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28 August 2012

If your Nerve, deny you—

If your Nerve, deny you—
Go above your Nerve—
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve—

That's a steady posture—
Never any bend
Held of those Brass arms—
Best Giant made—

If your Soul seesaw—
Lift the Flesh door—
The Poltroon wants Oxygen—
Nothing more –
                                                            F329 (1862)  292

Dickinson’s poem raises a question about just who the “you” is, for in this poem there is an Uber-Nerve, a transcendent "you." The you's identity is more than fortitude or courage—or will—for if these should fail, she advises that "you" transcend “Nerve” and leave the poor devil to contemplate death. “He can lean against the Grave,” if he is unsteady. That should buck him up for there’s no weakness, no “bend” in death—it’s a certainty. After contemplating death perhaps you would be more willing to take risks, live a less safe and conventional life. Perhaps Dickinson is thinking here about her decision to dedicate her life to poetry. She knew that few people in her time would read it, and she willingly isolated herself from even her closest friends.
           In the second stanza Dickinson portrays the fearful Nerve, having been sent to lean against the Grave, as being held and strengthened by the  “Brass arms” (“Best Giant made”—as if Vulcan himself had hammered them) that serve as memorial decorations. They stand for for the arms of Death, and their grip will never loosen.
The Dickinson family cemetery plot
            At the end, the poet gives advice about wavering souls. The transcendent "you" is also distinct from the soul. If the you discovers its soul seesawing, it should understand the soul has been too hemmed in by the body. Give the scamp, the “Poltroon,” a little more breathing space. All he wants is air, “Nothing more.” When Dickinson says to “Lift the Flesh door”—a fine and surprising phrase—I think she means more than going outside on a nice day. Rather, we should open the door of our body so that the soul can breathe in a more esoteric and spiritual air. It grows weak on a diet of small talk and daily tasks.
            Taken together, the three stanzas offer readers two pieces of advice: 1) always remember that death waits for all of us; this knowledge should help us life to the fullest rather than safely. 2) give your soul nourishment. Don’t let it wither for lack of air.
            The question remains, however: by what agency can we regulate our soul and our will? Is there a Self greater than these parts? Based on this and other Dickinson poems, I would venture that the transcendent "You" is the deciding mind. How else could we weigh the options and hold a steady course?
            The opening lines of the poem are very strong, drawing in the reader. The slant rhymes of that stanza are also strong: “Nerve,” “Grave,” and “swerve.” In the last stanza the “s” alliteration in “Soul seesaw” reinforces the idea of seesawing, as does the word “seesaw” itself. The trochee of “Flesh door” in the following line also lends a certain heavy importance to the thought.

27 August 2012

Of Tribulation—these are They

Of Tribulation—these are They,
Denoted by the White.
The Spangled Gowns, a lesser Rank
Of Victors, designate—

All these—did conquer—
But the Ones who overcame most times—
Wear nothing commoner than Snow—
No Ornament, but Palms—

“Surrender”—is a sort unknown—
On this superior soil—
“Defeat,” an Outgrown Anguish—
Remembered, as the Mile

Our panting Ankle barely passed,
When Night devoured the Road—
But we – stood—whispering in the House—
And all we said—was Saved!
                                                            F328 (1862)  325
Dickinson refers here to the Book of Revelations in the Bible’s New Testament. In this book the earth and the damned are dealt with harshly and the saved are rewarded handsomely. Among the saved clustering around the throne of God where Jesus, “The Lamb,” is sitting are a large contingent dressed in white robes and holding palm leaves in their hands. When Revelations’ author, John, asks who the white robed people are, an elder explains:
These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.   [Revelations 7: 14-17]
        The poem describes the scene: the white-robed believers who overcame their tribulations because of their faith stand with “a lesser Rank” of saved people who wear “Spangled Gowns.” The spangles make me think of rulers or decorated soldiers, but it might just signify ordinary folk who were saved and dressed up for the occasion.
            Dickinson then praises the white-robed ones because of their steadfast courage. They don’t even know what it is to surrender. Their defeats while alive have been “Outgrown.” Dickinson likens this as to how we have only limited memory of terrible moments in our own lives. In her example, she was walking as deep night fell, devouring the road. She was so relieved to arrive home safely, that all she could say was “Saved!”
            I’m not overly fond of this poem as it brings little that is fresh and rehashes a biblical passage without adding anything new to its contemplation. I am very tickled with her image, though, of her “panting Ankle.” My feet have felt like that, too!

