Search This Blog

31 December 2012

Departed—to the judgment

Departed—to the Judgment 
A Mighty—Afternoon
Great clouds—like Ushersleaning
Creationlooking on

The Flesh—Surrendered—Cancelled
The Bodiless—begun—
Two Worlds
—like Audiencesdisperse—
And leave the Soul

                                                                                  F399 (1862)  J524

In this solemn and intimidating vision of death, the soul is left to find its lonely way to "Judgment" unaided by either flesh or "Creation."  This differs from some of Dickinson's earlier poems where Jesus or some other familiar face is there to help the soul's passage. It also differs from her earlier poems where the consciousness of the dead lingers for long, long times in the coffin or elsewhere waiting for Resurrection—or just waiting.

Interested clouds watch on
I like the death day. It was a "Mighty—Afternoon" and the clouds overhead were piled high and leaning in as if they were ushers for a trip down the church aisle or perhaps at a theatre. But it turns out they are not functional ushers. Like the rest of "Creation," they are simply "looking on." 
          The second stanza contains a bit of a mystery (appropriately). The body, the "Flesh," has died and some "Bodiless" existence has begun. This would be the life of the Soul, I believe. Then "Two Worlds...disperse" to leave the soul alone. I take it to mean that not only the body has been shed, but that the soul is also no longer part of the natural world. The great clouds watched the soul in its new body-less incarnation, but can no longer interact with it. The soul is truly on its own.
        Dickinson has reflected on death in many ways—the horror, the grief, the loss or victory, and the mystery. Here she hints a bit at the simple awesome moment where the soul is left in solitude—with no hint of what it must do.

30 December 2012

The Morning after Wo—

The Morning after Wo—
‘Tis frequently the Way—
Surpasses all that rose before—
For utter Jubilee—

As Nature did not Care—
And piled her Blossoms on—
The further to parade a Joy
Her Victim stared opon—

The Birds declaim their Tunes—
Pronouncing every word
Like Hammers—Did they know they fell
Like Litanies of Lead—

On here and there—a creature—
They’d modify the Glee
To fit some Crucifical Clef—
Some key of Calvary—
                                                      F398 (1862)  J364

Dickinson makes the point that to those who have suffered a great woe, Nature's beautiful abundance seems excessive and hurtfully alive--especially the day after.

She begins with a bit of hyperbole: On the morning after something terrible has occurred, it often happens that birds and flowers and other joyful outbursts give their most jubilant performances ever. It "Surpasses all that rose before"! Nature seemingly doesn't care about our human grief for she just piles on the blossoms and parades the sort of "Joy" the "Victim" once stared upon, no doubt in delight.
The doleful Mourning Dove's song
might be gloomy enough for the poet
          It is likely that Dickinson is writing about death and the victim is the dead one. It's also clear that this was a spring death rather than an autumnal or winter one. There's an ironic dichotomy there with the end of life occurring in the midst of new life. In numerous earlier poems, Dickinson wrote about flowers and spring as metaphors for rebirth, but in this one she treats spring as a painful contrast with death--painful, at least, to the grieving. All the riotous colors and birdsong feel unseemly (particularly remembering the somber black of Victorian and Puritan funerals), particularly since everyone is probably thinking how much poor dead So-and-So would have loved it.

          The third stanza is my favorite with the birds declaiming, their every "word" falling on the bereaved "Like Hammers." "Did they know" it, the poet wonders? Did they know their songs fell—"Like Litanies of Lead"? Great line, and not just because of the "l" alliteration. Dickinson's question about whether or not the birds know is rhetorical, but it whiffs at implying that there is a bit of cosmic malice about. The universe and its birds may be mocking you. We saw that in F304, "The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized,"where the heavenly bee teases the school boy who chases it only to stand "Staring—bewildered—at the mocking sky" when the bee flies off to the "Royal Clouds."
          At least in this poem an occasional bird modifies its song "To fit some Crucifical Clef" so it would play in "Some key of Calvary." Perhaps that would be the Mourning Dove or other bird that sings in a minor key more fitting of Jesus' crucifixion on Mount Calvary. This modification, however, underscores the idea that nature/the world/the heavens are aware of human lives and feeling.
          For all the cleverness of the poem, I don't feel Dickinson's heart in it completely. The poem has a romantic/romanticizing tone, the "Litanies of Lead" equated with bird song and a parade of blossoms. But it is all well done. In addition to the alliterative "Litanies of Lead," Dickinson continues both musical theme and alliteration with the lovely last two lines with "some Crucifical Clef— / Some key of Calvary—". Such music reminds us of sad, ponderous organ music in a vast cathedral. Now if those pesky robins and song sparrows could just get with the program!

28 December 2012

A train went through a burial gate

A train went through a burial gate,
A bird broke forth and sang,
And trilled, and quivered, and shook his throat
Till all the churchyard rang;


And then adjusted his little notes,
And bowed and sang again.
Doubtless, he thought it meet of him
To say good-by to men.

