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06 August 2012

A shady friend – for Torrid days –

A shady friend—for Torrid days—
Is easier to find—
Than one of higher temperature
For Frigid—hour of Mind—

The Vane a little to the East—
Scares Muslin souls—away—
If Broadcloth Hearts are firmer—
Than those of Organdy—

Who is to blame?  The Weaver?
Ah, the bewildering thread!
The Tapestries of Paradise
So notelessly—are made!
                                                           F 306 (1862)  278

Part of Dickinson’s art is how she can use some of the most common objects to  make an abstract or philosophical point. In this poem she points to temperament differences among people and intrinsic gender differences between men and women, suggesting that “The Weaver” is “to blame.” That puts Dickinson squarely on the side of Nature rather than Nurture. We are how our creator made us.
            In each of the first two stanzas the poet compares two types of people, one type superior in some way to the other. “Shady” friends are compared to those of “higher temperature.” The shady (in the ‘giving shade’ sense rather than the ‘disreputable’ sense) friends are more plentiful. You’d want one of them to provide relief from days of emotional distress or when feelings run high. Going out with a good-time Sally or Tom can help take your mind off your problems. Their good spirits help cool the “Torrid” emotions. The metaphor is of taking shelter from the hot sun beneath a shade tree or umbrella.
            Friends with “higher temperature” have a more difficult task. The “Frigid—hour of Mind” is one of emotional paralysis or depression. The sufferer is cold and numb. That Dickinson struggled with this herself might be inferred from “Speech is a Prank of Parliament,” where “the Heart with the heaviest freight on – / Doesn't – always – move – (F193); or in F308, “I breathed enough to take the Trick,” where she writes as someone going through the motions of life, while inside the “Lungs are stirless”: the “Bellows” feel “numb.”  
            The sort of friend needed here vibrant and warm; a bit of their life can spill over into the “Frigid” friend. I suspect that for many people the “good-time Sally” is vibrant and warm and lively enough, but Dickinson’s unsparing intelligence and intensity would require someone with a fine mind, strong spirit, and plenty of heart.
Individual threads have no way of knowing how
 they fit in the overall tapestry
            In the next stanza the poet uses fabric to contrast the courage of men and women. When the nor’easters blow, women in their delicate muslins and organdy dresses run for shelter. Men, in their sturdier broadcloth suits are “firmer.” The last two lines of this stanza go with the first of the next. If men are braver, who is “to blame”? Did “The Weaver” make them this way, as he made the Leopard (276)? We’ll never know why one thread was used versus another, or why the tapestry pattern is as it is. Heaven lacks transparency, to use a modern term. The notes aren’t available to us here.
            Perhaps C.S. Lewis had been reading Dickinson when he wrote his space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), for he ends with the image of human lives unknowingly weaving a divine tapestry, each thread unaware of its roll in the pattern. It is a view of life that offers a great deal of rational satisfaction. 


  1. "Muslin" - hand woven, delicate and sheer, "broadcloth" thick, dense and heavy. Which friend is going to help you survive the storm?

  2. Broadcloth is thick and warm. Muslin and Organdy are sheer and cool. Broadcloth may refer to friends of "higher temperature." They are the stronger friends who will stick by your side when the storm, the east wind, hits. Muslin and Organdy may refer to to "shady friends," who may be thought of as fair weather friends. Easy to come by, but scared away by the storm.

    1. Yes, I think this is the implied connection between the first and second stanza. Though it seems "torrid" would imply something other than "fair weather"?

      I'm not sure what the point of the last stanza is. But there's probably something going on in Emily's thinking in this here that I'm missing. There so often is. "Notelessly" is noteworthy though.

      This thread of "thread" metaphor in her poetry seems worth exploring. I'm thinking of the sheer gossamer and tulle in "Because I could not stop for death" for one such instance.

  3. Master Letter draft F3 (J2), about 1861: “God made me- [Sir] Master-I did'nt be-myself. I dont know how it was done. He built the heart in me".

  4. Hmmm, muslin/broadcloth = female/male? Tread that minefield carefully.

  5. 1. It’s easier to find a calming friend on manic days than a cheerful friend on depressed days.

    2. When cold nor’easters of depression strike, timid “friends” avoid us, courageous hearts stay by our side.

    3. Who’s to blame? God? No one knows how God chooses our personality when he creates us.

    Susan K scores again, for ED it’s Nature over Nurture hands down.