Search This Blog

26 February 2013

I gave myself to Him —

I gave myself to Him —
And took Himself, for Pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —

The Wealth might disappoint —

Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love

Depreciate the Vision —

But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isles of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —

At least —'tis Mutual — Risk —

Some — found it — Mutual Gain
Sweet Debt of Life — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —
                                                                       F426 (1862)  J580

It’s always a bit jarring – and then fun – when Dickinson turns to the language of law and commerce in her poetry. Here she tackles the business of marriage. In this business the Merchants “buy” the fabled goods before being able to sample them.  It’s a “Mutual – Risk” for both parties to the transaction but at least some folks find “Mutual Gain.”

         She begins the poem in the first person as if she herself had married. The woman’s role, or at least the one she took for herself, was to give herself to “Him.” The bridegroom’s role was to provide support, or “Pay.” Now that’s putting the case for marriage in 1800s America succinctly! It was even true in my own girlhood. Young women were all counselled to find a good breadwinner. This agreement of the woman’s life for the man’s support is “ratified” as a lifetime contract – and that is the marriage vows and marriage license.
Even zombies have marriage contracts
          The poet recognizes the potential for disappointment. The man might not have as much wealth as expected. The woman might not have that much to offer either. These disappointments, recognized daily, are the “Own – of Love” and “Depreciate” the value of the contract. It’s like investing in the car of your dreams only to find out that it doesn’t corner well and can’t make it over the hill at any speed over 35 miles per hour. You might still love the car, but every day you are reminded of its failings. So, too, with marriage.
         But just as merchants still make the trip all the way to the Spice Islands to buy their fabled spices and silks, so people keep getting married. The merchants know that spices and silks are excellent trade items, but they don’t know exactly what the spices and silks that they buy will sell for – or if they will be cheated in some way. Their “Cargoes” are “subtle” that way. The scent of the spice and the colors of the silk may fade; the islanders may not negotiate in good faith. At least in marriage both partners take a risk.
         Dickinson ends the poem with a sly sketch of the happy marriage where there is “Mutual Gain”: the wedded partners join in bed each night, owing each other the “Sweet Debt of Life.” That’s a nice metaphor. I’m wealthy every night because my partner is going to pay me that debt. He, likewise, is expecting his payment. Sweet indeed! But by noon the next day we are both “Insolvent.” We’ve spent what was paid us the night before, not only in pleasure but in the Daily Own of frictions and annoyances. Thankfully, by the next night that Sweet Debt will be paid again.

23 February 2013

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch

Of your delirious Hem —
And you dropt, lost,
When something broke —
And let you from a Dream —

As if a Goblin with a Gauge —

Kept measuring the Hours —
Until you felt your Second
Weigh, helpless, in his Paws —

And not a Sinew — stirred — could help,

And sense was setting numb —
When God — remembered — and the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome —

As if your Sentence stood — pronounced —

And you were frozen led
From Dungeon's luxury of Doubt
To Gibbets, and the Dead —

And when the Film had stitched your eyes

A Creature gasped "Reprieve"!
Which Anguish was the utterest — then —
To perish, or to live?
                                           F425 (1862)  J414

"Descent into the Maelstrom"
    Something terrible, we don’t know what, has happened. We do know, however, how it felt. The first two stanzas describe the experience as if you (and Dickinson indeed uses the second person, as if speaking directly to the reader) were being sucked into a giant whirlpool. This maelstrom has conscious, malevolent intent: it “Toyed coolly” with you as you drowned, delirious with “the Agony” until you had been pulled under all the way to the last inch of clothes. But then, just as if waking from a nightmare, something happened to break the terrible experience.
       That was a near miss – a very close call! But then the next two stanzas describe another nightmare. This time the terrible experience is as if an inhuman Goblin, particularly monstrous with its “Paws,” measures your suffering with a guage, hour after hour, until you were down to the last second, paralysed and numb so that you couldn’t move a muscle to free yourself. We’ve all had these nightmares, fighting to move or even to squeak out a call for help but unable to. They are truly horrible.
       Worse, God is involved. Instead of being there to help or rescue, he had forgotten all about you. Good thing he remembered at the last second! The Goblin becomes the devil, “the Fiend,” as if you were captured by Satan and carried, helpless, into Hell. But when God finally shows up, the Fiend lets go.
       That’s all bad, but it gets worse! Now you are being led to certain death at the gallows. The terrible experience is as if you’d been sentenced to death but then left in the dungeon – in the “luxury of Doubt” about your future. Well, when the guard comes for you and leads you to the Gibbets, or gallows, for hanging, you don’t have that luxury anymore. You know for sure your moment of death is at hand. As if “frozen,” you go, and as you are hanged and your eyes film over (the film “stitched” your eyes – as if hanging weren’t pain enough), someone comes running up gasping “’Reprieve’!” Once more you are saved at the last possible second from a hideous death.
       The question Dickinson poses at the end is whether or not you would feel more anguish at simply dying on the spot or being set loose again to live. Certainly she has not introduced any optimism. No doubt the poor sufferer will have more of these terrible episodes or nightmares – or whatever terrible experiences are being depicted here.