                                                                         F397 (1862)  J1761

In this simple poem, Dickinson has a bit of fun at the expense of a bird. She sets the scene simply: a funeral train entered the church cemetery and then the bird sings its little head off.

Village funeral, Frank Holl (1845-1888)
She makes the bird a figure of funvery mildly, though, as if it were a beloved aunty or old Parson. The bird bursts forth, trilling, quivering, and shaking his throat. His song rings throughout the churchyard much as aunty or Parson's words of grief would carry. In the second stanza we see him adjusting "his little notes," just as a parson would as he gets ready for the memorial service. 
           It's a very droll image, the bird with his notes, bowing and singing. Dickinson ends with the ironic comment that the bird no doubt found it appropriate for him to "say good-by to men." This, in addition to being a lighthearted anthropomorphism, might also be a comment about funerals in general. Are they really the best way to say goodby?

27 December 2012

I took one Draught of Life—

I took one Draught of Life—
I'll tell you what I paid—
Precisely an existence—
The market price, they said.

They weighed me, Dust by Dust—
They balanced Film with Film,
Then handed me my Being's worth—
A single Dram of Heaven!

                                                                 F396 (1862) J1725

Dickinson returns to the language of trade to express the depth of her love. A very proper Yankee! Readers are invited into her inner circle: "I'll tell you what I paid," she teases. But the transaction was anything but light-hearted. For a little bit of heaven she paid her whole "Being's worth."
          The "Draught of Life" in the first line is re-styled a "Dram of Heaven" in the last. They are the same thing, and it seems clear that both refer to an experience of love. Perhaps it was the consummation of love, or the pledge of love, or a very very special walk and heart-to-heart talk. A Draught of Life would be a big gulp or swig. Sounds heady and good! But then we learn that the draught was "A single Dram of Heaven." A "dram" is a small amount; it can also refer to a small amount of liquor. A very short but exceedingly sweet drink!
1860s dram glasses: not very big!
          The poet discusses what this experience cost her: "Precisely" her existence. That was the going rate, the market value. It's a transaction, though; one agreed upon by both parties. We're not sure who "they" are—the ones who established the terms of the deal. But they established the price and the poem's speaker paid. The second stanza details the scene: she was somehow weighed, her physical body, the "Dust"; and her skin or soul, the "Film." Once that was done the merchants measured out as much Heaven as she was worth: one dram.
          Leaving the language of the market for something more straightforward, it seems the speaker was willing to give up everything in her life for one experience with love. She doesn't say if it was, after all, worth it. I think the reader is supposed to marvel at the steep price rather than pity the speaker. Perhaps we are to wonder at the high value of the beloved. What would we pay?

In F325, "There came a Day—at Summer's full," Dickinson describes a day with a beloved where they pledged an eternal and heavenly union. That day, she thought, was so wonderful that it was "for the Saints— / Where Resurrections—be." This might very well be the Draught of Life or Dram of Heaven she refers to in this poem. In F248, "One Life of so much Consequence," Dickinson writes that for one life, "One Pearl," she "would pay—/My Soul's entire income—/In ceaseless—salary."
          It's a very romantic notion, despite the mercantile metaphor. What makes the present poem a bit fun is the image of the poet being weighted on a scale by some nameless merchants who decide how much Heaven her earthly existence entitles her to. Just a single dram, it turns out!

26 December 2012

The face I carry with me—last—

The face I carry with melast—
When I go out of Time—
To take my Rank
byin the West—
That face
will just be thine—

I'll hand it to the Angel—
Sir—was my Degree—
In Kingdoms
you have heard the Raised 
Refer topossibly.

He'll take it
scan itstep aside—
with such a crown
As Gabriel—never capered at—
And beg me put it on—

And then—he'll turn me round and round—
To an admiring sky—
As One that bore her Master's name—
Sufficent Royalty!

                                                                        F395 (1862)  J336

Perhaps the ultimate girly dress-up fantasy: take your beloved's face up to heaven, show it to the Angel at the golden gate, and be welcomed with a glorious crown. Then the angel will twirl you around for the delight of angels and an "admiring sky." 
          This love poem is part of the Master's sequence of poems and letters. Scholars debate about who Master was, for Dickinson was passionate about several people—men and women—and it is looking as if we will never know for sure. Clever Dickinson to maintain such a mystery!
          The poem begins with self effacement. Rather than go to heaven ("the West" here) as herself, when the poet goes "out of Time" she will use the face of her beloved Master. She expects a better "Rank" that way. Dickinson has, in earlier poems, referred to the ranks of the Saints and of angels, and to how the saints (dead Christians) will become royalty in heaven. 
          Her effacement, however, isn't abject humility but rather a happy playfulness about how wonderful her master is. In actuality, any of the potential Masters have long since been eclipsed by Dickinson. I wonder if she ever suspected that in future generations it would be her name and life and works that are celebrated.
          The second stanza is a bit of playful dialog the newly arrived poet will have with the angel: "This face, sir, was my claim to nobility back where I came from—and no doubt you've heard other folks here talk about those "Kingdoms." And of course once the receiving angel looks closely at the face he hustles off to get a more beautiful crown than even the famous Arc Angel Gabriel had ever seen.          In the last stanza, the poet is pirouetting and being admired by all and not just for the beautiful crown but because the poet came bearing "her Master's name" —and that is "Sufficient Royalty." This is an arch turn around of the Christian notion that Christians should efface themselves in Jesus and do everything in his name and with his spirit guiding them. But in this playful poem, the poet puts on the face of her beloved and is very much admired for it.
          Another thing Dickinson scholars don't know: Did Master ever read these poems or the Master letters? If he did, one wonders what he would have made of them.

