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28 January 2013

Inconceivably solemn!

Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce—by the very Press
Of Imagery—

Their far Parades—order on the eye

With a mute Pomp—
A pleading Pageantry—

Flags, are a brave sight—

But no true Eye
Ever went by One—

Music's triumphant—

But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near—
                                                                 J582,  F414 (1862)  

Many people who have watched a parade can understand the paradox Dickinson describes here. There is something quite gay about a parade with its music, its marchers, its colors and displays. Yet this gaity contains a pervasive solemnity. The Memorial Day parades honor soldiers and their grave risks and duty; Labor Day festivities remind of us of backbreaking work done by pioneers and of the battles faced by early union workers.

         Dickinson was writing this during the Civil War, and so those local parades would be not just solemn but “Inconceivably solemn.”  The marchers and bands might “go gay” past the crowd, but we would have been pierced “by the very Press / Of Imagery” rather than made cheerful. The “Pomp” is “mute” for it has nothing to say. The visuals tell all: uniforms, muskets, flags, horses, carriages. If they did speak they would have to talk of death.
         The “Pageantry” is “pleading.” There is certainly an irresistible call on our emotions as row after row of marchers go by. The soldiers – new recruits, veterans, and current warriors – march in step, look straight ahead; they’ve polished their boots, cleaned their uniforms; they straighten their backs. Everything seems designed to lift our spirits and make us more confident (and I’m speaking here of an “us” that would be present at Civil War-era parades with their local militias and citizens groups). And yet it is a plea. Do not forget us, do not pity us, do not let us be invisible. Help us be proud and strong.

Library of Congress: Members of the Garibaldi Guard
parade past President Lincoln.
         The third and fourth stanzas give examples of the parade paradox. The flags are “brave” and signal the pride and determination of those fighting on their country’s behalf – or those supporting that fight. And yet those who truly see the blood by which those flags are raised cannot watch them go by without tearing up or briefly looking down. Likewise, the “fine Ear” of those who truly hear what the “triumphant” music discloses, “Winces with delight” when the drums go by. First there is the delight, but then the wince. The triumph celebrated by the lively march music contains a full measure of tragedy. Every one in town would have known a fallen soldier. Death was beating beneath the drum rolls.

Walt Whitman captures the same sense of terrible exhilaration behind the drums in “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Here is the last stanza of that call to arms:

    Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!     
    Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;     
    Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;     
    Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;     
    Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties;     
    Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,     
    So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.   

As always, Dickinson and Whitman write in such opposite styles and with such opposing energies that one would never guess they lived their lives within a few hundred miles of each other and were both writing during the Civil War.

Update: I was just re-reading Dickinson's poem about the piercing pain of the pageantry of spring (F347: "I dreaded that first Robin, so") and was reminded that she viewed the march of the seasons with the same sense of solemn, wincing joy.

27 January 2013

Heaven is so far of the Mind

Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved—
The Site—of it—by Architect
Could not again be proved—

'Tis vast—as our Capacity—

As fair—as our idea—
To Him of adequate desire
No further 'tis, than Here—
                                                  F413 (1862)  J370

No one knows where heaven is or what it is. No one can honestly say whether or not it exists at all. Those who believe in it do so by faith, not observation. Dickinson makes that point here. All we believe or think we know of heaven is within our mind: that’s where the vision is, that’s where we harbour what we’ve learned and heard; that’s where our imagination is.
      So far this hints at a skeptics’ argument: Prove it! Once the mind is “dissolved” there is no more trace of the heaven it once believed in. Even an architect skilled in reading complicated drawings and plans would be unable to find heaven. It is too much "of the Mind."  So how can it possibly exist?
Everyone has their own sense of heaven
(permission of artist: Paige Bridges)
         The second stanza goes beyond such skepticism. Heaven is as “vast” and “fair” as we are capable of imagining. Ah, there’s the rub. How many of us undertake that imagining — or go beyond some Hallmark vision? But Dickinson ends the poem by saying that heaven need not be a location reserved for the dead. We can be realizing it right now – but only if we have enough desire, if we yearn for it.
          We saw an early formulation of this in F236, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,” where the poet celebrates the Sabbath “With a Bobolink for a Chorister – / And an Orchard, for a Dome.” She ends that poem by exclaiming that “instead of getting to Heaven, at last – / I’m going, all along.”
           And I think that makes eminent sense!

