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18 December 2013

We'll pass without the parting

We'll pass without the parting
So to spare
Certificate of Absence —
Deeming where

I left Her I could find Her
If I tried —
This way, I keep from missing
Those that died.

                                                                           F503 (1863)  J996

This good-by poem ends a little oddly, I think. The poem was written to a friend; Johnson's anthology of Dickinson's poems includes the following preface:

"On the occasion of Mrs. Maria Avery Howard’s departure from Amherst after a visit, Emily’s good-by was embodied in the following lines, accompanied by an oleander blossom tied with black ribbon."

I do not know who Mrs. Howard is, but perhaps a scholar out there can inform us.

At any rate, the poem has a droll, tongue-in-cheek quality to it at least up until those final lines. Dickinson achieves this through the lawyerly "Certificate of Absence" that the she seeks to avoid. A formal goodby is just too conclusive and sad. In lieu of this 'certificate' the poet prefers her friend to simply slip away. That way, she can convince herself Mrs. Howard is still right where she was when last they were together.
    The second stanza completes the thought of the first, but changes voice from first person plural (the "we" of Dickinson and Mrs. Howard) to a first-person voice that refers to the departing friend in the third person. The poem began with a "We" and abruptly switches to "I" and "Her." That's a real break – and Dickinson gives a stanza break right there to emphasize it. The droll tone is maintained: The poet likes to think that her friend, like a good book, can always be picked up from where it was laid down. But that's only half of the second stanza! In the last two lines Dickinson pulls back even further from her focus on Mrs. Howard and makes the rather alarming claim (alarming if you were the recipient) that this is a technique she finds helpful when people die.
The lines seem offhand, almost deadpan, as the light irony takes a sudden nosedive. The idea of friends embalmed in a memory place so that it doesn't matter if they die seems a bit dark and delusional to me.

My first response to the poem was one of shock. Maria Avery Howard was certainly alive when she read those lines. And why the black ribbon? Judith Farr, in The Gardens of Emily
Oleander: lovely and poisonous
Dickinson, says that "By sending the blossom from an oleander (known to be a tough plant) tied with black ribbon to a departing friend, Emily Dickinson may have been suggesting the endurance of their affection." Somehow this doesn't seem convincing to me. The gesture and the final line seem bitter and dismissive. All parts of the oleander are poisonous, something Dickinson, a knowledgeable and widely admired gardener, would surely know – as no doubt Maria Avery Howard would know.
    There is certainly no glossing over the black ribbon. In "The Color of the Grave is Green" (F424, J411, 1862), Dickinson writes that although the outside of the grave is grassy green, and the grave itself is white, "The Color of the Grave within" is black. "You've seen the Color – maybe – / Upon a Bonnet bound…." What binds the bonnet of a grieving Victorian woman would be a black ribbon, bringing us back to the ribbon tying the oleander. Is it possible that this poem is saying "You are dead to me now?"

Readers, I suspect I'm misreading this poem. What do you think?

10 December 2013

Life is death we're lengthy at

Life is death we're lengthy at,
Death the hinge to life.
                            F502 (1863)

Dickinson included this aphorism in a letter to her cousins (L281) in May 1863. Franklin, and no doubt others, have classified it as a poem. It's a juicy couple of lines and bears scrutiny. In the letter's preceding passage, Dickinson informs her beloved young cousins, Fanny and Louisa, that Mrs. Edward Hitchcock, has died.

Jennie Hitchcock's mother was buried yesterday, so there is one orphan more, and her father is very sick besides. My father and mother went to the service, and mother said while the minister prayed, a hen with her chickens came up, and tried to fly into the window. I suppose the dead lady used to feed them, and they wanted to bid her good-by.
    Life is death we're lengthy at, death the hinge to life.
Love from all, Emily

The purpose of the remarks is clearly consolatory. The message is conventional enough: The dead woman is now in a better place. Dickinson's aphorism conveys this by blurring the boundaries between life and death. Life is a process of dying – one that begins at birth. A more true life, she suggests, begins once death is complete. It is then that the door to eternal life opens. It would not open if not for the "hinge" of death.

Dickinson had written many poems by this time that include references to eternity. Some of them describe or allude to a Christian heaven complete with saints and angels. Others, though, are less sanguine. The dead seem to wait forever in their tombs, as in F124, "Safe in their alabaster chambers," where "Firmaments – row –" and "Worlds scoop their Arcs" while "the meek members of the Resurrection" sleep away in their tombs.
         But that is not the comforting note she strikes with her younger cousins. She wrote them a year earlier after their father's death and included a longer poem with another reference to death as a door to life.
It is not dying hurts us so, –
'Tis living hurts us more;
But dying is a different way,
A kind, behind the door, –
        F528, J335

The idea of death opening the door to heaven is common enough. But Dickinson expresses it powerfully in her concise aphorism. She does not say "heaven," it should be noted; only "life." Such life is to be joyfully anticipated, she implies, but she stops short of calling forth the image of Christian heaven.

Emily Dickinson's Birthday Today!

I found this lovely tribute to Dickinson in my inbox this morning, courtesy of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. You can find it here.