23 December 2012

I cried at Pity—not at Pain—

I cried at Pity—not at Pain—
I heard a Woman say
"Poor Child"—and something in her voice
Convinced me—of me—

So long I fainted, to myself
It seemed the common way,
And Health, and Laughter, curious things—
To look at, like a Toy—

To sometimes hear "Rich people" buy
And see the Parcel rolled—
And carried, we supposed—to Heaven,
For children, made of Gold—

But not to touch, or wish for,
Or think of, with sigh—
And so and so—had been to us,
Had God willed differently.

I wish I knew that Woman's name—
So when she comes this way,
To hold my life, and hold my ears
For fear I hear her say

She's "sorry I am dead"—again—
Just when the Grave and I—
Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep,
Our only Lullaby— 

                                                                       F394 (1892)  588

 For those of us who can't bear it when someone feels sorry for us, this poem is bad news. The misery continues even in the grave. Worse: the grave feels it too. 
          The poem's speaker is a dead girl in a grave. She recalls how "a Woman" recently stopped by the grave and expressed pity. This sparked a new self awareness in the child, "Convinced" her of the reality of her deathly existence. She thinks about how death and the pain she'd born while alive now "seemed the common way," while "Health, and Laughter" were "curious things," something to look at like toys. 
          She also remembers how wealthy people would buy expensive items wrapped so beautifully that they must be destined for heavenly children. But such finery was never for the likes of her. She could never even wish for such things or even sigh sadly that "God willed differently." This is a bit of harshness, implying that God willed the child's life to be full of pain, and willed her an early death; meanwhile, He seemingly willed a life of golden plenty to the children of the wealthy. 
Haunted grave of 6-year-old Gracie Watson: Visitors to Gracie's
tomb have reported hearing sobbing or seeing Gracie's statue cry.
          The speaker seems resigned to live eternally in her Limbo between life and death. But now she dreads the return of the pitying woman. Should she return, the girl will hold her hands over her ears and hold onto her admittedly truncated sense of identity in case the woman expresses any further pity. The child and her Grave have "sobbed" themselves "almost to sleep" already and need no more tears—even though the sobbing has been their "only Lullaby." The pathos of this is too rich for modern ears but easily within the norms of Dickinson's day. 
          Dickinson addresses several issues in this little tear jerker. First, what seems the unfairness of life can be attributed to God's will. That's mentioned in passing, but comes through loud and clear. Second, we should attend to the living child rather than spout pitying remarks at the grave. Is there a lonely child, a child in pain, a poor child? Then visit that child, bring a present, help relieve any pain. Just don't go caterwauling over the grave. That brings us to the other lesson: pity is worse than pain.
          It may be the Woman who makes repeated visits to the grave is the child's mother or another close relative. If so, Dickinson is making another comment about life in the grave (something she has written about in other poems): the dead forget us and live in some sort of half life, like the Greek shades in Hades.

22 December 2012

Empty my Heart, of Thee—

Empty my Heart, of Thee—
Its single Artery—
Begin, and leave Thee out—
Simply Extinction's Date—

Much Billow hath the Sea—
One Baltic—They—
Subtract Thyself, in play,
And not enough of me
Is left—to put away—
"Myself" meant Thee—

Erase the Root—no Tree—
Thee—then—no me—
The Heavens stripped—
Eternity's vast pocket, picked— 
                                                         F393 (1862)  587 

