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29 November 2011

Bring me the sunset in a cup

Bring me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning's flagons up
And say how many Dew,
Tell me how far the morning leaps—
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadth of blue!

Write me how many notes there be
In the new Robin's ecstasy
Among astonished boughs—
How many trips the Tortoise makes—
How many cups the Bee partakes,
The Debauchee of Dews!

Also, who laid the Rainbow's piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite—
Who counts the wampum of the night
To see that none is due?

Who built this little Alban House
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who'll let me out some gala day
With implements to fly away,
Passing Pomposity?
                                                                  -  F140 (1860)  128

I read this poem as a response to the mighty words in Job – the book in the Bible where Job has been tormented to test his faith. Some religious men come to give the miserable Job comfort (he has lost his family, his crops and animals, his health, and his sanity), but they only anger him. After Job cries out, at some length and with great poetic and metaphoric force, God himself finally comes to make an answer. God’s answer to Job is that Job, being human, is in a position to know nothing. God makes his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions, for example:

38:12 Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place …
16 Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
19 Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof …
22 Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail …
28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
39: 1  Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
13 Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

William Blake: God answering Job
from a whirlwind
Dickinson’s questions are marvelously rephrased in human, indeed womanly terms – the terms of one who thinks and writes much about birds and skies, mornings and dew. God asks Job if Job has “caused the dayspring to know his place,” while the poet asks “how far the morning leaps” and “Who spun the breadth of blue.” Most of Job is taken up with Job’s sense of suffering, his bewilderment at having been seemingly abandoned by God, and yet his unshakeable faith in God; and with the false comforters’ telling him in various ways that he must have done something to cause his misery, that he isn’t humble enough, etc. All of this speechifying is done in strings of stunning metaphors.
            So, too, does Dickinson employ one metaphor or figure of speech after another. The Bee, greedy with thirst, is anthropomorphized as “The Debauchee of Dews!” The Rainbows rest on “piers” like a giant arch. the planets, “docile spheres,” are led like lambs by fetters of sky (“withes” are supple willow twigs and branches). Stars are “wampum of the night.” There are clearly no answers to Dickinson’s rhetorical questions that would be any different than God’s answer to Job.
            The last stanza has a shift in the nature of the questions. Here the poet, like Job, has turned to question God, asking why she has been imprisoned in a body, her “little Alban [or ‘white’] House” where she is unable to see the true nature of things. Her more piercing question is whether after death there will be “some gala day” when she will be free to transcend mortal limitations and “fly away.” She adds at the end that if she does fly free she will pass “Pomposity” and that I take to mean the false counsel and empty wisdom of the sort of religious men who came to deliver their pompous and self-righteous “comfort” to Job.
            It’s a marvelous poem, full of the delight of life and the passion to understand more. In that, it is like light versus dark compared with Job whose bitterness and misery reveal a soul tortured to the limit. 

Note: Composer and blog reader Ken Neufeld has created a beautiful choral rendition of this poem:

27 November 2011

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—
"Mansions"! Mansions must be warm!
Mansions cannot let the tears in,
Mansions must exclude the storm!

"Many Mansions," by "his Father,"
I don't know him; snugly built!
Could the Children find the way there—
Some, would even trudge tonight!
                                                              - F139 (1860)  127

Dickinson quit attending church, preferring as would John Muir some decades later the temple of Nature. Her Bee might stand in for a preacher or even for God. Birds would sing the hymns and psalms. In this poem the “Wise Men” of the church have preached sermons on something Jesus told his disciples in the Book of John: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
            Her dismissal of the word “Houses” for the grander-sounding “Mansions” indicates a couple of things: first, that even in her own house, her home in which she cocooned herself for the last half of her life, was not a place of simple peace and joy, for “tears” might find their way inside. But in a mansion, “snugly built” there would surely be an everlasting peace and security.
            With some humility the poet admits she doesn’t know Jesus’ Father, but she holds on to the belief that there would surely be mansions in Heaven, for Jesus had said so. Alas, no one living can find there way there – or some, the downhearted and weary who must “trudge” would go there.
            It’s a sad poem with its mix of hope, doubt, and  resignation.  

