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28 February 2012

Teach Him – When He makes the names –


Teach Him – When He makes the names
Such an one – to say –
On his babbling – Berry – lips –
As should sound – to me –
Were my Ear – as near his nest –
As my thought – today –
As should sound –
"Forbid us not" –
Some like "Emily."
                                                            F198 (1861)  227

A very sweet poem Dickinson sent to Samuel Bowles and his wife  after the birth of their son Charles. The syntax is all askew so the poem bears a few readings to get it straight. There’s also a breathless quality with all the dashes and interjections. The poet makes two points: My thought is very near to that baby today (“as near as his nest”);and “ Please teach him to say “Emily” (or something like it).
Mother giving Scotts
to babbling baby. Yum!
            I like the “babbling – Berry – lips” because it’s both descriptive and  charming as well as alliterative and catching the babbling sound of babies. Dickinson takes a baby’s point of view for a moment when she writes “Forbid us not.” The quote comes from the New Testament when Jesus tells a group of people to let the little children come close to him and “forbid them not.”  I think she is saying “Oh don’t forbid that your baby and I be close.” This poem is one of the very few that Dickinson gave a title to.

27 February 2012

Jesus! thy Crucifix

Jesus! thy Crucifix
Enable thee to guess
The smaller size!

Jesus! thy second face
Mind thee in Paradise
Of ours!
                                                            - F197 (1861)   225

Life can bring a heaping measure of pain, but Christians hope that Jesus will help them bear it. Dickinson isn’t asking here for Jesus to take the pain away, but only that he understand. She suggests that because of the agony he suffered during crucifixion he can “guess” the smaller pain of our human hurts. It doesn’t sound like a strong prayer –  there is probably little doubt among Christians that Jesus understands our pain. No need to remind him about his time on the cross.
            In the second stanza she is asking that his “second” resurrected face reminds him in heaven of our human faces. “Faces,” I take here mean more than faces but stand in for our human, fleshly selves. I think she’s implying that there is an actual body in Heaven.
            The poem is configured as a prayer with the first two lines of both short stanzas written in parallel structure. As usual, Dickinson cuts words and syllables to get the utmost concision. “Crucifix” is used rather than “crucifixion”; “Mind” is used rather than “remind”; “The smaller size” is used rather than “The smaller size of our pain.” I sometimes think of her creative process as akin to long-distance travelers who, forced to lighten their load, toss everything they can out the back of the covered wagon. Her extra words and syllables litter the prairie behind her.

26 February 2012

I'll send the feather from my Hat!

I'll send the feather from my Hat!
Who knows – but at the sight of that
My Sovereign will relent?
As trinket – worn by faded Child –
Confronting eyes long – comforted –
Blisters the Adamant!
                                                            - F196  (1861)   687

Ostrich feathers were the rage
This is a classic and light-hearted love poem. However, considering Dickinson sent it to Samuel Bowles, presumably along with a feather, it was intended as a mild flirtation since Bowles was married. Surely, the poet asks, my precious feather will have the same effect on “My Sovereign” object of affection as receiving a trinket once worn by a now dead (“faded”) child would have on its parents. It should, she hopes, blister even his stony (“Adamant”) heart. I like the word “Blisters” here. The image of a feather blistering a stony surface is a droll one.  
            There’s a bit of sound play between “Confronting” and “comforted.” The trinket and feather will confront a person who has finally become comfortable about the absence of the child or would-be lover. This state of acceptance is about to be blistered!
            The poem is written in two 3-line parts: each has two lines of iambic tetrameter followed by one of iambic trimeter. The rhyming last words of the two sections, “relent” and “Adament,”  tie the poem together. 

