaven to hunger, thirst, and a passion for beauty; and the fulfillment of heaven (“if true”!) to those needs being amply met. We meet the “Watchers” waiting for sunrise after a long, black night.  They “hang upon the East” as if their life depended on it. Eventually their long wait is over and the eastern sky “Opens the lid of Amethyst” and the pink and purple dawn spills out of the box of night. It’s a lovely image.
            We also see beggars coming to a feast, the realization that their long hunger and deprivation will soon be over making them almost delirious with excited expectation. The poet adds a second joy as the expectation is finally met and the beggar lifts the glass of wine to her lips: the beggar is “an honored Guest.” No need for furtiveness or shame. The host has extended a warm welcome and given the beggar honor.  The satisfied thirst here does double duty for the poor soul who is slowly dying of thirst in the desert, too far to reach the babbling brook, but not to far to hear it.
            At the end of the first stanza, Heaven is like that approaching sunrise, the feast, and the babbling brook: longed for but out of reach. It “beguiles” the tired, which is to say it casts a spell over them. The word implies a lovely fantasy or a seductive vision. At the end of the poem, Heaven will bring the joy and fulfillment of all those beguilements – but, and what an important but – “if true.” It’s a strange place to put a caveat and the placement calls attention to it, calling the whole premise into question. What if the watched-for sunset didn’t come, the beggar was not allowed to touch the feast? What then? That’s the question Dickinson leaves the reader and one wonders how much doubt she herself possessed.

30 October 2011

If this is “fading”

If this is “fading”
Oh let me immediately “fade”!
If this is “dying”
Bury – me, in such a shroud of red!
If this is “sleep,”
On such a night
How proud to shut the eye!
Good evening, gentle Fellow men!
Peacock presumes to die!
                                                              - F119 (1859)  J120

Dickinson is playing on common terms for the end of day. We speak of daylight fading, of the dying of the day. Night and sleep are both used figuratively for death. Dickinson would have taken all this from Shakespeare if from nowhere else.
            She must have had glorious sunsets in Amherst, for she includes them in numerous poems. I wonder if the sunsets there are still so glorious? At any rate, the poet watches the sun set and pens her series of ironic statements. The brilliant sunset is far from “fading,” the day is far from “dying” as long as the “shroud of red” endures. The word “shroud” nicely introduces the idea of death that comes in the last line. If you were wrapped in such a shroud, you might feel quite the “Peacock” too!  And as the day finally dies, so the poet “presumes to die” as well. The word “presumes” works well here as it implies a certain cocky boldness (as in having the presumption to die).
            It’s a lovely poem. The “Oh let me” of the second line injects just the right note of longing. The three repetitions of “If this is” give a pleasing parallel structure. The feminine endings of “fading” and “dying” with their tapering emphasis do indeed sound faded. These are contrasted with the strength of “fade!” and “red!” At the end, Dickinson does a neat trick with “gentle Fellow men”: it wouldn’t work for her as a female to say “fellow gentlemen” but it is fine in her day to use the universal “men” in referring to herself.

29 October 2011

Talk with prudence to a Beggar

Talk with prudence to a Beggar
Of "Potosi," and the mines!
Reverently, to the Hungry
Of your viands, and your wines!

Cautious, hint to any Captive
You have passed enfranchised feet!
Anecdotes of air, in Dungeons
Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!
                                                                   - F 118 (1859)  119

Inca laborers mining Potosi silver
for the Spanish colonialists
Dickinson passes on some common-sense advice here. It is crass, if not dangerous, to flaunt wealth (e.g., the rich silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia), luxurious food, and freedom to those who are in need. But the poem also sounds like a veiled personal plea. Don’t dangle freedom and riches in front of me, she warns. Don’t tempt me out of my circumscribed life.
            Instead of yearning for freedom, food, or riches, however, the poet may be longing for love or Paradise. One imagines her thinking of the men she loved and flirted with, or Sue whose fickle loyalty and affection she always desired. But I also think of all the poems she wrote about longing for Paradise and I wonder if she wasn’t thinking of that. Talk of Paradise might indeed prove “deadly sweet” to one who longs for it. She makes this point quite clearly in the last two lines. Speaking of life outside of prison to a prisoner might induce a suicide attempt. 

