Many a phrase has the English language—
I have heard but one—
Low as the laughter of the Cricket,
Loud, as the Thunder's Tongue—
Murmuring, like old Caspian Choirs,
When the Tide's a' lull—
Saying itself in new inflection—
Like a Whippoorwill—
Breaking in bright Orthography
On my simple sleep—
Thundering its Prospective—
Till I stir, and weep—
Not for the Sorrow, done me—
But the push of Joy—
Say it again, Sexton!
Hush—Only to me!
F333 (1862) 276
Dickinson returns again to a theme she introduced in “Musicians wrestle everywhere” and “The Love a Life can show Below.” In the former, she hears “the silver strife” throughout the day and speculates at what the source of the sound might be. While it suggests the music of the spheres or some heavenly chorus, Dickinson ultimately has no answer. In the latter poem, she speaks of a “diviner thing” that is hinted at in music and makes itself known on summer days and sunsets. It
…–invites – appalls – endows –
Flits – glimmers – proves – dissolves –
Returns – suggests – convicts – enchants –
Then – flings in Paradise –
Here she provides more Zen-like similes but delves into this pervasive cosmic message through the lens of language. Unlike English, where one can spin out sentence after sentence, unfolding idea after idea or chit after chat, this message has only one “phrase.” It is “Saying itself” as if in some glorious universal affirmation. Although what she hears can bring her from a deep sleep into tears, her weeping isn’t “for the Sorrow” but rather is “the push of Joy.”
Almost by definition, mystics, great poets, the holy and the enlightened, see and hear more than the rest of us. The cosmos unfolds for a rare few in the smallest manifestations of the everyday world. The rest of us may have an occasional transcendent moment but mystics come in from the desert, out from under the Bodhi tree, down from the mountain, or out of their private spaces with a wisdom that must be spoken in parable, metaphor, or through myth.
|Dickinson often seems attuned to the
music of the cosmos
In this poem, Dickinson hears the message of the Cosmos—or God—everywhere: from cricket calls to thunder, from the chanting waves of a great sea to the Whippoorwill whose song says its own name and thus becomes the central metaphor of the poem. A nocturnal bird, the whippoorwill breaks through her dreams in “bright Orthography.” His song continues, “Thundering its Prospective.” There are numerous meanings of “Prospective”: “potential,” “pleasurable anticipation,” “prophecy,” “innocence,” and—in a play on words—“perspective.” Dickinson, I think, means for us to read the word in all these meanings.
The song of the night bird suggests the seductive mystery of death, but also resurrection. The bird sings through the night and into the dawn of a new day. And just as death is a prelude to resurrection, the poet looks back on life and “the Sorrow, done me,” but then looks beyond it as the song brings her “the push of Joy.”
In “I can wade Grief,” Dickinson used the same phrase but in a more pedestrian situation. In that poem she notes that while she negotiates the griefs of life quite well,
the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—
And I tip—drunken—
The current poem is an exploration of a deeper sort of joy, one that borders on the ecstatic. Continuing with the whippoorwill metaphor, she asks the bird to “Say it again,” but quietly and “Only to me!” She appropriately refers to the bird as Sexton, for just as the sexton would tend the graveyard where the dead await resurrection, the bird tends the night and ushers in the day.
But why does she enjoin the bird to sing for her ears only? Her request would make perfect sense in an alternate reading of this poem where she is thinking of words of love from a lover. Yes, don’t tell anyone else you love me! But the lines are more opaque if, as I do, one feels the poem is getting at a cosmic affirmation. This interpretation is not without foundation: Dickinson is often in love with her own often delirious and secret joys. She tastes “a liquor never brewed,” until, tipsy, she is “Leaning against—the Sun!” She enjoys being the solitary human ear at naturalistic holy services in her orchard. She truly seems to revel in a personal mysticism as indicated in the poem “It’s like the Light” where she speaks in riddles about some divine essence manifest in nature.
But perhaps most telling is the first stanza from the next poem, “Of all the Sounds dispatched abroad,” where the first stanza says
Of all the Sounds despatched abroad
There's not a Charge to me
Like that old measure in the Boughs—
That Phraseless Melody—
The Wind does—working like a Hand--
Whose fingers comb the Sky—
Then quiver down—with tufts of tune—
Permitted Gods—and me—