Search This Blog

24 July 2012

Unto like Story—Trouble has enticed me—

Unto like Story—Trouble 
has enticed me—
How Kinsmen fell—
Brothers and Sister—who 
preferred the Glory—
And their young will
Bent to the Scaffold, or in 
Till God's full time—
When they let go the ignominy—
And Shame went still—

Unto guessed Crests, my moaning 
fancy, leads me,
Worn fair
By Heads rejected—in the lower 
Of honors there—
Such spirit makes her perpetual 
That I—grown bold—
Step martial—at my Crucifixion—
As Trumpets—rolled—

Feet, small as mine—have 
marched in Revolution
Firm to the Drum—
Hands—not so stout—hoisted 
them—in witness—
When Speech went numb—
Let me not shame their 
sublime deportments—
Drilled bright—
Beckoning—Etruscan invitation—
Toward Light—
                                                            J295,  Fr300 (1862)

Don’t we all have secret fantasies about being a singer, poet, heroic nurse or pilot, or brave explorer? In this (and other) poems Emily Dickinson imagines herself as a noble sufferer. Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the stories of Christian saints killed for their beliefs, was part of the Dickinson library and one that the poet was reputed to have read frequently.
            She begins the poem as if she were about to recount her own tale of woe, something like the stories in the book. But then she sidetracks: “Trouble has enticed me,” she confesses. She is drawn to the tales of suffering and shining faith. In one such tale brothers and sister were executed at the scaffold or sent to die in dungeons. But they “preferred the Glory,” so despite their persecution they chanted their faith and died “smiling,” silencing any “Shame.”

Brave martyrs
            In the second stanza, Dickinson imagines that the martyrs have been granted “Crests”, which may be crowns or other emblems of nobility, despite their having been “rejected” here on earth (“the lower country”). Dickinson knows she is bordering on bathos: “my moaning fancy, leads me,” she says, to imagine their “honors.” But the proud spirit in the stories embolden her until she, too, feels ready to march to the drum all the way to her own “Crucifixion.”
            Dickinson has written of her own crucifixion before, perhaps most notably in “Title divine, is mine” where she is “Empress of Calvary.” In that poem she may have been intimating she had become in some mystic way the bride of Christ. She may well, however, have meant that she has endured much more suffering than most people (and the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive). In another poem, “I should have been too glad, I see,” she scathingly suggest that she be crucified since all joy is denied her.
Brightly painted Etruscan tomb
            But this poem has a prouder tone. The poet reflects that the young kinsmen were no bigger than she and yet they marched bravely and held up their little hands in witness. Taking inspiration from them, the poet vows not to “shame their sublime deportments” that brightly beckon towards a more heavenly light. Dickinson calls this an “Etruscan invitation.” The Etruscan civilization preceded and continued through much of the early Roman era. Beautiful Tuscany was their heartland. Things Swiss and Italian appealed to Dickinson, and this plus the romance of their long-departed culture, beckons to her in time of trouble.


  1. I always take a concerted effort to understand a poem like this before turning to look at the interpretations of others (sometimes yours is the only one out there!) and I'm often got at how different the interpretations are. I'm usually convinced by yours, but I'm still processing this one. My take was that the "trouble" was in going after "glory" which would then lead to the "scaffold". Think Macbeth. But then, turning to God in prison (a turn inside the first stanza) the "ignominy" and "shame" of the crime caused by glory-seeking falls away.

    The third stanza I'm still working through. What is the "them" that the not so stout hands are hoisting? A cross? I guess a cross could be a them, two planks of wood. Or is she talking about the drum? I like the idea of her holding up the drum when speech fails, as she is "drilled bright" to the rhythm. Speech failing is interesting coming from a poet. So what she is holding up here is important, as it speaks for her. If it's the cross, it is her suffering for others, if it's the drums she is holding up, then it is meter, form, itself which is speaking for her. Hmm. What do you think?

    The Etruscan thing eludes me. Perhaps it has something to do here with the uniqueness of her lexicon? Etruscan was written in an alphabet derived from Greek but otherwise is not related to any known language.

  2. The Emily Dickinson Museum (EDM) website ( reports that the Dickinson libraries at Homestead and Evergreen contained about 2500 items. The EDM lists 137 “Books Acquired” and its 100 most wanted books. Neither of these lists includes Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’.

    A search of digital sources, both personal and WWW, turned up no solid evidence that ED had read the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Charles Wadsworth often mentioned martyrs in his published sermons and may have owned a copy of Foxe’s book. It’s likely that ED knew of the book. Compelling evidence that the Dickinsons owned the book or that ED read it would be helpful historical information.

  3. At age 31 when she composed this poem, ED emerged from a personal La-La-Land, torn between her love for poetry and her dreams of life with a soulmate. From an early age she had honed a gift for poetry, at first a child fumbling with words, then teen with quippy valentine poems, then twenty-something and deeper poems shared with soulmate Sue. We now know that poetry took ED to heights of fame she never knew during her life, but in love she was a chaser of impossible dreams.

    ED met her first soulmate, Susan Gilbert, when both were 17 and budding poets. Their common interest gradually grew into emotional and likely physical intimacy. ED dreamed of finding a “quiet harbor in the west” where they could share their lives, but Sue was a realist and an orphan and knew she needed solid support for the life she wanted to live. Probably with ED’s encouragement, she charmed ED’s brother, a Harvard-trained lawyer , and the newlyweds moved into “Evergreen”, a new mansion given them by ED’s father and Sue’s brothers. It was “just a hedge away” from the Dickinson family “Homestead”.

    At age 24 ED heard her second soulmate preach a sermon that planted seeds she would harvest until her death in 1886 He was a conservative Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, 16 years her senior and married with two children. ED’s last letter to his closest friend, written a few weeks before her own death, quoted four words from his last sermon, preached a week before he died in 1882: “going home, going home”. It’s a long story, but what matters here is that he and his family moved west, to San Francisco, in April 1862, about the time ED wrote this poem.

  4. Stanza 1. Trouble has enticed me toward a path like that of Christian martyrs, who preferred heaven and, by bending their will, chose hanging or life in prison until death delivered them, smiling, as they escaped humiliation and shame.

    2. To uncertain diadems my suffering fancy leads me, diadems worn by heads in heaven that were rejected from earthly rewards on earth below. Heaven’s spirit praises these martyrs so perpetually that I, grown bold, sacrifice my Earthly rewards, both marriage and fame, and march toward my Death like a soldier marching to the sound of trumpets.

    3. Feet of former female poets have marched in revolution, in unison with the drum; hands less stout than mine lifted them as witness to their sacrifice and death. I will not allow myself to shame their sublime demeanor as I march toward heaven’s beckoning bright light.