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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.


  1. Her poems are manifestations of this private music, and she know to keep the source of this inspiration secret, so as to keep its power. She is not one of us modern spiritual seekers who has a sublime experience and must a tell all book about it. She knows silence intensifies the power of such glimpses of the source.

  2. The great OM, a "gnome" from 19th century Amherst, who spent the last 20 years of her life in her bedroom, discovered it. Go figure.