What all of these events have in common is the feeling of helplessness. The Maelstrom, the Goblin, and the Executioner all have the power of life and death. The Maelstrom and the Goblin are cruel, causing pain and observing it for their own purposes. The judge sentences an innocent (perhaps) person to a miserable death. The sufferer doesn’t have power to avoid pain or to inspire her rescue. Rescue seems as inexplicable as pain.

    I read about a cruel experiment with dogs where the floor of a dogs cage would deliver painful jolts of electricity. The dogs would try to avoid the pain, but when they realized there was no way to anticipate it or avoid it – no way to stop it, they gave up and just lay down in utter misery. That’s the sense at the end of the poem. If life is like this series of nightmares, why live?

It’s not one of Dickinson’s cheeriest poems. In other poems she finds a way out, or rails against the injustice. Here, however, she simply scribbles it out for all to see. The pain is made more excruciating by her choice of words. The first stanza has Maelstrom, notch, boiling, Agony: all strong, hard, and dramatic words. The second switches to the cool-sounding “Toyed coolly,” and the two “oh” sounds – the dipththong and the long “oh” – force the reader to slow down, just as time was slowing down for the drowning person. But then the words are clipped and short, just as the experience is cut short. There are a series of one-syllable words: dropt, lost, broke, Dream.

       What can we say about the “Goblin with a Guage” and his paws? What a great phrase and image. Again, Dickinson uses a string of strong, dramatic words: Goblin, Paws, Sinew, numb, Overcome. This continues and even becomes more hyperbolic as we read Dungeon, Doubt, Gibbets, Dead, stitched, gasped, Anguish, and utterest.
       How could those who knew the reclusive Miss Dickinson ever have known she was writing this stuff?

The Color of the Grave is Green

The Color of the Grave is Green –
The Outer Grave –  I mean –
You would not know it from the Field –
Except it own a Stone –

To help the fond –  to find it –

Too infinite asleep
To stop and tell them where it is –
But just a Daisy –  deep –

The Color of the Grave is white –

The outer Grave –  I mean –
You would not know it from the Drifts –
In Winter –  till the Sun –

Has furrowed out the Aisles –

Then –  higher than the Land
The little Dwelling Houses rise
Where each –  has left a friend –

The Color of the Grave within –

The Duplicate –  I mean –
Not all the Snows could make it white –
Not all the Summers –  Green –

You've seen the Color –  maybe –

Upon a Bonnet bound –
When that you met it with before –
The Ferret –  Cannot find –
                                                                            F424 (1862)  J411

This poem lulls us into thinking it is a simple meditation on the permanence of death juxtaposed against the changing of the seasons. Dickinson sticks pretty closely to common ballad or hymn form: iambic pentameter with alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines in each four-line stanza, and with the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyming. The poem has three sections, each beginning with “The Color of the Grave.” But while the first two sections depict the grave in summer and in winter scenes, the third goes deep into Dickinson territory – the darkness within. Because of the simple structure and diction of the poem, the darkness comes as a surprisingly sharp twist.