O.A. Bullard, artist. The Dickinson children. 
(Emily on the left). 1840. Harvard Collection.
Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.
It's the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She was a bright, spirited girl who loved to be outside. She had a close-knit group of girl friends, and together they would explore the woods around Amherst, picking flowers, meeting people, helping with the final cooking down of maple syrup in the spring, and going for long walks. They read the Atlantic Monthly, admiring some of the poets and laughing at others, and they joined a Shakespeare club and then protested when their male tutors tried to cross out all the inappropriate parts from their books. This group of friends started a school newspaper, and Emily — considered the class wit — wrote the "comic column." At recess each day, a group gathered around Emily to listen to the funny stories she would invent on the spot. There were valentine parties, receptions, sleigh rides, and dances with cake and lemonade. A friend described Emily: "Her eyes were lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head [...] She had a demure manner which brightened easily into fun [...] She was exquisitely neat and careful in her dress, and always had flowers about her." Emily herself wrote to a friend: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I will have crowds of admirers at that age."

When she was 16, Dickinson left for boarding school at Mt. Holyoke Academy, which drew students from all over the country. She wrote about her new school: "On the whole, there is an ease and grace, a desire to make one another happy, which delights and at the same time, surprises me very much." She was enthusiastic about the curriculum, with its emphasis on experiential science. But the religious atmosphere of Mt. Holyoke was intense. New England was experiencing a Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening, and Mt. Holyoke encouraged students to publicly declare their commitment to Christ. The girls were separated into three groups: those who declared their faith, those who had hope of conversion, and those without hope. Girls cried when they were labeled "no hope." Of 234 students, Dickinson was one of 80 who started the year in the "no hope" category, and one of just 29 who ended the year that way. She wrote to a friend: "There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject." She left Mt. Holyoke after one year, and no one knows the reason for sure — she had been ill, or the religious demands were too intense, or her family didn't believe in educating her further. In any case, the religious pressure continued at home, and most of her friends and family converted. She wrote to a friend: "How lonely this world is growing, something so desolate creeps over the spirit and we don't know its name, and it won't go away, either Heaven is seeming greater, or Earth a great deal more small [...] Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless. Abby, Mary, Jane, and farthest of all my Vinnie have been seeking, and they all believe they have found; I can't tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?"

For a while, Dickinson remained actively engaged in Amherst's social life, going to parties and entertaining visitors. But she grew more depressed after the deaths of several close friends and family members, and she slowly withdrew from social gatherings. She wrote lots of letters, but she rarely left her home, and spoke with visitors through a closed door. She spent much of her time gardening, and during her life she was known in Amherst not for her writing, but for her fabulous gardens of flowers and trees. She published just 10 poems during her lifetime, and they were heavily edited. After her death, her sister Lavinia found almost 1,800 poems that she had left behind.

Dickinson wrote: 

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself —

Finite infinity."

08 December 2013

The Robin is the One

The Robin is the One
That interrupt the Morn
With hurried—few—express Reports
When March is scarcely on—

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity—
An April but begun—

The Robin is the One
That speechless from her Nest
Submit that Home—and Certainty
And Sanctity, are best

                                                            F501 (1863)  J828

Dickinson uses one of her favorite birds to illustrate a good bit of a woman's life. The robin, a symbol of rejuvenation and harbinger of spring, goes from young and hurried to mature and nurturing. I suspect Dickinson might have watched a similar progression in some of her best girl friends. The poem uses three stanzas for three stages.
        We begin with the robin dashing into the scene of emerging spring – early March. Having probably just arrived at her breeding territory, she blurts out a bit of gossip or perhaps "express Reports" of the season. Mainly, she's announcing her arrival and availability. Her song "interrupt[s] the otherwise quiet Morn."
        The second stanza takes us to the noon of the day, the prime of life. The robin's songs fill the air, sweet and pure as the song of a cherub. Note that the robin's song "overflow[s]" Noon. One season into spring and her sweet joy fills the day. No doubt a mate is near. (Yes, we know now that it is the male who does most of the singing, but I think Dickinson is thinking of young women here at the peak of their ripe and innocent beauty. They are charming and beautiful, whereas the male of the human species must remain more drab and pragmatic.)
Finally, we see the robin settled in her nest, quietly assuming an ideal Victorian motherhood. Dickinson's choice of abstract nouns is interesting: Home is the best place for the mother robin, but why mention "Certainty" and "Sanctity"? From the usage of her day, "certainty" implies "faithfulness" and "fidelity." The young robin must settle down – no more singing and calling attention to herself. "Sanctity" implies a safe haven, a "home on high" like heaven, just as the nest is high in the tree, far away from the dangers of earth. The good mother is faithful, pure, spiritual.

The question Dickinson leaves us is whether or not the robin has made a good trade. She has lost her song, become "speechless" in her nest. While the bird may find this to be the best state, I suspect Dickinson has other ideas. She herself never became speechless, never erased herself for the sake of nest and babies. In her poetry she continues to sing, although a deeper and often darker song than many of the lighthearted poetry of her younger years. Dickinson does retreat to her own nest – her familial home and her private room – but she continues to sing.

The poem is tightly constructed, particularly through the repetition of "The Robin is the One" as the first line of each stanza. Slant rhymes of "One" complete numerous other lines: Morn, on, Noon, begun. The first, second and fourth lines of each stanza are in iambic trimeter, with the third line in tetrameter. The clear, strong meter and rhyme produce a sense of predictability that, in Dickinson's trademark manner, she overturns in the last few phrases. The reader is glad that the robin is a good nesting mother, but can't help but feel sad for the loss of her song, particularly for such ambiguous states as "Certainty" and "Sanctity."

