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08 January 2012

To hang our head – ostensibly –

To hang our head – ostensibly –
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind –

Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz –
You – too – take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
                                                            F160 (1860)   105

I think there is, um, room for difference in how this poem might be interpreted. It’s densely abstract and grammatically complex and so unpacking it is a bit of a challenge. But here goes! Underlying my gloss on the poem are assumptions that 1) Dickinson writes quite a bit about earthly vs. heavenly perceptions and ‘realities’; and 2) she is a playful, independent little vixen.
            The first chore is to realize the whole poem is one sentence. The subject of the sentence is the entire first stanza! (with a pair of infinitives and a subordinated independent clause.) The verb is “Affords.” There is a second subordinated independent clause that takes up the last two lines. So, hanging our heads (purportedly) only to discover that our minds might have just the reverse posture (a proud one, by implication), allows us to slyly note that in all the dense confusion on this world it is easy to have cobwebby attitudes (not solid or well-formed) and project them onto some gauzy belief or idea.
Gauzy spider web
Humboldt County, CA
            If we, then, “hang our head” in prayer, rather than hold up the light in our mind and heart to the sky, once we are in the after life we can presume that all those wise men and ministers didn’t know what they were talking about!

Okay, option number two. The poet has written a poem, or two or three, and was told they were insubstantial as gauze, that her approach was cobwebby. She ostensibly hangs her head in humility but comes to realize that her “immortal mind” is not in humble mode – it is immortal! The poet is having a bit of fun here. Once she realizes she has a first-class “immortal mind” she is able to look into the “dense… fuzz” and see that the critic himself (or herself) is guilty of “Cobweb attitudes” and gauzy reasoning. I wonder if the dense fuzz might be literally referring to a specific person’s beard and hair – again, thinking of Dickinson’s playful side here. Or it might refer to a dense fuzz of verbiage as someone splutters about her poem(s).
            Anyway, fun to read and think about this poem. I really like the last two lines and might try to work them into conversation myself. “You,” I might say, “are revealing your cobweb attitudes. Your argument is nothing more than a plane of gauze.”
            That in all that dense abstraction Dickinson has crafted a tightly metered and rhymed poem is admirable. 

1 comment:

  1. Your first sentence is certainly spot on. In this poem I see quantum mechanics (after all, it’s in Lucretius – perhaps) in the second stanza. Still working on the first stanza.

    I find in poets uncanny “anticipations” of the future, even of future scientific advances, agreeing with Washington Irving, who in the last of his remarkable tales, speaks of “that inspired race, the poets; who, being gifted with a kind of second sight, are enabled to discern those mysteries of nature hidden from the eyes of ordinary men.’ (“The Phantom Island”).