       We get a couple of clues early on, however. In both the first and third stanzas where she describes the green and then the white grave, she specifies it is “The Outer Grave” that she is referring to. Sure enough, the poem ends with a description of “the Grave within.” Dickinson is an intensely observant and inward-turning poet. Although some of her poems are nature sketches, many arise from intense inner scrutiny. She does not shy away from what she finds there, even though she confronts death, loss, or horror nearly every time.
The graveyard near Dickinson's home.
courtesy: N. Taylor Collins
, 2013

Dover, DE

The poem begins at a graveyard in the green season. The grass covers the graves so naturally that without the gravestones you would think you were in a grassy field or meadow. Each grave owns its “Stone” as a marker for the “fond” folks who come to pay their respects. The dead themselves are not able to help the living find their graves: their sleep is too “infinite.” Without the gravestone we would just walk over the buried dead and never know it although they are just below our feet, “just a Daisy – deep.” That’s deeper than it sounds, however. Daisies are hardy perennials and so their roots are thick and deep.

       The next two stanzas take us into winter. The graveyard is covered with snow, sometimes so deeply that the drifts cover even the headstones. There’s no way you can find the grave you are looking for until clear days arrive and the sun melts the snow and furrows out the “Aisles” between the graves. The “little Dwelling Houses” would be the grave covers above the ground that, in addition to tombstones, mark the grave. Some of them look like ornamented tombs; others are more fanciful. But Dickinson might simply have been referring to the tombstones as indicative of the “Houses” of the dead.

The last section takes us to the “Grave within.” This is a “Duplicate” of the buried coffin that holds the dead. We hold our own death within us, she is implying. Or perhaps she is saying that when we lose a loved one there is a dark grave inside us marking the place where once we kept their living love. Regardless, this inner grave is neither white like the pure and mysterious snow nor green like the fertile summer fields. Instead, it is black like the crepe ribbons Victorian ladies would wear on their hats when in mourning.

       “You’ve” seen this color before, she tells us, taking the seemingly simple poem directly to the reader. But unlike graves dug in the cemetery, the inner grave cannot be accessed by even such an efficient hunter as a ferret. These excellent predators have been used for rabbiting for hundreds of years as they can flush a rabbit from the deepest of dens. The darkness of the inner grave is safe from such depredations. Even the ferret cannot find it.

19 February 2013

The first Day's Night had come –

The first Day's Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing – 

She said her Strings were snapt –

Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn – 

And then – a Day as huge

As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes – 

My Brain – begun to laugh –

I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho' 'tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still. 

And Something's odd – within –

That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?
                                                                 F423 (1862)  J410

In 1858, Dickinson wrote “I never lost as much but twice” (F39), where she grieves for two deaths that put her “a beggar / Before the door of God.” This poem also speaks of two griefs.  The poem begins in the past, with first one tragedy and then another. It ends in the present with the poet reflecting on the psychic aftermath of those calamaties, wondering if she is mad.

       The first line of the poem recalls the Biblical book of Genesis, where the chronicler details the beginning of the cosmos: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness e called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5).  Dickinson pulls from that cataclysmic event the thread of tragedy. Surely there was cataclysm when God created light; who but Emily Dickinson would see the potential for horror. With a sudden onslaught of light, something very catastrophic may well have happened.
        Likewise, there had been a cataclysm in her own life. She was “grateful” to have gotten through the day, but night proved little better. She told her “Soul to sing” – and once again we have the division between the conscious Self and the Soul – but the soul’s strings were “snapt” like those on a violin after rough tratment. But it wasn’t just the strings on the violin, but the bow, too, was destroyed: blown to bits so completely that only its atoms were left. Nope, no songs left in the soul’s violin. The Self was willing and able, however, to cope: mending the soul was her “work” throughout that dark night.
Humor and madness and death
        But then disaster struck once more. The new tragedy was “as huge” as the previous one – doubly bad, in fact. It “unrolled” in front of her, a terrible image as if watching a train wreck. This time, however, there was no patient mending of the soul, no putting the strings and bow back to rights. Instead, the speaker responds completely inappropriately: she laughs and mumbles. Today we understand that laughing at a funeral, for example, is a normal response to the stress of grief and uncertainty. Helen Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) notes that in this fourth stanza “hysteria replaces language” (195).
        Yet the last line of that stanza brings us to the present tense. The speaker’s brain is still “giggling.” This leads to the poignant last stanza. These events changed her. She does not feel like the same person she was before. The last line, “Could it be Madness – this?, is carefully  constructed not only to mirror her sense of not being quite right, but to emphasize her internal sense of madness. Dickinson fractures the syntax and leaves the pronoun hanging. The reader must fill in the referent for “this,” and what we come up with is the giggling, the hysteria, the snapped strings, the never again feeling like the same person.