28 October 2011

Our share of night to bear—

Our share of night to bear—
Our share of morning—
Our blank in bliss to fill,
Our blank in scorning—

Here a star, and there a star,
Some lose their way!
Here a mist – and there a mist –
                                                  - F 116 (1859)  113

This is a strange and lonely poem. The first stanza begins conventionally enough: yes, we each must bear the dark as well as enjoy the light. Then the use of the word “blank” becomes interesting. Perhaps the poet is indicating our lives are blanks to fill in, or that there are a series of blanks. I think it is the latter and that there is at least one blank we can fill in with bliss (and this line makes use of both the alliteration of “blank” and “bliss” and of the assonance of “bliss” and “fill”). Another will be filled in with “scorning”.  “Scorning” is an interesting opposition to “bliss” and I don’t think Dickinson chose it simply because it rhymed with “morning” – although that may be how she first thought of the word for that slot. No, just as bliss is a particular kind of joy and happiness, so scorn is a very particular form of misery. Being scorned is worse than being forgotten and, in poem F 42, the word “forgot” can “pierce an armed man” with its “barbed syllables.”
            The second stanza with its plethora of faint stars scattered across the sky reminds us that it is often difficult to navigate through life. Today we like to speak of “rising stars” and hitching our wagon to a star, and even the constancy of the northern star, Polaris. But face it, most people would be hard pressed to find their way north, south, east, or west simply by looking at the night sky. The stars are so unreliable that even mists can obscure them. Yet, if we can endure through the night, Day will surely come. The star of Day, of course, is the sun. Its light is clear, bright, and steady; its course through the heavens completely reliable.
            While the poem ends on this positive note, one is left with the haunting image of souls lost in the mists of night, gazing up at dim stars. I think that is because of the hypnotic vagueness of the lines “Here a star, and there a star,” and “Here a mist – and there a mist – ”; and also because of the strength of the word “scorning.” It’s a nighttime poem and I picture the poet hanging in there until dawn.

27 October 2011

Ambition cannot find him –

Ambition cannot find him –
Affection doesn't know
How many leagues of nowhere
Lie between them now.

Yesterday, undistinguished!
Eminent Today
For our mutual honor,
                                 - F 115 (1859)  68

This has the feel of something penned for someone who has lost her husband. No matter how diligently she tries to find him nor how lovingly she thinks on him, there are “leagues of nowhere” “between them now.” But then the poet remarks that he was a nobody yesterday, in fact he was probably nobody until he died and could share in the honor and eminence we will all share as immortal souls.
          I hope Dickinson is right and that immortality and “life” post-grave is as wonderful as she so often makes it out to be. On the other hand, me thinks the lady doth protest too much.
            The poem is divided between the first stanza outlining how distant and unreachable the dear departed is. The second makes a stab at glorifying his current lot. Each stanza is written in trimeter. “Immortality" cuts it a bit short, but as it ends on an accented syllable it reinforces the positive ending.

26 October 2011

Where bells no more affright the morn—

Where bells no more affright the morn—
Where scrabble never comes—
Where very nimble Gentlemen
Are forced to keep their rooms—

Where tired Children placid sleep
Thro' Centuries of noon
This place is Bliss—this town is Heaven—
Please, Pater, pretty soon!

"Oh could we climb where Moses stood,
And view the Landscape o'er"
Not Father's bells—nor Factories,
Could scare us any more!
                                                         - F 114 (1859)  112

This would certainly "affright":
14 bells in cathedral
Dickinson must have had a bad day before writing this. No doubt her father was ringing his accursed bell way before dawn (see F 35), church bells were clanging all day for one event or another, “Gentlemen” were dashing all over, children were screaming and playing right outside the garden, and factories were grinding gears and belching smoke. I say this because why else would one say that being in a grave is “Bliss” and the graveyard “Heaven”? For the place where “very nimble Gentlemen / Are forced to keep their rooms” is surely nothing more than graves.
            Once in your cozy little grave you won’t have to listen to church bells or children. And children can finally have their nap … and last, but probably not least, Dickinson’s father would let her sleep in.
The poem’s tone is playful. I can imagine her tugging at the draperies of great Jehovah saying, “Please, can I go now? Pretty please?? Get me out of here! Beam me up, Scotty!"

25 October 2011

"Arcturus" is his other name –

"Arcturus" is his other name – 
I'd rather call him "Star”!
It's very mean of Science
To go and interfere!

I slew a worm the other day – 
A "Savant" passing by
Murmured "Resurgam" – "Centipede"!
"Oh Lord – how frail are we"!

I pull a flower from the woods – 
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath – 
And has her in a "Class"!

Whereas I took the Butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in "Cabinets" – 
The Clover bells forgot.

What once was "Heaven"
Is "Zenith" now!
Where I proposed to go
When Time's brief masquerade was done
Is mapped and charted too!

What if the “poles” should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I'm ready for "the worst" – 
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the "Kingdom of Heaven's" changed.
I hope the "Children" there
Won't be "new fashioned" when I come – 
And laugh at me – and stare!