26 August 2012

How the old Mountains drip with Sunset

 How the old Mountains drip with Sunset
How the Hemlocks burn—
How the Dun Brake is draped in Cinder
By the Wizard Sun—

How the old Steeples hand the Scarlet
Till the Ball is full—
Have I the lip of the Flamingo
That I dare to tell?

Then, how the Fire ebbs like Billows—
Touching all the Grass
With a departing—Sapphire—feature—
As a Duchess passed—

How a small Dusk crawls on the Village
Till the Houses blot
And the odd Flambeau, no men carry
Glimmer on the Street—

How it is Night—in Nest and Kennel—
And where was the Wood—
Just a Dome of Abyss is Bowing
Into Solitude—

These are the Visions flitted Guido—
Titian—never told—
Domenichino dropped his pencil—
Paralyzed, with Gold—
                                                            327 (1862)  291

Dickinson gives a tour de force series of sunset imagery, each one worthy of a small poem itself. Her use of “How the…” provides a forward momentum for the images, which otherwise might take longer to set up. It’s a very economical technique that also introduces a note of wonder: “Wow—how did Sunset do that??”
            She begins with the sun lighting up the wooded hills. Sunset colors seem to drip down the mountain’s side as the sun lowers. The hemlocks are golden while the shadows drape the “Dun Brake” fern in deep gray. Next, Dickinson turns her attention to town where the soaring church steeples are tinted red. In her imagination these steeples are conveying color to the sun, filling it with red until “the Ball is full” of the scarlet we sometimes see on the face of the sun as it sets.
            Dickinson is just getting warmed up, for she thinks she might need the long beak of the Flamingo to tell all that she sees. Continuing her progression from the far to the near, she now looks at the grassy lawns of town. There, she watches as the sunset gradually fades and the shadows darken the grass as if a duchess in a sapphire gown  walked by.
            As it darkens, “Dusk crawls on the Village” as if some living thing. The houses begin to become indistinguishable. Overhead, Venus and early stars can be seen twinkling. They “Glimmer on the Street” like a lit torch.
            At last night has arrived and here Dickinson takes us to the most intimate level: “Nest and Kennel” where birds and dogs are tucking themselves in for night. She looks back once more at the wooded hill and sees only the “Dome of Abyss” where there was just moments ago a splendid light show.
Titian used both brilliant gold and
sunset scarlet in this famous painting
            Dickinson sees the Dome of Abyss” Bowing / Into Solitude,” and this is a very cold and distant image, particularly as all the previous imagery is full of friendly transactions: the “Wizard Sun” drapes the ferns and paints the trees. The steeples help color the sun. A duchess lends her sapphire gown to the grass, and stars bring a bit of light to the street. But then the world is dark. To Dickinson it’s an unmasking. Where there was a kindly wizard sun there is now an abyss. Where everything pitched in together to create a moment of beauty there is now only dark solitude.
            In the final stanza, Dickinson refers to Renaissance and Baroque painters famous for their use of color. Despite their great technical and artistic skills, none of them would be able to capture the setting of the sun—they would be “Paralyzed, with Gold.” It’s a sly ending, both for the double meaning of “Gold” (the painters had to depend on wealthy patrons to survive), but because the whole poem implies that where painters might fail, a poet can succeed.