The effect is sad, the voice referring helplessly to the upheaval in her heart and soul.  As far as rhyme – the predictable (but satisfying) rhyme of “thing” and “sing” in the first stanza give way to an unrhymed ballad form. We expect more rhyme, but Dickinson is out to show mental disruption and lack of coherence. After all, the strings are snapped. And so she offers only the slant rhymes of  “fool” and “still,” and “was” and this.” To a giggling mind, rhymes must all be slant.

15 February 2013

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I could not feel the trouble go –
But only knew by looking back –
That something – had benumbed the Track – 

Nor when it altered, I could say,

For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock –
I hung upon the Peg, at night. 

But not the Grief -- that nestled close

As Needles – ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks –
To keep their place – 

Nor what consoled it, I could trace –

Except, whereas 'twas Wilderness –
It's better – almost Peace –
                                                           F421 (1862)  J584

People love to comfort the grieving by saying “Time heals all wounds,” but hardly anyone believes it. Time may heal some wounds and it may dull others, but – as Dickinson points out in many of her poems – the internal scars remain and the psyche has warped around them. Long after the pangs cease to attack us we still maintain a protective hunch – or perhaps even an aggressive crouch.
         Dickinson addresses the dulling process of time in this poem. She wasn’t aware of the process, just that in “looking back” she realized that the “Track” of pain through her life had been “benumbed.”  I feel this poem is a sequel to “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (F372). In that poem, written earlier in the year, she describes the woodenness of life after grief, how the spirit becomes stone-like, manifesting a “Quartz contentment.” Most disturbing in that work are the last two lines where surviving the “Hour of Lead” is remembered as if by one frozen to death: “First – Chill – then
Stupor – then the letting go – .”  The current poem marks the letting go. She has moved from pain and wilderness to a more peaceful place.
Victorian pin cushion
courtesy: Chantilly Dreams
         She objectifies the grief, first by comparing it to the school dress she wore as a girl and hung on a peg in her room every night. But grief is even more ubiquitous for it was never hung up or put away at night. Like a small child, it “nestled close” to her, never leaving. This small child of grief is still there, but is finally “consoled.” By what, Dickinson doesn’t know.
        The third stanza is quite remarkable. Dickinson constructs the first two lines to read that grief “nestled close / As Needles,” and the juxtaposition of “needles” and nestling is jarring. We are yanked from the image of grief as a nestling small child to one of nestling needles that would pierce and hurt. I picture them piercing a heart. But as the stanza continues it is clear that ladies press the needles into pincushions where they belong. Without the pincushion the needles might be lost.
        The image of a lady pushing the needle of grief into the pincushion of her heart (where they belong!) each night springs from that long English tradition of the nightingale who presses her breast into a thorn to sing. Consequently, her song is born of sadness and pain. In Ovid, it is a rape victim, Philomel, who is transformed by the gods into a nightingale. Shakespeare refers to Philomel’s story in both Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece and in sonnets. Dickinson would have been familiar with these works as well as the famous ode “To the Nightingale” by Anne Finch (early 1700s) which compares the poet’s voice to that of the nightingale:
Most nightingales really don't
need thorns to sing!

Poets, wild as thee, were born,
    Pleasing best when unconfined,
    When to please is least designed,
Soothing but their cares to rest;
    Cares do still their thoughts molest,
    And still th' unhappy poet's breast,
Like thine, when best he sings, is placed against a thorn.

It is very Dickinsonian to turn this classical reference into a homely image of needles and pincushions. And it is very tragically romantic – but appropriate! – of her to place herself in the nightingale lineage.

In the last stanza the image reverts back to the nestling infant, now consoled. But the final lines assert the poet’s final agency. She has been on a journey and recognizes it reflectively as to a wild place far from the sewing table. But now she looks for that wilderness and realizes that she has left it behind her. What is left is “better.”  It is “almost Peace.”  After the earlier torments, this is probably enough.

11 February 2013

There are two Ripenings –

There are two Ripenings –
One – of sight – whose forces Spheric wind
Until the Velvet Product
Drop, spicy, to the Ground –

A Homelier – maturing –

A Process in the Bur –
That Teeth of Frosts, alone disclose –
In far October Air –
                                                                            F420 (1862)  J332

The poet helpfully announces that she will be telling us about two types of ripenings – one per stanza. The first stanza with its “spicy” and “Velvet” fruit refers, no doubt, to a peach or something similar. It ripens before our eyes: we can see it grow (“wind”) into a sphere until it falls from the tree. Dickinson uses the word “Product” to refer to this fruit, setting up the very different second stanza that talks about an internal ripening (where the meanings are).

