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10 December 2012

Taking up the fair Ideal

Taking up the fair Ideal,
Just to cast her down
When a fracture—we discover—
Or a splintered Crown—
Makes the Heavens portable—
And the Gods—a lie—
Doubtless—"Adam"—scowled at Eden—
For his perjury!

Cherishing—our pool Ideal—
Till in purer dress—
We behold her—glorified—
Comforts—search—like this—
Till the broken creatures—
We adored—for whole—
Stains—all washed—
Meet us—with a smile— 

                                                            F386 (1862)  428

The poem charts a transformation of idealism into faith: the first stage is belief in an ideal; next, disillusionment as we collide with earthly reality; then a new way of thinking that learns to see this world as an imperfect image of a better one; and finally, faith that we will be transfigured after death and our beloveds (God, people) transfigured into perfection, too. Here's a bit of explication:
        We begin idealistically. But when we discover a flaw in our "Ideal"--god, or a beloved--we discard it, sadly or angrily casting it down. The flaws also reflect poorly upon Heaven, now seen with a splintered crown. It doesn't seem as permanent and perfected as it did before. Instead it is "portable," as fallible and changeable as we are ourselves. The Gods themselves are lies. Where are they? Why can't a powerful God fix things? (Remember that Dickinson is writing during the Civil War.)  
          Adam, too, the first man, saw the fractures and splinters and no doubt lost his idealism. He and Eve were cast out of their blissful garden after eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. That was a harsh way to learn about Evil—compounded by how his god and creator banished him from Eden to a hard and miserable life for his perjury (sin).
The image, while distorted,  promises
the existence of the "fair Ideal"
          The second stanza provides a new way of viewing painful reality. Why not live in hope that what seems fractured now is but the imperfect reflection of the Ideal. We already know that a reflection in a pool of water is flawed in a way that the real thing is not. The problem is with the medium not the entity. If this sounds very Platonic, it is. 
          The poet takes comfort in this approach. When we die and are in "purer dress" we can then see properly. All will become clear and we will see the beloved, the Gods, or whatever, in their pure state, "mended" from their seeming imperfections. Better yet, they meet us with a smile. No hard feelings! Just love all around.
          The poem may simply be a discussion of the nature of faith, but I also sense the figure of a real person lurking just beneath it. We worship a love object, beloved man or woman, until we see his or her flaws. Then we dump her! But a better approach is to view the beloved as if she were an imperfect reflection of her true and wonderful self. 
          That Dickinson may have been writing about the love of an imperfect person seems particularly indicated by the idea of "the broken creatures— / We adored..." We can take comfort in the thought that someday they will be mended and once more,  smiling and happy, greet us.



  1. Hi Susan, just saw your message on the Magic Lantern Show. You are very welcome to use a photo or two to illustrate a blog post, would just like to ask that you credit the photo, linking back to the post they came from.

    Just out of curiosity, how did you come across my blog, out of the millions of blogs out there ? It always amazes me when people drop in like that. Cheers...

    1. Thanks, Owen. I happily included attribution and link. I found your very wonderful photo via google when looking for something that communicated the distortions of reflections in a pool. But I wanted the distorted object to have its own fascination and beauty.

  2. This is such a wise and loving poem, loving and practical road map for everyone who is trying to reconcile the ideal of perfection that we fail to attain , so therefore feel like a failure, to cherishing the shard that we actually are, in seeing this very incompleteness as whole.