17 September 2013

Note to Readers

I set out to comment on all of Emily Dickinson's poems. So far I've done 500 of them – and that's not even a third! Alas, readers, I am needing to take a break. There's that novel in the drawer... . I do intend to start up again, but for now I am laying down the Franklin. I am a Dickinson student, not a scholar, and I have learned a lot from the poems. Just looking up pictures, for example, to illustrate some of the words and phrases in the works has been an education in geography, blacksmithing, Victorian fashion, Puritan New England, and Massachussetts flowers.
        Greater than any of that, of course, are the deep insights flashing through Dickinson's incredible poetry. Studying the poems I experienced horror, love, grief, glee, madness, torment – at a deeper level than when I had experienced those emotions in "real" life. I will forever reverence the bees: the June bee, who is like Heaven; the lover bee who "Counts his nectars – Enters / and is lost in Balms; the God Bee who along with butterflies and breezes comprise the holy Trinity; and the drinking buddy Bee who toasts his wife with "minute flagons."
       Harold Bloom in Genius says that Dickinson "is so original a genius that she alters one's sense of what poetic genius can be." I have been studying marvels.

I particularly want to thank those who took the time to comment. So many poems came alive to me in new ways because of a reader's insights. It was also great just to get a smiley face.

I would like to propose that if any of my readers (you know who you are...) would like to pick up the reins and carry on with the project for the next year or half a year, they should contact me. It would be a grand adventure! Leave a comment or else contact me directly:
susan at natperspective.... com.

16 September 2013

Best Gains must have the Losses' test –

Best Gains  must have the Losses' test –
To constitute them – Gains.
                                                                     F499 (1863)  J684

Not "Revelation" – 'tis – that waits,

But our unfurnished eyes.
                                                                      F500 (1863)  J685

Both of these aphorisms came from a letter (L280) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson had anticipated a visit from him the previous summer, but learned later in the year that he had gone away to war. Up until that time he been a captain in a Massachusetts Infrantry division, but following an injury he was appointed colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers – which was the first regiment of freedmen (the Secretary of War required that the regiment be led by a white officer; Higginson was a good choice, then, for he was an ardent abolitionist and human rights activist).
       In her letter Dickinson says that she had discovered what happened "by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year, and obtain no cause – but suppose it is a treason of Progress – that dissolves as it goes." Her affectation of bemusement is odd as, according to biographer Thomas Johnson, The Springfield Republican published detailed information about Higginson and his troops. Also odd is the seemingly dismissive tone towards the war, now at its bloodiest. Earlier in the letter she is even more dismissive: "War feels to me an oblique place – Should there be other Summers, would you perhaps come?"
       But perhaps Dickinson's goal is to inject a bit of wit and cheer, for she ends the letter this way:
Should you, before this reaches you, experience immortality, who will inform me of the Exchange? Could you, with honor, avoid Death, I entreat you – Sir – It would bereave
                Your Gnome

As for the aphorisms (I resist calling them poems), they both have a theme of discovery. The value of a supposed gain is established by the "test" of believing it lost. By this means, Dickinson discovered that a visit from Higginson would be a great gain.

       The second aphorism is introduced by the comment, "I was thinking, today – as I noticed, that the 'Supernatural," was only the Natural, disclosed –".  This is very much Enlightenment thinking. It isn't that "Revelation" is needed to reveal the veiled truth, but that our eyes are not sufficiently developed. Or, as Dickinson wrote in "'Faith' is a fine invention" (F202)
Faith" is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
When faced with a mystery, don't wait in faith that a revelation will occur; get a microscope or better glasses!

What I like from this letter to Higginson is that Dickinson says she told the "Best Gains" lines to her big Newfoundland dog, Carlo, and that "My Shaggy Ally assented." I love to think of the small Dickinson confiding in the giant shaggy dog.

15 September 2013

I lived on Dread —

I lived on Dread —
To Those who know
The stimulus there is
In Danger — Other impetus
Is numb — and vitalless —

As 'twere a Spur — upon the Soul —
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre's aid
Were challenging Despair.

                                                                      F498 (1862)  J770

I've read here and there that Dickinson is "the poet of dread." I don't necessarily believe it; Dickinson can't be summed up so easily. Yet dread ("fear; apprehension; panic" according to the Emily Dickinson 
Lexicon ) does fuel or infuse quite a few of her poems. In this one she begins by saying she lived on fear – and further, that it is a useful state. Without this stimulus and spur to her soul she might devolve into Despair – another state that suffuses various Dickinson poems.
       Although the first declarative line is first person, Dickinson immediately switches to third person. Not just to her, but to "Those" people who know the stimulation of danger, other states can seem "numb" and lifeless. Danger and dread spur the soul, urging it onward; without such a "spectre" we would end up confronting Despair.

I think Dickinson's dread is existential and religious. Sometimes she seems terrified of the void of death, sometimes of falling through the "planks of reason," and sometimes even of God. In "He fumbles at your Soul" 
(477) she seems to advise a constant state of alert regarding God:  
Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —
Myths reinforce the need for both dread and fear -- as 
does the story of Moses finding God in a burning bush

It is best to not "bubble Cool" but to maintain a sense of dread so that God can't catch your "naked soul."

