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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!  


  1. Susan, you've done an absolutely wonderful job putting together these pieces by Emily Dickinson. I find this so very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Her devotion to common metre shows how she too participates in the very human need of charting the unexplored.

  3. Both of ED’s handwritten manuscripts of ‘Arcturus is his other name’, show “Savan”, not “Savant”, as the second word in Line 2 of Stanza 2. OED lists “savan” as correct English spelling until the 20th century [possibly because French “savant” is pronounced “savan” to the English and American ear?]. Both Johnson and Franklin decided to “correct” ED’s spelling for “savan” but not for “extacy”. Go figure.

  4. Stanzas 1 irreverently teases scientists for interfering in nature by labeling stars with names. Stanzas 2-4 continue teasing, but now ED participates in science by slaying, pulling, and taking life, admitting her guilt in Stanza 2: "Oh Lord – how frail are we"! By Stanza 5, even heaven, “Where I proposed to go / When Time's brief masquerade was done”, is mapped and charted and has a new name. She, like Macbeth, feels life’s emptiness: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more.”

    In Stanza 6, with astonishing prescience, she jokes, “What if the ‘poles’ should frisk about and stand upon their heads!”? Forty seven years later, in 1906, geophysicist Bernard Brunhes discovered that Earth’s magnetic poles had reversed themselves exactly as ED described. How did ED pull that rabbit out of her hat? And how did she top that trick with her next two lines: “I hope I'm ready for the worst / Whatever prank betides!”. Over the past 83 million years Earth has reversed poles 183 times

    Stanzas 7 and 8 joke that little angels will stare at ED when and if (“perhaps”) she gets to heaven because she is so old-fashioned. She hopes a forgiving Father will lift his “little … naughty” girl over the turnstile of the Pearly Gates. A suspicious mind might wonder what ED means by “naughty”. She asked her sister Vinnie to burn all correspondence, leaving no smoking guns. But for the prurient she left titillating tidbits, letters and poems that bookend the bleak year of 1859.

    Letter 7 (L7, 1852) from ED to Susan Gilbert (Dickinson), both 21 years old: “Susie… come home… and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to… I’m so eager for you… that the expectation… makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast”

    Twenty-five years later, in 1877, when both were 46, ED sent Poem F1436 to Susan as a letter:

    To own a Susan of my own
    Is of itself a Bliss—
    Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
    Continue me in this!

    In 1924, 38 years after ED died, Vinnie’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published a biography of ED in which she relates: “’David Copperfield’ was published when [ED] was twenty-one [1851], and Dickens was always a favorite of her father's, so that many of the expressions used in his stories became household words. "Donkeys, Davy," was flung back over Emily's shoulder as she fled from unwelcome visitors. The drollery of Dickens was congenial to her sense of the ludicrous, and "Barkis is willin" was a message carried more than once by the children between [ED] and their mother [Susan] without any realization of its import.” …. Not exactly a smoking gun, but pretty close.

    Page 81,

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  6. Franklin dates poems F112-F117 as composed “about summer 1859”, one of ED’s most productive poetry periods. These six poems seem related in that they cover a gamut of ED’s emotional states during a trying time. In Franklin order, here’s a biased guesstimate of how she felt (For more see comments after each poem):

    F112 -Rejected -Success is counted sweetest
    ED thought she had lost her battle with Austin for Sue’s affection.”

    F113 – Empty -The Bee is not afraid of me
    Ed feels “close to the physical world” but “something huge is missing from her heart.”

    F114 – Suicidal - Where bells no more affright the morn
    ED dreads her “clouded vision of the future”

    F115 – Confident - Ambition cannot find him
    Today our love “became a poem that honors us with immortality!”

    F116 - Triumphant - Our share of night to bear
    “Firm in faith that bliss trumps scorn, we rise from night and climb triumphant into day!”

    F117 – Lighthearted - “Arcturus" is his other name
    Stanzas 1-4 irreverently tease scientists and science. Stanzas 5-8 joke that little angels will stare at ED when she gets to heaven because she is so old-fashioned.