26 January 2013

She lay as if at play

She lay as if at play
Her life had leaped away—
Intending to return—
But not so soon—

Her merry Arms, half dropt—
As if for lull of sport—
An instant had forgot—
The Trick to start—

Her dancing Eyes—ajar—
As if their Owner were
Still sparkling through
For fun—at you—

Her Morning at the door—
Devising, I am sure—
To force her sleep—
So light—so deep—

                                                       F412 (1862)  J369

Dickinson takes a break here from the weighty topics of previous poems to return to the theme of what death looks like on the face of the recently deceased. The subject here is a young girl (I think three or four earlier poems had a dead girl child in them, too). Ladies of Dickinson's day often wrote these sad child-death poems, and they were avidly consumed by readers. This one is a bit heart wrenching because Dickinson sketches a lively child with "sparkling" and "dancing" eyes who seems to have died without much warning. Her life "had leaped away" as if just jumping up to get something. 
unlabeled photo from the Aray family album
Dead children were often posed and photographed as if
     they were only sleeping
          Less clear to me is what the poet means by "Her Morning at the door." I think Dickinson intends the homophone of Morning and Mourning; I think she also means the re-birth connotations of morning. But this particular earthly morning, the child was not awakened by the sun or by her mother. This particular morning took great pains to make sure the child would never wake again in her little bed. There's an ominous quality to a morning that was "Devising" the sleep of death and how to "force" the child into it. The reader pauses a bit at the line, but "Morning" seems so innocuous that how many of us really think it had such deadly intent? I think Dickinson was intending this irony.
          Except for the last line of each quatrain, Dickinson uses iambic trimeter throughout. Each quatrain is divided into two rhyming lines. The simple scheme lends a childish quality to the poem. The last lines of the stanzas are in dimeter; each word is only one syllable. These lines are neatly divided by both meter and sense: one reads them as pairs: "But not : so soon"; "The Trick : to start"; "For fun — : at you"; "So light — : so deep." The effect is disruptive — just as the child's sudden death was disruptive. The last pair with its "light" and "deep" is a thoughtful pairing that asks the reader to think about a child's death sleep — at least this child's. Her "sleep" looked so light, but went so deep. One also hopes that the experience from the child's perspective was the same: so light — so deep.

25 January 2013

Mine—by the Right of the White Election!

Mine—by the Right of the White Election!
Mine—by the Royal Seal!
Mine—by the sign in the Scarlet prison—
Bars—cannot conceal!

Mine—here—in Vision—and in Veto!
Mine—by the Grave's Repeal—
Delirious Charter!
Mine—long as Ages steal!
                                                             F411 (1862)  J528

In discussing this poem, I'd like to introduce the thoughts of two Dickinson scholars. First, though, I think the tone here shows one edge of Dickinson's range. Sometimes tentative and exploratory, sometimes sly and ironic, occasionally passionate, often tormented, Dickinson's poetry reflects an incredible diversity of mood and tone. This one is among the most triumphantly proud and assertive. Look at how many times she writes "Mine": the word practically shouts itself at the beginning of six out of eight lines. The rest of the poem exists to justify the "Mine" and to celebrate whatever it is that is "Mine." She lists her rights to it as by "White Election," "the Royal Seal," "the sign," and by the "Repeal" of the grave). Her right has been "Titled" and "Confirmed"; she has the "Delirious Charter" to prove it.
          The question is, of course, what is it that the poet so proudly and unequivocally claims as hers? Elizabeth Phillips, in Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance, argues that Dickinson is giving voice to Hester Prynne, Hawthorne's famous adulteress in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Phillips:
Having accepted the consequences of love, the grief, the hardships and injustice she suffered, she refuses to acknowledge guilt but pleads for the trust she has earned and the vision of life denied her. Her rage is hardly muted (114-15).