Chustnut burr opening to reveal the nuts inside
(courtesy Ruefleur Chestnuts)
         This ripening is meant to apply not only to the chestnut, but to humans. She substitutes “maturing” for “Ripenings” to give us an early indication that her subject has shifted. The nut of the chestnut tree matures within a spiny husk. Its maturation is invisible to see until autumn when the “Teeth” of October frosts nudge the husk to split open and reveal the glossy brown nut inside.
         Just so with human life – at least for the better of us. We mature inside, a “Process” that is not usually visible. Our hidden core – hopefully ripe and beautifully formed – can only be seen under duress. Hard times can reveal the best in us. But Dickinson is getting at a little more than duress here. She writes that our “Homelier – maturing” is only disclosed by the “Teeth of Frosts” as if there were an intelligence behind the tribulations, something ripping and tearing at us.
         It’s a typical Dickinsonian conclusion.

10 February 2013

A Toad, can die of Light –

A Toad, can die of Light –
Death is the Common Right
Of Toads and Men –
Of Earl and Midge
The privilege –
Why swagger, then?
The Gnat's supremacy is large as Thine –

Life – is a different Thing –
So measure Wine –
Naked of Flask – Naked of Cask –
Bare Rhine –
Which Ruby’s mine?
                                                              F419 (1862)  J64

Why should an Earl swagger in pride when he will meet the same fate as a toad or a gnat? They all will die, and “Death is the Common Right” – not a privilege. That’s the point Dickinson is making in the first stanza of this little poem. What puzzles me is the first line. Can toads die of light? They are nocturnal and live in damp hiding places, so maybe so. But I doubt that Dickinson would toss out the word “light” lightly. I suspect she means that the creepy crawly toad who can’t stand the light of day has the same right of death as any nobleman.
An earl in its own right
         The second stanza directs our attention to life. It’s not death that reveals your quality – for every living thing must die – but rather how you live your life. Dickinson uses wine as a metaphor: Take away the fancy bottle or flask, take away the fancy French oak cask, and how good is your wine? How good is mine, she asks in the last line. Am I a cheap ruby red? Or maybe a clear and easy-to-drink claret? I suspect Dickinson would be a dry, dark red Bordeaux.

Rhyme scheme: AABCCBD  EDFDD. That “F” rhyme, however, is an internal rhyme: “Flask” goes with “Cask” quite neatly. Another good rhyme: Midge and privilege.

09 February 2013

Your Riches — taught me — Poverty

Your Riches — taught me — Poverty.
Myself — a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
Till broad as Buenos Ayre —

You drifted your Dominions —
A Different Peru —
And I esteemed all Poverty
For Life's Estate with you —

Of Mines, I little know, myself —
But just the names, of Gems —
The Colors of the Commonest —
And scarce of Diadems —

So much, that did I meet the Queen —
Her Glory I should know —
But this, must be a different Wealth —
To miss it — beggars so —

I'm sure 'tis India — all Day —
To those who look on You —
Without a stint — without a blame,
Might I — but be the Jew —

I'm sure it is Golconda —
Beyond my power to deem —
To have a smile for Mine — each Day,
How better, than a Gem!

At least, it solaces to know
That there exists — a Gold —
Altho' I prove it, just in time
Its distance — to behold —

Its far — far Treasure to surmise —
And estimate the Pearl —
That slipped my simple fingers through —
While just a Girl at School.

                                                                                    F418 (1862)  J299

If, like me, you were ever the shy bookworm in your grammar school days, you may remember the dazzling new girl (or boy) whose presence afforded the sudden knowledge of greater, more glamorous places in the world. This poem is a nostalgic tribute to such an experience. Dickinson sent a copy of this poem to her beloved childhood friend – and her sister-in-law – Sue, along with a note:

Dear Sue –
You see I remember –

Dickinson may be saying her girlhood feelings still hold power over her; she may also, according to Dickinson biographer Richard Sewall (p. 163-5), be reminding Sue of the relationship between Alice and Cecilia in Longfellow’s 1849 novel Kavanagh (a book both girls had almost certainly read). Alice is “thoughtful, silent, susceptible; often sad, often in tears, often lost in reveries”; Cecilia is beautiful, confident, outgoing, and very popular with the young gentlemen. Emily and Sue would likely have recognized themselves in that description. They would also have recognized themselves in Longfellow's description of the girls' relationship:

“They walked together after school; they told each other their manifold secrets; they wrote long and impassioned letters to each other in the evening; in a word, they were in love with each other.”
Lovely, exotic tropical splendor – of Sue

We see the love in the sweet melancholy of the poem. It begins when the poet meets the new girl (or Sue). Until that day, she had been “a Millionaire / In little Wealths” – the sort of things that girls enjoy. But then Sue “drifted” in, as vast in attraction and wealth as Buenos Aires. She drifted her “Dominions” over her classmates, as exotic and lovely as far-away Peru. The poet suddenly felt that everything in her life was “Poverty” compared to being with Sue.
        The poet continues in this modest vein: she doesn’t know anything about mining for precious gems; only the names and colors of “the commonest.” She only knows enough of crowns, or “Diadems,” to recognize a Queen if she saw one. But this limited knowledge, however, is enough for her to recognize that Sue’s “Wealth” is of a different order. Having been around her, the poet realizes that she would be beggared without her.
        It’s India all day for those lucky souls who can “look on You” all the time and without blame. “India” stands here for riches: diamonds, spices, silks, etc. The poet wishes she might look at Sue all the time, too, but that is not possible. If she could, she’d be like the (19th Century stereotyped) Jew and hoard Sue. Just to have a daily smile from her would be “Golconda,” where the world’s most legendary gems were mined (the Hope Diamond, Koh-ki-Noor, Darya-k-Noor, for a few). 
        The poem ends with the melancholy reflection that this wonderful girl, Sue, if you will, slipped through the poet’s fingers when they were just schoolgirls. The knowledge of this “Gold,” however, is a source of comfort through the years, even though she can only watch Sue from afar.

And in case there was any doubt that earlier (and later) pearl poems might be referring to Dickinson’s feelings for Sue, she names Sue at the end as “the Pearl – / That slipped my simple fingers through.”

08 February 2013

Removed from Accident of Loss

Removed from Accident of Loss
By Accident of Gain
Befalling not my simple Days—
Myself had just to earn—

Of Riches—as unconscious

As is the Brown Malay
Of Pearls in Eastern Waters,
Marked His—What Holiday

Would stir his slow conception—

Had he the power to dream
That put the Dower's fraction—
Awaited even—Him—
                                                                   F417 (1862)  J424

Reader, this is one difficult poem. I’m just going to plow through it and see what turns up.

It seems the poem’s narrator is comparing her lack of good fortune to a man who has good luck in spades but doesn’t appreciate it. She begins with language of the market, accidents of loss and gain. At first we think she had a gain, but then in line three we see the negative: It has not befallen the speaker that some gain has wiped out her loss.

        Consequently, the speaker has had to “earn” whatever she got. The second stanza begins with “Of Riches,” which is logically what the speaker must earn. It also does double duty as a transition to the contrast to the lucky man. He is “as unconscious” of his riches as is the Malaysian of the pearls in the South China Sea. I don’t think Dickinson is saying that the Malaysian doesn’t know about the pearls – a historical trade item there; only that he doesn’t value them as highly as the folks from pearl-less locations.
Many Asian divers were actually young women
        The third stanza mocks the man who has the luxury of taking pearls for granted while she must do her best to earn her way out of loss. What wonderful “Holiday” would it take to wake him up? He has a “slow conception” and lacks imagination. He doesn’t dream of the wonderful dower that awaits him. What a clueless guy! “Dower” here figuratively refers to the wealth and property a wife brings to her marriage. The lucky man doesn’t appreciate the pearl he is about to possess. He doesn’t have the capacity.
        The narrator, on the other hand, understands perfectly just what the man is gaining and she losing. In an earlier poem, “I’ll clutch – and clutch,” she refers to poems as pearls that she dives deeply for – at risk to her life. In another poem,  F121, Dickinson writes that “Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a "Diver.” Instead, she must build a little nest inside her lover’s heart as a sparrow would: twig by twig, very carefully.
        These two other poems about pearls suggest alternate readings for this poem. The first, that she labours over her poetry and would also have to labour over her place as a poet. In this reading she would be thinking of a particular male poet with an easy gift and easy fame – but who doesn’t realize the greater pearl that could be his if he stirred himself to strive for it.
        The other reading would be that of a love triangle. There is a woman, beloved of the narrator, who is not fully appreciated by the man. Although the beloved woman will be his by rights (perhaps as Dickinson’s beloved friend Sue became her brother Austen’s wife), he doesn’t see her as a precious pearl; he isn’t capable of recognizing her “Dower.”