At least that divine drama is exciting. The alternative is despair. Earlier poems are full of descriptions of this leaden state. Examples: "A wooden way," "A Threadless Way," and "quartz contentment." In "It was not Death, for I stood up," she describes despair " As if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame, / And could not breathe without a key, / And 'twas like Midnight, some –" 
(F355) .  It is a state of living death.
       Dickinson makes a similar case for preferring danger over despair in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – " 
(F407) . We would be better off confronting ghosts and assassins, she says, than a "lonesome" confrontation with the "Cooler Host" of our brain. It's a frightening poem and one that makes me dread despair … hmmm – handy, that.

10 September 2013

One and One — are One —

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for schools —
But for minor Choosing —

Life — just — Or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising —

                                                                F497 (1862)  J769

Scholar Gary Lee Stonum claims that some two hundred of Dickinson's poems include specific math references. In this poem, Dickinson uses mathematics as a clever entré
 to metaphysics.

She begins with the attention-grabbing assertion that one plus one equals one, dismissing one plus one equals two as school learning. She's finished with that sort of thinking. The next line, the last in the first stanza, is difficult. On her manuscript, Dickinson included "inner" as a variant for "minor" and this complicates interpretation. "Inner Choosing" would be the soul's choices. "Minor Choosing," on the other hand, suggests decisions about unimportant matters. However, I think that Dickinson decided to wield "minor" ironically: arithmetic is fine for schools but not for such "minor" matters as life or death or the everlasting.

Those three "ors" present difficulties. The first stanza uses "and" for an additive effect "Or" signals a selective effect. We can choose to focus just on life, or death or the everlasting. Dickinson seems to be instructing us not to contemplate, for example, how the first two add up to the third – which would be an interesting unity.
        Instead, we are to think of how each of those three concepts is a one-ness comprised of many individual ones as if they are fungible entities. Dickinson wrote a second variant word on the manuscript: "two" for "More." While "two" would make a nice wordplay with "too," "More" gives us the richer idea that anything more than one of her grand metaphysical trio would be "too vast" for our understanding.

         That "vast" warrants a bit of scrutiny, too. What could be vaster than Life, Death, and Eternity? Those concepts are plenty vast. But that's what Dickinson is getting at: they are so vast they could take over your life. That makes sense coming from a poet who recused herself from the world in order to contemplate, let's see … Life, Death, and the Everlasting. She eschewed marriage, child rearing, church attendance, social events, and travel. For a poet of the mind and soul, any of those would, added to contemplation of Life, Death, and the Everlasting, be simply too vast. 

(I conflate the three on purpose, despite my comments about the "ors." I think Dickinson intends for the reader to think about them both as a unity, a One-ness, as well as severally.)

09 September 2013

The Beggar Lad — dies early —

The Beggar Lad — dies early —
It's Somewhat in the Cold —
And somewhat in the Trudging feet —
And haply, in the World —

The Cruel — smiling — bowing World —
That took its Cambric Way —
Nor heard the timid cry for "Bread" —
"Sweet Lady — Charity" —

Among Redeemed Children
If Trudging feet may stand
The Barefoot time forgotten — so —
The Sleet — the bitter Wind —

The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
Lifted adoring — them —
To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
Did supplicate in vain —

                                                                                   F496 (1862)  J717

Dickinson had books by Charles Dickens and at least one book about William Blake in her personal library. Both authors wrote famous works about poor, starving children. Perhaps Dickinson was reading Oliver Twist or thinking about Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper." I vote for the latter, for there is a hint of Blake's caustic irony in this poem. Well, there is if you look at the poem just right.

On a quick read we see how a "Beggar Lad" dies from cold and exhaustion, ignored by passersby. Dickinson economically conveys a callous upper class with its fine clothing through the phrase "Cambric Way." After death, such beggar children lift their "adoring" hands to Jesus – who reputedly answers the supplications of the poor (those in "Ragged – Coat"). Their earthly suffering, the "Barefoot time" and the "bitter Wind," are forgotten.
       Except that this rather saccharine ending is at odds with previous Dickinson poems that rail against salvation and grace coming too late, or the incomprehensible suffering of children beneath the gaze of a savior who promised to care for them.
Children of wealth showing charity

        In  "Some, too fragile for winter winds" (F91), Dickinson suggests that despite Jesus' assertion in the bible that even sparrows are not forgotten by God and people are even more precious, there are graves full of "children / Early aged, and often cold, / Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father – / Lambs for whom time had not a fold." In F195, "Victory comes late," the poet rather scathingly wonders why God's "Table" is “spread too high” so that we have to “dine on tiptoe” as if God is not a particularly loving father. In addition, what we receive is often too little or else too late. In "He told a homely tale" (F486), Dickinson describes a homeless orphan and implies that it is she who "ransomed it – alive," and that both heaven and earth, both early and heavenly father, had failed the boy.
        With that undercurrent of bitterness against the unfairness of suffering in this world, I'm tempted to read the last two lines of this poem ironically. Perhaps Dickinson means us to consider whether or not ragged-coated children ever do raise their supplicating hands in vain, and she is implying that they certainly do.