25 February 2012

Victory comes late –

Victory comes late –
And is held low to freezing lips –
Too rapt with frost
To take it –
How sweet it would have tasted –
Just a Drop –
Was God so economical?
His Table's spread too high for Us –
Unless We dine on tiptoe –
Crumbs – fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robbins –
The Eagle's Golden Breakfast strangles – Them –
God keep His Oath to Sparrows –
Who of little Love – know how to starve –
                                                            - F195 (1861)   690

Dickinson wrote numerous poems exploring the theme of “too little too late,” and on haves vs. have-nots.  There are beggars who would revel at a feast if only they could go (As Watchers hang upon the East),  someone dying of thirst despite lovely meadow brooks (To learn the Transport by the Pain), and a dying and defeated soldier hearing the victor’s trumpet calls (Success is counted sweetest), among others. In those poems she seemed to be holding up the paradox for examination: why those and not those others? What tragic irony that one could die with water close at hand or starve while food abounds. These seem to be social questions, but in this poem she brings the question directly to God.
            Looking back at another poem, written at least one year earlier, “A little bread – a crust – a crumb –,” we find her saying that a little crumb will serve to keep body and soul alive – “Not portly, mind!” – and that whoever wants more than their “business” deserves ( e.g., a little fame for the poet, ammunition for the soldier, shore for the sailor)  Must seek the neighboring life!”.  That 1860 poem stops short of laying the issue of sufficiency vs. bounty at God’s feet. Rather, it advises us to be content and wait for better things in the afterlife. More important, that poem had a teasing almost self-mocking tone: “Okay, I’ll never be a famous poet, but then I’m quite happy with my modest little life.”
            This poem is bitter. It begins with a sketched scene: a person freezing to death, unable even to open his mouth for a drink of something that would save him. He cannot even taste “a Drop.” It’s a horrific scene of death. The question follows immediately: “Was God so economical?” implying a lethal stinginess on the part of the Creator. “His Table” is “spread too high”; we have to “dine on tiptoe.” This would, of course, be child abuse in an earthly family, for the children must eat whatever crumbs might fall their way. But crumbs are really not enough: they “fit such little mouths.” The image is of mice. The poet works her way up: “Robbins” couldn’t survive on crumbs; Cherries are just the right size for their beaks. Neither could they feast the way Eagles do – the eagle’s “Golden Breakfast” (probably of hares, sparrows or field mice) would strangle them.
            The logical conclusion is that humans have a human-size need – and that it isn’t being met. We are like that freezing person whose “Victory” comes too late.
Sparrow in happier times
            But the most bitter thrust is delivered in the last two lines. God’s “Oath to Sparrows” is given in two verses: Mathew 10:29 where Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father”; and Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” The oath, then, is that God will feed the birds and watch over them so that nothing happens to them unless he wills it. But the poet knows that sparrows do starve – from “little Love” – and so she calls to God to keep his oath. God is clearly not doing enough for his children or for his birds and other creatures.

The poem serves as a metaphor for wanting and needing something  in order to achieve any sort of happiness – and not getting it. If the sweet Drop comes at all, it comes too late. If any food is to be had, it is just a crumb. A promise of love or protection or support doesn’t necessarily mean that love, protection, or support will be forthcoming. And if it is, then like the “Eagle’s Golden Breakfast,” it would strangle.
            The strength of this poem comes from Dickinson’s using God as the metaphor. Powerful stuff – and I’m not aware of any other woman writing such direct challenges. The Civil War was underway as Dickinson wrote this, and although she seldom referred to it, the horror and waste was surely a backdrop to her own troubles. Although some critics read this poem as a bitter commentary on her own lack of fame and recognition, I think Dickinson is casting a wider net. Sure she might have wished for more than the crumbs of recognition (and affection) she got from Bowles – to whom this poem was sent – but that does not mean her poetry is no more than personal response.
            Dickinson plays successfully with line length here. “Too rapt with frost / To take it – ” is one trimeter line divided into two. The division emphasizes the tightly knit word sounds: “rapt” and “frost” echo each other with their “r”s and “t”s, and both lines begin with the homonym of “Too” and “To.” All those “t” sounds adds up to quite a bit of alliteration in those few syllables: Too, rapt, frost, To, take, it. The alliteration continues in the next line with sweet, it, and tasted. The techniques, strongly aural in quality, create a strong visual effect as well. We see that dying person and his frosty lips. (Yes, it might be a woman.)
            The last line of the poem,in a reverse process, has combined two lines: “Who of little Love – know how to starve – .”  Here the “Love” and “starve” are sound and visual echoes – and a bitter echo indeed. Several slow words lend emphasis: Who, know, and how.” The poem slows and ends cruelly with that unexpected “starve.” It was presaged by “strangles,” but still hits the reader with surprising force. Is the poet really saying that despite God’s oath sparrows – and we – starve?

