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30 November 2012

All the letters I can write

All the letters I can write
Are not fair as this—
Syllables of Velvet—
Sentences of Plush,
Depths of Ruby, undrained,
Hid, Lip, for Thee—
Play it were a Humming Bird—
And just sipped—me—
                                                            F380 (1862)  334

Velvety and alluring rose
This poem was part of a letter to Dickinson’s cousin, Eudocia Flynt, after Flynt’s visit in 1862. The first two sentences said, “Dear Mrs. Flint, You and I, didn’t finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?” The poem followed, and a fresh rose was included.
            Red roses are—and were then—symbols of love and passion. Judith Farr (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson) says these deep ruby roses were the old “Deep Cup” roses—“extremely alluring in color and fragrance.” Their texture, by Dickinson’s lines alone, must have been (are?) “Plush” and velvety.
           The line “Hid, Lip, for Thee—” is a bit difficult. I read it as follows: the ruby rose is “undrained” because the poet did not drink it herself—did not inhale its odor—but saved it for the recipient, Mrs. Flynt.  The lip of the rose was shyly hiding “for Thee.” Strictly speaking, a flower’s lip (labellum—yes, the same Latin word from which we get “labia”) is part of an orchid rather than a rose. It is the beautiful landing-platform petal that attracts pollinators. The beautiful rose, then, is virginal and pure—and alluring.

         If that sounds a bit sexual, so does the last part. Dickinson suggests that Flynt play with the rose as if she were a hummingbird sipping (again the cross-sensory imagery of drinking/sipping for smelling/inhaling) the rose. Except that Dickinson writes “me” rather than “rose”!  I suppose this might be construed as Flynt should smell the rose as a hummingbird might sip from it, and imagine that she is giving her cousin a kiss. It’s that lip/labellum part that might have given Flynt pause—and caused her to write a bit excitedly in her diary: “Had a letter from Emily Dickinson!!!!”
Alluring lip (labellum) of an orchid

The Grass so little has to do—

The Grass so little has to do—
A Sphere of simple Green—
With only Butterflies to brood,
And Bees, to entertain—

And stir all day to pretty tunes
The Breezes fetch along,
And hold the Sunshine, in its lap
And bow to everything,

And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearl,
And make itself so fine
A Duchess were too common 
For such a noticing,

And even when it die, to pass
In Odors so divine—
As lowly spices, laid to sleep—
Or Spikenards perishing—

And then to dwell in Sovereign Barns,
And dream the Days away, 
The Grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a Hay—

                                                            F379 (1862)  333

This dreamy poem is one of my favorites. Dickinson’s portrayal of grass is simple, beautiful, and very idealistic. She takes us to that little fairy land that anyone who grew up with English story books would find familiar: lush, untrammelled grass and, nearby, a rustic barn loaded with fragrant hay. The Fairy Queen, or perhaps a 30-some woman much like Dickinson, is lying on a rise in the meadow resting in profound enjoyment. The poem seems like a daydream taken from that quiet vantage.
         Time stands still at the beginning of the poem. The day passes, but for the grass it has just been to “brood” some caterpillars into butterflies, to tickle the low-flying bumblebees, and move to the “pretty tune” that the breezes “fetch along” as they travel through the woods and meadow. At night they turn the condensate into pearls of dew drops that gleam and glow as the sun rises. With such riches and beauty a duchess could ride by and not attract a single glance.
         Dickinson turns from her elegy to live grass to one for dead grass, or hay. There is the suggestion, I think, that hay is more than a graceful corporeal ending to the green and growing grass. Rather, it stands for what comes after death. Although quite a few of Dickinson’s poems suggest or claim that both body and soul will be resurrected in an afterlife, this poem suggests a more homely and naturalistic ending. Again, Dickinson idealizes. Just as the grass was perfect, unmarred by dead patches or weeds, or gouged-out areas, so her hay is as sweet-smelling as any spice. It’s true, though. Good hay has a powerfully heady smell.
         The first two lines of the last stanza are romantically serene and wistfully indulgent.  The hay dwells “in Sovereign Barns” to “dream the Days away.” This may be the poet’s idea of heaven. In “Papa above!” she wants to be “Snug in seraphic Cupboards / To nibble all the day” like a tiny mouse.  In this poem she imagines her heaven not as a city of marble and pearl but as a familiar and comforting barn. Another bit of heaven: she wouldn’t have tasks to do, like caring for her increasingly incapacitated mother, cooking for her austere father, and other household duties. She would do what she most wants to do: “dream the Days away.” Dream and then write poems. A poet’s heaven.
         Adding to the calm serenity of the poem are the regular meter of the stanzas (common ballad—her most usual form) and the fairly tight rhyme scheme. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are rhymed—slant rhymes except for the last pair. Look at the list of these rhyming words: lots of "ee" sounds along with “eye,” “r," and “g."
          Green    along    fine    divine
          entertain    everything    noticing    perishing   

