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24 August 2012

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!

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