Title divine, is mine

Title divine,  is mine.
The Wife  without the Sign  –
Acute Degree conferred on me  –
Empress of Calvary  –
Royal, all but the Crown  –
Betrothed, without the Swoon
God gives us Women –
When You hold  Garnet to Garnet  –
Gold  –  to Gold  –
Born  –  Bridalled  –  Shrouded  –
In a Day -
Tri Victory  –
"My Husband"  –  Women say -
Stroking the Melody  –
Is this  –  the way –
                                                            - F194  (1861)  1072

Dickinson sent this remarkable poem to Samuel Bowles in 1861 with the following message:
Here’s – what I had to ‘tell you’ – You will tell no other? Honor – is its own pawn – ”

Actually,  the poem she sent Bowles  in 1861 is a little differrent than the one above – which she sent Sue  in 1865. There is a greater urgency in the earlier letter (below) indicated by exclamation marks and by the italics and question  mark in the last line:
Title divine  –  is mine!
The Wife  – without the Sign!
Acute Degree  – conferred on me  –
Empress of Calvary!
Royal  –  all but the Crown!
Betrothed  – without the swoon
God sends us Women –
When you hold  – Garnet to Garnet  –
Gold  –  to Gold  –
Born  –  Bridalled  –  Shrouded  –
In a Day -
"My Husband"  –  women say  –
Stroking the Melody  –
Is this  –  the way?

What are we to make of this poem? What message is she sending Bowles? There are two parallel interpretations of what the poet is saying: one, that she has a heavenly title: “Empress of Calvary.” It’s a “Title divine” that was “conferred” by God. The title was granted through marriage, for she is a “Wife” (though “without the [earthly] Sign”) and she was “Bridalled” and has a “Husband” or at least someone standing for a husband. Since Jesus died on the cross under a sign naming him “King of the Jews,” it seems logical to assume she has become, as nuns do, the bride of Christ. She upgrades the union, however, from Queen (to go with "King") to Empress—a strange upgrade on what was, anyway, a mocking title conferred on Jesus by Pilate. Further, there was a moment of salvation: she was “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded” in just one day. The “Shrouded” is mysterious, signifying, as it does, Death. However, if one has been born anew, saved, one might at the same time be dead to this worldor at least to sin.  So she may be telling Bowles that she has indeed had her day of salvation, despite her famous refusal to take the salvation pledge that most of her village and family had taken at about this time.
            The second interpretation would be an announcement of love between herself and an earthly man (Bowles himself?). Although Dickinson is unable to actually marry (the men she loved at this time, including Bowles, were already married), there is some evidence she believes in a spiritual and even heavenly union. The poet, through the excited tone and punctuation (of the earlier poem), indicates that this spiritual “marriage” is as exciting as an earthly one. She has the “Title divine,” which is surely worth  more than a certificate. It comes with a steep cost, however. She had to be crucified in some way as part of the deal. “Calvary” is the name of the hill where Jesus was executed. The poet indicates some super-duper crucifixion for she is “Empress” of that place. She has suffered for this love, this non-marriage marriage. She will never be able to say "My Husband."
Dickinson would
never have this
In this special relationship she also misses out on “the swoon” that “God gives [“sends” in the earlier version] us Women.” This may mean a sexual swoon or girlish swoon of emotion or, more likely, both. In the intensity of this swoonless love, she is born, married, and perished, figuratively, in one day. Some day!
The last three lines have an exquisite sadness. Ordinary women might speak casually of their husbands, but they have a special way of saying it. “My husband” might be said nonchalantly, but there would be a bit of pride, maybe, and affection in the word. To Dickinson’s ear the words are like music and the women stroke the notes with their voices. “Is this – the way,” she asks wistfully, and we are to imagine her saying the words with a caress.
                It is tempting, however, to read the poem as an exalted account of making love for the first and probably last time to the love of one’s life. Having had a meeting of the bodies and souls, the poet is more truly Wife than whomever holds the paper or wears the ring or other “Sign.” She had suffered profoundly until this glorious moment. The “Degree” itself was “Acute,” or sharp and intense. Feeling far from soiled and fallen, the poet feels “Royal” – and who needs the Crown anyway? She looks back, though, again wistfully, at the wedding ceremony she will never have, the paired gold and garnet rings that are exchanged, the “swoon” of ceremony and moment when the clergyman pronounces the couple man and wife.