It is a family of sounds. A word like “baby” or “sand” would stand out as different. And that’s what the last two rhymes do: “away” and “hay” make an exact rhyme in an entirely different palette of sounds. Their long “a” lingers just as we sense the poet lingering in the barn and meadow whenever she can. 

28 November 2012

Better—than Music!

Better—than Music!  
For I—who heard it—
I was used—to the Birds—before—
This—was different—'Twas Translation—
Of all tunes I knew—and more— 
'Twasn't contained—like other stanza—
No one could play it—the second time—
But the Composer—perfect Mozart—
Perish with him—that Keyless Rhyme!  
Children—so—told how Brooks in Eden—
Bubbled a better—Melody—
Quaintly infer—Eve's great surrender—
Urging the feet—that would—not—fly— 
Children—matured—are wiser—mostly—
Eden—a legend—dimly told—
Eve—and the Anguish—Grandame's story—
But—I was telling a tune—I heard— 
Not such a strain—the Church—baptizes—
When the last Saint—goes up the Aisles—
Not such a stanza splits the silence—
When the Redemption strikes her Bells— 
Let me not spill—its smallest cadence—
Humming—for promise—when alone—
Humming—until my faint Rehearsal—
Drop into tune—around the Throne—
                                                                                          F378 (1862)  503

Oh good—a difficult one! And a lovely, thoughtful one. Bonus: music theme. I want to just walk through the poem, thinking as I go, for it is after a late dinner and good wine and my brain is roly-poly relaxed.
                  The poet has experienced another transcendental moment. Dickinson has in earlier poems described these moments in terms of music—as do many of our saints and mystics. Music has the power to exalt, excite, calm, and transport. Certainly a sensitive genius like Dickinson would be particularly moved by it—and interpret mystical or transcendental or spiritual experiences in terms of music. We see in “Musicians wrestle everywhere” that she is generally aware of a “silver strife” that signifies something wonderful and eternal—and mysterious. In “Of all the Sounds despatched abroad” she discusses the “fleshless Chant” that is “gotten not of fingers— / And inner than the Bone” that very few people are allowed to hear (really only “Gods—and me).
                  But while those earlier moments reflected a sort of music that the poet could often tap into, this time she heard something “Better—than Music!” It was more than birds or music she’d heard before. It wasn’t structured; no one could play it again. The composer was a “perfect Mozart” and the music would “Perish with him.” In short, whatever she heard was a rare and unique experience that left her very moved.
Mozart's music--also a great gift.

