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28 March 2013

A Murmur in the Trees – to note –

A Murmur in the Trees – to note –
Not loud enough – for Wind –
A Star – not far enough to seek –
Nor near enough – to find –

A long – long Yellow – on the Lawn –
A Hubbub – as of feet –
Not audible – as Ours – to Us –
But dapperer – More Sweet –

A Hurrying Home of little Men
To Houses unperceived –
All this – and more – if I should tell –
Would never be believed –

Of Robins in the Trundle bed
How many I espy
Whose Nightgowns could not hide the Wings –
Although I heard them try –

But then I promised ne'er to tell –
How could I break My Word?
So go your Way – and I'll go Mine –
No fear you'll miss the Road.

                                                                                     F433 (1862)  J416

Dickinson takes a break here from matters of life, death, and the afterlife to find the world full of magic. Something whispers in the trees, an indeterminate star appears – a fairy lantern perhaps? And in the long yellow light of the moon, the fairies hurry home. Maybe they are elves or brownies or something else, though; but for some reason they are all male. I like that their feet are more dapper and sweet than those of our human males.
      The mystery of the poem is who the “you” is in the last stanza? I suspect Dickinson addresses the stodgy townspeople who don’t believe in fairies or magic or wonders in the night. These folks have a “Road” they travel, and because they aren’t tempted into following fairy lights, are unlikely to miss it. Dickinson is pretty blunt about this world view: you “go your Way – and I’ll go Mine.” She is not going to give up the magic world.  
The Forest of Arden, Albert
Pinkham Ryder, 1888
         The poem begins as if it were a story and continues in a lighthearted vein all the way through. I am happy to believe in the little dapper, sweet footsteps of “little Men” hurrying home, and that trundle beds have robins trying to hide their wings in children’s nightgowns.   A bit of googling of “Robins in the Trundle bed” reveals that I am not the only one who finds that a charming phrase. There are lots of antique and boutique shops called “Robins in the Trundle bed.”

27 March 2013

I read my sentence – steadily –

I read my sentence – steadily –
Reviewed it with my eyes,
To see that I made no mistake
In its extremest clause –
The Date, and manner, of the shame –
And then the Pious Form
That "God have mercy" on the Soul
The Jury voted Him –
I made my soul familiar – with her extremity –
That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony –
But she, and Death, acquainted –
Meet tranquilly, as friends –
Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
And there, the Matter Ends –

                                                                              F432 (1862)  J412

I read this carefully crafted poem as the stoicism of a woman living the life she has decided to live and has made her peace with it despite what the “Jury” of church-ish society may piously pronounce.
          The poem is based on common hymn form: 4-line stanzas with rhyming B/D lines and with alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Dickinson compresses the stanzas into one section, perhaps to underline the deposition-like quality. The voice is dry and formal, almost that of the elderly lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
          Logically, the poem lhas two parts. The first, describing the sentence, is comprised of the eight lines that would have been two stanzas. The second, relating her response to the sentence, is only six lines, but the first two lines of these six can be considered as two lines each compressed into one. I suspect that if the lines had been broken up they would have had an unfortunate sing-song quality:

I made my soul familiar –
With her extremity –
That at the last, it should not be
A novel Agony –

Breaking the lines this way emphasizes the “ee” sounds and the almost over-regularity of the iambs.

But back to the words. The poet is reading a written verdict. She notes the legal qualities as she reads. Her crime, her “shame,” is described and dated. There is an“extremest clause” in which, one suspects, she has received a death sentence. Finally, there is a form, a boilerplate clause, that includes the traditional “‘God have mercy’” on the soul that has just been condemned (or “voted” to God).

          What is the “shame” that caused this grim sentence? I think it could be several things that relate to her resolutely unconventional life: her refusal to join the revival in Amherst and dedicate her life to Jesus – in fact, her refusal to go to church at all – causing the jury to consider her damned. It might be that her refusal to be social and marry would condemn her to a sort of death in life. Yes, she would live on, but it would be as a ghostly person, the sort who flutters about in white in a secluded room, venturing out only as far as the household orchard. The Jury would certainly suggest the Most High have mercy on such a poor soul.
Traditional judge and jury of peers
(Old Bailey)

But perhaps the poet’s sentence stems from her feeling called, compelled, really, to be a poet – and her subsequent odysseys into the darkness and the maelstroms of the heart and the cosmos, her staring into death and detailing what she finds there, and her often bitter insinuations about the fairness and goodness of God.