23 February 2012

Speech – is a prank of Parliament –

Speech – is a prank of Parliament
Tears – is a trick of the nerve
But the Heart with the heaviest freight on –
Doesn't – always – move –   
                                                            - F193 (1861)  688

Henry Clay, Senate, 1850
The poem is organized as a series of analogies, with the third, the Heart, standing out for its difference. Parliament, that assemblage of windy politicians, is known for speechifying. Speech is a “prank” of that august group. Maybe we shouldn't take what they say too awfully seriously as much of what is said is just for show.
            Another prank, but this time a “trick,” is tears. If our nerves are worn thin or if we’re very happy or sad, we cry. It is an odd thing, water dripping out of your eyes – an odd trick our nerves play.
            The reader is set up to see what peculiarities the Heart has, but the poet dashes our expectations. The heavily burdened heart can’t budge. No speech, no tears, just a lead weight in the chest. The last two lines are appropriately heavy: “Heart” is a slow word because of the breath needed for the “h” sound; same with “heaviest.” The long “a” sound of “freight” also slows the line down, as do the three accented syllables in a row: “freight on – / Doesn’t.” The poem grinds to a slow halt in the last line. The dashes are like long drawn-out breaths: “Doesn’t – always – move” seems like a freight train coming to a halt.
            Contrast these slowing devices with the quick trip of the alliterative “prank of Parliament” and “Tears – is a trick.” We are meant to feel the heavy heart, and realize that depression or despondency sometimes can neither speak nor even cry.

The poem concluded a letter to Samuel Bowles that reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Bowles.
I cant thank you any more  – you are thoughtful so many times, you grieve me always –  now. The old words are numb – and there a’nt any new ones – Brooks – are useless – in Freshet-time –
When you come to Amherst, please God it were Today – I will tell you about the picture – if I can, I will – 

The impression we are left with is that of grieving paralysis: the narrator is too numb and too heart-burdened to  move.

22 February 2012

'Tis Anguish grander than Delight

'Tis Anguish grander than Delight
'Tis Resurrection Pain –
The meeting Bands of smitten Face
We questioned to, again –

'Tis Transport wild as thrills the Graves
When Cerements let go
And Creatures clad in Miracle
Go up by Two and Two –

                                                            - F192  (1861)  984

Some Dickinson scholars have argued that while Dickinson had earthly passion for at least one of her loves (Bowles, Wadswroth, or Lord, for example), she believed in a heavenly marriage where consummation would be much much better than anything earth has to offer. If, as scholars have argued, she did not believe in a fleshly resurrection, this consummation would involve a spiritual ecstasy.
            This poem describes the “Transport” of a real, though not fleshly, Resurrection and a consequent pairing. Dickinson begins the poem with the idea of  a grand pain, an “Anguish grander than Delight.” This is an emotion we don’t really have a name for. She wants us to imagine what it would mean to wake from the dead. The wrinkled “bands” of our damaged and decayed faces would furrow together with the immensity of the experience. Surely there would be an anguish involved in being roused from the sleep of death. The disorientation would be severe, and a million questions would come to mind.
 But the “Resurrection Pain” wouldn’t be just a major hurt – it would be an awesome event and a transporting delight – an excitement so wild that even the “Graves” will be thrilled as the “Cerements,” or grave clothes, are dropped. The Resurrected are no longer really people in this vision; Dickinson carefully refers to them as “Creatures.” And consistent with the scholars’ view that she did not believe in fleshly resurrection, these Creatures are clad only in Miracle. It seems that the Cerements are more than just clothes – they are the fleshly and physical aspect of  Being as well.
This is not the sort of
Resurrection the poet
had in mind -- at
least I hope not!
   Perhaps the oddest line in the poem is that after all this has happened – the awakening, the anguish, the transport, the shedding of Cerements – the Creatures “Go up by Two and Two,” presumably to heaven. Why two and two? Would little children not go with their parents? What about the unmarried? I wonder if this doesn’t hint at that Platonic idea that each person has his or her other half. At resurrection these two halves would be reunited – even if they had not been married to each other. This would be convenient for Dickinson, to be a bit catty, as both Bowles and Wadsworth were married men!
            The strongest line of the poem is the penultimate one: “And Creatures clad in Miracle.” One reason this is such a strong line – in addition to the nice image it produces, is the hard “C” sounds: Creatures, clad, and Miracle.