25 November 2011

To fight aloud is very brave

To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.
                                               - F138 (1860) 126 

Dickinson starts off with a singsong line of iambic tetrameter and then a grammatically rocky transition takes us to the subject of the poem – the heroism of unobserved internal battles. Dickinson never describes what the internal battles are or how they are felt, but rather she sets up a contrast to what they are not.
            They are not like the charge of a Cavalry across the battlefield – which in all its visible and noisy clamor would be to “fight aloud.” Instead, these uncelebrated warriors fight the onslought of “Woe” – a whole cavalry of it. The second stanza then sets up the negative descriptors: that is, we see what the “aloud” warriors receive: if soldiers win, nations see; if soldiers fall, many observe; if they die, their country loves them in patriotism and gratitude. None of this, of course, holds for the fight against despair (which is considered in Christianity to be a major sin – if not the major sin, the unforgivable one). That is a lonely battle – but “gallenter.”
            While the first stanza is written in first person, “gallenter I know,” describing the internal battles of those who battle woe, in the third and last stanza the poet shifts to the inclusive “We.” This is a tacit admission that the poet and everyone else fights this battle. It is also an assumption that her “we” believes – and trusts – in angels. In her mid-1850s Amherst, most all citizens probably did, at least respectable ones.
Gustave Dore, from Dante's
Divine Comedy
            “We trust,” she says, in the “procession” of angels with their plumy wings, their calm progress with “even feet” – no stumbling or prancing, and their brilliant white garments as pure as “Snow.” Dickinson uses the word “Uniforms” as a way of unifying the martial imagery she employed in the previous stanzas.  The contrast between the “aloud” soldiers that the nation depends on and the angels is dramatic – and very skillfully drawn. The soldiers “charge” while the angels have “even feet.” The soldiers have war-like uniforms and weapons while the angels’ uniforms are the white of purity and 

24 November 2011

A Lady red – amid the Hill

A Lady red—amid the Hill
Her annual secret keeps!
A Lady white, within the Field
In placid Lily sleeps!

The tidy Breezes, with their Brooms—
Sweep vale—and hill—and tree!
Prithee, My pretty Housewives!
Who may expected be?

The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The woods exchange a smile!
Orchard, and Buttercup, and Bird—
In such a little while!

And yet, how still the Landscape stands!
How nonchalant the Hedge!
As if the "Resurrection"
Were nothing very strange!
                                                                - F 137 (1860)  74

Dickinson has already written several poems using the wakening landscape in spring as a way of talking about the Christian Resurrection when the dead shall rise. This one is among my favorites because I fancy the image of “tidy Breezes” sweeping the country side with “their Brooms.”
Poppies and Rhodies in Spring
            The “Lady red” and “Lady white,” a tulip and a lily, perhaps, are not really dead but overwintering deep in the ground. Soon they will emerge from the ground, all swept clean of winter’s detritus. Joining them will be the blooms of the orchards, the yellow buttercup, and the migrating birds. The poet lets us see that this is quite a vast change from what is seen in that period just before the tulips bloom: the “Landscape” is still and vacant, the “Hedge” is “nonchalant.” And although the townsfolk don’t realize the great change, they do. They don’t think anything of it – heck, it happens every year. Why, then, the poem seems to ask, is the idea that people might be resurrected so very strange? We have evidence of such a miracle each and every spring.

Who never lost, are unprepared

Who never lost, are unprepared
A Coronet to find!
Who never thirsted
Flagons, and Cooling Tamarind!

Who never climbed the weary league—
Can such a foot explore
The purple territories
On Pizarro's shore?

How many Legions overcome—
The Emperor will say?
How many Colors taken
On Revolution Day?

How many Bullets bearest?
Hast Thou the Royal scar?
Angels! Write "Promoted"
On this Soldier's brow!
                                                                   - F 136 (1860)  73

