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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. 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”).

    1. Thank you for this, especially the Irving reference. But I love the quantum mechanics ref, too.

  2. It feels as if ED pulls all of these gymnastics because she's trying to get to something richly difficult for her own well-being. The thing that causes shame (hung head) is not the thing that aligns us with the immortal. (ED's conception of immortality fascinates me endlessly.) Our insecurities have holes in them, but there are no "holes" in gauze. Gauze is what a spiderweb would look like if there were no holes. There can be no holes in the immortal, and in this knowledge we can raise our head up.

    I love the image of a cobweb laid on a plane of gauze. All but invisible.

    1. I find the 'you too' is intriguing. It does feel as if ED is speaking to readers.
      I'm also intrigued by your presentation of gauze as reflecting an immortal platform, it's supple, tensile strength underlying our mortal gaps.

    2. But gauze is almost ALL holes, a
      Very flimsy material, more ornamental than functional, used as a veil, obscuring either an object or our sight in general. It heightens the ephemerality of the adjective “cobwebs” - nothing based on nothing!

  3. Also, if I ever wrote a book about Dickinson, one chapter would be on the way form mirrors content. This one is a nice example, being, itself, a dense fuzz.

  4. Susan K supplies the first of three combination numbers we need to unlock ‘To hang our head’: Stanza 1 is the subject of “affords”. The second is the identity of “our” in Line 4, and third is “you” in Line 7. Are “our” and “you” both self-references? “Too” rules that out, but “our” likely is, given ED’s self-estimations elsewhere.

    If so, we lack one number to unlock this poem. Line 7's “You” could be readers (us), as Susan K says, or some unnamed critic. In 1860, ED had only one critic she trusted, and that was Sue. If ED asked Sue for honest comments on her previous poem, the grammatical nightmare “Where I have lost, I softer tread”, I can certainly see why Sue’s response might have drawn such defensive jabs: “You – too – take Cobweb attitudes / Upon a plane of Gauze!”.

    And if we knew that ED showed 'To hang our head – ostensibly –' to Sue, we could infer that she was certain of Sue’s enduring friendship and awe of her genius.

  5. ~
    Thank you, most excellent Susan K, for all you do here.

    "Hang our head ostensibly" =
    outwardly show (proper, expected, instinctive or proscribed) a posture of passive non-resistance, captivity, suffering, shame, capitulation, defeat (death even.)
    Bowing to one's fate, as the crucified Christ's pose on the cross

    "Subsequent" = Next.
    3 days later in the case of Jesus's resurrection
    Or merely upon further reflection
    Or upon experiencing a surprise redemptive twist

    "Find" = to discover, recognize or conclude, perhaps after considering evidence & resulting eventualities

    "Such was not the posture" =
    in reality the original pose did not persist.
    Some period of time has flipped the apparent defeat/submission/shame
    into victory, empowerment, glory

    "Cobweb" implies inescapable entrapment, a struggling, caught victim

    "Cobweb postures" =
    body positions and movements resembling those of a doomed fly struggling desperately, uselessly in a spider's web; the moments leading to the hanged-head capitulation or defeat
    (allegorically like God in physical form as Jesus "ostensibly" -- seemingly -- dying on the cross)

    "Plane of gauze" = spider web as shroud? (Bandages? Bed linens?)

    Okay, this is really a reach, but interesting:

    Plain of goss --
    "goss," a low, dense, even ground cover (aka gorse, furze; note furze/"so dense a fuzz") -- which bears many small prickly thorns like rose bushes. Used as metaphor in Shakespeare

    Or pane of glass --
    Like an actual fly trapped indoors, struggling vainly against a windowpane; gauze is transparent like glass, and is used as fly netting

    (Also re "in so dense a fuzz:"
    consider fuss and its meanings)

    And then there's:

    Fustian = a kind of cotton stuff; bombastic, overwrought, affected wordiness, high sounding language attempted by foolish or lowlier types (writers will get the possible self-reference in this)

    Fustigate = (from fust; column, staff or club made from a woody tree) a Roman punishment consisting of blows administered with a wooden club (again as in the crucifixion scenario)

    Hence, an overall possible interpretation:

    To initially meekly accept inevitable rejection and shame (like Christ on the cross,) only to later imperiously reap triumph and transformation from the jaws of defeat, opens to me/humans the amazing -- definitely far from humble -- realization, that like Jesus, our real spirit/mind/self proves itself a copy ("created in His image") or even an actual bodily manifestation, of the omnipotent, omniscient, divine spirit/mind. Each of us is in a sense God incarnate.

    Alt interpretation:

    Same as above but more simply, as a clever, inspiring poetic metaphor to describe personal and/or human redemption.

    Finally (the "of course we have to go there" interpretation:)

    Covertly a giddy, teasing sex poem. Every word, line, and reference in this poem, as in many other ED writings, (including its subject, verb, object structure) can be interpreted, whether accurately or not, in this light.

    1. I love the way your commentary demonstrates how mining a Dickinson poem produces both diamonds and nearly infinite space. I'm particularly struck by the associations you find in 'fuzz'. What fun! And how illuminating. I don't doubt that Dickinson's mind, conscious and subconscious, was working with such word meaning webs.

  6. [correction:]

    "Cobweb postures"
    "Cobweb *attitudes"

    (*Positions, poses, movements)