I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl – 
Old fashioned! naughty! everything!
Over the stile of "Pearl”!
                                                                     - F 117 (1859)  70

Dickinson is having entirely too much fun with science here. She particularly doesn’t like the naming and classifying, and laughs at the conceit of considering all this scientific activity progress. She, in contrast, is naughtily “Old fashioned.”
            The first stanza tackles astronomers. “Arcturus” is actually a descriptive name, taken from the Greek “Arktourus” which means “Guardian of the Bear.” This is apropos as the star is positioned behind Ursa Major. Somehow, Dickinson would just rather call it “Star.” I guess it is mean of astronomers to name all the stars as there are so many of them – and it does turn star gazing into an identification game. She tackles astronomers in the fifth stanza, too, complaining about mapping and charting Heaven – or “Zenith” as those pesky scientists would have it.
Walt Whitman – whom
Dickinson never read
            Dickinson was not alone in bemoaning the burgeoning field of astronomy during her lifetime. Walt Whitman, her contemporary, wrote the widely anthologized “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” that gets at the same preference for wonder and mystery:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

            I like how in the second stanza she “slew” a worm. Since the Old English (from the German) term for “dragon” is “wyrm” one sees the poet as a St. George, the Dragon Slayer. But then along comes some know-it-all zoologist who declares the worm to be a centipede and murmurs “Resurgam” – I shall rise again. The zoologist may be thinking of how worms can regenerate after being cut in half, or he may have assessed that the centipede still  has plenty of life left in at least some of its many legs. At any rate, this prompts the reflection that humans, in contrast, are frail. A human would have been truly dead.
            Dickinson displays a proper, to me, indignation about the butterfly specimen filed away in some specimen cabinet, the sweet smell of wildflowers long forgotten. A taxonomizing botonist with a magnifying lens becomes "A monster with a glass" subjecting a poor flower to his invasive scrutiny and then relegating it to the straitjacket of a taxonomic "Class." She thinks about the reversal of the Poles in terms of their frisking about, standing on their heads, North becoming South – a perfect metaphor for her point about science turning this into that. 
            She doesn’t believe in all her ridicule. She’s just having a lark. I think she likes thinking of herself as Father’s naughty little girl. She won’t have to climb over that heavenly “stile” when her time comes. Father will come and lift her over Himself!  

24 October 2011

The Bee is not afraid of me.

The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially—

The Brooks laugh louder when I come—
The Breezes madder play;
Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists,
Wherefore, Oh Summer's Day?
                                                                      - F 113 (1859)  111

The mood of this poem is quite different from F104 where “A something in a summer’s Day” “solemnizes” the poet. This one starts off quite gaily with poet and Nature in happy and friendly accord. We have the bouquet of “B”s again: Bee, Butterfly, Brooks, and Breezes – and it is as if they are dear friends and playmates. The “B” alliteration, along with the “p”s of “pretty people” keep the tone bouncy.
            But not all is well in Paradise. The poet finds herself a bit weepy. Sometimes all the glories of a summer day are not enough to overcome grief or even melancholy. Sometimes, in fact, the simple beauty and joy exacerbates our sense of failure. Still, however, I would like to think that “The Brooks laugh louder when I come.”

23 October 2011

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
                                               - F 112 (1859)  67

Widely anthologized, the poem reflects a common human experience: those who stand outside the winner’s circle or the corporate boardroom or prestigious cultural venues have a longing for it that surpasses the satisfaction of those  who have attained it. Those who enjoy wine whenever they please are never going to “comprehend” the lovely flavors and complexity of their “nectar” as would someone hungry, tired, and miserable. D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers tells his miserably hungry servant when all they had to eat was a vile sort of soup, "Appetite is the best sauce."  (This is a line I find myself needing to use a lot.)  And here is Solomon on the topic in Proverbs Ch. 31: 4-7 (a passage infamously neglected in  most churches...):
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
When this poem was written, the Civil War 
was only a few years away
The poem's second stanza takes us to the battlefield where the the defeated are not only dying but “agonized” and humiliated as well.  It's not a very cheerful poem and it certainly contains none of the Eastern or Stoic philosophying that life is better when lived without attachment to material goods or status or position. 
   I think, though, that Dickinson is taking an overt Christian approach. She means us to read the battlefield  with its purple Host and trumpets of triumph as a metaphor for heaven vs. hell. Those who lose a chance for heaven suffer a double whammy: both the doom of hell and the tantalizing sounds of heavenly – and eternally out-of-reach – triumph.

The poem was one of the few Dickinson submitted for publication. 

22 October 2011

Artists wrestled here!

Artists wrestled here!
Lo, a tint Cashmere!
Lo, a Rose!
Student of the Year!
For the Easel here
Say Repose!
                               - F111 (1859) 110

I suspect Dickinson went to a gallery exhibition of student art. The poem has a very arch quality as the poet takes us around from one painting to another. Artists wrestling works both in the sense that artists wrestle with their subject matter, composition, and technique; as well as in the sense that they were competing for top honors. One painting has a “tint Cashmere,” which to Dickinson might mean “opalescent” or “jewel-like.” A second painting takes on that traditional symbol of beauty, the rose. The third is by the winning entrant.
            It might also be that the Cashmere tint and the Rose both refer to the sunset colors in one particular painting – that of the “Student of the Year.”
            The last two lines contain a nice play on words with “Easel” containing “Ease” which of course relates to “Repose.” I think, and frankly I’m sort of pulling this out of my hat, that these last lines suggest that in spite of the wrestling and the efforts to get the subject and colors right, that on the easel itself the works convey a sense of restfulness and repose. I also think that “Repose” suggests calling a truce for the sake of art. Further, there is a suggestion that the whole composition(s) should be re-posed—started over!
            All that is to say that this poem baffles me. Anyone have any other suggestions??