  3. Well said Anonymous. A wise and loving poem. What this poem also brings to light, for me, is some insight into the way Emily's mind works. It would seem that she often works with a seed of an idea in mind, for which she then finds a form. In this case the idea is an inversion. It seems to go something like this: when we have the high expectations of an ideal, then there is a fall. However, when we idealize the low, or "poor", then there is a rise. Or put more simply; we impoverish by idealizing, when we should idealize the impoverished. How do you state this in a novel way that makes it more clear to the reader? How do you form this idea into a poem? In this case, it seems natural to set this inversion up in two stanzas. In each stanza Emily starts with a similar premise, and only varies that premise just a tiny bit, by a word substitute (substitute "poor" ideal for "fair" one). The first stanza sets up the problem and in the second begins the process of transfiguring and mending. Just by switching your gaze from fair to poor. Once you have this structure in place, then Emily can "play" along the way, using the rhyme and meter as a rough guide. You see the play in the way she throws in some wry humor, like "Adam" angry at heaven for his own perjury. That's funny. The fall of man! And you also get these wonderful ideas spinning off the first, like that of a portable heaven. If a false heaven is portable, it belies the kind that transcends our individual selves. There's a rich vein of thought just in that one surprising word choice: "portal".

  4. First, our comments have let Adam off too easily. ED makes that clear with Line 8: “For his perjury”. Adam lied to God; he blamed Eve for his sin of eating the apple, a childish defense that amounts to a lie. Adam himself disobeyed and he knew it (Genesis 12: 1-13 KJV):

    1Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

    2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

    3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

    4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

    5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

    6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

    7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

    8 And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

    9 And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

    10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

    11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

    12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

    13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

  5. ED writes her second letter to Higginson (L261, April 25, 1862):

    “I had a terror-since September-I could tell to none-and so I sing [write poems], as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid-” .

    Franklin dates this poem (F386) “about autumn 1862”.

    Line 1 sets up some sort of “fair Ideal”;
    Line 2 reveals its female gender and “cast down” condition;
    Line 3, “we discover” she has a fault, “a fracture”;
    Line 4, possibly a “splintered Crown”;
    Line 5, maybe Heaven ain’t so dependable;
    Line 6, maybe Gods are a lie;
    Line 7, No doubt Adam blamed Eden;
    Line 8, For his lie to God.

    My take, Level 1 meaning:

    Earlier, ED and Wadsworth had a lovers’ correspondence quarrel, probably religious. ED refused to recant. For whatever reason, Wadsworth decided to relocate to San Francisco, sailing from New York June 1, 1862. ED took it personally, felt he blamed her, like Adam did Eden, for their tiff and punished her by relocating. ED sank into depression, possibly considered suicide.


  6. Stanza 2:

    ED takes a deep breath, sleeps on her hurt a night or two, tries “Cherishing—our pool Ideal—”, our verbal prenup to marry in Heaven, “Till in purer dress / We behold her [ED’s spirit at Heaven’s Gate] —glorified—”.

    Thinking “like this” “comforts” our “search” for meaning in mortal life,

    “Till the broken creatures—
    We adored—for whole—
    Stains—all washed—
    Meet us—with a smile—”.

    Sweet poetry, warms the cockles one’s heart.

  7. Second, SK's choice of Owen's photo as metaphor for Plato's shadows in a cave, perfect; Plato smiles.

    Third, F381's Level 2 meaning:

    SK's penultimate paragraph above reads like a recipe for happiness in dyadic relations, based on 60 years of shared hills and valleys. ED intended this broader reading, I'm positive.

    Fourth, ED's whole homily, SK's penultimate paragraph, on a philosophical Level 3, are wisdom for all of Stephen Jay Gould's magisteria of life: religion, science, philosophy, ethics, etc. (Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, 1999). Perfection is nice, but forgiveness is forever.

    My, my, Emily, see what you have wrought!

  8. By switching genders in the poem's lines, her to him, the poem shifts from Wadsworth to ED as the forgiver and the other as forgiven. ED loved disguise.

  9. It is interesting to compare this poem to Fr785 " It dropped so low — in my Regard — ". I prefer the latter one because "I like a look of Agony, Because I know it's true --".

    It dropped so low — in my Regard —
    I heard it hit the Ground —
    And go to pieces on the Stones
    At bottom of my Mind —

    Yet blamed the Fate that flung it — less
    Than I denounced Myself,
    For entertaining Plated Wares
    Upon My Silver Shelf —