In this reading, the "Scarlet prison" is the scarlet letter "A," the mark of shame Hester must wear to forever mark her as an adulteress and outcast. Her refusal to be destroyed or even diminished by this status eventually develops into a saint-like service and austerity. Dickinson gives Hester a speech here "in the language of Puritan theology and politics, [that] passionately affirms her independence, her rightful beatitude, 'long as Ages steal'" (115).
          This language would come naturally to Dickinson whose Puritan ancestors came to New England in the 1630s. Amherst, and most of the Connecticut River Valley, maintained a conservative Puritan / Calvinist strain even in Dickinson's time. In fact Amherst had experienced a succession of revivals during Dickinson's youth.
          Sharon Leiter in Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work claims that although Dickinson "rejected the Puritan concept of predestined, unconditional grace, which only god could bestow, she had her own concept of a 'white election,' related to her sense of chosenness in the kingdom of poetry, which occupied the most exalted position in her spiritual hierarchy" (378).
          Whether the poem speaks for the self-redeemed individual, the saved soul, or the crowning of a poet, one still wonders just who the poet is trying to convince. If she is speaking here for Hester Prynne, than perhaps she is aiming at arbitrary Puritans and their doctrines. She is speaking to them – or perhaps she is challenging God. The doubleness of the last word of the poem, "steal," would be appropriate here: no one, perhaps not even God, can steal her ultimate salvation and glory.
          If not Prynne speaking, than who is the poet's audience? Herself? Does she need a bit of bucking up? Is she arguing with God? Or is she writing in the privacy of her room to answer the efforts of some around her who would press their own views on her?

23 January 2013

How sick—to wait—in any place—but thine—

How sick—to wait—in any place—but thine—
I knew last night—when someone tried to twine—
Thinking—perhaps—that I looked tired—or alone—
Or breaking—almost—with unspoken pain—

And I turned—ducal—
That right—was thine—
One port—suffices—for a Brig—like mine—

Ours be the tossing—wild though the sea—
Rather than a Mooring—unshared by thee.
Ours be the Cargo—unladen—here—
Rather than the "spicy isles—"
And thou—not there— 

                                               F410 (1862)  J368

This love poem builds on the previous work, "The Soul selects her own Society – ", and makes it personal. This time Dickinson writes in first person, recasting the unswervingly monogamous Soul as "a Brig" with only one port of call. The image is quite different than in the previous poem where the soul was a cold sort who closed the stony "Valves of her attention" to any but the chosen one. Dickinson focuses there on how the soul turns off attention (and love, presumably). In this poem we have the positive: love, passion, and yearning flow unimpeded towards the beloved.
          The central metaphor of the sea differs as much as possible from the powerful image of the stone. Whereas the stone is hard and unmoving, the sea is alive, mythic, passionate and wild. Dickinson has used the sea repeatedly as representing not only passion but the unknown and the dangerous. Harbor, as in F3, "On this wondrous sea – sailing silently," represents heaven where "no breakers roar — / Where the storm is o'er." 
          What Dickinson does in this poem and in F269, "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!", is to transfer the location of heavenly harbor to her beloved. In "Wild Nights," Dickinson claims the wild sea as "Eden" and the wild nights as "luxury" as long as she is moored in her lover. In this poem, she again would seek a life "tossing — wild" at sea rather than a loveless "Mooring" with someone else. In both cases it is the love and the lover that are the poet's desired port rather than a place of physical safety and repose.
The poem begins almost petulantly. The narrator is sick of waiting, tired of being anywhere but at her beloved's side — or at least his "place." She was annoyed with someone's attempt to cheer her up, "twine" their thoughts and feelings with hers. Perhaps this was a potential suitor or friend. If so, the valves of the narrator's attention were certainly closed against them. She "turned — ducal" on them, adopting that "divine Majority" (F409) that reserves the right to parcel out rights and privileges — and love.
          The second stanza establishes her moral stance: only the beloved has the right to twine with her soul. She is true blue, the sort of sailboat that wants but one port. Dickinson italicizes some words to be extra clear: she is monogamous
One can still sail to the spicy isles
        The lovely last stanza is a declaration to the beloved: Not only would I prefer a stormy life with you than a safe life without you, but I would rather have the "Cargo" of our love here and now than wait to arrive at some fantastical "spicy isles" only to find you are not there. The Spice Islands, of course, have drawn traders and explorers for centuries. Accessing them sparked Europe's Age of Exploration and launched a series of trade wars. The glamor of the remote islands where nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper grew on trees, not only attracted explorers and traders, but became a literary trope. When Dickinson uses the reference she is calling on their romantic mystery and allure. 
          She may also be referring to the person trying to twine with her. Is this person offering "the 'spicy isles'"? Might it be Sue whose attractions were spicy and unpredictable — and who might very well sit with the poet, notice her extreme loneliness, and practice her attractive arts on her?