21 October 2011

So from the mould

So from the mould
Scarlet and Gold
Many a Bulb will rise—
Hidden away, cunningly,
From sagacious eyes.

So from Cocoon
Many a Worm
Leap so Highland gay,
Peasants like me,
Peasants like Thee
Gaze perplexedly!
                                       - F110 (1859)  66

Tulips and beautiful lilies come up from dull looking leaf mold to brighten our spring. Looks like magic! Even “sagacious eyes” can be surprised to see such a sight. Likewise, the “Worm” that nestles into its cocoon flies into the air in bright tartan colors amazing the “Peasants” who watch. Magic again!
Butterfly in "bright tartan colors"
There is an unspoken corollary that follows: Our flawed dead bodies will be buried but then rise again in a new and wonderful perfection in an eternal paradise. Dickinson, as usual, takes this lesson of transcendence right from her garden.
            She keeps the tone light here by beginning each stanza with two rhymed dimeter couplets that seem almost amusing. The image of a Worm leaping into a  highland jog from out of the cocoon is particularly amusing. We then see the peasants gaping at it in confusion. The last three lines rhyme, adding further to the lightheartedness.

19 October 2011

For each extatic instant

For each extatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the extasy –

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of Years –
Bitter contested farthings –
And Coffers heaped with tears!
                                                     - F109 (1859)  125

It’s common enough to think of happiness and sorrow balancing out, of pain that hollows out the place for happiness. But Dickinson here discusses the extremes of the range, ecstasy and anguish, and presents a ratio – a “keen and quivering ratio” as if it is something frightened, sensate, and alive – that overwhelmingly favors anguish. A “beloved hour” must be paid for by deprived Years, by “Bitter” farthings and then whole Coffers of tears. That’s a high price to pay for joy.
            The poem is bleak, portraying a lifetime of few joys and many sorrows. In 1859, most of Dickinson’s greatest sorrows – her severe vision problems, the death of her mother and brother and her beloved nephew – were still ahead. Yet she had known her share of sorrow. A young friend had died when Dickinson was 13 and this shook her badly. Her first “Master” – a young headmaster at Amherst College died suddenly when he was only 25, and a young attorney from her father’s office, a good friend and second “Master” who foretold her significance of a poet, died of tuberculosis. She was beginning her withdrawal from the world and had the good excuse of her invalid mother who needed constant attention.
            Dickinson uses a lot of abstract language in this poem, unlike many of the previous poems. The first stanza sets up the analogy of paying for happiness and the second gives more specifics about the ratio of how much anguish is needed to pay for ecstasy or beloved hours. Because the verse form is restrained – iambic trimeter – and there are no visible people or other concrete objects, the tone itself is majestic rather than smarmy or exuding pathos. So Dickinson is able to use heavy words such as anguish, ecstasy, “keen and quivering” and “heaped with tears” without coming across as melodramatic.

17 October 2011

In lands I never saw—they say

In lands I never saw—they say
Immortal Alps look down—
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament—
Whose Sandals touch the town—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play—
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Samuel Bowles
Upon an August day?
                                     - F 108 (1859)  124

The “Sir” in this poem may be Samuel Bowles, a traveler and towering figure in Dickinson’s life. Some scholars and students of her poetry feel he was the true love of her life. She wrote more letters to him than to anyone else. The Emily Dickinson Museum website has this to say about Bowles:
Samuel Bowles was the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, New England’s most influential newspaper of the day. Under Bowles's direction, the paper became one of the country's "most progressive and influential" newspapers). Progressive in his own politics, he helped to establish the Republican party, supported the antislavery movement, and advocated for social reform on a number of fronts.
The fun part of this poem is not just the image of the mighty alps with “Bonnets” and “Sandals” – a distinctly feminine casting, but the question at the end. Is the poet the Daisy camped out at the feet of the mountain like an adoring disciple—or is it Sir who sits humbly at the feet of the poet? The poem suggests a bit of role reversal in the relationship. On any given August (or any) day either of the pair may play the daisy. That sounds like a dynamic relationship!
As an exception to the iambic meter the penultimate line begins with a spondee—two accented syllables: “Which, Sir,” that add a bit of fun pomp to the poem. One can imagine the poet playfully wagging her finger. The poem is written in simple ballad or hymn form: alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter with the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyming. 