The poem takes a bit of unpacking because Dickinson leaves out not only explanatory words but words that complete the grammatical structure of a phrase or sentence. The word “Those,” for example, should begin the poem and introduce similar phrases in later lines. (An alternative would be “Whoever”.)
            It begins with a paradox: winners may be less prepared for a crown than losers. Perhaps this is because losers will have been struggling and visualizing a prize or a better life whereas those for whom life has been so easy that they have “never lost” may simply be content to take life as they find it. Likewise, those who aren’t thirsty are not going to go seeking flagons of exotic tamarind. Consequently when the Coronet or flagon appear, the deprived and struggling folk will go for it with gusto.
            Francisco Pizarro is a Spanish explorer known for conquering the Incan Empire. Unsurprisingly his great victories are not as celebrated or romanticized today as they were in Dickinson’s. Her Christian milieu regarded those who effected the often brutal defeat and colonizing of the New World as bringers of civilization to the heathen and  missionaries to save the Indian soul. But it was hard work for the Spaniards and so the poet suggests that those who hadn’t worked for it, “climbed the weary league,” would be unfit to surmount the Peruvian Andes with Pizarro.
            Likewise, the emperor cares about how well his soldiers fought and how successful they were. If they have taken enough bullets and have received “the Royal scar” then they get “Promoted” into heaven.
            The phrase “Royal scar” is the  most interesting part of the poem. The poem works metaphorically as a description of getting to heaven (getting “Promoted”). Getting there means striving daily, thirsting for it, being lost sometimes, fighting against temptation – taken bullets over it. The scar here reminds me of the  poem “There’s a certain Slant of light” that she writes after this poem. In it she describes a “heavenly hurt” that doesn’t leave a scar. That would be a “Royal scar,” I think. But she changes, later, to think it isn’t really a scar, just a hurt. Wanting the divine, feeling the power of God but without knowing or understanding, being as sensitive as Dickinson was, might very well lead to an internal scar—a marking, so to speak, whereas the rest of us just cheerily sing hymns or pray in grief and hope.

23 November 2011

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –
A little trust – a demijohn –
Can keep the soul alive –
Not portly, mind! but breathing – warm –
Conscious – as old Napoleon,
The night before the Crown!

A modest lot – A fame petite –
A brief Campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A Sailor's business is the shore!
A soldier's – balls! Who asketh more,
Must seek the neighboring life!
                                                                        F135 (1860)  159

We get a bit of advice here from that modest though upper-middle-class Emily Dickinson. In a later poem she will say that “hope is the thing with feathers,” but here she doesn’t address hope but having just the necessities: enough, if even barely, to eat, breath, warmth, a “modest lot” in life. Add to that a pinch of “sting and sweet” in the “brief Campaign” of life and that “Is plenty! Is enough!” One doesn’t have to get fat or “portly” on good food.
            In the second stanza she uses two analogies to drive home the message of being content with the business of living rather than on getting ahead or being famous: sailors have to focus on the shore, whether it’s to find it or to land safely on it, or simply to know where their boat is; a soldier must focus on weaponry – musket or cannon balls, or the battle is lost. And just as being good at their business can mean the difference between life and death, so too if we don’t focus on the essentials but instead on obtaining something other than what is needful for life, then we should be searching in the afterlife.
Demijohn(Pottery Barn catalog)
            The exuberance of tone, the exclamation marks, the italics, the parallel structures of  a this and a that, of “Is plenty! Is enough!” are at odds with the sobering advice. It would be a hard life to just have a crumb of bread, a demijohn of drink and just a brief bit of “sting and sweet." Is that what the poet is advocating? Perhaps Dickinson is getting at something else here: A crumb of recognition for her poetry perhaps – and that would go with the “little trust,” for some of her first readers (such as her "Preceptor" Higginson) may have praised her work but fundamentally didn’t trust its soundness. Read as a poet wishing she had just a little bit of respect, the tone can now be read as ironic: she isn’t asking for full-throated praise or fame – just “A fame petite.” The smallest encouragement would help her keep her art alive. She mentions Napolean the “night before the Crown” when he was “conscious”; she may be saying that too much glory and fame are detrimental. She'd like just a little, enough to keep her art alive, so she can focus on her own “business” – poetry.
            Perhaps she is speaking of love, though, and asking for just a crumb to keep her soul alive. But I prefer to think it is her poetry that sparks life in Dickinson and that poetry is to her what shore is to sailors.

21 November 2011

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

Did the Harebell loose her girdle
To the lover Bee
Would the Bee the Harebell hallow
Much as formerly?

Did the "Paradise"—persuaded—
Yield her moat of pearl—
Would the Eden be an Eden,
Or the Earl—an Earl?
                                                    - F 134 (1860)  213
Did this harebell ask for it??