The poem can be read as a journey of discovery itself. The poet begins by reflecting on the night before. Someone had offered love and she had rejected it. She reflects on what she learned, what she "knew": that "One port suffices — for a Brig — like mine." The poetics support the dawning recognition. A plethora of long vowels support the plaintive, longing quality of the first stanza. A family of rhymes knits it together: thine, twine, alone, pain. The narrator seems lost. The tired and almost whiney tone, however, turns abrupt in the short second stanza with such curt-sounding words as ducal, right, port, and Brig. Her feelings are suddenly quite clear to her. The third stanza pivots to the impassioned with trochaic/anapestic lines. Two begin "Ours be..." and the formulation is emphatic: Ours be this, rather than that; our love is passionate and real rather than tame and romantic.

Somehow I feel sorry for whoever was with her that evening. Perhaps it was the always alluring and never reliable original Spice Girl, Sue, Dickinson's sister-in-law, neighbor, and former soul mate if not lover.

22 January 2013

The Soul selects her own Society —

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I've known her — from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then — close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone —

                                                              F409 (1862)  J303

Some folks are extremely discriminating. I've known a few. But I've never known anyone quite as discriminating as the generalized Soul of this poem, one of Dickinson's most anthologized. 
          Dickinson conceives the soul as a stately and majestic entity. Her "Majority" is herself and what few other souls she chooses for her society; what's more, it is a "divine" majority. There is no temptation to admit others, no matter who they may be — even emperors kneeling at the door begging for entrance. Nope. She "notes" them and is completely "Unmoved" by their interest. 
          In the last stanza, Dickinson refers to a soul in the particular, as if there is a universal soul that somehow acts individually within each of us. At times, she says, this soul might just choose one friend. That's pretty discriminating, although it's clear that the poet is not talking about one's public face or persona. It's easy enough to chat and hang out with casual acquaintances but still keep them at arm's length from the depths of your soul. That place is sacrosanct.

Victorian water valve
        The last image is intriguing and delivers one of Dickinson's word wallops. She presents the attention that we give to others, significant others that is – friends, associates, neighbors, extended family – as if it were flowing water. Once this ultra discriminating Soul has chosen her friend from an "ample nation," she turns off the faucet, closes the "Valves of her attention." The flow of friendship and love has been turned off to all but one. Not a drop is left over. The soul has shut her valves categorically: "Like Stone." The word drops out of the otherwise abstract poem like a rock. It is heavy, solid, immune to entreaties or tears, implacable.
One must wonder if Dickinson is reflecting on her own soul. After all, it was about this time that she was withdrawing from society and staying home. Within a few years she would not venture out of her property at all. It was about this time that she would send down her regrets to even her most beloved friends who came to call. One must also wonder if she is reflecting on a beloved other who has shut her out.
         I think, though, that she is meditating on the sovereignty of the soul. We sometimes talk about soul mates, or love at first sight, or having chemistry with some one. This may be the Soul making her choices. That is all well and good. But Dickinson writes with the outsider's knowledge of what it means to not be the soul mate. It is as if the valve of communion turned to stone.

21 January 2013

Like Some Old fashioned Miracle

Like Some Old fashioned Miracle 
When Summertime is done — 
Seems Summer's Recollection 
And the Affairs of June 

As infinite Tradition 
As Cinderella's Bays — 
Or Little John — of Lincoln Green — 
Or Blue Beard's Galleries — 

Her Bees have a fictitious Hum — 
Her Blossoms, like a Dream — 
Elate us — till we almost weep — 
So plausible — they seem — 

Her Memories like Strains — Review — 
When Orchestra is dumb — 
The Violin in Baize replaced — 
And Ear — and Heaven — numb —
                                                                       F408 (1862) J302