I must admit, though, I am reaching a bit with this interpretation. It is likely that Dickinson penned this from sincere sentimentality (common among Victorian authors) – and hope that the next life will be a better one for the suffering children.

06 September 2013

The Day undressed — Herself —

Garter of gold
The Day undressed — Herself —
Her Garter — was of Gold —
Her Petticoat of Purple — plain —
Her Dimities as old

Exactly — as the World
And yet the newest Star
Enrolled upon the Hemisphere
Be wrinkled — much as Her —

Too near to God — to pray —
Too near to Heaven — to fear —
The Lady of the Occident
Retired without a Care —

Her Candle so expire
The flickering be seen
On Ball of Mast — in Bosporus —
And Dome — and Window Pane.

                                                                               F495 (1862)  J716

This charming poem has the sun undressing herself at night. We see the garments scattered across the sky: her golden garter would be the wispy gold clouds; the purple petticoat, a darkening cumulous cloud. Her "Dimities" might be her dress, or apron, or a delicate chemise. These would be the opalescent or sheer white clouds.
        Dickinson fancies these Dimities are as old as the world itself, although no doubt she is suggesting that the sun, rather than her undies, and the world are the same age (and I think she knew better as she enjoyed the study of astronomy). The sun is so old that even newer stars are as wrinkled as she is. Well, that takes the fun out of seeing the old girl take her clothes off!
Dimity blouse
  This lady makes her rounds high in the heavens. God is so close she doesn't have to say her evening prayers. She is so near the Christian Heaven that she has no fear of it.. One wonders what might fearful – other than the fear of not making it to heaven. I suspect Dickinson means the sun has no fear of dying and being judged of being worthy or not. In F437, "I never felt at Home – Below," Dickinson predicts that she won't "like Paradise – / / Because it's Sunday – all the time – / And Recess – never comes." Clearly the poet has lost her own fear of heaven by this time!
        The sun simply goes to sleep, retires in the west, or the Occident, "without a Care. The flickering of her candle as she sinks below the horizon can be seen from a ship's mast, from the Strait of Istanbul, from domes and even from the bedroom windowpane.

I think this poem compares well to Dickinson's other sunset poems. In case you want to read them, here's a list. Remember, you can just copy the title into the search bar (under the blog header) to get to the poem.

F297, "This is the land – the Sunset washes": the sky is the sea and purple sunset clouds are the boats unloading their "Opal Bales."

F327, "How the old Mountains drip with Sunset": a series of sunset imagery.

F468, "Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red": imagines the sunset to be a red gulf with a fleet of red ships crewed by sailors "of solid Blood."

F119 "If this is 'fading'": is bit of sunset rapture from a simpler time when people paid attention to sunset – after all, there wasn't electricity, so sunset actually heralded the onset of dark!

F182, "The Sun kept stooping – stooping – low!": portrays the setting sun as a splendid warrior battling the growing troops of darkness.

F296, "Where Ships of Purple – gently toss": once again has the inversion of sea with sky; here, the ships are purple clouds.

F321, "Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple": shows the sun, the "Juggler of Day," being quenched by purpling darkness.

F204, "I'll tell you how the Sun rose": has the evening sky a "purple stile" that the yellow clouds like boys and girls climb over.

F233, "A slash of Blue! A sweep of Gray": compares the sunset (in my reading of the poem) to the gathering Union and Confederate soldiers in their blue and gray uniforms.

31 August 2013

The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —

The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —
Further than that —
Nor stop to play with the Hay —
Nor threaten a Hat —
He's a transitive fellow — very —
Rely on that —

If He leave a Bur at the door
We know He has climbed a Fir —
But the Fir is Where — Declare —
Were you ever there?

If He brings Odors of Clovers —
And that is His business — not Ours —
Then He has been with the Mowers —
Whetting away the Hours
To sweet pauses of Hay —
His Way — of a June Day —

If He fling Sand, and Pebble —
Little Boys Hats — and Stubble —
With an occasional Steeple —
And a hoarse "Get out of the way, I say,"
Who'd be the fool to stay?
Would you — Say —
Would you be the fool to stay?

                                                                    F494 (1862)  J316

This delightful anthropomorphism of the wind is full of rhymes and fun. The wind may be here or there, come "from the Orchard" or from farther away; may climb trees like a child and leave pine cones at the door as a momento; may go out with the workers in the field and pick up the odor of clover; and may get up to all kinds of mischief. In the end, though, he is not to be trifled with. The gust that blows off a boys hat can turn into a gale that takes the steeple off a church. Would you be fool enough to stand in his path?
       Each stanza is full of rhyme, and that contributes to the playful tone. In the first stanza: today, play, hay, very; and that, hat, and that. In the second, Bur, Fir, Fir – which is related to door, Where, Declare, and there.The third stanza has Odors, Clovers, and Mowers –related to Ours and Hours; and then Hay, Way, and Day. In the fourth, Dickinson gives us Pebble, Stubble, Steeple; and way, say, stay, Say, and stay. You've got to love a poem that rhymes Pebble, Stubble, and Steeple.