In a series of metaphors, the poet depicts her beloved as her primary source of identity and life. She is so subsumed that without him or her, she is nothing. It is an intense love poem, perhaps made more intense by the lack of flowery language and rhetorical flourishes that marked the love poems of Dickinson's day. Dickinson's poetry typically takes a bit of patience to work through, but this one yields easily to scrutiny. Instead, the elisions and grammatical shortcuts intensify meaning rather than tantalize readers with ambiguity and multiplicity.
          The first stanza styles the beloved as her body's "single Artery," her heart's blood.  Losing this source of blood would be death: "Simply Extinction's Date." 
          The next metaphor, the lover as see, the poet as a small part of that sea, is a familiar one. In F255,  "The Drop that wrestles, in the Sea," the poet is a small drop into a larger and losing its individuality.  In F219, “My River runs to thee,” she playfully asks the “Blue Sea” to “take Me.” She promises to bring him all her feeder brooks in return. A little earlier in F206 “Least Rivers – docile to some sea,” she refers to her lover as “My Caspian.”
          Here, she is a billow among many other billows on the Baltic Sea. The contrast between the lover and her beloved is stark: He (or she) has many billows, but the billows have only one sea. 
          The second image in that stanza doesn't seem to relate to the billows. Instead, I read it as a more straightforward comment: if you were to even play at removing yourself from my life, there would be hardly anything left. You make up such a large and fundamental part of me that I am more you than me.
          In the last stanza, Dickinson uses two more metaphors: first, the tree. The beloved is the essential root without which the tree/lover are doomed. In the second, Dickinson goes cosmic. Without her beloved there are no stars, the heavens are "stripped," and in a line that I find particularly pleasing, "Eternity's vast pocket, picked." The rhythm works well: two iambic feet (Eternity's /, picked) are interrupted by a spondee (vast pock...). It has a "vast" quality. The alliteration of pocket and picked is also pleasing and is a nice turnaround on "pick-pocket."
         Most of the poem is written in trimeter. Although most of the lines are iambic, Dickinson begins with a strong trochee: "Empty" that is the theme of the poem. At the end the heavens are empty and stripped just as the poet's heart would be without her beloved. The rhyme scheme is more tightly constructed than in many of Dickinson's poetry. The first stanza has an AABB pattern (with a nice slant rhyme of "out" and "Date"). The second, longer stanza continues the A rhyme of the first stanza (Thee, Artery) with "Sea," "me," and "Thee." Between those rhymes are the related set of "They," "play," and "away."
          The last stanza leaves the gentle rhythms behind. It seems clipped and stripped just like the heavens. After "Erase the Root," there are a series of three spondees: "no Tree— / Thee—then—no me." This emphasizes the erasure of the speaker. We're stopped in our tracks as readers, forced to linger on the image. Three rhymes (Tree, Thee, me) underscore the importance. We come back to that same rhyme in the last line with "Eternity's." 
          Overall, I find it a pleasing and somewhat interesting poem, but it doesn't rank among my favorites. 

20 December 2012

We talked as Girls do—

We talked as Girls do—
Fond, and late—
We speculated fair, on every subject, but the Grave—
Of ours, none affair—

We handled Destinies, as cool—
As we—Disposers—be—
And God, a Quiet Party
To our Authority—

But fondest, dwelt upon Ourself
As we eventual—be—
When Girls, to Women, softly raised

We parted with a contract
To cherish, and to write
But Heaven made both, impossible
Before another night.
                                                                   F392 (1862) 586

Girl time! I love the first two lines—the two friends talking "Fond, and late" about everything. Do guys do this? I think they may have in Victorian days, back when American men would share the same bed and give each other a little kiss good night. That doesn't happen so much today. 
          There was only one subject they avoided and that was Death. After all, they were just girls! So death was none of their affair. But they did talk about what they'd do when they grew up. Just as I remember doing with  my best friend, they talked as cool and confidently about their destinies as if they had the power to dispose their own fates. God was just "a Quiet Party" listening on their authoritative discussion.
          They made a contract before the night was over to love each other and to write letters. But as occasionally happens in Dickinson's poems, this was not to be. Within a day the other girl was dead. At least that's what I read into this poem. Heaven made it impossible for them to fulfill their contract. By this I assume that the Quiet Party had the last laugh. It's a cruel bit, there. God hears their girlish plans and his response is to let one die (or perhaps even cause her death).

19 December 2012

Knows how to forget!

Knows how to forget!
But could It teach it?
Easiest of Arts, they say
When one learn how

Dull Hearts have died
In the Acquisition
Sacrifice for Science
Is common, though, now—

I—went to School
But was not wiser
Globe did not teach it
Nor Logarithm Show

"How to forget"!
Say some Philosopher!
Ah, to be erudite
Enough to know!

Is it in a Book?
So, I could buy it—
Is it like a Planet?
Telescopes would know—

If it be invention
It must have a Patent—
Rabbi of the Wise Book
Don't you know?
                                F391 (1862)  433 

It's easy to remember but oh so hard to forget. While that may not be true for classroom lessons, it is, sadly, mostly true for emotional knowledge. Dickinson here explores how she might learn the art of forgetting, but comes up empty.
          The first stanza has an "It" that seemingly does know how to forget. Perhaps "It" is a school of thought or a philosopher's teaching. Dickinson's tone is very skeptical. She scoffs at the idea. Forgetting might be the "Easiest of the Arts," as the ubiquitous "they" say, but those depressed and "Dull" with unhappiness "have died / In the Acquisition" of the knowledge. Oh well, that's just the cost of a scientific experiment. Ouch!
          School didn't teach such practical subjects. The poet didn't learn the art of forgetting in geography or math. But "some Philosopher" is "erudite / Enough to know!" Dickinson wishes she were equally learned. If only he'd put his ideas in a book. She continues her scoffing: "Is it like a Planet?" Is it an invention? If so, "It must have a Patent."
          At the end she pleads with Jesus, the Rabbi of the New Testament. "Don't you know?" This isn't the first time she has tossed a little barb at the deity for not being helpful. I'm sure it won't be the last. In the meantime, the poet will have to discover on her own how one forgets. Hopefully, she won't become another sacrifice for science.

