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25 September 2012

How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand

How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand,
Until a sudden sky
Reveals the fact that One is rapt
Forever from the eye –

Members of the Invisible,
Existing, while we stare,
In Leagueless Opportunity,
O'ertakenless, as the Air–

Why didn't we detain Them?
The Heavens with a smile,
Sweep by our disappointed Heads
Without a syllable –
                                                                                          F342 (1862)  282

Stars sweeping around the night sky
         Dickinson thought often about the body and the soul, about what happens to each after death – if anything. What if a “sudden sky,” however, were to reveal the soul being “rapt” up into heaven? This poem considers such a scenario.
    It begins with both “Men” and “Pleiads” being “noteless” – or clueless about what happens after death (or clueless about the big questions in general). The Pleiads are included, perhaps, because one of the Seven Sisters, Merope, went missing. Actually, this one star is there but rarely visible to the naked eye. But perhaps “a sudden sky” would have a special clarity that allows her to be seen. It might show that she – and the missing dead –  are “rapt”: taken up into heaven and transformed.
    In such a moment of insight and clarity we suddenly realize that in some way all of our dead are “Existing, while we stare” blindly at the sky. It’s one of those camping-out thoughts except that Dickinson says so much more in this poem. The dead, now “Members of the Invisible,” are so far out of our reach that they are overtakenless, just as the air cannot be overtaken. They are no longer limited by the world and by human bodies, but in a state of “Leagueless Opportunity.”
    “Why didn’t we detain Them,” the poet asks. We could learn so much from them. We might be able to keep them around in some form or another. We might just be able to keep them in sight. But the “Heavens” won’t tell. They give a smile and just keep revolving without so much as a “syllable.” It’s a humbling and frustrating thought, but I like the idea of the heavens sweeping by with all the host of “the Invisible” in train, far far from any earthly influence.


  1. I wonder if she is referring not to death and those who have died but her own-- our own-- thoughts, Members of the Invisible, that exist while we stare but can't be grasped, though we try. Heaven can't be grasped because it doesn't even have a syllable. We are left rapt as the sudden sky but speechless. I believe her poems arrive from or are revealed from this sudden sky.

    1. That's a nice way of reading the poem -- adds another layer of thinking.

  2. She seems to understand the idea of averted vision- where due to the rods and cones in the eye, it is often impossible to “see” something “while we stare” directly at it, making it “overtake less” unless we see it “slant”. Viewing the Pleiades is the typical experiment people use to illustrate the phenomenon. She may have been aware of this because of her eye troubles and dealing with ophthalmologists, do you think?

    1. That's interesting -- I never knew anything about the Pleiades experiment. I can't speak as to what would be known about it to her and to her time.

      But I did realize I muffed the first line on 'noteless': it means here 'undistinguished' or 'unnoticed' (Lexicon). That makes the Merope reference more plausible.

  3. Once "noteless" is understood as "unnoticed" or "overlooked," not clueless, much in stanza one comes clear. We overlook other human beings (Men) and heavenly bodies (Pleiades), unless a sudden sky reveals their absence. I wonder if Dickinson had in mind the simple phenomenon whereby daylight obscures starlight. The analogy squints a bit, because sunlight doesn't make humans disappear, but a light that reveals/conceals is still a poignant paradox. The killer tonal turn takes place with the plaintive "Why didn't we detain Them?" Before that, the speaker's pretty disinterested. A variant, "retain," pierces even deeper. Heaven, of course, don't answer (to borrow one of Dickinson's lovely and deliberate solecisms).

    1. In re-reading the poem with your insightful notes in mind, I fastened on the line 'Existing, while we stare'. There's a sort of reverberation between seeing/noting and existence. On earth, light enables seeing; in the heavens, light must be behind the subject to be visible to earth; otherwise, as you point out, sunlight conceals rather than reveals.

      And that reminds me of my most recent post, Fr 679, where
      'Sunrise grows so near
      That We can touch the Spaces'

      What becomes visible becomes tangible