25 August 2012

The lonesome for they know not What—

The lonesome for they know not What—
The Eastern Exiles—be—
Who strayed beyond the Amber line
Some madder Holiday—

And ever since—the purple Moat
They strive to climb—in vain—
As Birds—that tumble from the clouds
Do fumble at the strain—

The Blessed Ether—taught them—
Some Transatlantic Morn—
When Heaven—was too common—to miss—
Too sure—to dote upon!
                                                            F326 (1862)  262

There’s an addictiveness involved as the “Eastern Exiles” struggle to once more experience something they knew from some “madder Holiday.” Dickinson purposely leaves the nature of what the experience was and who the exiles might be to the reader’s imagination. Even they are not sure of what it is they long for: they are “lonesome” for something, but “they know not What.”
            Today we might think of hallucinogens or opiates that take the drug user beyond the “Amber line” that signals the breaking of dawn in the East. They travel to a place not available to the rest of us. But there were no hallucinogens that Dickinson would have been familiar with, though she probably knew about opium. More likely she is suggesting the altered state that the mystic or the poet or the mad might enter when caught up in vision.
            Once having tasted this “honeydew,” as Coleridge referred to it in his famous poem, “Kublai Khan,” they try “in vain” to recapture the experience. Alas, to do so is to be like birds who fly too high and then “tumble from the clouds.”
At Buddha's death, he enters Parinirvana--
the Final Nirvana of 
transcendent being.
            The last stanza reinforces the idea of a vision state. The exiles, “Some Transatlantic Morn,” were part of the “Ether” – that invisible matterless substance that was once believed to permeate the cosmos, or, alternatively, the divine spirit. Either way, once they were within it they found heaven everywhere, “too common—to miss” and so real that they felt no need for worship or to “dote upon” it. The experience, however, may never be repeated. The poor exiles now live in a state of loneliness for that place. “Ever since,” they have tried to climb “the purple Moat” of the night sky back to the land where sunrise comes from.
            Dickinson read and admired (and even met, much to her joy) Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the philosopher’s most famous essays is “The Oversoul,” published in 1841. In this contemplation of the human soul, Emerson explores both Eastern philosophy and Plato. In one passage he writes,
within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
The infusion of Eastern thought, the sense of a unifying ether in which “every part and particle is equally related,” might well underlie Dickinson’s poem with its own reference to the east. To see and experience it would certainly bring a sense of enlightenment or joy—or poetic power—that one would forever be trying to recapture.

24 August 2012

There came a Day—at Summer's full,

There came a Day—at Summer's full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such—were for the Saints—
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun—as common—went abroad—
The flowers—accustomed—blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed—
That maketh all things new.

The time was scarce profaned—by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless—as at Sacrament—
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each—the sealed church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show—
At “Supper of the Lamb.”

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will—
Clutched tight—by greedy hands—
So—faces on two Decks—look back—
Bound to opposing Lands—

And so when all the time had failed—
Without external sound—
Each—bound the other's Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth—that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length—the Grave—
To that new Marriage—
Justified—through Calvaries of Love!
                                                                                      F325 (1862)  322