Oh, summers past. They are like some age of Fantasy or pages out of children's books and fairy tales. How the golden bees hummed around the flowers; how the woods and gardens bloomed...improbable fiction! It makes us "almost weep," the memories are so real. We can practically re-live it all, the way music echoes in our heads long after the orchestra is through.
          You could definitely sing this poem to the tune of "Amazing Grace," for like that hymn, the poem is written in common ballad form. It has the slow, sleepy air of Amazing Grace, too. The first stanza lulls us with the sibilance; "the Affairs of June" reminds us of our own affairs in that fine month.
          The second stanza hearkens back to the stories we loved as children: Cinderella, Robin Hood, Treasure Island. We were all heroes in those stories. No one was cynical. And summer is like that, Dickinson suggests, with its rhythm of possibility. Life is growing so improbably beautiful all around us that we feel as we felt when reading about Cinderella's triumphal entry at the ball.
          The last stanza avoids sticky sentimentality. Dickinson could have ended with the nostalgic tone she employs throughout and produced a very fine poem of that type. Instead, she roughs the poem with discordant words and ideas. "Memories like Strains" makes sense when thinking about it: the memories play like melodies. But the eye registers "Strains" as perhaps "Stains" – not a pretty image, and one that suggests summer wasn't all roses. "Strains" also suggest effort. The whole phrase, "Memories like Strains — Review," is awkward and even a bit jarring. The meter doesn't flow smoothly, as it does in the other stanzas, and there are words missing that disrupt the grammar and syntax. Something is a bit off – could it be summer itself? Or is it the lack of summer.
          The second line of the final stanza has the orchestra as "dumb" rather than "silent" or "still" – words that would return to the sibilance of the first stanza and that would be more literally accurate. "Dumb" implies speechless, as in "struck dumb," or else unable to speak because of physical problems. Dickinson means for us to stop at that word. There is a consciousness involved in the comings and goings of summer – and youth.
          The glorious violin, voice of the individual and of beauty, is put back in its wrapping, silenced now with no one to play it. Someone has put the violin away, while someone else strains to hear remembered melodies until The "Ear," standing for the listening individual, becomes "numb." The numbness here sounds less like nostalgia than grief. Even Heaven seems to have been affected. It too is numb.
          I think Dickinson is not only writing a love letter to summer, but commenting on innocence. Our childhood seems golden and mythical. We think of those times again and again, for they are long gone. Once alive with wonder and potential, we gradually numb ourselves. Heaven, too, loses its celestial draw. And that is the loss of summer's innocence.
          Now one could point out that "numb" and "dumb" make a convenient rhyming pair. But I don't think Dickinson selected them because they sort of fit but more importantly rhymed. No, the words may have occured to her because of that, but she liked the pair for other reasons, too. She is in the autumn mood — and that is appropriate for autumn does, after all, follow summer.

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase —
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O'erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More —
                                                                        J670,  F407 (1862) 670

 There's a real horror in the idea that the most terrifying ghosts and horrors reside within our own brains. Dickinson has plumbed this terror in two of her earlier Gothic poems,

F360 "The Soul has Bandaged moments—" and F341  "'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—." In the first, the soul is paralyzed with fear by "ghastly" ghostly figures, and by "the Horror" to which she is returned, shackled and bound, whenever she tries to escape her imprisonment. The second poem takes us beyond horror, to a place of knowledge where there is no hope and where Fright and Terror are free to celebrate their "Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!"
          Dickinson states her argument in the first lines: the brain can be as haunted as any old, abandoned house; what's more, it is infinitely larger. That's a frightening thought—and it rings true, for we can indeed wander indefinitely through the mazes and corners of our minds. This can lead to madness or paralysis--or perhaps even enlightenment. Although here Dickinson writes from the madness and paralysis camp, it is by braving the demons of her mind that she receives her enlightenment. 
          Dickinson never holds back. We saw in F401, "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat,'" how she dares the reader to "crouch within the door" as her soul is hammered and forged until at a white heat. This poem returns from the forge imagery to the frightening horrors within. 
          That inner ghost is cold, a "Cooler Host" than even an "External Ghost." It is extremely dangerous, worse than an "Assassin" lurking behind the door. It's the last thing you'd want to encounter, especially in the "lonesome Place" that is the deep interior of the brain.