17 December 2012

Do People moulder equally

Do People moulder equally,
They bury, in the Grave?
I do believe a Species
As positively live

As I, who testify it
Deny that I — am dead —
And fill my Lungs, for Witness —
From Tanks — above my Head —

I say to you, said Jesus —
That there be standing here —
A Sort, that shall not taste of Death —
If Jesus was sincere —

I need no further Argue —
That statement of the Lord
Is not a controvertible —
He told me, Death was dead —

                                                                    F390 (1862)  432

This odd, religious-Goth poem finds its touchstone in a New Testament passage where Jesus is talking to his disciples (Mark 9:1): ‘Verily, I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not 
taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.’ (Mark 9:1) 
          The first stanza begins chatty and cheerily—and then has us visualizing decomposing corpses! Hmmm... do they decompose—or "moulder"—at the same rate? Next, Dickinson introduces a frisson of horror: she believes a "Species"—a category of beings similar to but distinct from homo sapiens—exists that continues to live even after being buried. The poet swears it, the species is "positively [a]live." Dickinson employs the legalese of the court: the speaker testifies and denies, calls in a witness. Later in the poem the speaker assures her listeners that she has "need no further Argue." The statement of faith is "not a controvertible."
          Seemingly the poet feels very strongly about her belief in the living dead and wants to convince the reader. She uses her own credibility as a witness as grounds for belief. But when I examine the language closely, I get the feeling Dickinson is having a bit of Gothic fun. She enjoys the corpses and the sort of steampunk tank of air in the sky. She is undermining scripture rather than championing it.
          In the third stanza the poet inserts some spooky-sounding words of Jesus: some of his listeners are of "A Sort" that will never die. She ignores the part about “till they.” She substitutes the more disturbing “Sort” for the Biblical “some.” These little differences make the claim sound more outlandish even than in Mark. And in Mark it is too outlandish for many if taken literally. Instead, the passage is widely interpreted as meaning the "kingdom of God" was going to "come with power" within the lifetimes of those present. It hasn’t ever been taught, as far as I know, that some of the disciples are still living.
     Having introduced irony by making Jesus’ claim seem spooky and far-fetched, Dickinson casually introduces a conditional clause that undermines it further: “If Jesus was sincere.” If he were sincere than there is no arguing about what was meant. If death doesn’t exist for some, per Jesus’ claim, then death doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way. It is “dead.” That Jesus was sacrificed to ensure eternal life for Christians is a central tenet of Christianity. He defeated death.
          By undermining Jesus’ sincerity and by making his claim seem outlandish, Dickinson undermines the claim of eternal life itself. And she does it by having some fun in the court house and at the cemetery.

16 December 2012

Me—Come! My dazzled face

Me—Come! My dazzled face
In such a shining place!
Me—Hear! My foreign ear
The sounds of Welcome—there!

The saints forget
Our bashful feet—
My holiday shall be
That They—remember me—

My Paradise—the fame
That They—pronounce my name—

                                                                        F389 (1862)  431

The poet here poses (perhaps sincerely) as too shy to answer the call of heaven. "Aw shucks. It's too grand up there for the likes of me." The saints' "Welcome"  will fall on her "foreign ear." She doesn't belong in such a "shining place." She thinks that after a stint in heaven, the saints forget that newcomers will have "bashful feet." 

There's an Emily Dickinson International Society--
with members from all over the world.
          But the modesty is soon revealed as a form of ambition. The poet's idea of immortality and paradise is to be remembered for her poetry. She wants to be famous. That will be her holiday (holy day).  Ambitious as this sounds, Dickinson really was a bit shy about her poetry. She submitted only a few for consideration by known literary figures or for publication. The rest were written in either in secrecy or else included as a letter or part of a letter to friends and family.
          Dickinson's idea of Paradise has been realized. Over 125 years after her death (1886), her name is very much pronounced—and all over the world.