A delightful proto-feminist poem, Dickinson is wondering why there are sexual double standards for men versus women. The lovely harebell has perhaps loosened her girdle (“belt” we would say today) to that rogue lover Bee (lucky insect – he gets to stand in for God sometimes, too). The Big Question is: Will he still respect her in the morning? Dickinson selects the word “hallow” – even italicizing it for emphasis to show she really means it – to suggest a religious aspect. Marriage is a sacrament, but just a bit of fun between bees and flowers… well, maybe the Bee is right not to feel that hallow feeling. Except the reader senses this is wrong. The Bee would be quite foolish, as well as stupefyingly arrogant to feel anything other than yummy delight at the Harebell’s delicious, life-giving nectar.
            But just in case the reader is too thick skulled to follow the metaphor, the poet then moves us closer to the realm of ordinary men and women. “Paradise” is of course a way of referring to that blissful refuge men might find beyond the “moat of pearl” when making love. Here the lover is an Earl (helpfully rhyming with “pearl” or else he might have been a king) and if he had successfully “persuaded” his lady love to “yield” to him, the poet wants to know if Paradise / Eden would still be the same. Or would it become, say, Paradise Lost? Or worse, the lady just some now used-goods fallen woman. But the Earl – would he, too, undergo degradation? Dickinson doesn’t even bother to answer that last question. Yes, the Earl will still be an Earl no matter how many virgins he deflowers.
            The poem is a very playful and clever way of pointing out this inequity that still bedevils much of the world – and in some countries can be a life-and-death  matter.
            The poem also is fun to read aloud – it just trips off the tongue. The “Did the” and “Would the” doublings strengthen the metaphor and give a nursery-rhyme feel to this adult-content poem. The rhymes are fun: Bee / formerly; and pearl / Earl. The four 4-letter-word "e"s of the last two lines not only link together visually, but showcase Dickinson's gift for compaction. In both lines she uses the E word first as a specific and then as a general case. Would the Eden of this blossom still be in the category of unsullied Paradise? Would this particular Earl still belong in the category of princely nobility denoted by "Earl"?

19 November 2011

Just lost, when I was saved!

Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as One returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores—
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by eye—

Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal—
Slow tramp the Centuries,
And the Cycles wheel!
                                                             - F132 (1860)  J160

A ship metaphor serves to describe a brush with death. The poet had just been preparing herself for the “onset with Eternity” when a lucky wind blew her boat back to safety. She begins the poem with the interesting contrast of “lost” with “saved” and here “lost” means loss of hope of living and “saved” means rescued. That would seem conventional enough until you stop to think that in the religious milieu of 1860 Amherst “lost” and “saved” have very particular meanings. To be saved is to be saved from eternal damnation and to be lost is to be lost from hope of heaven. Yet in this poem the poet in her little boat is saved from going to “foreign shores” that do not seem at all like the shores of hell. The shores seem more like Paradise and Paradise seems to want the poet, in fact is “disappointed” that she returns to earthly shores.
            The speaker has the lingering unearthly feeling expressed by many who have nearly died. She feels like a reporter come back with news of some amazing place, or a sailor who has glimpsed exotic lands. And although she experienced a sense of awe and maybe even dread by seeing “the awful doors” that guard the “Seal” between life and death, she is eager to meet death when her time comes.
            Like an intrepid explorer, she looks forward – in due time! – to experiencing something that eyes and ears have never encountered, to “tarry” there for “Ages” while the “Centuries” slowly “tramp” by. The wheeling “Cycles” might be a tip of the hat to the Eastern, Vedic, thought just making its way into American discourse via, among others, Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom Dickinson read deeply and frequently.
            Rather than employing a somber or reflective tone, Dickinson writes with the excitement of a great encounter. The first two words, “Just lost” are equally emphasized and function as an exclamation. The next two lines repeat the “Just …” construction to underscore the immediacy of the event. The poem is sprinkled with exclamation marks and rushes headlong through the account until the last stanza. There, the word “tarry” signals a tarrying and slowing down, certainly of time but also of poetic pace. “Slow tramp the Centuries” is a much slower line than, say, “Next time, to stay!” The pace picks up again in the last line where “Cycles wheel” as if time were a flock of seagulls swirling overhead.  

18 November 2011

Tho' my destiny be Fustian –

Tho' my destiny be Fustian – 
Hers be damask fine – 
Tho' she wear a silver apron – 
I, a less divine – 

Still, my little Gypsy being
I would far prefer,
Still, my little sunburnt bosom
To her Rosier,

For, when Frosts, their punctual fingers
On her forehead lay,
You and I, and Dr. Holland,
Bloom Eternally!