The summer solstice is the peak of summer in solar terms: it’s the longest day of the year. Coming in June, it also coincides with beautiful bloomings, birds, and butterflies. Add to that a rendezvous with a secret lover and what could be more perfect? Well, the narrator of this poem admits that she and her lover are “Bound to opposing lands” as if they were two passengers on a ship looking towards opposite shores. The lover has his life, where he has commitments (probably a wife, as Dickinson’s love interests at this time were married), and Dickinson has her own commitments at home and to her poetry.
            She sets the stage as if for a story: “There came a Day…” It was solstice, the sun and flowers were doing their normal thing. Amid this lovely plenty were two lovers, silent as if to speak would be to profane the magic time. One doesn’t talk during Communion. It was, she continues, as if they were in a sealed church, so holy did the hours feel. The two were “Permitted” to have this stolen time together because (in a bit of wild speculation) otherwise they would be falling all over each other when they met up in heaven at the  “‘Supper of the Lamb.’” Heaven forfend!
            When finally their time was up they pledged over each other’s crosses that they would meet beyond the grave in a heavenly and eternal marriage. This, the poet claims, is justified because of all the suffering, the “Calvaries,” they have suffered because of their love.
            Dickinson touched on something similar in “Title divine, is mine” where she, “Empress of Calvary,” was “Betrothed, without the Swoon
God gives us Women.” In “A Wife—at daybreak—I shall be,” Dickinson implies that the night of her death she goes to bed a “child” but will wake in heaven as a wife. This idea of an eternal and perfect union must have been sustaining to her, for otherwise the “Calvaries” she suffered might have been too much to bear.
            The poem has a regular ballad or hymn structure: iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter and an ABCB rhyme scheme. I can easily imagine it declaimed or sung.

Put up my lute!

Put up my lute!
What of—my Music!
Since the sole ear I cared to charm—
Passive—as Granite—laps my music—
Sobbing—will suit—as well as psalm!

Would but the "Memnon" of the Desert—
Teach me the strain
That vanquished Him—
When He—surrendered to the Sunrise—
Maybe—that—would awaken—them!
                                                            F324 (1862)  261

The poet’s solo audience is neither enthusiastic nor discriminating. While this person (although it’s not entirely crazy to think the audience might be Carlo her dog … but it is more likely it is either editor Samuel Bowles or her stern impassive father) “laps” her work, he is unfortunately as unresponsive “as Granite.” Who wants the Great Stone Face for an audience? Might as well put up the lute! Worse, it doesn't matter if the mood is tragic and emotional--"Sobbing"—or hymnal and religious. The response is the same.
            It seems contradictory to me that the “sole ear” is both lapping up her music—and music is surely a metaphor for her poetry—and being passive as a rock no matter what she writes. Perhaps she means he, if it is a man, mouths words of praise and beseeches her for more yet shows no real response. Perhaps, if it is Carlo, he laps at her with his tongue as she reads, yet is ultimately not moved by poetry. Hey, he’s a dog!
Jean Leon Gerome painted this
scene with the Memnon statues in  1858
            The second stanza refers to Memnon, the Ethiopian warrior king, son of Eos the dawn goddess. “Memnon” means “ruler of the dawn.” He brought an army to Troy and personally fought against Achilles, who killed him. Zeus granted him immortality. One of the Colossi of Memnon, still standing across the Nile from Luxor, was broken in a 27 BC earthquake. For years afterwards, until the Romans tried to repair it, its  remaining lower half of this statue was heard singing at sunrise.
            Dickinson makes loose reference to these aspects of the Classical Greek myth. She has the shattered statue in mind, conflating the earthquake “strain / That vanquished Him” with the sunrise song he is said to sing each day. If only her poetry had that kind of power, she muses, she might wake up her audience.
            Although in the first stanza she has only one listener, at the end it is clear she is hoping for a larger readership of her work, for she wants to write to “awaken—them.” I wonder what she would think if she knew how many people are aware of and awed by Emily Dickinson!

23 August 2012

Read—Sweet—how others—strove—

Read—Sweet—how others—strove—
Till we—are stouter—
What they—renounced—
Till we—are less afraid—
How many times they—bore the faithful witness—
Till we—are helped—
As if a Kingdom—cared!