                  The poem then takes a bit of a meander. The natural music of Eden was better than the natural music of our fallen world—or at least that’s what children are taught. They “quaintly” attribute the diminishment of the world to Eve’s fall from grace, her “great surrender.” And though the children might wish to fly, they can’t. Perhaps if Eve had been a good girl they might fly like little cherubs! But then Dickinson contrasts that simplistic belief to the “wiser” scepticism of adult. Eden and Eve’s “Anguish” are old legends, something a grandmother would talk about. In other words, the music wasn’t grander or purer then. The world is not diminished.
                  Dickinson pulls herself back into her poem’s topic of the poem—the wondrous sounds she heard. The church, she claims could never produce such music, not during baptism nor even when for the “last Saint” making his or her way up the church aisle (before Resurrection, I suppose).
                  And now I’ve reached the last stanza and it’s a lovely one, a soft and earnest prayer. We see that the poet has received a great gift – the music, greater than anything in the world or even anything that might be heard on Redemption day—was for her alone. She understands how precious it is, and how private, she is going to guard against anyone else hearing it. The “smallest cadence” must not be spilled into the common air. She will hum and hum the music she heard—but only when alone—until the time when she has died, gone somehow to heaven, and approaches the throne of God. Then all her humming, her “faint Rehearsal,” will “Drop into tune” and the music take on its proper glory.
                  If I have read this poem correctly, it is like her triumphal poems where she celebrates her poetic gift: “My Reward for Being, was this,” and “For this—accepted Breath,” for example. Dickinson gave up much in her life for poetry, but in poems like these we see her supreme confidence in her gift. I don’t find this arrogant and proud, for she is not praising her cleverness or greatness. Instead, she feels (at least sometimes) magnificently transported and exceedingly grateful for the experience.

25 November 2012

At least—to pray—is left—is left—

At least—to pray—is left—is left—
Oh Jesus—in the Air—
I know not which thy chamber is—
I'm knocking—everywhere—

Thou settest Earthquake in the South—
And Maelstrom, in the Sea—
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth—
Hast thou no Arm for Me?
                                                                                          F377 (1862)  502

There is not much one can do against superstorms and earthquakes: ask survivors of Hurricane Sandy or the Christchurch earthquake (I pick that one because I was living there at the time). But, as the poet points out, one can pray. Dickinson doesn’t evidence a great deal of faith in prayer, however. She begins by saying “At least” there is prayer—as if it is a last rather than a first resort (as, I suppose, it should be if one holds to the “God helps those who help themselves” philosophy). But why the limp-sounding “is left—is left—”? It’s as if there is a mantra Dickinson is repeating, a reminder that one shouldn’t give up, that there is always prayer.
                  Yet “left” is so frequently associated with the phrases “left behind” and “left over” that drawing attention to the word by repeating it seems to invite a sort of dismal sense of hopelessness at the very beginning of the poem. The next lines do nothing to dispel this mood. Jesus is “in the Air” rather than in Heaven or something else more exalted sounding. And who knows where he is. The poet doesn’t. She’s been knocking everywhere. Apparently there has been no answer. So perhaps prayer has been tried but seems unsuccessful or at the very least, unsatisfying, as if one has been knocking on the door to an empty room.
                  David Preest quotes Dickinson biographer Richard Sewall as wondering if the poem doesn’t reflect Dickinson’s fear that her brother would be drafted to fight in the Civil War. 
Henry Ward Beecher in a speech at Amherst College in the year of this poem had described the Civil War as ‘the storm in the North and the earthquake in the South.’”
The last two lines return to the flippant tone. “Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” she writes. She’s calling him out—using all his names. She might as well have written “Hey, Jesus,” rather than “Say, Jesus.” Then she almost demands to know whether or not Jesus would have an “Arm” for her. By this I think she means either a strong, protective arm or an army. I lean to the latter. If you can set armies to fight down in the South, she might be saying, why can’t you spare an army for me?

No wonder he isn’t answering her knocking!

As a note on Civil War recruiting, by the end of 1862, Massachussetts had sent a lot of men off to war, many of whom had died. Consequently there was a big recruitment push. The Union had been losing battles but had finally found a victory at Antietam in September 1862. This is when Lincoln first announced the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps in an effort to bolster recruitment by elevating the cause for which the Union was fighting. Austin Dickinson never was drafted, although he did, I think, pay for someone else to go. 