The haunted Whitby Abbey

          What's interesting here is the multiplicity of self that is implied. There is the brain, first, that has the corridors and is haunted. Then there are the multiple selves, strangers and deadly dangerous to each other, that inhabit the brain. It is "Ourself behind ourself" that should scare us the most. We would be better off to be chased through a haunted Abbey than for the outward self to encounter the hidden one in our own interior. Then there is the body, that hapless bit of flesh that in obvious futility "borrows a Revolver" and "bolts the Door."
          Most frightening of all is the  rhyming spondee at the end of the poem: "Or More—". The "r" sounds add a dark, ominous quality. It causes us to fear for that poor Body and its useless revolver. The "spectre" he is defending himself against is not only "superior" but clearly not alone. There are very probably "More."
          While it may be that Dickinson wrote this for the goose-bump thrill of the Gothic writing she enjoyed (such as Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights), I find it likely that she really did find her mind haunted. But while many of us ignore or can easily divert and suppress our inner demons, and while some poor few of us fall victim to them, Dickinson never gave up her inner explorations. Her poetry is often a traveler's report of her terrifying adventures. 

13 January 2013

Over and over, like a Tune—

Over and over, like a Tune— 
The Recollection plays— 
Drums off the Phantom Battlements 
Cornets of Paradise— 

Snatches, from Baptized Generations— 
Cadences too grand 
But for the Justified Processions 
At the Lord's Right hand.
                                                             F406 (1862) J367

Written in common ballad or hymn form, this poem returns to the theme of ethereal music that Dickinson hears. This time she keeps returning to something "like a Tune" that she has heard and that now plays over and over in her mind. It is "too grand" for anything earthly, so in the second stanza she attributes it to those souls who reside in heaven, the "Baptized Generations", who comprise the heavenly processions. They are "Justified" by their faith (Romans 5:1) and are able to stand at the right-hand side of God.
        Perhaps because Dickinson is writing this poem during the Civil War, she hears their "Cadences" as military music. There are drums from the battlements and cornets rousing the troops. She only hears "Snatches" and "Cadences" from this music, but it is enough to convince her that it is "too grand" for any source but a heavenly host. Perhaps the martial heavenly music is meant to mirror the fight of Good against Evil that many New Englanders saw being played out on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Album cover: The Heavenly Music Corporation
(Robert Fripp and Brian Eno)
          In F334, "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad," Dickinson writes of "That Phraseless Melody" played by an orchestra of wind and bird and forest. The music is more "inner than the bone" and has even the power to raise the dust of the dead and make them dance. 
          She makes a more explicit reference to the singing of the saints in f229, "Musicians wrestle everywhere," where she describes a glorious music that she hears throughout the day and when she wakes up in the night. It isn't bird or band or hymn. Instead, the poet speculates, it is either the saints or the music of the spheres.
          It will be interesting as I make my way through her poems (only 1350+ more to go!) to see other poems about the transporting music Dickinson hears.

12 January 2013

Although I put away his life—

Although I put away his life—
An Ornament too grand
For Forehead low as mine, to wear,
This might have been the Hand

That sowed the flower, he preferred—
Or smoothed a homely pain,
Or pushed the pebble from his path—
Or played his chosen tune—

On Lute the least—the latest—
But just his Ear could know
That whatsoe'er delighted it,
I never would let go—

The foot to bear his errand—
A little Boot I know—
Would leap abroad like Antelope—
With just the grant to do—

His weariest Commandment—
A sweeter to obey,
Than "Hide and Seek"—
Or skip to Flutes—
Or all Day, chase the Bee—

Your Servant, Sir, will weary—
The Surgeon, will not come—
The World, will have its own—to do—
The Dust, will vex your Fame—

The Cold will force your tightest door
Some February Day,
But say my apron bring the sticks
To make your Cottage gay—

That I may take that promise
To Paradise, with me—
To teach the Angels, avarice,
You, Sir, taught first—to me. 