Some of the images are amusing, too, such as the wind threatening a hat (Johnson's version has it joggling a hat, which isn't as amusing), or occasionally flinging a steeple along with the usual sand and hats.
Scything Hay, near Bowland Forest, UK
    But for me, the main charm of the poem is its sweet drollery. Dickinson addresses the reader directly as if discussing a familiar village character. That wind is inconstant. "Rely on that," she adds, knowing we've all known such restless characters. She deduces the wind has come from a fir, but challenges the reader to locate the tree. Impossible to know just where he's been, she knows. And just like an idling husband or father, if we notice that he smells suspiciously as if he'd been lolling about in the meadow, why "that is His business – not Ours." Finally, when he comes blustering by, the reader is certainly wise enough to just get out of the way.

My favorite line: "sweet pauses of Hay." It doesn't make literal sense (and I have no idea how this reads to those of you using translations), but it captures the rhythm of the mowers scything the meadow, accompanied by the sweet smell of cut grass and clover.

30 August 2013

When I hoped, I recollect

When I hoped, I recollect
Just the place I stood —
At a Window facing West —
Roughest Air — was good —

Not a Sleet could bite me —
Not a frost could cool —
Hope it was that kept me warm —
Not Merino shawl —

When I feared — I recollect
Just the Day it was —
Worlds were lying out to Sun —
Yet how Nature froze —

Icicles upon my soul
Prickled Blue and Cool —
Bird went praising everywhere —
Only Me — was still —

And the Day that I despaired —
This — if I forget
Nature will — that it be Night
After Sun has set —
Darkness intersect her face —
And put out her eye —
Nature hesitate — before
Memory and I —
                                      F493 (1862)  J768

Dickinson recalls three important days each characterized by a different emotion. She may be outlining the chronology of a narrative: first hope, then fear, then despair. But there really is no need for a single narrative. Each emotion may have its own distinct story. Each one is granted two quatrains (although Despair's are formatted together for a single, double-length stanza, no doubt to intensify it).
       The last stanza is difficult, so I tried to work out a paraphrase as a springboard.

I remember just where I was standing when I had hope. It was at the west window. The rough, cold air felt good. Neither sleet nor frost made me too cold. It was my hope that kept me warm, not some wool shawl.

I remember the very day when I was afraid. The sun was shining on all the world, yet somehow Nature was freezing me. Icicles prickled blue and cool upon my soul. Birds were singing in praise everywhere. It was only me that was still.

And the day that I despaired? I am as unlikely to forget that day as Nature would be to forget that night follows sunset, that darkness covers the sun's face and puts out her golden eye. Nature will pause before my memory does.

The final dash leaves us in an unending loop of painful memory. We've seen in earlier poems that Dickinson finds despair the most crippling and paralyzing emotion (most recently in F484, "From Blank to Blank").  The violence of the last stanza is rather staggering. In the poet's despair, night isn't just the darkness that follows day, but darkness putting out the eye of the sun and intersecting her face as if slicing it away. It's as if every night the sun suffers a violent eclipse. Perhaps Dickinson is projecting what or whoever caused her despair onto the sun that is so punished.
photo: Alina Rogers
    After that last stanza, the prickling icicles of fear don't sound so bad. Those lines, "Icicles upon my soul / Prickled Blue and Cool" is wonderful. There is the physical sensation of cool prickling, the visual image of blue icicles, the apt analogy of fear to icicles – and then the sound of the words. The whole poem is trochaic, but the trochees beginning these two lines are particularly effective, emphasizing the ice and the prick. The quick sound of "Prickled" is followed by the long, slow sounds of "Blue and Cool." That's interesting in itself, for prickling is a quick sensation, while something blue and cool suggests a more static environment.

Nature reflects and responds to the speaker throughout the poem. The poet's hope is able to protect her against cold and sleet. Nature uses her fear to turn a hot day freezing cold. Nature re-enacts her despair every night be obliterating the sun. It is a comment, perhaps, about how consuming emotions are.

28 August 2013

To offer brave assistance

To offer brave assistance
To Lives that stand alone —
When One has failed to stop them —
Is Human — but Divine

To lend an Ample Sinew

Unto a Nameless Man —
Whose Homely Benediction
No other — stopped to earn —
                                                                            F492 (1862)  J767

Perhaps there is one in every family or circle of acquaintances. One individual goes his or her own way, standing, ultimately, alone. We might have tried to reason with this individual or offer persuasions to join the norm, but that doesn't mean that we won't go to great lengths to offer assistance when it is needed. We feel a bit committed to someone we have been involved with to such an extent. We can't just watch them suffer or get into trouble. It's human to try to help.

        That's the first stanza. In the second, Dickinson presents a different scenario. Here there is a "Nameless Man," whom apparently no one knows. When this poor soul needs some help most people just pass by. While it is human to help the "Lives that stand alone," it is "Divine" to help the nameless and unknown. I think Dickinson means "Divine" in the sense of inspired and with great spiritual qualities (this is similar to Pope's usage in "To err is human; to forgive, divine").

Now for a different reading:

       In the first stanza the assistance offered is "brave." I don't think this means "daring" or "valiant" so much as the old-fashioned meaning of "loud" and "flashy." Read with that connotation, the rest of the stanza becomes tinged with cynical irony. Perhaps we are happy to help those who ventured out despite our efforts – because we can then feel both a rightness about our earlier actions and a righteousness about helping them.
William Ramirez Valenzuela
     But the second man? He needs some physical help, some "Ample Sinew." No one is lining up to earn his humble thanks, though. That would take a Jesus or Buddha or … a Good Samaritan. That's where I think Dickinson is taking us in this poem – to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In that parable (used by Jesus to exemplify the concept of "neighbor" to a lawyer), the only person to help a man beaten and left for dead is a Samaritan, a despised outsider to the Jews of the day. A priest and his assistant  crossed the road and passed by, giving the poor man a wide berth. No doubt they were concerned about a trick and an ambush, or about ritual purity (should the man be dead).