I find Dickinson’s use of the [male] language of law and capital intriguing. The pearl is feminine, as are the oyster-rich waters. But the loss and gain accidents, the earning of riches, the reckoning of a woman’s value by dowery are straight out of a lawyer’s office. Perhaps that is fitting, for both Dickinson’s father and brother were lawyers.

06 February 2013

The Months have ends—the Years—a knot—

The Months have ends—the Years—a knot—
No Power can untie
To stretch a little further
A Skein of Misery—

The Earth lays back these tired lives
In her mysterious Drawers—
Too tenderly, that any doubt
An ultimate Repose—

The manner of the Children—
Who weary of the Day—
Themself—the noisy Plaything
They cannot put away—

                                                      F417 (1862)  J423)

In this very feminine approach to death, Dickinson casts the earth as a loving mother tenderly putting her tired children to bed after a long and tiring day. Our lives, like the mother’s knitting, unwind from a skein. Its final knot is permanent, “No Power can untie” it. In 1819, John Keats mused that “I have been half in love with easeful Death / Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme” (from “Ode to a Nightingale"). To Keats, Death is an object of desire. The poet calls him and one supposes that one day the dread lover will appear.
        In Dickinson’s poem, despite months and years drawn out in “Misery,” the “tired lives” are not calling out for easeful Death. Instead, like children who insist on playing long after they have wearied of the game, people cling to life even when it has lost its pleasure. It's Mother, finally, not Lover, who finally puts an end to it. Unlike Keats who views death as a final merging with a mystical Other, Dickinson would have a mother – perhaps because her own mother was an invalid  – kindly and “tenderly” tuck her little charges back into “her mysterious Drawers.” The image calls up not only our mothers’ dressers (and what child has never stealthily opened her mother’s mysterious drawers), but a graveyard where the dead are tucked in in their coffins and shut up in earth. Death, then, in Dickinson’s vision, is not a sentient figure; it is just the state of rest for Earth’s tired children.
        We see nothing of Dickinson’s frequent cynicism towards God and Heaven. A child feels safe with her mother and abandons herself to her when she is tired or sick. Likewise, Mother Earth is so tender in her task that no one could doubt the children will sleep deeply in “ultimate Repose.” 
        When I read this poem as an idle contemplation about death, I read it as a pleasant fantasy with a few good turns of phrase. But when I read it contextually in the 1862 of the USA, I have to think of the huge numbers of soldiers dying in the Civil War. With this in mind I’m irritated by the poem. How can Dickinson, knowing that tens of thousands of young men are dying in appalling conditions, write about death as so gentle?
          But then  I re-read the last stanza and think that Dickinson is reflecting on the  larger picture. Humans are children: conscious and driven, but without self knowledge and wisdom. They themselves are “the noisy Plaything / They cannot put away,” for who can put herself away? Where is the problem if not in ourselves? What is the most common source of our misery if not ourselves? Consequently, we need someone to put us out of our misery. Enter kindly, motherly death.
        This may be Dickinson’s slant response to the epic battle going on: it is a foolish and childish fighting game, part of the miserable skein of human existence. The many who who die at it are tucked away to an abiding rest.
        Dickinson does leave us with a mystery. Once we are buried in those deep drawers, what happens? Is it just an ultimate Repose or will there be a re-awakening? I can read the poem both ways.

    The poem is written in common hymn or ballad form. I think the poem would make a nice song. Read it as you hum “Amazing Grace” and see if you don’t like it.

04 February 2013

More Life – went out – when He went

More Life – went out – when He went
Than Ordinary Breath –
Lit with a finer Phosphor –
Requiring in the Quench – 

A Power of Renowned Cold,

The Climate of the Grave
A Temperature just adequate
So Anthracite, to live – 

For some – an Ampler Zero –

A Frost more needle keen
Is necessary, to reduce
The Ethiop within. 