13 December 2012

It would never be Common - more - I said -

It would never be Common - more - I said -
Difference - had begun -
Many a bitterness - had been -
But that old sort - was done – 

Or - if it sometime - showed - as 'twill -
Upon the Downiest - Morn _
Such bliss - had I - for all the years -
'Twould give an Easier - pain –

I'd so much joy - I told it - Red -
Upon my simple Cheek -
I felt it publish - in my Eye -
"Twas needless - any speak –

I walked - as wings - my body bore -
The feet - I former used -
Unnecessary - now to me -
As boots - would be -to Bird –

I put my pleasure all abroad -
I dealt a word of Gold
To every Creature - That I met -
And Dowered - all the World –

When - suddenly - my Riches shrank -
A Goblin - drank my Dew -
My Palaces - dropped tenantless -
Myself - was beggared - too –

I clutched at sounds -
I groped at shapes -
I touched the tops of Films -
I felt the Wilderness roll back
Along my Golden lines –

The Sackcloth - hangs upon the nail -
The Frock I used to wear -
But where my moment of Brocade -
My - drop - of India?

                                                          F388 (1862)  430

The two sisters' luscious sensual love is ruined by
goblins in Rossetti's "Goblin Market." This
illustration is by her brother
, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Is there a better line for expressing the crashing misery of being dumped by one you passionately love than "A Goblin—drank my Dew"? The line may owe something to Christina Rossetti's long poem "The Goblin Market" published the same year, but we've already seen the Gothic Goblin-loving side of Dickinson in "The Soul has Bandaged moments" ("Sip, Goblin, from the very lips / The Lover—hovered—o'er") and in "If you were coming in the Fall" where her uncertainty about when her lover will return "goads me, like the Goblin Bee— / That will not state—its sting."  
          The poem recounts a love affair. The speaker begins by recounting a moment that ushered in the most sublime period of the affair. As if confiding in a dear friend or diary, and letting the reader enter into the middle of the conversation, the speaker recalls saying how the love affair had gone beyond the usual "Common" sort. Yes, there had been problems in the past but now things had improved. And even though the occasional unpleasantness still occurred from time to time, she had so much love and joy that the pain was "Easier." 
          In the fullness of the love affair, the speaker felt as if she were flying rather than walking, that her love was so apparent in her eye and blushing cheek that everyone knew it. She was so overflowing with love that she "Dowered--all the world" and gave a golden word to every creature that she met. 
          But then the beloved left or ended the affair. The speaker was "beggared" by the experience and seemed to have gone mad, clutching and groping at sounds and shapes and feeling a wilderness take over where once there was golden love. The dress she used to wear is now like "Sackcloth" to her. In the final lines, she wonders what happened to her "moment of Brocade" and her "drop—of India." The love affair has been condensed to a moment and a single drop. "Brocade" is the luxurious contrast to rough sackcloth. India would have been seen by Dickinson as an exotic and extravagant land of beauty and spices and mystery. 

It may be that Dickinson is referencing a poem she wrote a year earlier:
My eye is fuller than my vase – 

Her Cargo – is of Dew – 

And still – my Heart – my Eye outweighs – 

East India – for you! 

She is yearning for that bit of India, mourning that the Goblin drank the lovely and precious dew. The poem might have been written as mourning over the final break with Sue, her dear friend, sister-in-law, and perhaps lover. If so, it adds support to the poem being linked to Rossetti's poem--which featured the love of two sisters.      

12 December 2012

The Moon is distant from the Sea—

The Moon is distant from the Sea—
And yet, with Amber Hands—
She leads Him—docile as a Boy—
Along appointed Sands—

He never misses a Degree—
Obedient to Her Eye
He comes just so far—toward the Town—
Just so far—goes away—

Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand—
And mine—the distant Sea—
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me—

                                                                      F398 (1862)  429

I don't mind that Dickinson begins the poem with the moon female and ends with it as male. It's lovely from first to last. The gentle ballad meter of the first stanza is lulling, just as the moon seems to lull the powerful sea into following her. The stanza also calls up the familiar and beautiful image of the golden moonlight spreading across the ocean as the moon makes its way up and across the sky. It's a beautiful invocation of the tides and their never-ending attraction to the moon. 
          The attraction is a regulating influence. Because of it the sea never over-runs the town with incoming tide but rather retreats to follow the moon to some other shore. He is "Obedient" and never fails her wishes.
Moonlight on Bosporus, Ivan Aivazovskii, 1884
          Just so the poem's speaker is "Obedient to the least command" of her "Signor." In a gender reversal, she is now the Sea and he the amber-handed moon. He, like the moon, can command her at a distance. He doesn't need to speak, for she is responsive to just the look in his eyes. 
          This is not only a love poem, comparing the love of the speaker for the Signor to the response of the sea to the moon, but a brief meditation on the invisible force of attraction. Our deepest yearnings may be profoundly and irresistibly stirred by something quite distant. We may never fulfill or even approach the object of our desire, just as the sea will never touch the moon, yet it influences everything we do.
          There's a plaintive quality to the poem signaled not only by the lonely rhythms of the tides, but by the "Oh, Signor." The second stanza interrupts the lulling regularity of  the first and last stanzas—both of which are not only in regular ballad form but have an ABAB rhyme scheme. It begins regularly but in the third and fourth line the meter breaks down. The halting rhythm of "He comes just so far" signals the lapping wave that doesn't go past its appointed limit. I read the line spondaically, each word accented: "—toward..." The halting rhythm picks up again on the next line: "—goes..." The effect underscores the stopping and starting of the obedient sea. It's as if it is a marionette.
          But then the last line stanza smooths the poem back into the lovely image of gentle amber hands. It does so, however, with the exception of the word "impose." In typical Dickinson fashion, she inserts a little twist at the end. The sea is portrayed as a little boy held by the hand of a gentle mother. Even when she keeps him from washing over the town it seems gentle. He just "goes away." But in the last two lines of the poem we have the speaker "Obedient" to commands that the Signor's eye might "impose" on her. That "impose" tells us that the speaker might live life very differently if the beloved man weren't influencing her so much from afar. The idea of a lonely woman influenced to such a degree is far different that that of a "docile boy" being led by his mother.