                                                                        F405 (1862)  J366 

Dickinson indulges herself in a bit of house-wifely fantasy. The daydream goes like this: I turned away from a possible marriage with a great man because I was too lowly. But imagine, my poor little hand could have been planting his favorite flowers or removing pebbles from his path, and playing the lute for him. I'd do his errands and his bidding. It would be better than playing games or chasing bees or dancing. 
          The games and skipping to music are childish images. The poet isn't writing as a mature woman but as a young romantic girl. 
The 1950s were a great time for
the romance of the housewife.

          The fantasy turns a bit morbid towards the end. The master's servant will eventually become old and tired. As "Sir" gets old and infirm himself, the doctor rarely comes by to see him. The world moves on to other people and issues, while fame and reputation begin to pass him by. One day "The Cold will force [his] tightest door" and he will die. But if Sir will promise that the speaker can at least and at last serve him by bringing flowering branches to decorate his grave, his "Cottage," she could die happily. She would be so hungry to serve him even in this way that the angels would learn "avarice." While today we think of "avarice" as meaning insatiable greed, in Dickinson's time the word had some positive connotations. In this context it probably means the desire to keep something valuable to herself and be vigilant over it in a watchful and protective way.
          I don't think this poem tops anybody's list of Dickinson's best work. It would be a very nice poem if it were actually written by some young and love-struck girl rather than from a world-class poet. However, lurking in the poem's saccharine sentiment may be a grand dose of irony. Perhaps Dickinson wrote this as the same sort of parody that infuses F125, "A poor--torn heart--a tattered heart." In that poem Dickinson pens a send-up of Charles Dickens' Little Nell. Here she may be mocking the love-sick maiden.

11 January 2013

To put this World down, like a Bundle—

To put this World down, like a Bundle—
And walk steady, away,
Requires Energy—possibly Agony—
'Tis the Scarlet way

Trodden with straight renunciation
By the Son of God—
Later, his faint Confederates
Justify the Road—

Flavors of that old Crucifixion—
Filaments of Bloom, Pontius Pilate sowed—
Strong Clusters, from Barabbas' Tomb—

Sacrament, Saints partook before us—
Patent, every drop,
With the Brand of the Gentile Drinker
Who indorsed the Cup— 

                                                                              F404 (1862)  J527

Dickinson writes here of renunciation and the suffering that follows when one utterly rejects the world.  

          She begins by picturing life in this world—family, profession, woods, conventional religion, and beaches—as a "Bundle" that one might put down and walk away from. To do so, however, requires a huge effort, "possibly Agony," and even bloodshed, for this is "the Scarlet way." The world doesn't understand or treat with much charity those who reject it.
          The second stanza makes this point more clearly. Jesus renounced the world when he rejected fame and fortune and the wisdom of the elders. His bloody death did indeed put him on the scarlet way. His disciples, those "faint Confederates", wrote about their experiences in pieces that became books of the New Testament. This was also their attempt to "Justify the Road".
          Changing the metaphor, Dickinson considers Jesus' death sentence by Pontius Pilate as a sowing of bloody flowers. They retain the "flavors" of the crucifixion as they are "Filaments" of that early flower. Like the "faint Confederates," the later saints are but flavors and filaments of the real thing. The poet has these filaments originating from the tomb of Barabbas, the thief Pilate released in stead of Jesus because the crowd (according to the disciples who wrote the accounts) demanded Jesus be killed. Consequently "Strong Clusters" of flowers emanate from Barabbas' Tomb, for he was the one intended to be buried.
The communion cup
          The last stanza is difficult, primarily because of the "Gentile Drinker". It sounds as if the Drinker should be Jesus, both because it is the essence of his blood that infuses the sacrament, and because it was Jesus who instructed his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in his memory.  "This is my blood," he reportedly said. However, neither Jesus nor any of his apostles were gentiles.
        Paul was the apostle to the gentiles, though, and "Gentile Drinker" might have a double meaning here. His ministry changed Christianity from a jewish religion to a gentile one as he metaphorically drank them in. Or Dickinson might be conflating Paul with his gentile ministry for poetic purposes. That Paul also put his brand, or stamp, on all aspects of Christianity is beyond doubt.
        If Paul is the Drinker whose teachings are "patent" in the communion cup, then the stanza becomes ironic. It introduces an interpreter into the communion sacrament and that introduces an element of doubt. Have the "Flavors" of the crucifixion been altered somehow by the stamp of Paul? Have christians been unwittingly following Paul rather than Jesus in some subtle but profound way that is bound up in the sacrament of communion?