Many cross the Rhine -

Many cross the Rhine
In this cup of mine.
Sip old Frankfort air
From my brown Cigar.
                                                  - F107 (1859)  123
Demi channels Emily

I’m liking the mental image of Emily sitting out on her verandah overlooking her garden with a glass of Rhine wine and smoking a fine cigar. Of course, Miss Dickinson doesn’t just huff and puff, she takes the occasional “Sip” from the Cigar. The first two lines also indicate that many others have come by to enjoy the wine from the poet’s cup.
            It’s likely, however, that she has turned what one of her world-traveled friends might say – or had said – into a poem.
            The poem is essentially two rhymed trimeter couplets. The last syllable is dropped, so the lines are catalectic trochaic (emphasis on the first syllable: DA dum) trimeter. The effect of dropping the last syllable is to create two stressed syllables together from the end of one line to the first of the next (e.g., “mine. / Sip”). This is a poem that benefits from being said aloud. All the words and lines work together and the long vowel sounds make it a bit chewy in texture (Rhine, mine, air, brown).

16 October 2011

Glowing is her Bonnet –

Glowing is her Bonnet –
Glowing is her Cheek –
Glowing is her Kirtle –
Yet she cannot speak.

Better as the Daisy
From the Summer hill
Vanish unrecorded
Save by tearful rill—

Save by loving sunrise
Looking for her face.
Save by feet unnumbered
Pausing at the place.
                                             - F 106 (1859)  72

Kirtle and bonnet
This is another poem knocked off in tribute to a dead woman. I wonder how many of them Dickinson wrote! This woman looks alive. Three repetitions of the word “Glowing” emphasize that: her bonnet glows, her cheek glows (perhaps from rouge?), and so does her kirtle (a sort of tunic dress). But she is only decked out for her funeral. There will be guests, food, a church service, a burial (out behind Dickinson’s window) – the whole kit and kaboodle.
            But wait, the poet tells us. Think of the little daisy that dies at summer’s end. There’s no ceremony for it, no dress-up make believe, no service with its guest book. Still, the little brook is “tearful” and the sun comes up looking for it. People walking up the hill to look for it pause for a moment as if acknowledging its absence. This is a better way to go.
            Here is what Wikipedia says about Dickinson’s own death:
Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady's Slipper orchid, and a "knot of blue field violets" placed about it.[94][115] The funeral service, held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson, who had only met her twice, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine", a poem by Emily Brontë that had been a favorite of Dickinson's.[113] At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street

Okay, not exactly like the daisy’s dainty disappearance, but lovely and flowery all the same. It’s odd that her Preceptor, Higginson, chose to read a poem of Bronte’s.

15 October 2011

A throe upon the features—

A throe upon the features—
A hurry in the breath—
An ecstasy of parting
Denominated "Death"—

An anguish at the mention
Which when to patience grown,
I've known permission given
To rejoin its own.
                                                      - F 105 (159)  71

There is another type of ecstasy described here than that described in the previous poem where a Summer’s Day brought an ecstasy. This one comes at the moment of death. It’s a bit grim, really. The dying person has a spasm of pain and a bit of panting. When told that death draws near, the sufferer grows patient. The poet remarks that she has, I suppose in similar cases, seen a “permission given” for the soul to move on to the next world where friends and family await.
            Dickinson writes, and not just here, as if she were familiar with deathbed scenes. I read somewhere that she wouldn’t have had much of this experience. If true, then she spent a great deal of time imagining what the final moments are like. Certainly many of her poems study the crossing over, the small ship setting sail or the brave or suffering soul poised to make the transition.
            The poem lists the signs of death: “A throe,” “A hurry,” “An ecstasy,” “An anguish.” And then there is the transformation: These disruptions give way to “patience” and only then is “permission” granted for earthly life to depart. No hint is given as to where this permission comes from, but the implication is that the afterlife isn’t to be entered in the messy state of pain, ecstasy, or anguish. Dickinson tends to leave out phrases typically considered convenient to readers, such as who or what is feeling anguish or giving permission. This compresses the poem and intensifies the emotion – and requires the reader to pause and read each line carefully.

13 October 2011

A something in a summer's Day

A something in a summer's Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer's noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see—

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle—shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me—

The wizard fingers never rest—
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed—

Still rears the East her amber Flag—
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red—

So looking on—the night—the morn
Conclude the wonder gay—
And I meet, coming thro' the dews
Another summer's Day!
                                                                 - F104 (1859)  122