Others – extinguish easier –

A Gnat's minutest Fan
Sufficient to obliterate
A Tract of Citizen -- 

Whose Peat life – amply vivid –

Ignores the solemn News
That Popocatapel exists –
Or Etna's Scarlets, Choose –
                                                       F415  (1862)  J442

In this thoughtful eulogy Dickinson compares the deceased man to anthracite – a lustrous variety of mineral coal that burns hot, bright and pure. Unlike lesser grades, anthracite has the potential to become a diamond. This man, Dickinson says, was “Lit with a finer Phosphor” than that animating lesser mortals. Phosphor, in addition to being a physical luminescent substance, represents “light; flame; fuel; vitality; vivacity; energy; spark of life” (Emily Dickinson lexicon, BYU College of Humanities and Brigham Young University). 

Such fire and vitality is hard to extinguish; that is the point of Dickinson’s praise. 
Anthracite: hard, lustrous, and pure
          Quenching it required “A Power of Renowned Cold.” The phrase is beautifully ambiguous and compelling. It suggests an extreme degree – or power – of cold; the power of an extreme weather event such as a freezing blizzard; and also a malevolent power – a bone-chilling demon or devil. This wasn’t a man defeated by life and going gently into that good night. It took “The Climate of the Grave” to douse the life force that clearly was strong in him until the end.
            Dickinson then moves from the particular to the general. There are others like the eulogized man who also have fire in their souls. She moves from the heat potential of anthracite to likening it to the heat of Ethiopia. Such heat requires “an Ampler Zero” – a deep-space kind of freeze, a “Frost more needle keen” to reduce it.

Plain, dull peat
          The poor in spirit and the weak, the most of us I think she implies, are more easily reduced. Our little flames die without a fight. The tiny fluttering of a gnat’s wings are sufficient to blow them out. Ouch! The poet doesn’t pull her punches, either. The gnat’s “Fan” can “extinguish” and “obliterate” the spirit of these people. Dickinson uses the phrase “Tract of Citizen” and one sees a tract of land, empty and unfulfilled. It is not even a high-quality tract but one filled with peat. Double ouch! Peat, a precursor of coal, is almost the definition of drab and dull. Compared with the brilliant “stone coal,” anthracite, peat is partially-decayed vegetable tissue. When we think of peat we think of bogs and swamps.
          These low-spirited folks with their “Peat life” – although “amply vivid” in the day-to-day sense (the contrast is to the “Ampler Zero” required to quench the nobler souls) – ignore the eruptions and volcanoes in the world around them. The news may be “solemn” about the deadly potential of the Etnas and Popocatapels of this world, but the peat people take no interest. Dickinson ends the poem with the word “Choose” floating without anchor. Is she asking the reader to choose? Peat or anthracite? Volcano or a placid tract? Or is she suggesting that the peat people have chosen to be what and who they are?
        I think there may be something just a bit different, though. The suggestion of choice at the end of the poem is at odds with the beginning where the anthracite man was “Lit with a finer Phosphor.” He was given his noble nature. The rest of us, with our empty tracts, may choose not to ignore the fiery earth beneath our feet. We should learn to see it, be in awe of it, perhaps even keep a bit of anthracite – mined deep from rocky seams rather than scraped like peat off the surface – in our hearth to keep us warm.

Several critics have suggested that Dickinson’s use of anthracite may have been inspired by  Reveries of a Bachelor, a book by Donald Grant Mitchell published in 1850, that compares the dancing but weak sea-coal to the steady and strong anthracite by way of metaphor for different types of people:
But my [anthracite] fire is […] throwing a tranquil, steady light to the farthest corner of my garret. How unlike it is to the flashing play of the Sea-coal; unlike as an unsteady, uncertain-working heart to the true and earnest constancy, of one cheerful and right.
            [G]ive me such a heart; not bent on vanities, not blazing too sharp with sensibility, not throwing out coquettish jets of flame, not wavering, and meaningless with pretended warmth, but open, glowing, and strong. Its dark shades and angles it may have; for what is a soul worth that does not take a slaty tinge from those griefs that chill the blood ? Yet still the fire is gleaming; you see it in the crevices ; and anon it will give radiance to the whole mass.
              It hurts the eyes, this fire.

We have seen in previous Dickinson poems (e.g., F401, “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’”) that despite the hurt, she forges her poems by gazing into the fire.