** NOTE: on re-reading this post I see I missed the allusion to Noah's Ark in the Creatures going up "Two and Two." Just as the animals were paired with their mates as they were tucked into the Ark where they could safely ride out the destruction of the world by flood, so Dickinson's creatures are paired as they rise to Heaven, their safe and forever home. It's a nice parallel and I'm surprised I didn't see it before!

21 February 2012

"Morning" – means "Milking" – to the Farmer –

"Morning" – means "Milking" – to the Farmer –
Dawn – to the Tenerife –
Dice – to the Maid –
Morning means just Risk – to the Lover –
Just Revelation – to the Beloved –

Epicures – date a Breakfast – by it –
Brides – an Apocalypse –
Worlds – a Flood –
Faint-going Lives – Their Lapse from Sighing –
Faith – The Experiment of Our Lord
                                                            - F191 (1861)  300

This is a list poem that explores morning by listing what it means to various people. The first stanza  uses the format “Morning means …” for each line. In the second stanza the format changes and each line has to be jiggled a bit. Here’s a reconstruction and paraphrase:

Epicures plan their delicious breakfasts in the morning
Brides experience an Apocalypse the morning after
Worlds experienced a flooded world one morning
Faint-going Lives wake up and temporarily cease their sighing in the morning
Faith is the experience and suffering of Jesus who died in the belief that he and humanity would be resurrected in the morning that follows death. (Note: Dickinson used “Experiment” at times to mean “Experience,” “feeling,” or “suffering” [per the Emily Dickinson Lexicon:].

Morning not so great if you
weren't on that ark
The grammatical sketchiness of the poem makes the reader is an active participant in the meaning. Why, for example, does morning mean “Dice” to the maiden? Is she trying for her chance at love and marriage? Is marriage just a game of chance? “Risk – to the Lover – ” may mean the risk of discovery: oops – he’s overstayed and now dawn is breaking. But why “Revelation” to the Beloved? Has she been awakened to physical love for the first time? Or is seeing her lover’s face beside her in the glow of dawn a revelation? Reader, I leave it to your own opinions. I personally find it a very rich way of writing poetry.
Morning not so bad if you
are a farmer

            But note that each stanza begins with easy list items and then graduates to the harder. Sure, morning means milking to the farmer – it’s what he does every darn day. Sure, it means dawn on the sunny isle of Tenerife. But then the associations become less clear and more provocative. In the second stanza we can feel pretty confident about the association of breakfast with morning – and the anticipation of gourmet epicures for that repast. And we can imagine that the first morning of wedded life is, for the bride, something of an apocalypse in her life. Everything has changed. And so it goes on to that difficult last line. 

20 February 2012

No rose, yet felt myself a’bloom

No rose, yet felt myself a’bloom,
No Bird – yet rode in Ether –
                                                            - F190  (1861) 

While the sentiments in this couplet are beautifully expressed, an understanding of the lines benefits from a larger context.  They were part of the third of three “Master” letters that Dickinson wrote between 1858 and 1861.
We do not know if she ever posted a final copy  or how many other letters she might have written, but we do have these three marked up/marked out letters. No one knows who Master was – not even Emily’s sister Lavinia who discovered the letters after Emily’s death. Master’s identity has been a great source of controversy ever since.
It might have been Samuel Bowles, for she was very involved with him during this period (although he was married). The three letters suggest that Dickinson had had a relationship with Master for quite awhile and that he did not live anywhere convenient to Amherst. It might also have been Charles Wadsworth, a charismatic Presbyterian minister whom Dickinson heard preach in Philadelphia in 1855. Wadsworth was also married.  She was there to get medical treatment for her eyes – and was in quite a bit of distress about her vision.  She came to consider him her “dearest earthly friend.” Although they had a correspondence, none of it survives.
But no matter to whom the letters were written, they reveal an intense, passionate nature – one surely at odds with the image of  Dickinson as a reclusive and virginal woman dressing in white and sticking to her room. That isn’t to say that Dickinson had a lover, but only that she clearly had yearnings, even if only sublimated desires that she might find fulfilled in a heavenly marriage.
But here is the Master letter from which the current couplet comes:

If you saw a bullet hit a Bird--and he told you he was'nt shot--you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word.
One drop more from the gash that stains your Daisy's bosom--then would you believe ? Thomas' faith in Anatomy, was stronger than his faith in faith. God made me-- \Master—[…]. I dont know how it was done. He built the heart in me--Bye and bye it outgrew me--and like the little mother--with the big child--I got tired holding him. I heard of a thing called “Redemption”--which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for it--you gave me something else. I forgot the Redemption […] and was tired--no more—
No rose, yet felt myself a' bloom,
No bird--yet rode in Ether.

 I am older--tonight, Master--but the love is the same--so are the moon and the crescent. If it had been God's will that I might breathe where you breathed--and find the place--myself--at night--if I (can) never forget that I am not with you--and that sorrow and frost are nearer than I--if I wish with a might I cannot repress--that mine were the Queen's place--the love of the Plantagenet is my only apology--To come nearer than presbyteries--and nearer than the new Coat--that the Tailor made--the prank of the Heart at play on the Heart--in holy Holiday--is forbidden me--You make me say it over--I fear you laugh--when I do not see-- [but] “Chillon” is not funny. Have you the heart in your breast--Sir--is it set like mine--a little to the left--has it the misgiving--if it wake in the night--perchance--itself to it--a timbrel is it--itself to it a tune?
These things are  holy, Sir, I touch them hallowed, but persons who pray--dare remark [our] “Father”! You say I do not tell you all--Daisy confessed--and denied not.
Vesuvius dont talk--Etna dont-- one of them--said a syllable--a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever--She could'nt look the world in the face, afterward, I suppose--Bashful Pompeii! […] Daisy's arm is small--and you have felt the horizon hav'nt you--and did the sea--never come so close as to make you dance?
I dont know what you can do for it--thank you--Master--but if I had the Beard on my cheek--like you--and you--had Daisy's petals--and you cared so for me--what would become of you? Could you forget me in fight, or flight--or the foreign land? Couldn't Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour--and nobody care but the Bobolink--and his --a silver scruple? I used to think when I died--I could see you--so I died as fast as I could--but the “Corporation” are going to heaven too so [Eternity] wont be sequestered--now [at all]--Say I may wait for you--say I need go with no stranger to the to me—untried fold--I waited a long time--Master--but I can wait no more--wait till my hazel hair is dappled--and you carry the cane--then I can look at my watch--and if the Day is too far declined--we can take the chances [of] for Heaven--What would you do with me if I came “in white?” Have you the little chest to put the Alive--in?
I want to see you more--Sir--than all I wish for in this world--and the wish--altered a little--will be my only one for the skies.
Could you come to New England--would you come to Amherst --would you like to come--Master?
Would Daisy disappoint you--no--she would'nt--Sir--if it were comfort forever--just to look in your face, while you looked in mine--then I could play in the woods till Dark--till you take me where Sundown cannot find us--and the true keep coming--till the town is full.
I did'nt think to tell you, you did'nt come to me “in white,” nor ever told me why,

In the context of this amazing letter (which deserves much more commentary than this blog is designed for), the couplet rises in a transformative ecstasy. The rose will always stand for love and beauty, the bird for the spirit and freedom. Her feelings for or experiences with Master are sublime. 

Is it true, dear Sue?

Is it true, dear Sue?
Are there two?
I shouldn't like to come
For fear of joggling Him!
If I could shut him up
In a Coffee Cup,
Or tie him to a pin
Till I got in –
Or make him fast
To "Toby's" fist –
Hist! Whist! I'd come!
                                                - F189 (1861)  218

Victorian Mum
When Dickinson’s dear friend Sue and her husband Austin, Dickinson’s brother, had their first child (Ned, in 1861), she sent them this poem. I’m not sure why she asks if there are “two” – two what? Maybe it’s a playful way of asking if there weren’t really twins. And of course, “two” rhymes neatly with “Sue.” It was probably a private joke.
            She’s concerned here about “joggling” the new baby and so wonders if she couldn’t just tie him down or put him in a safe container. She’s being quite witty here with shutting the baby up in a “Coffee Cup” or tying him to a pin. The best part, though, is suggesting that Sue might “make him fast” to the cat, Toby.
            All of the diction and rhymes are lighthearted and fun. “tie him to a pin / till I got in –” is pretty cute, as is “shut him up / In a Coffee Cup.” But I like best the slant rhyme of “fast” with “fist – Hist! Whist!” The movement is fast, and we imagine Emily darting over anyway, despite her fears of dandling a newborn.  