As if drifting into a fairy tale the poem begins with “A something in a summer’s Day.” The alliterative “s”s that continue with “slow” and “solemnizes” lull us. The first stanza encapsulates rest of the poem: the “flambeaux” of a summer’s day – its sun, moon, and stars – mark the passing of time as they “burn away.” There is a “something” there that is never spelled out in this poem, but that is solemnizing. Solemnity isn’t what we are schooled to feel in summer – autumn is the solemn month – as we’re more prone to think of summer fun or summer joy, so we know there is an alert and unique perception at work here.
The second stanza takes to noon where the “something” transcends ecstasy. That’s a tall order – ecstasy is a word we reserve for the most transporting experiences, the sort of word we use for whirling dervishes or the reunion when the soldier returns home. But we get a hint of what the something might be: it has “depth” like the sky or the sky’s inverse the sea; likewise it is Azure – again as if the sky and the sea were contained in the fullness of a summer noon. Poem F 95 presents summer flowers as creating an ecstasy, but Dickinson expands the feeling here.
We then are shown the something at night, something “transporting bright.” This seems much like ecstasy, but it is something visible, for the poet claps her hands “to see.” Perhaps it is the mystic whiteness of moonlight over the garden and graveyard. The poet perhaps rightly feels that she shouldn’t “inspect” the bright as it is “subtle” and “shimmering” and might fade away ­– “flutter” is the wonderful verb Dickinson uses – as magic does beneath the microscope.
In the fifth stanza we see again the “little brook” that was the wellspring of creativity in poem F 94; here it is chafing “within the breast”. That may be a good definition of ecstasy. In keeping with the fairy magic aura, there are “wizard fingers” that “never rest.” I think of that brook and the light from Summer’s flambeaux as stirring her soul. The wizard fingers might be the “something” of a summer’s day.
The wonders begin again with the first red-gold clouds of dawn, the “amber Flag” of the East that lead the sun and its lovely “caravan of Red” over the rocky hill. We are back where the poem opens, and another “summer’s Day!”
Crepuscular rays through redwoods
Susan Kornfeld
The poem is all sky and light and magic. No people, no town, no domesticated animals. Just the poet and her immersion into the solemn rhythms of summer. The colors are royal: azure, purple, amber, and red. The diction is exalted, the important words including transcendence, solemnizes, ecstasy, transporting, grace, wizard, wonder. It all swells the heart and, as long as summer lasts, is inexhaustible. 

12 October 2011

My friend attacks my friend!

My friend attacks my friend!
Oh Battle picturesque!
Then I turn Soldier too,
And he turns Satirist!
How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I'd shoot the human race
And then to glory run!
                                                                          - F 103 (1859)  118

This is Dickinson in an exasperated, ironic mood. The attack of one of the poet’s friends on another must have been something to witness: it was a “Battle picturesque”, like something out of an old tale. Not wanting to stand idly by, the poet throws herself into the fray and gets a nasty faceful of satire (sarcasm, no doubt) from the first combatant. It’s a war zone! And the poet isn’t just thinking this is an odd bit of behavior among friends; no, she’s ready to “shoot the human race” and then head for “glory.” I hope by “glory she doesn’t mean to turn the gun on herself. Perhaps she thinks that if she did the Almighty this big favor she could get a ticket to Paradise.
            The poem has a comic tone, partly because the second line signals it, partly because of the thicket of exclamation marks, but also because of the structure: except for the penultimate line the poem is in strict iambic trimeter—a meter that services humor quite well. “I think I’d shoot the human race” is in tetrameter and is the stand out line in the poem.
            I’d like to think the poem can be taken at a deeper level as concerning battles between nation “friends." Further, closer to home, tensions leading to the Civil War were building. 1859 was the year of John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Not that Dickinson would be referring specifically to Harpers Ferry (she would have hardly considered Brown a friend in any light), but this episode was a prelude to a true battle between friends.

In rags mysterious as these

In rags mysterious as these
The shining Courtiers go—
Veiling the purple, and the plumes—
Veiling the ermine so.

Smiling, as they request an alms—
At some imposing door!
Smiling when we walk barefoot
Upon their golden floor!
                                                                                    - F 102 (1859)  117

Swallow family
A puzzle poem – and this one is really a puzzler! Contender #1: Dickinson is sketching a swallow, the sort that make their nests in the eaves. They are much like shining Courtiers with purple feathers and a white, ermine, breast. The babies open their mouths wide in a big smile, waiting for some nice bug to get plopped in, or at least a regurgitated bug. And why wouldn’t they smile when someone walks barefoot on the porch (golden-hued wood, I’m thinking) that is probably mined with bird doo. There are a few problems with the idea of swallows, particularly the first and last lines. The first isn’t so bad – feathers really are mysterious. But the “golden floor” is difficult… .
            Contender #2: Angels. Angels walk among us, hiding their shining glory, their purple gowns (!) and wings in mysterious rags. They come to the houses of the well-to-do and ask for alms, and ask nicely. But then, there comes a time, hopefully, that we are now the ones seeking shelter and reprieve. Walking “barefoot” on heaven’s golden floor (or its "streets paved with gold") we depend on grace – and hope that the angels will smile at us.
            Although at first I was pretty convinced the poem was about swallows, after working it out here I think it is more likely to be angels. Anyone else have a good idea? Hop right in!
angels on their "golden floor"
            In keeping with the angelic theme, the poem is written in hymn form: alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines. The first stanza sets up the mystery of the veiled Courtiers. The second uses the verb “Smiling” to turn the poem from a focus on the mysterious Courtiers to our own fate. It’s a very effective way to close the poem, suggesting angel benevolence, the humility of the newly-arrived soul, and the magnificence of Heaven. 