24 November 2012

'Twas the old—road—through pain—

'Twas the old—road—through pain—
That unfrequented—One—
With many a turn—and thorn—
That stops—at Heaven—

This—was the Town—she passed—
There—where she—rested—last—
Then—stepped more fast—
The little tracks—close prest—
Then—not so swift—
Slow—slow—as feet did weary—grow—
Then—stopped—no other track!

Wait!  Look!  Her little Book—
The leaf—at love—turned back—
Her very Hat—
And this worn shoe just fits the track—

Another bed—a short one—
Women make—tonight—
In Chambers bright—
Too out of sight—though—
For our hoarse Good Night—
To touch her Head!
                                                                                          F376  (1862)  344

I can’t say this poem holds much fascination, although it is pleasant enough. Dickinson begins with a conventional enough metaphor: life as a road that twists and turns on its way to Heaven. Of course, the road whose destination is heaven is “That unfrequented—One.” The road to hell, no doubt, has more travellers.
                  The second stanza describes a bit of the journey: the town she lived in, the house where she died. We see the passage of time through her footprints—running at first, then slower with age until finally stopped entirely.
                  But then Dickinson changes voice. The quiet, deathbed voice changes to a bit of wonder. The mourners seize upon a few things in the room. There is a book, a page on love marked by a folded corner. Maybe it was a book of poems or perhaps the Bible—which does have passages here and there about love. And then they remark on the hat and the shoes. Very sentimental.

                  The final stanza sees the dead woman up in heaven where heavenly hands prepare her bed. She’s now too far away for the mourners’ “Good Night” to reach her.
                  These death poems were popular in Dickinson’s day. Indeed, one of Dickinson’s central concerns was that liminal space between life, death, and what comes—or does not come—next. This poem doesn’t rank among her most searching or original, but no doubt it was passed on to friends or acquaintances who enjoyed it.

Longfellow, alive and famous during Dickinson's lifetime, wrote the famous line "Footprints on the sands of time," in his poem "A Psalm of Life."  Here's the verse the line is taken from that poem:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time

21 November 2012

My Reward for Being, was this—

My Reward for Being, was this—
My Premium—My Bliss—
An Admiralty, less—
A Sceptre—penniless—
And Realms—just Dross—

When Thrones—accost my Hands—
With "Me—Miss—Me"—
I'll unroll—Thee –
Sufficient Dynasty—
To Peer this Grace—
Too little—Dust—
To Dower—so Great—
                                                                                          F375 (1862)  343

In this celebration of her poetic gift—destiny, really, Dickinson reprises her poem from the year before, “For this—accepted Breath.” In both poems she compares an unspecified “this” with the most exalted states and finds “this” to be superior. I, and other readers, interpret “this” as referring to her poetry and poems by fact of her biography and by reading the poems deductively. It just makes sense.
                  Poetry, for Dickinson, was her “Reward for Being.” Shouldn’t we all be so lucky! But then few people are as aware of what being alive in the world means as Dickinson and our other great poets. I suppose this hyper awareness is part of what fuels the poetic genius. Poetry is also her “Premium” and her “Bliss.”
                  Reading the poem reminds me a bit of skiing on moguls: you zoom down a hill only touching ground from top to top of the bumps. In this and other Dickinson poems we touch the meaning through the surfaced words. We make out the underlying geography by filling in the gaps. Using this technique, I fill in some gaps as follows (putting the poem in prose, Emily forgive me):
My reward for being fully alive, my premium for my efforts, my bliss—is my poetry. An Admiralty would be worth less; a king’s fortune and kingdom worthless by comparison. When the world comes begging for my attention, begging “Here, me! Miss – take me!”, no matter how glorious their attractions, I’ll simply unroll my poems. They are my dynasty, not some heirs. Even the glories of the world around me—the garden, birds and other creatures of Creation, are not true peers of the grace I’ve been given as a poet. Empires and great states are small, just dust, in comparison to the great dowery of poetry.
Scepters, kingdoms? Nothing, compared to poetry