18 February 2012

Could I – then – shut the door –

Could I – then – shut the door –
Lest my beseeching face – at last –
Rejected – be – of Her?
                                                - F188 (1861)  220

This is a snippet of a letter that has been judged by scholars more profound and learned than me to be poetry. I quote entirely from David Preest here as to the context and interpretation:

This poem is the whole of another note (L239) sent by Emily to Sue, and like the questions in poem 213 expects the answer ‘No.’ No, Emily could not shut the door on Sue, if only for fear that her own beseeching face be finally rejected by Sue. But for what reason does Emily need to say that she could not shut the door on Sue? It is hardly likely that Sue would have accused Emily of shutting the door on her, but more possible that Sue, busy with the new baby, has not replied to Emily’s notes. Some confirmation of this can be found in a letter which Sue sent to Emily in late October 1861. She says, ‘I have intended to write you Emily today but the quiet has not been mine _ I should send you this, lest I should seem to have turned away from a kiss –  If you have suffered this past Summer I am sorry. I Emily bear a sorrow that I never uncover. If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we? When I can, I shall write (Sewall, p. 203).’

Through the Straight Pass of Suffering –

Through the Straight Pass of Suffering –
The Martyrs even trod.
Their feet upon Temptation –
Their faces – upon God –

A Stately – Shriven – Company –
Convulsion playing round –
Harmless – as Streaks of Meteor –
Upon a Planet's Bond –

Their faith the Everlasting Troth –
Their Expectation – fair –
The Needle – to the North Degree
Wades – so – through Polar Air!
                                                            - F187  (1861)  792

Interestingly, this poem was included as part of a letter to Samuel Bowles. The prose part of the letter is as follows:
Dear friend
If you doubted my Snow _ for a moment _ you never will _ again _ I know _
Because I could not say it _ I fixed it in the Verse _ for you to read _ when your
thought wavers, for such a foot as mine _

What makes this interesting is Dickinson’s use of the word “Snow.” Dickinson makes use of the word in various poems and letters giving it a range of meanings centered around virtue. In at least one poem it seems to indicate virginity. In others it means purity or moral fibre. Some scholars feel that she also used “Snow” to signify her poems.
            The poem itself doesn’t mention snow, but it is implied in the Martyrs’ Polar destination. And in the letter, when Dickinson suggests Bowles might have “doubted [her] Snow,” she may be referring to her steadiness.  Bowles had expressed concern that Dickinson would regret not pursuing publication of her poems and so it may be that she hopes this poem will show that  although she is tempted by the thought of fame as a poet she intends to keep her face “upon God.” She may also be alluding to passion, for there are plenty of indications that she indeed loved Bowles in such a way. So, like the Martyrs in their steady and “even” pace towards heaven, she, too, will not be swayed by “Streaks of Meteor” or the “Convulsion” of pain or emotion.
Meteorite streaks (NASA photo)
            But even without looking into the personal history that might provide a specific context, the poem has its independent heft and merit. The first stanza has a stately, dignified tread. The two accented syllables, the spondee, of “Straight Pass” embedded in iambic meter signal seriousness – as well it should for the martyrs will soon be killed for their faith. Images of both feet and air add breadth and depth: the feet are “upon Temptation,” the needle “Wades” to its North point. In contrast we have faces turned toward heaven and God, we have celestial upheavals in the Meteors, and the Polar region is signified by “Polar Air.”
            The Martyrs with their unwavering focus as they face death are likened to the compass which unwaveringly points north. True north, magnetic north, has long been a symbol of constancy and truth, and so is a fitting symbol for the Martyrs. “Stately” and “Shriven” – purified, their torment and death will be as harmless to them as a meteor is to Earth’s orbital path. Earth is bonded to the sun just as the martyrs are bonded to God.