Roses of a steadfast summer
In a steadfast land,
Where no Autumn lifts her pencil – 
And no Reapers stand!
                                                       - F131 (1860)  163

This seems to be Emily being a bit catty. The subject is unknown, but is a woman who wears beautiful fabrics and a “silver apron” and has a lovely rosy bosom. The poet contrasts this to her “Fustian” or coarse-cloth clothes, her outdoorsy tan (not fashionable in that day), and her “little Gypsy being” that implies her more carefree and original nature compared to the conventional lady. The poem is obviously intended for her dear friends Elizabeth and Josiah Holland. Dr. Holland, himself a poet, was an editor for The Springfield Republican newspaper.
            In the third and fourth stanzas Emily includes her friends with her as having enduring qualities, probably literary. I imagine the object of mild scorn here was a poet, perhaps a society lady who gave a poetry reading the Hollands and the Dickinsons attended (and I’m just speculating). While her verse will die when the “punctual fingers” of deathly frost extinguish her, the poetry of Dickinson and Holland (she probably includes Elizabeth out of courtesy) will endure, indeed “Bloom Eternally!” In fact they will be “Roses” constantly in summer bloom as opposed to an Autumn poet who is sure to perish by winter. 

13 November 2011

“Mama” never forgets her birds

“Mama” never forgets her birds,
Though in another tree –
She looks down just as often
And just as tenderly
As when her little mortal nest
With cunning care she wove –
If either of her "sparrows fall,"
She "notices," above.
                                                      - F130 (1860)  164

In his discussion of this poem, David Preest suggests it was written to Dickinson’s cousins after their mother died. It certainly sounds as if it were written to console little girls. She indicates two sparrows in the poem with “either” of the sparrows falling, and she had two cousins.
            Heaven here is “another tree” from which the dear departed can still watch what goes on on earth. This sounds so much like a platitude, however, that Dickinson may not have actually believed it. But her efforts at consolation, here and in other consolation poems, indicate a warm and sympathetic heart.
            The poem is written in strict ballad or hymn form.

12 November 2011

Our lives are Swiss –

Our lives are Swiss – 
So still –so Cool –
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between –
The solemn Alps –
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!
                                        – F 129 (1860) 80

The land of Italy with its warm sun, abundant grapes, joi de vivre, and reputation for passion is not only on a distant continent from Massachusetts, but must have seemed diametrically opposed to the culture in which Dickinson was raised. The mighty Alps stand between the coolness of the Swiss, with whom the poet identifies here, and the land of sun and love.
           I think, though, that Dickinson is not speaking so much of one culture glimpsing another one deemed temptingly sensuous, but of her own internal conflicts. Later poems will deal with the turmoil and extent of her passions (in fact Judith Farr wrote a book called The Passion of Emily Dickinson – which is quite good!), and this one hints at it. The cool white snow of the Alps towering into the clouds serves both as a guard, solemn in its duties and watchfulness, and as an irresistible siren. Dickinson would be referring to Homer’s sirens who sang to sailors causing them to abandon their duties and drown in the wreck of their ships. Just so, the poet is wary of letting down her guard, lest “some odd afternoon” when least expected, her personal Italy might manifest itself.
          “Italy” gets an extra wallop because while the rest of the poem is in stately and proper iambs, Italy is dactylic and almost bursts out of its stanza. But while it may be longed for, it is out of reach. The contrast to the Paradise that Dickinson writes longingly of in other poems is the polar opposite of this Italy.
            In the first stanza the Alps are feminized – they “neglect their Curtains” as some negligent housewife might and let outsiders peep in. And what a sight! Italy! The exclamation marks denote excitement, yet just like walls, the Alps, now  masculinized as guards, “Forever intervene!” That’s no doubt supposed to be read as frustration.
            The tone of the poem, however, is less frustrated and more playful. The poet is tempted to let her Italian, earthy side show – imagine what it would be like, she suggests – but reluctantly is resigned to the cool passionless life that is hers in Amherst. 

11 November 2011

Going to Heaven!

Going to Heaven!
I don't know when –
Pray do not ask me how!
Indeed I'm too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to Heaven!
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the Shepherd's arm!