       It is not religion, not the pius, not most of us who will minister to the poor when they need it most, but people without regard for their status – other outcasts, perhaps; Samaritans. (Odd that we really only know of Samaritans by this parable and so they are always "Good."

I think Dickinson was thinking about these lessons as she wrote the poems in this fascicle. In the previous poem she wrote about a dying soldier, ending it with

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

She, humble in her own way as a retiring spinster, can nonetheless imagine herself freely giving of herself to help the dying and downtrodden. The poem challenges us to do likewise.  


26 August 2013

The World — feels Dusty

The World — feels Dusty
When We stop to Die —
We want the Dew — then —
Honors — taste dry —

Flags — vex a Dying face —
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend's Hand —
Cools — like the Rain —

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

                                                              F491 (1862)  J715

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" – so goes the familiar phrase from the Anglican burial service. It is based on the biblical account in Genesis of how God created humanity out of the dust of the earth. It is no wonder, then, that the world "feels Dusty" as we die – although the wonderful phrase is all Dickinson. Dickinson goes on to note that we "stop to Die" as if death is a way station on the soul's passage. Honors are not what is wanted at this juncture: they "taste dry" as if they, too, are dust. It is the ministry of a friend that satisfies the soul's thirst and eases the way.

       The flags in the second stanza represent war. Soldiers die under them and for them, but they ultimately bring no comfort, no sense of glory. Instead, they "vex" the dying. Dickinson was writing in the midst of the Civil War, and this one line succinctly – and with great understatement – de-glorifies war. It is a direct rejection of the famous lines from Horace that Dickinson no doubt read: "It is sweet and right to die for your country."

        These lines were often quoted at the beginning of World War I, but poet Wilfred Owen demolishes them in his powerful 1918 " Dulce et Decorum Est " which concludes:  

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thessaly's Vale of Tempe
   Owens is much more explicit than Dickinson. Yet her poem also suggests that it is a bitter thing to die under a flag. Neither it nor even the honors he may have achieved bring him any peace in the end. That requires the soothing hand of a loving friend.
    In the concluding stanza, the poet addresses either a generalized "you" or a particular person. She wants to minister to the dying – to ease the thirst and apply a soothing balm. It is a hymn and a call: If you care for the dying, be there for them. There was a poet, equally great, writing at the same time, who did just that: Walt Whitman who volunteered to work as a nurse on the battlefield and at hospitals.

  - Hybla is a town in Sicily famed since antiquity for its bees and honey. Romantic author Leigh Hunt's 1883 booklet, "A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla," draws from myth and Greek poet Theocritus in discussing the restorative properties of this honey.

  - The "Dews of Thessaly" are probably a reference to the lovely pools and waters of the Vale of Tempe – located in the north of Thessaly (a region of modern Greece).   John Lemprière in his Classical Dictionary gives this description of Tempe:
… The poets have described it as the most delightful spot on the earth, with continual cooling shades, and verdant walks, which the warbling of birds rendered more pleasant and romantic, and which the gods often honored with their presence.
  - Aaron Copland uses this poem in his 1950 composition "Eight poems of Emily Dickinson." This is a performance of the poem with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint-Paul Chamber Orchestra conductred by Hugh Wolff (note that Copland changes "Thessaly" to "thyself" and "Hybla" to "Holy").

21 August 2013

Rest at Night

Rest at Night
The Sun from shining,
Nature — and some Men —
Rest at Noon — some Men —
While Nature
And the Sun — go on —

                                                           F490 (1862)  J714

If by "Rest" Dickinson means "death" (at least for people) then this is a rather sad poem despite its blasé tone. If, however, "Rest" means "Rest" or "sleep," then the poem is rather a sly commentary on party animals and lazybones. This is one of Dickinson's epigrammatic poems.
    There are two parallel parts: the first, "Rest at Night" sketches the norm. The sun rests at night as do the rest of Nature "and some Men." Notice that humanity is not assumed to be part of Nature. Notice that clearly some folks are excepted; these are either the party animals – up all night – or the dead. In the second section we are told that Nature and the Sun go about their business at Noon, but that "some Men" will be resting.  These are either the lazybones (a class with a lot of overlap with "party animals") or the dead.
Catching up on sleep. Late night?
    The parallelism is quite intrically woven into the poetry. Each half has seven metrical feet and begins with an inverted verb phrase (Rest …) followed by the verb's subject. The one element that is repeated is "some Men": they can rest either – or both – at night and at noon. Clearly humanity is distinct from Nature. While the natural world lives by cycles of light and weather, humans can remove themselves from the cycles altogether.
            I should add, though, that if the poem is about death coming either at night or day, then there is no distinction to be made. Men who die are simply coming to the end of their life cycle and taking part in the larger circle of life.

I don't think that Dickinson is talking about death in this poem, though. I read it as droll and slyly sophisticated, a witticism very much in the epigram style.