10 December 2012

Emily Dickinson's Birthday Today!

Emily Dickinson's portrait, as depicted on the mural at West Cemetery.

Taking up the fair Ideal

Taking up the fair Ideal,
Just to cast her down
When a fracture—we discover—
Or a splintered Crown—
Makes the Heavens portable—
And the Gods—a lie—
Doubtless—"Adam"—scowled at Eden—
For his perjury!

Cherishing—our pool Ideal—
Till in purer dress—
We behold her—glorified—
Comforts—search—like this—
Till the broken creatures—
We adored—for whole—
Stains—all washed—
Meet us—with a smile— 

                                                            F386 (1862)  428

The poem charts a transformation of idealism into faith: the first stage is belief in an ideal; next, disillusionment as we collide with earthly reality; then a new way of thinking that learns to see this world as an imperfect image of a better one; and finally, faith that we will be transfigured after death and our beloveds (God, people) transfigured into perfection, too. Here's a bit of explication:
        We begin idealistically. But when we discover a flaw in our "Ideal"--god, or a beloved--we discard it, sadly or angrily casting it down. The flaws also reflect poorly upon Heaven, now seen with a splintered crown. It doesn't seem as permanent and perfected as it did before. Instead it is "portable," as fallible and changeable as we are ourselves. The Gods themselves are lies. Where are they? Why can't a powerful God fix things? (Remember that Dickinson is writing during the Civil War.)  
          Adam, too, the first man, saw the fractures and splinters and no doubt lost his idealism. He and Eve were cast out of their blissful garden after eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. That was a harsh way to learn about Evil—compounded by how his god and creator banished him from Eden to a hard and miserable life for his perjury (sin).
The image, while distorted,  promises
the existence of the "fair Ideal"
          The second stanza provides a new way of viewing painful reality. Why not live in hope that what seems fractured now is but the imperfect reflection of the Ideal. We already know that a reflection in a pool of water is flawed in a way that the real thing is not. The problem is with the medium not the entity. If this sounds very Platonic, it is. 
          The poet takes comfort in this approach. When we die and are in "purer dress" we can then see properly. All will become clear and we will see the beloved, the Gods, or whatever, in their pure state, "mended" from their seeming imperfections. Better yet, they meet us with a smile. No hard feelings! Just love all around.
          The poem may simply be a discussion of the nature of faith, but I also sense the figure of a real person lurking just beneath it. We worship a love object, beloved man or woman, until we see his or her flaws. Then we dump her! But a better approach is to view the beloved as if she were an imperfect reflection of her true and wonderful self. 
          That Dickinson may have been writing about the love of an imperfect person seems particularly indicated by the idea of "the broken creatures— / We adored..." We can take comfort in the thought that someday they will be mended and once more,  smiling and happy, greet us.


09 December 2012

I'll clutch—and clutch—

I'll clutch—and clutch—
Next—One—Might be the golden touch—
Could take it—
I'm diving—just a little late—
But stars—go slow—for night—

I'll string you—in fine Necklace—
Tiaras—make—of some—
Wear you on Hem—
Loop up a Countess—with you—
Make—a Diadem—and mend my old One—
Count—Hoard—then lose—
And doubt that you are mine—
To have the joy of feeling it—again—

I'll show you at the Court—
Bear you—for Ornament
Where Women breathe—
That every sigh—may lift you
Just as high—as I—

And—when I die—
In meek array—display you—
Still to show—how rich I go—
Lest Skies impeach a wealth so wonderful—
And banish me—