If this sounds a bit puffed up, we should cut the poet some slack. Just glance back at the very depths of despair she can experience (as recent examples, “The Soul had Bandaged moments,” It was not Death, for I stood up,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) and it becomes apparent that although she does seem capable of wild swings from agony to ecstasy, it is poetry that sustains her in both states. Besides, I believe a strong case can be made for poetry being a nobler, grander, and more enduring gift than that of any crown or kingdom. Shakespeare, anyone? Homer? Milton?
                  The poem has a visual and metric compactness that mirrors it’s abbreviated—all right, sketchy—grammar. The lines are short and except for the first line, do not go beyond three poetic feet (six syllables). Dickinson creates rhyming lines much more than usual. In the first stanza, all of the rhymes are to “this”—perhaps a way of emphasizing the word. The second stanza is less regular but there are two primary rhyme clusters: Me, Thee, Dynasty; and the slant rhymes of Grace, State, Dust, Great. In that last string, the slant rhymes depend on the long “a” sound—except for “Dust” which finds its echos in the “t” sounds of State and Great. Dust is the odd word out here—fittingly because it is the lowliest word among them.

An alternate version, written earlier in the year according to Franklin, has the lines following “Creation—powerless—” as follows:
Dominions dowerless—beside this Grace—
The Ballots of Eternity, will show just that.

I’m glad she revised the poem as “The Ballots of Eternity” sounds a bit too hackneyed.

19 November 2012

It will be Summer—eventually

It will be Summer—eventually.
Ladies—with parasols—
Sauntering Gentlemen—with Canes—
And little Girls—with Dolls—

Will tint the pallid landscape—
As 'twere a bright Bouquet—
Thro' drifted deep, in Parian—
The Village lies—today—

The Lilacs—bending many a year—
Will sway with purple load—
The Bees—will not despise the tune—
Their Forefathers—have hummed—

The Wild Rose—redden in the Bog—
The Aster—on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion—set—
And Covenant Gentians—frill—

Till Summer folds her miracle—
As Women—do—their Gown—
Or Priests—adjust the Symbols—
When Sacrament—is done –
                                                                                          F374 (1862)  342

The poem starts out sweetly: Don’t be discouraged, summer will indeed come on schedule, despite the cold, snow-covered landscape ("Parian" refers to a marble famed for its fine-grained white purity). We see a summer scene sketched out for us: families out for a stroll in their colorful dress, lilacs heavy with purple flowers, bees humming along as they have every summer, and vibrant flowers bringing the hills to life.
Parian marble blocks, Paros Island
Photo: Katerina Lorenzatos Makris

                  The last stanza presents two metaphors for summer. The first is sweet and lovely: Summer can fold and unfold her colors and pretty scenes just as ladies do their gowns. The second is pure Dickinson—a twist with a zing that reverberates on a much deeper level than what has gone before. Following hard on the delicate heels of the careful housewife is the Priest who puts up the communion sets and robes when the service is over.
                  Questions linger, as no doubt Dickinson intended they should. Is the Priest merely acting as the prudent housewife who packs away the winter gowns in spring to protect them? After all, the communion tray and glasses, extra wafers and wine shouldn’t just be left out on the altar. Or is Dickinson suggesting that life itself is like a season and religious symbols are adjusted to represent that? Birth is a spring, of course; old age and death, winter. The sacraments of baptism, marriage, and final communion reflect these seasons.
I also can read in this ambiguous ending the slight suggestion that the symbols are like small toys. The phrase “adjust the Symbols” seems like a small game, a boy putting his toy soldiers away after a mock battle. Life and the seasons sweep on carrying us with them and never revealing themselves. Good housewives adopt practices to match (I’m speaking from the 1800s, not being sexist). Good priests—and church liturgies, sacraments, and rituals should do the same.
As Dickinson said in the previous poem, “… through a Riddle, at the last— / Sagacity, must go—”.  In the meantime, we hunker down in winter and welcome spring.