11 October 2011

I had some things that I called mine –

I had some things that I called mine—
And God, that he called his –
Till, recently a rival Claim
Disturbed these amities.

The property, my garden,
Which having sown with care –
He claims the pretty acre –
And sends a Bailiff there.

The station of the parties
Forbids publicity,
But Justice is sublimer
Than arms, or pedigree.

I'll institute an "Action"—
I'll vindicate the law—
Jove! Choose your counsel—
I retain "Shaw"!
                                                   - F 101 (1859)  116

So God has his natural woods with natural processes and the poet has her garden that she sows and tends, and all is well with the world. But then it seems as if God encroaches, sending winter – snow, frost, or some such – and claims her “pretty acre.” The snow or wintry frost would be God’s Bailiff, hustling off the garden. Since we’re dealing with the Most High, there can’t be any publicity about it. Fortunately, however, “Justice” is more sublime – has greater scope – than God. His “pedigree” doesn’t count for anything before the U.S. “justice-is-blind” system. The poet, drawing on Dickinson’s family’s legal expertise (her father and, I think, her brother, were lawyers), institutes an “Action”, expecting that her faith in the law will be vindicated. “Jove” (and we’re happy to see that she isn’t suing the Christian God, for that would border on the blasphemous) is warned to get counsel and the poet retains, according to David Preest, “Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.”
            It’s all very droll, the idea of challenging God in court over encroaching on her garden plans. It’s all of a piece with her to-date playful way of addressing and referring to God. Not for this poet the grim Calvanistic necessities of piety and seriousness. The short lines and legal jargon help deliver the lighthearted touch.

10 October 2011

What Inn is this

What Inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar Traveller comes?
Who is the Landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth—
No brimming Tankards flow—
Necromancer! Landlord!
Who are these below?
                                                           - F 100 (1859)  115

Graveyards are spooky places but they do offer long-term accommodations. In this case, the poet’s “night” would be that long, eternal sleep. The traveler is “Peculiar” as she is no longer treading the pathways of this world. To all intents and purposes, once the bodies have been laid in their graves they are alone there. As the poet wonders where the host is, why there is no hospitality offered, she also asks a deeper question:  what does await the Peculiar traveler on his journey.  She calls out as if  protesting the shabby treatment: “Necromancer! Landlord!”  Now, “necromancer” is the name of one who practices death magic; in its most benign form it would suggest séances, channeling, and so forth; at its worst it suggests raising the zombi dead, calling on dead spirits for combat, etc. So it’s a bit unchristian and definitely not Puritan-ish to call on God as a Necromancer.
            The poem depends on a series of questions in short dimeter and trimeter lines. The questions are followed by a few exclamations: first, remarking on the curiousness of the rooms, and then calling on the absent Landlord / Necromancer—leading to the final question: “Who are these below?”
            At first the question seems simple. The poet is simply making an analogy of graves to a deserted inn. Well and good. But the last question, asking about who might be below asks a more profound question: what and who are we once we have departed this life? Are we to be known as the people we were when living? Or nobody? Or a new identity altogether?

09 October 2011

Low at my problem bending

Low at my problem bending,
Another problem comes—
Larger than mine—serener—
Involving statelier sums.

I check my busy pencil,
My figures file away –
Wherefore, my baffled fingers
Thy perplexity?
                                                                - F 99 (1859)  69

Those busy fingers with their “busy pencil” just don’t know what to do when the poet puts away her household accounts away to contemplate a “Larger,” “serener” issue. We like to keep busy rather than contemplate the Beyond—for that is what I think Dickinson is alluding to here. The larger problem probably isn’t a death or a disappointment in love or other affairs, for it is a serene problem. It makes the petty issues of this life seem small, simply figures that can be filed away. But what to do with the hands?
            Hands are the emblem of productivity and achievement and social intercourse: lend a helping hand, a handy person, put your hand to it, raise your hand, etc. And so it is tempting to always occupy them. Yet the poet makes a point of quieting her daily talk to think about a larger issue. Today we would talk this way about meditation. The mind and soul want the rich quietness to contemplate the mystery of breath and life, but the brain and hands must be trained to stillness.
            This simply but meaningful poem is written in trimeter with slant rhymes at the second and fourth line of each stanza. Alliteration helps bind each stanza together, with “serener,” statelier,” and “sums” in the first and “figures,” “file,” and “fingers” in the second.