I don't think Dickinson is distancing herself from the "Scarlet way", though. Her admiration of Jesus' "straight renunciation" seems real. If anything, she is making a veiled warning about letting a sacrament take the place of deeply felt personal renunciation, about accepting something with someone else's brand on it for the real thing.

10 January 2013

I reason, Earth is short—

I reason, Earth is short— 
And Anguish—absolute— 
And many hurt, 
But, what of that? 

 I reason, we could die— 
The best Vitality 
Cannot excel Decay, 
But, what of that? 

I reason, that in Heaven— 
Somehow, it will be even— 
Some new Equation, given— 
But, what of that?
                                                              F403 (1862) J301 

As Emily Dickinson wandered through her garden, baked the family's bread, and penned her incredible poems, the Civil War increased its carnage. In April 1862, twenty-four thousand men were killed during the battle of Shiloh: 13,000 of 63,000 Union soldiers and 11,000 of 40,000 Confederate troops. There were many other battles that year and thousands of other deaths. Oddly, Emily Dickinson never wrote about the war or slavery, although New England boys were dying daily. New England as a whole was passionately opposed to slavery. The war wasn't going well for the Union, despite Lincoln's best efforts. The war would have been the major topic of discussion in any town and state east of the Mississippi (and west, too, though probably to a lesser degree). 
Battle of Shiloh: Could Dickinson really have ignored this?
         Could Dickinson tune out this cataclysm as she worried about her relationships with Sue, Samuel Bowles, her father, and other figures of interest? Or did the war have a profound effect on her that although not explicitly addressed seeps out in her metaphors, her sense of cosmic justice, her perceptions of human nature? I'm pretty sure that although she retreated from the world she was aware of what was going on. If she chose the garden and the writing desk as quiet refuges from the unfathomable violence around her, it would be a sane thing to do. Walt Whitman, her contemporary, chose the opposite path, throwing himself into the war effort and then into helping at veterans' hospitals. 
          It seems to me that Dickinson instead retreated inward, questioning, always questioning the nature and extent of suffering and death. In this poem she adopts "reason" to say that a person's life is short, full of anguish, and traveling from vitality to decay. This is all more observation than reason, but she is building up to the bitter, even sarcastic, conclusion. Somehow "in Heaven / ... it will be even— / Some new Equation, given," but so what? So what if God gives us a lovely afterlife that rights the wrongs of life, that gives more, say, to those who had less, or some such scheme? That's too little and much too late.

The poem is written the the short and direct iambic trimeter. The first stanza establishes the breezy tone that scoffs at anguish with a wave of ennui. It uses the "t" alliterations, adding a bit of bite: short / absolute / hurt / that. The two "a" words in the second line slow the reader down from this breezy clip—you have to slow down to read "Anguish—absolute." She wants us to focus on that thought. We absolutely are going to suffer in this short life. And then she lobs the ironic afterthought that she repeats in each of the three stanzas: "But, what of that?"
          The second stanza begins and ends the same way, with "I reason" and "But, what of that?" This time she claims that no matter how healthy you are or full of vitality, you are going to decay and rot away soon enough. Thank goodness for cremation, eh? This stanza has assonance, using open vowels such as in reason, die, Vitality, and Decay.
          It is tempting to read the last stanza as proud. If this is what you give us during our earthly life, I imagine her saying to a Creator, then I'm not going to be all grateful and dewy over your Heavenly paradise. When Dickinson writes that the equation will be "even"—that the wonders of heaven will be more than sufficient to compensate for the Anguish of earth—I don't think she believes it.

We've seen this bitter sarcasm before in   F215 :
I shall know why – when Time is over – 

And I have ceased to wonder why – 

Christ will explain each separate anguish

In the fair schoolroom of the sky – 

He will tell me what "Peter" promised – 

And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of Anguish

That scalds me now – that scalds me now!

Dickinson may be referring to some private grief, but I cannot believe that the horrors of the Civil War were far beneath the surface.