Perhaps you're going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first
Save just a little space for me
Close to the two I lost –
The smallest "Robe" will fit me
And just a bit of "Crown" –
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home –

I'm glad I don't believe it
For it would stop my breath –
And I'd like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth!
I'm glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty Autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.
                                                      - F128 (1859) 79

In poem F39, “I never lost as much but twice,” Dickinson wrote about two deaths that devastated her. In this poem she refers to them again. In talking about Heaven she implies it must be a rather crowded and structured place, for she asks the person she is speaking with to “Save just a little space for me” by “the two I lost.” Perhaps like at an opera one must have named seats to go in.
            The poem begins as if someone asked her if she thought she were going to Heaven. As Dickinson never made the commitment to being saved as did her friends, family, and village, it might have been a real question she was asked. She unravels the answer here, diverting her rather ambivalent response with reference to her two beloved dead. Her first line of response is to be “astonished” at being asked – which is the sort of response one makes to someone who asks an intrusive question such as “How much did that cost?” or “How old are you?” Dear Abbey counseled her millions of readers that the appropriate answer to these types of question is, “I’m surprised you’re interested. Why do you ask?”
            And then the poet continues as if musing on the question. The idea of Heaven is so distant it seems “dim.” “Dim” also implies a lack of light and is quite opposite the idea of something glimmering in the distance. It is a surprising choice of word to describe the radiance that is supposed to characterize Heaven. Yet the poet says that for her to go to heaven is as certain to eventually happen as that flocks go home at night. How certain is that? Fairly certain, yes, but not a definitive “yes.”
            Then she lobs the question back to her interlocutor with a wry jab: “Who knows?” She puts the nosy person cleverly in her place, and indicates that certainty about being saved is misplaced certainty. At the end of the second stanza, however, she claims that Heaven is “home” and consequently she won’t require the sort of royal dress that others might require.
            But just when you think that, okay, she is not only counting on going to heaven but that heaven is her true home, the last stanza reveals a rather shocking revelation. She doesn’t believe she is headed to heaven – or perhaps in the idea of heaven at all – and that she is “glad” she doesn’t. The belief might stop her breath, and the implication is that she would die right then and there to go. And since she still has a lot of curiosity about Earth, she is not at all ready to make that journey.
            Dickinson ends the poem with the lost loved ones. Since they did die, she’s glad they were believers. The last three lines take an entirely different tone than the rather flippant remarks she makes in response to the question about going to heaven. The lines roll solemnly off the tongue, with the murmur of “m” sounds: Whom, mighty, Autumn, them; and the round sounds of “found” and “ground.” Those two rhyming words are emphasized not only because they are important to the poem but because they are the only true rhymes it contains. The only other rhymes are the identical rhymes of  “me” and “it.” And so the poem ends with the sober reflection that once the dead are planted in the ground, they are completely beyond the reach of the living.

As Children bid the Guest "Good Night"

As Children bid the Guest "Good Night"
And then reluctant turn –
My flowers raise their pretty lips –
Then put their nightgowns on.

As children caper when they wake –
Merry that it is Morn –
My flowers from a hundred cribs
Will peep, and prance again.
                                                      - F127 (1859) 133
It’s a simple poem in simple ballad or hymn form: two quatrains of alternating tetrameter and trimeter with rhymes – or in this case, slant rhymes – on the second and fourth line of each stanza. The structure of the imagery is simple, too. Two lines present children either reluctantly going to bed or merrily getting up, and the lines that follow them present the flowers.
            The reader has to pull a veil a bit over their imagination as it’s hard to imagine the dying flowers of autumn as putting “their nightgowns on,” as well as prancing when spring comes around again and they “peep” out of the earth. But it’s a sweet thought: flowers don’t like their long winter sleep anymore than children like having to go to bed. And both flowers and children are adorable.

10 November 2011

I bring an unaccustomed wine

I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching
Next to mine,
And summon them to drink;

Crackling with fever, they essay,
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.