My Faith is larger than the Hills —

My Faith is larger than the Hills —
So when the Hills decay —
My Faith must take the Purple Wheel
To show the Sun the way —

'Tis first He steps upon the Vane —
And then — upon the Hill —
And then abroad the World He go
To do His Golden Will —

And if His Yellow feet should miss —
The Bird would not arise —
The Flowers would slumber on their Stems —
No Bells have Paradise —

How dare I, therefore, stint a faith
On which so vast depends —
Lest Firmament should fail for me —
The Rivet in the Bands

                                                                        F489 (1862)  J766

Dickinson is having a bit of fun with faith, pretending she does not take sunrise for granted. No doubt she really believed that the sun would make its appointed rounds every day. But in this poem, like many quantum physicists, she is not so sure that the sun would do this if unobserved. And who is a better observer than a poet? Like many a Christian Scientist, she knows that faith is what makes things happen. (I hope physicists and Christian Scientists will forgive the poetic license!)
    Dickinson begins the poem with a grand claim: her "Faith is larger than the Hills" and so as they darken in the evening it falls to her to guide the Sun through the purpling light, through the night, and back again the next morning as she were at the helm of a great steamboat that led the Sun on his rounds (a variant on the chariot of Helios). The sun then lights up the weather vane (probably on the church steeple where it catches the first light of morning), then the hills, and then the rest of the world.
Weathervane on North Amherst Church
Should the sun not do this, the birds would just keep on sleeping, the flowers remain closed up, and the morning church bells not ring. Therefore, the poet drolly concludes, she cannot "stint" on her faith. Let it not be on her head that such a calamity should occur. She is a rivet in the bands (switching metaphor here) that keep the sun on his course. If she fails in her faith, the machinery of the world is weakened. I am reminded of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is dying and but readers (or watchers) are told that if they believe in fairies, she will live. I think there is much truth to the notion that the world's great ideas are generated and maintained in collective belief.
    I suspect that in addition to writing about the lovely sun (which she has done in several previous poems), Dickinson may be employing a bit of irony: faith isn't needed at all to explain many wonderful things about the world. I'm pretty sure she knew the sun would rise with or without her faith. Perhaps faith, by corollary, isn't needed at all to prod God, either.

18 August 2013

You constituted Time —

You constituted Time —
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself —
'Twas therefore Deity

The Absolute — removed
The Relative away —
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry —
                                                             F488 (1862)  J765

For a poet classified as "lyric" by many scholars, Dickinson can be extremely abstract. This poem is full of abstract nouns: Time, Eternity, Revelation, Absolute, Relative, Deity, and idolatry. That's almost one per line! I wonder if part of her fluency with the abstract didn't begin as she grew up with the legal language of a lawyer father and a brother studying to become a lawyer, as well as within a religion characterized by contracts.
       The poem is divided into two considerations of worship. The first stanza is nostalgic: the poet looks back at the awe-struck love she once had for someone. "You constituted Time," she writes, and what better way is there to say that someone filled your life, that your days and weeks and even minutes were tolled according to the beloved's actions, that to be with the beloved was to be in a state that transcends time – which Dickinson denotes "Eternity." The beloved was her deity.
       The key word of the poem comes in the second stanza where the poet must "adjust" her "idolatry" to the "Absolute." The "Deity" of the first stanza is not the "Himself" of the second. As Absolute, he came to overshadow – he "removed" – the "Relative" deity worshipped in the poet's "slow" and inexperienced youth. The first experience was powerful and consuming, but the beloved was still in the class of mortals and could be compared to others. The poet's love for this mortal, dependent as it must be on external and internal variables, functions as a precursor to what she experiences with the Absolute.
Georgia O'Keefe, Blue Flower, 1918
  This Absolute focuses the poet's attention on himself in order that she adjust her deficient or even defective idolatry of the rival deity. While this may be read as purposeful, I think Dickinson may have meant that just the awareness of the Absolute supplanted her worship of the beloved mortal. And while it is easy to think that Dickinson is contrasting the way she felt about a man or woman with how she came to feel about God, it is also easy to read the poem as a mature love supplanting an earlier love. Where I grew up we called these intense early loves "puppy love." Such love teaches us what it means to open up to another, to be flooded with desire and awe, and to be transported to that timeless zone where love abides.
       It is also easy to focus on that word "adjust" as a signal that the former love was for Sue – her dear and passionately loved friend, her neighbour, and her sister in law. Such a forbidden love would, by the mores of the day, need adjustment.
In "Just Once! Oh least Request!" (F478), Dickinson writes a droll poem to Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson deeply loved, addressing him playfully as "Sweet Deity" and asking "Adamant," a "God of Flint," if he wouldn't accept a barrel of apples. Despite its light tone, I use this poem as an example of a human Absolute because it was written in the same period of time (if Franklin's assessment of chronology is correct). That being said, however, the poem just prior to that, "He fumbles at your Soul" (F477) – is a poem which I take to be about the almost brutal power of a male God.
       As usual, Dickinson's poetry defies easy explication.

The poem has a simple and regular construction: four-line stanzas in a modified ballad format. Lines A, B, and D are in iambic trimeter; while C is tetrameter. Dickinson uses slant rhymes for B and D lines. I particularly like that three of those rhyming words rhyme with each other – and are abstract nouns: Eternity, Deity, idolatry.