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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. 


  1. Thank you for the context of war and those potential connections. I'm zooming on her search for Jesus, and knocking everywhere, not being able to find his chamber. This seems the expression of the sky-like mind she has discovered in past poems, where Jesus dwells nowhere, so can't be found anywhere, creates very precise Earthquakes in the South and Maelstrom in the Sea.

    I see ED's insight that sometimes transcends individual identity as incomplete in this poem, still searching for some way of being protected or comforted .

    1. Yes, thanks for the War context.

      Seems to me that the repetition of "is left" also suggests an echo, which in turn suggests that the poet is speaking in a big empty house--or universe.

  2. Wonderful comments! What a privilege to read them. Thank you Susan for making this possible!

    Larry B

  3. Henry Beecher, an 1830 graduate of Amherst C0llege, gave graduation lectures there in 1851 and 1862, “Imagination” and “Storm and Earthquake”. ED attended his lecture in 1851 and probably in 1862.

    ED’s reference to the Civil War, followed by her flippant tone of the last two lines, ring thoughtless and self-absorbed to my ear. Austin paid a young man $600 to take his place in the draft. The Dickinsons gave much to Amherst and were privileged members of its upper crust. ED’s tone reflects their sense of entitlement. We fans can only repeat the mantra, “For better and for worse”.