The hands still hug the tardy glass—
The lips I would have cooled, alas,
Are so superfluous Cold—

I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould—

Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak—

And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake—

If, haply, any say to me
"Unto the little, unto me,"
When I at last awake.
                                              - F126 (1859)  132

Literally this poem might be taken to mean that the poet gave a glass of wine to a very feverish person in hopes it would be restorative but that the person died anyway; and further that she now carries a cup with her everywhere in case she runs into another dying person so that she, following in the footsteps and teachings of Jesus, might wake in heaven to his commendation. However, this would all be too farfetched. The restorative cup must mean something else.
            The key to the poem perhaps lies in the fifth and sixth stanzas, first where she thinks the dying soul could have pointed her to other thirsty souls, perhaps friends and associates; and second the phrase “pilgrim thirst.” As pilgrims are those who travel to a place of spiritual significance, she must be intending to minister to those parched for spiritual sustenance.  
            Since Dickinson was not noted for evangelical fervor, it is unlikely she intends to preach the Gospel at the deathbeds of the unsaved. What she has to offer is an “unaccustomed wine” – which wouldn’t be a traditional Christian message as New England was fairly saturated with Christianity at that time. Even non-believers would be familiar with the basic tenets, particularly those basics involving belief, salvation, and eternal life.
            But Dickinson espouses in verse and letters her belief that Paradise is a royal version of earth. The Bee and Breeze and Butterfly stand in for the Holy Trinity (F23), the daisy and spring for being reborn, and dawn for the magnificence of Heaven. Once in heaven souls will be like kings and queens, ennobled. It has nothing to do with mouthing pieties and going to church each Sunday. Neither does Dickinson hold much truck with talk of hell and the long wait of dead  saints for their resurrection.
            Instead, in F67, she bemoans a woman who died without the “joy” and “bliss” of knowing she was soon to wear a crown and so ended simply a “meek apparelled thing.” What brings joy and bliss, Dickinson specifies in F77 where once we “claim the rank to die” we then get crown, coach, chamber, attendants – the whole works. And so I wonder if the “unaccustomed wine” might be the good news that the journey past death is a glorious and transcendent one – and death should therefore be welcomed gladly.
            In 1913, The Atlantic Monthly published an essay by Martha Hale Shackford that said in part that Dickinson was “forever inspiring her readers to a profound conception of high destinies.” And it may be this that Dickinson is trying to do here.

08 November 2011

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—

A poor—torn heart—a tattered heart—
That sat it down to rest—
Nor noticed that the ebbing Day
Flowed silver to the west—
Nor noticed night did soft descend—
Nor Constellation burn—
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels—happening that way
This dusty heart espied—
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God—
There—sandals for the Barefoot—
There—gathered from the gales—
Do the blue havens by the hand
Little Nell
Philip V. Allingham
Lead the wandering Sails.
                                                        - F125 (1859)  78

This  might sound like another rather sappy death poem that Dickinson knocked off for a recently departed acquaintance, but she sent this to Sue along with a picture of Dickins’ Little Nell. Now Little Nell, famously died a young (~15) and virtuous death after heroic exertions on behalf of her failing grandfather after the two of them had been evicted from the eponymous old Curiosity Shop. I think this enclosure of a picture of the brave and noble girl puts the poem into the realm of the puckish. It'a a spoof on the poor little lass.
            The metaphors don't quite meld. We start with a “torn” and “tattered heart” as if the heart were made of fabric or paper. This "poor" heart "sat it down to rest" – which is an amusingly clever feat for a heart, particularly a tattered one. Although this heart is also seemingly capable of observing externalities such as sunset and stars, this dying one neither notices nor knows. Instead, it concentrates on “latitudes unknown” – that is, heaven. The introduction of the word "lattitudes" within the same stanza as "tattered" ought to alert us that the underlying metaphor for the heart is a sail on a small boat – an image Dickinson uses in several other poems.
            But in the next stanza the torn heart is somehow “dusty," which might be difficult out in the stormy sea. Fortunately for it, regardless of its personal hygiene, angels just happen to come by. They carry “it to God” where it gets sandals. The last three lines return to the boat metaphor. The “blue havens” or heaven take the “wandering Sails” “by the hand”  to save them from “the gales.” No, it doesn’t work. Not only would it be hard to take a sail by the hand, but the havens are taking the sails to the haven!  I suspect Emily and Sue must have had a good time laughing at Dickins' characterization of poor Little Nell. The poem reminds me of Mark Twain's spoof on Julia Moore's treacly poetry in Huckleberry Finn:

Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping-cough did rack his frame
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

