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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.