Read then—of faith—
That shone above the fagot—
Clear strains of Hymn
The River could not drown—
Brave names of Men—
And Celestial Women—
Passed out—of Record
Death of Archbishop Cranmer
Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1887,
Foxe's Book of Martyrs
                                                            F323 (1862)  260

Emily Dickinson included Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in her go-to reading (along with Shakespeare and Keats). There is sort of a morbid attraction to all the sufferings and hideous goings-on the woodcuts and verbal descriptions portray. But in this poem, Dickinson exhorts herself and someone she calls “Sweet” to be inspired by the martyred saints examples. “Read—Sweet,” she says, about what trials the saints went through until we ourselves have more courage. Just reading about their experiences is so beneficial that it is as if the Kingdom of the dead martyrs had actually and actively helped them.
            The second stanza is a simple paean to the martyrs. “Read,” she continues, about their amazing and brave faith. They might have died but they earned ‘Renown.’”
            The three repetitions of “Till we” in the first stanza begins the poem with a liturgical feel. “We” will read the martyr stories until we are “stouter,” “less afraid,” and “helped.”  In the second stanza three lines begin with two accented syllables (spondees) to create a magisterial pace and to emphasize the words: “Clear strains,” Brave names,” and “Passed out.” 

22 August 2012

Good Night—Which put the Candle out?

Good Night—Which put the Candle out?
A jealous Zephyr—not a doubt—
Ah, friend, You little knew
How long at that celestial wick
The Angels—labored diligent—
Extinguished—now—for You!

It might have been the Light House Spark—
Some Sailor—rowing in the Dark—
Had importuned to see—
It might have been the waning Lamp
That lit the Drummer— from the Camp—
To purer Reveille—
                                                            F322 (1862)  259

Dickinson immediately signals that she has bigger, more mysterious things in mind than who blew out the candle by using the pronoun “Which” rather than “Who.” The “Candle” may on the simplest level be a candle that lit someone’s way from drawing room to bed, for in Dickinson’s day there were no electric lights, but the poem takes us immediately to the stars. It was not some careless person who accidentally blew out a household candle.
            Instead, the poet addresses the Zephyr, the Greek god of the west wind  standing here for all mild winds. It blew out a star, the “celestial wick” that angels “labored” over with great diligence. I picture a night with a few stars shining; but then some wind pushes a cloud over a star and its brightness immediately vanishes. The Zephyr, the poet supposes, was “jealous” over that twinkling beam in the heavens.
In this detail from Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Zephyr blows
the newly-fledged goddess to shore on a half shell.
            She continues, chastising the Zephyr: that little star might have been the one thing guiding a sailor lost at sea to some safe harbour—as if it were a lighthouse beaming light to guide ships around rocky shores. Or, perhaps the star was the last light a dying drummer from the war (the Civil War was raging at this time) saw as he slipped from this world into the next where the trumpets would play a “purer Reveille.”
            The spondee “Ah, friend,” introduces a not of wistfull sadness as the poet contemplates the dark spot in the sky that once twinkled with light. The sadness continues with images of death as the sailor now has no way to navigate and the Drummer has lost his way to heaven. The message is a heavy one: no matter how diligently the angels work on our behalf, the casual act of a jealous Zephyr, standing here for all gentle winds, can wipe out there efforts in one small puff. 

21 August 2012

Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple

Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple

Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter's Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone.
                                                            F321 (1862)  228

The sun really does have a spotted face
The sun blazes gold on the eastern horizon as it rises; its blaze is quenched in the purple hues of the of late evening. The sun does seem to sail up pretty quickly, but I’m not sure I agree that it leaps “like Leopards”—and that’s one leopard too many, if one is to be picky. But perhaps Dickinson is thinking of Helios driving his horses with the sun chariot across the sky. But Dickinson likes to use leopards in her poems—at least she has in two previous ones (here and here).
            The next lines take us to day’s end. Like a human woman, day’s face becomes “spotted” as it progresses through time. But before she dies, she stoops as low as the river bank where the otter makes its home, shedding her last light on the roof, painting the barn with sunset colors, and leaving a final kiss of light with the crown of the sun as she sinks beneath the western horizon.
            In the last line, where daylight or the sun is named “the Juggler of Day,” we see the sun not as Helios or an old woman or as leopards but rather as a circus performer dressed as modern-day clowns in blazing golds and purples and with a heavily-marked or spotted face. This, then, is the image of day—an actor staging dazzling feats for the enjoyment of the audience who might stop from time to time throughout the day to admire the performance.
            Dickinson makes use of the present progressive tense to carry the poem in a rush—as if the day flew by in one seating: blazing, quenching, leaping, laying, stooping, touching, and kissing. Quite a show! The words begin each of their lines with a trochaic emphasis that  provides a forward energy. It’s almost acrobatic.  