08 October 2011

South winds jostle them—

South winds jostle them—
Bumblebees come—
Drink, and are gone—

Butterflies pause
On their passage Cashmere—
I—softly plucking,
Present them here!
                                         - F 98 (1859)  86

This is a lovely poem to accompany flowers, which it seems this was written to do. We begin reading it as a puzzle, but we soon deduce that the subject of the poem is flowers. The first stanza paints a little scene—with surprising economy: The flowers are fluttering in a breeze; bumblebees flit about hovering and hesitating over the various blossoms until they find the nectar they are looking for. Once satiated and pollen-laden, they fly off.
            The second stanza brings butterflies that have migrated all the way from “Cashmere” – and this exotic and distant location has the added advantage of its name implying a softness that the butterflies might experience in the soft fabric of summer air, or the soft breath of their wings stir up. This idea is reinforced by Dickinson’s use of the word “softly” in the following line. The poet softly plucks the flower to present. She’s not going to rip them out of the earth.
            Still, it is a bit wrenching, the pulling up of the nodding flowers amid their bees and butterflies. I think that Dickinson is writing on a deeper level about poetry. There in the garden with its breezes, bees, and butterflies (Dickinson’s oft-used “B” trilogy), are poems waiting to be plucked. And we’ve seen that in quite a few of the poems before this #98 – poems pulled out of the garden as if organically peopled by the jays and bobolinks and bees. The poet plucks them, writes them down, and presents them to us, the reader.

06 October 2011

“Good night,” because we must!

“Good night,” because we must!
How intricate the Dust!
I would go, to know –
Oh Incognito!

Saucy, saucy Seraph
To elude me so!
Father! they won't tell me!
Won't you tell them to?
                                                - F 97 1859)  114

I love the line, “How intricate the Dust!” Once we die and enter that long “Good night” the dust of our bodies mixes back with the soil, the atoms re-entering all the life and soil processes. But Dickinson is including, I think, more than the body’s decomposing bits. She is also factoring in the immortal soul. If she could only go “Incognito” she’d follow along to find out the secrets beyond the grave. Too bad those “saucy” little angels won’t provide information. As if a tattling child she calls on “Father” to make them tell. It’s a nice teasing tone, not at all awe-stricken by addressing the mighty I Am That I Am.
            While the poem is basically in trimeter, half of the lines are catalectic trimeter—that is, they lack a syllable at the end to make a complete foot. Dickinson mixes trochaic feet with iambic and the poem consequently has a snappy tappy sound that is in keeping with the teasing tone. In one of the nicest effects, the last two lines of the first stanza include four syllables with a long “o” sound (go, know, Oh, Incognito)—and that gives an aural sound of longing, just as the words do.  Internal rhymes, perfect and slant, also weave the first stanza together: night / must, intricate / Dust, go / know, Oh / Incognito. The last stanza features repeated words: Saucy, saucy; and “tell” used in the last two lines.

Pigmy seraphs—gone astray—

Pigmy seraphs—gone astray—
Velvet people from Vevay—
Belles from some lost summer day—
Bees exclusive Coterie—

Paris could not lay the fold
Belted down with Emerald—
Venice could not show a check
Of a tint so lustrous meek—
Never such an ambuscade
As of briar and leaf displayed
For my little damask maid—

I had rather wear her grace
Than an Earl's distinguished face—
I had rather dwell like her
Than be "Duke of Exeter"—
Royalty enough for me
To subdue the Bumblebee.
                                               - F96 (1859)  138

The poem starts out with a charming sketch of bumblebees: “Pigmy seraphs” – little angels who wandered into this world and into the garden rather than stay in their heavenly abode; they are also the velvet-cloaked fine folk from Lake Geneva, and a group of lovely girls drifting about the garden on a sudden day. The garden with its damask roses is a fit place for their “exclusive Coterie.”
And like a receiving princess, the rose reclines in a gown “Belted” by beautiful green sepals, the color more “lustrous” and subtle than anything painted by the Venetian masters. Indeed, the profuse foliage and flowering of the rose is an “ambuscade.” This is as nice a tribute to bees and roses as I’ve ever seen. No wonder the poet would rather live amid her greenery than the palaces of a Duke.
Damask roses
            But, ah! While Dukes and Earls can command the fealty of their subjects – indeed, order them to march to certain death in battle, the poet imagines that a truer mark of royalty than a title and castle would be to have a Bumblebee nestling in her lap, subdued by the delicious nectar – and thereby coaxed to take a little pollen along with it. It does sound like a better life, doesn’t it?
            Although written in three stanzas of unequal length, the poem is actually a series of rhymed couplets. The images are all so grand (angels, nobility, master painters, etc.) that lest the poem become too fawning, Dickinson carefully works in the words “meek” and “little.” It’s a “little damask maid” that because of the adoration of her subject bees is better off than the titled class of England.