                                                            F385 (1862)  427

 Poems can be as seductive as pearls. Here, Dickinson discusses her greedy delight in poetry through the metaphor of pearls. The speaker begins as if she were a diver in some unnamed sea. She dives down clutching at pearls--she can't get enough of them and keeps diving. She's pushing her luck. It's getting late, but she hopes she'll have "the golden touch" on the next dive, maybe even find a diamond. Despite the lateness of the hour, night hasn't yet fallen. The stars seem to be slow to rise. With the underwater setting and the diving for pearls, Dickinson takes the reader into a submersion in the feminine. What could be more feminine than the sea or than a pearl?
          And yet there is quite a bit of the poet in the imagery. We can imagine the poems lurking in the subconscious, the poet diving down clutching at the imagery and meanings. Perhaps the next one will be the great one. She's burning the midnight oil but time seems to have stopped.
          The second stanza details the variable quality of poems/pearls. One of them is of such high quality it can be strung for a "fine Necklace"; others, more ordinary in quality, can be put in tiaras. They work as a group but don't stand alone. Another one could "Loop up a Countess," while others will simply be hoarded. The poet/diver might even allow the poems/pearls to be lost just to have the joy of finding and feeling them again.
Pearls are the essence of femininity--even in the oyster shell
          The third stanza becomes a bit ambiguous. Rather than poems or pearls, it seems the poet is treating the pearls as a single entity--a beloved woman. This pearl woman is so beautiful and desirable that the poet promises to show her at Court, wear her on her breast, "Where Women breathe," perhaps figuratively as a cameo or a picture in a locket. The dashes and stanza break allow the reader to picture the very sensuous image of the pearl or cameo rising and falling with the poet's breath. The poet is breathing deeply--sighing, in fact, so that the pearl/cameo rises quite high: "Just as high--as I." The speaker's own identity has been subsumed in the poem/pearl.
          The final image shows the poet as resting in her grave, dressed simply and with the pearls "In meek array." This stanza gets a bit difficult. The speaker thinks it important to have the meek array because to show the true riches of the poems/pearls would risk being rejected by heaven. Yet the words of the stanza seem to say that no matter how meekly displayed, the true worth of the poems/pearls will "Still" show "how rich" she is as she dies. Despite the difficulty in parsing these last lines I think it strongly suggests that Dickinson views her poems as having great worth that will be apparent after her death. She "wears" them meekly enough during her life and to the grave, but in her mind they would do a Countess credit and shine like bright stars in the sky. She was right, for her poems surely are more valuable than pearls.
          The poem has a bit of humor woven into its enigmatic imagery: first we have the rather funny word and image of the poet clutching and clutching. "Clutch" rhymes with "touch and that underscores the ironic pairing of a clutch with a golden touch. The second poem addresses the pearls directly as "you" and this calls up the image of a woman holding up pearls and talking to them--and later in the stanza hoarding them as if she were a dragoness with her treasure. The second stanza where she is appraising and sorting the pearls according to where she might use them is also a bit amusing.

06 December 2012

It don't sound so terrible—quite—as it did—

It don't sound so terrible—quite—as it did—

I run it over—"Dead", Brain—"Dead."

Put it in Latin—left of my school—

Seems it don't shriek so—under rule.

Turn it, a little—full in the face

A Trouble looks bitterest—

Shift it—just—

Say "When Tomorrow comes this way—

I shall have waded down one Day."

I suppose it will interrupt me some

Till I get accustomed—but then the Tomb

Like other new Things—shows largest—then—

And smaller, by Habit—

It's shrewder then

Put the Thought in advance—a Year—

How like "a fit"—then—

                                                          F384 (1862)  426

Dickinson would be no stranger to death--women died more frequently in childbirth in the 1800s than they do today. Illness took many more children. She would have known many of these dead in Amherst. Additionally, the nation was in the thick of the Civil War when she wrote this poem. While Dickinson unaccountably never addressed the conflict, she certainly knew men killed in the war. The death in this poem may refer to a particular man killed by the enemy or dead, perhaps murdered, by other means.
         The poet contemplates various ways we cope with grief. First, she desensitises herself to the words. "Dead, dead," she repeats. She translates it into the bit of Latin she recalls from her school days. It "doesn't shriek so" under the schoolgirl discipline. Over time, the word "Dead" "don't sound so terrible--quite--as it did."
         Second, the "Trouble" is to be confronted, looked full in the face. We are told to shift our view, see it full on at the bitterest angle—but then shift the vantage point just a bit more, just enough to dull the pain but not mask it. We're to then summon our resolve and proclaim that we can survive even if just by wading through the days, one at a time.
         In the third stanza Dickinson expresses confidence in resilience born of habit. Former griefs and relationships must necessarily intrude less frequently over time, their impact diminishing. The pain becomes sharp and piercing (shrewd), no longer incapacitating.
         The last coping mechanism involves taking a future perspective: imagine that 365 days have been "waded down." Imagine that what today seems like "Murder" will by then seem only to have been "'a fit.'"
         The last two lines are ironic. Death is categorically different than anything that involves continued survival. Dickinson implies that something very significant is lost when we try to reduce the pain caused by the violent death of someone we love.
         That last line, only three syllables, "Murder—wear!", with its deep, murmuring "r"s, yanks us back to the harsh first stanza where "'Dead', Brain—'Dead'" shrieks in horror. In between, when Trouble is shifted about like an ugly lamp, finally taken to some distant room, Dickinson's diction is plain and unobtrusive. That quiet voice is not how she ends the poem, though, and not, probably, how she intends to wade down her days.