20 August 2012

There's a certain Slant of light,

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
                                                F320 (1862)  258

Slanting winter light and cathedral music bring a solemn and even transcendent joy to many people. Dickinson speaks of the “Heft” of “Cathedral Tunes” and the gravitas of such music is meant to open us to the divine. Likewise, the sun’s rays breaking through the chill clouds of winter may also inspire a sense of awe-full grandeur. Because the sun does not rise so high in the heavens in winter as it does in summer, shadows are more pronounced—particularly as the afternoon passes. The slanting light, though, delivers little warmth. Cathedral music likewise accentuates both shadow and light in its drama of sacrifice, sin, and salvation. Did Dickinson find little true warmth there? Did the composer and musician’s art bring as little comfort as cold light?
            To Dickinson, both winter light and cathedral music convey oppression. We are weighed down by … what? The shadows that limn the light? The reminder of death and the unknowable mysteries beyond?
            Besides oppressing, winter’s slanting light seals an inner despair. It is “an imperial affliction” rather than the sort of uplifting experience Dickinson portrays in her sunrise and sunset poetry. The afflicted light is “Sent us,” but by whom the poet remains silent. The result, though, is a “Heavenly Hurt” that leaves “no scar.” We are changed from the inside, “Where the Meanings, are.”
            The message of the light cannot be taught nor explained. Its hurt is specific to each soul who encounters it.
            What makes this poem so provocative and so powerful—indeed, this is one of Dickinson’s most widely anthologized and quoted poems—is Dickinson’s judgment that certain moments that open us to the Divine deliver “Despair” rather than hope or joy. A certain slant of winter light accentuates the dead season without delivering warmth. In 1862 when Dickinson wrote this, there was no end in sight to the Civil War. This must have added to any existential depression she may have had.
N. Arizona, winter afternoon
            But I suspect Dickinson was contemplating eternity, death, and salvation here (as in so many of her poems). The “Heavenly Hurt” might not mean that God is afflicting us but that a certain type of light in winter reminds us of the cold, distant cosmos, and of the brevity of human life. There is a winter ahead for each of us. The season is a useful metaphor for death—as are shadows. A certain slant of winter’s light accentuates the shadows as well as the bare trees and bushes.
            Throughout her poetry, Dickinson uses spring, conventionally enough, as a metaphor for re-birth, for life beyond death, and therefore for hope. Winter’s light offers the opposite. Despair is an unforgivable sin, signifying that the sufferer has no belief in either salvation or life after death. Dickinson’s claim that despair is sent from “the Air,” surely a metaphor for heaven, is a bitter one.
            In the last stanza, the world itself seems full of dread. The landscape, although lit with the afternoon sun, nonetheless “listens,” and here we are reminded again of the cathedral tunes, as if something momentous is occurring. The idea is developed further in the next line: “Shadows—hold their breath” knowing that when the light fades, they too will fade, swallowed up by the blackness of night. In the dark nothing can be seen. There is a blankness there, certainly in the distance. And that is what death looks like. The absence of light – the inability to see.
            The poem is both rich and suggestive for all its abstractions. There are no specific details: no taste, touch, color, scent or other sensory elements. Instead we go back and forth between the heavenly realm where the hurtful light originates and from where it gains significance, and the earthly recipients: people—the “us,” the landscape, and shadows. It ends in Death, and that is perhaps the most appropriate way to end a poem about the afternoon light on a winter’s day.