07 November 2011

Safe in their alabaster chambers –

Safe in their alabaster chambers –
Untouched by morning –
And untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Grand go the years,
in the crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges – surrender –
Soundless as dots
On a disk of snow.
                                         - F124 (1859)  216

At first the alabaster tombs sound rather nice: in them the dead sleep safely under a “Rafter of satin” as they wait for “the Resurrection.” Yet Dickinson undermines any positive construction. The sleepers are “Untouched by morning” – a symbol of resurrection and rebirth.  They are likewise “untouched by  noon” – the fullness of the day. Note that these positive denotations of morning and noon are chosen by the poet rather than some gloomy term such as “storm” or “night.” We also see that the sleepers are “meek” rather than “worthy” or “saintly” or some such more positive term for future denizens of heaven. And while the rafter may be satin, the roof is of stone. There is an utter barricade between the “members of the Resurrection” and the real world outside. The word “Safe” that introduces the poem begins to seem ironic. The world is where the good action is. The tomb is where you... well, where you just stay in a box underground with no windows. "Safe" deosn't sound so hot.

            The Resurrection was (and is) a pillar in the Christian orthodoxy preached in Dickinson’s Amherst and elsewhere. The Second Coming was to be expected in the near rather than far (centuries) future. Yet the sleepers seem doomed to stay in their “chambers” for all time. As they wait to rise again, the years are measured in cosmic terms. Worlds – and the plural here is interesting, and probably heretical in the day – make their annual circuit and even the “firmaments” – again the plural, presaging the Many Worlds theories, maybe – have time to “row” across space.  Here on earth kingdoms come and go: crowns drop and leaders surrender. But to the sleepers below it might as well be “dots / On a disk of snow.”
            I think that last simile refers to a field of snow dotted by rain, perhaps, or falling leaves and other flotsom. Helen Vendler in her book of essays on selected Dickinson poems has this to say about the final quatrain where the poet likens the death of monarchs and rulers to dots on snow:

Dickinson binds together her sequences of deaths by interwoven alliteration (first “d” for Death, then “s,” perhaps for cessation) to emphasize their inevitability: “Diadems drop …Doges …dots…Disc; surrender…Soundless…sow.” Just as her “d” words – with the exception of “drop” – include “s” (“Diadems,” “Doges,” dots,” “Disc”), her “s” words (except for “snow”) include “d” (“surrender,” Soundless”). The braid of extinction is woven too tight for anyone to escape its grasp.

I think the poet is warning us that to be alive is to be part of the world as it turns and thus part of the universe. To be dead is simply … to be dead.

Besides the Autumn poets sing

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant's "Golden Rod" –
And Mr. Thomson's "sheaves."

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!
                                                    J131,  Fr123 (1859)  131

The elegiac tone of this poem befits the autumn mood. Although summer is gone, there are still a few “prosaic” days between the hazy light of late summer and the snowfall of winter. The mornings and evenings are crisp – “incisive” and “Ascetic,” and the “Brook” is no longer tumbling with summer rains. The “Elves” are lulled into sleep.
            David Preest points out that “Mr. Bryant’s ‘Golden Rod’”  is a reference to William Bryant’s poem “the Death of the Flowers.” The pertinent part follows:

The wind-flower and the violet, they perished long ago,
And the brier-rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow;
But on the hills the golden-rod, and the aster in the wood,
And the yellow sun-flower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,
Till fell the frost from the clear cold heaven, as falls the plague on men,
And the brightness of their smile was gone, from upland, glade, and glen.

But in this poem, even the golden rods, still blooming in Bryants poem, are gone.
Preest names James Thompson’s poem “The Seasons” as the reference for the “sheaves.” The reference here isn’t so clear, but he does write:

Fair AUTUMN, yellow rob'd! I'll sing of thee,
Of thy last, temper'd, Days, and sunny Calms;
When all the golden Hours are on the Wing,
Attending thy Retreat, and round thy Wain,
Slow-rolling, onward to the Southern Sky.

            The last stanza, however, makes it clear that this is not just a poem about the passing of the seasons but a meditation on the influence of the seasons on our deepest feelings. Autumn, as Dickinson writes in various poems, is a season of piercing beauty and piercing sadness. Winter is deprivation, hardship and often depression. Summer is golden fullness, a ripe happiness. The poet prays that she can keep this golden mood despite the blustery and windy cold of winter.