Readers are certainly not rooting for the jury here with its “Pious Form.” Bah!

We move on to the second section of the poem where the poet reacts. Dickinson adopts what I’ve been calling the Observing Self. This Self notifies the Soul out of kindness, as if it were a dear friend, and then notes what she observes: the Soul is already acquainted with Death (real as well as figurative) –  from staring at it and contemplating it so often, no doubt – and so the death sentence does not phase the Soul. It “tranquilly” meets the requisite Death  after which they “Salute, and pass, without a Hint.” I’m at a bit of a loss about whether that means they pass together out of life, Death escorting her; or whether they meet and pass each other by with nothing said by either about the sentenced doom.

          I suspect it means that the Soul meets Death as if it were an old friend and goes with him. The last line of the poem is too obvious a pun for it to have slipped inadvertently into the poem, and so we are to understand with a smile that the Soul has freed itself from its “Matter” and now wanders in a better place than that which tried to constrain her.
          It’s a clever pun, as the Matter ends in both the legal sense and the physical sense and also it its casual dismissal of the pieties of the jury and the supposed “shame” of what was deemed her crime.

The calm, rational voice of the narrator as she is apprised of her fate is a fine example of choosing your path in life with your eyes wide open.

26 March 2013

If I may have it, when it's dead

If I may have it, when it's dead,
I'll be contented – so –
If just as soon as Breath is out
It shall belong to me –

Until they lock it in the Grave,
'Tis Bliss I cannot weigh –
For tho' they lock Thee in the Grave,
Myself – can own the key –

Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted – face to face to be –
After a Life – a Death – we'll say –
For Death was That –
And this – is Thee –

I'll tell Thee All – how Bald it grew –
How Midnight felt, at first – to me –
How all the Clocks stopped in the World –
And Sunshine pinched me – 'Twas so cold –

Then how the Grief got sleepy – some –
As if my Soul were deaf and dumb –
Just making signs – across – to Thee –
That this way – thou could'st notice me –

I'll tell you how I tried to keep
A smile, to show you, when this Deep
All Waded – We look back for Play,
At those Old Times – in Calvary,

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow –
For Coveting to look at Thee –
Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost
Outvisions Paradise!
                                                                       F431 (1862)  J577

Passionate, grieving, bitter, tender, macabre – Dickinson pours it out in this poem of desperate longing. Imagining that her lover has died, she seesaws between rapture and grief in a voice at once raw, lyric, and powerful. The first line is stunning – who would not continue reading a poem that begins “If I may have it, when it’s dead”? First, we wonder what it is the poet wants, then we wonder why she wants it after it is dead.
         The shocking answer is that her lover is the “it” and she really does want the man’s body until it is buried (yes, it is certainly possible that the “it” refers to a woman’s body, but I think the “it” is distinction from the live soul rather than a coy way of avoiding a “her”). Her pent-up, suppressed love for him, somehow forbidden or unallowable during his lifetime, is set free by his death. So great is her love, though, that even having his lifeless body to love would be “Bliss.” Bitter irony bleeds through. While most brides find their bliss in bed with a live groom, the poet must make do with a corpse.
        In the third stanza, the poet now addresses her dead lover directly. The bitterness flashes again: “Think of it Lover!” she expostulates. “I and Thee / Permitted – face to face to be –.” “Permitted” has an overtone of scorn. Society granted no permissions, but God will, after death. To my ears she is both celebrating and castigating the permission. Oh, to be at the mercy of permissions!
        She continues her rapturous address: the permission will come after life – except at this point she corrects herself: No, permission comes after death, for life without each other was “a Death.”  How grievously painful are the lines, “For Death was That – / And this – is Thee,” as if all of life is concentrated in the imaginary corpse, for a short while hers.
Dickinson structures this stanza so that it is easy to read “Permitted – face to face to be” as the poet face to face with a dead body. That lends an extra bitter irony for surely such necrophilia is more deeply forbidden than any, say, extra-marital affair.
        But I believe she is certainly referring to a future state of bliss once she herself is dead. We saw in earlier poems that Dickinson believed in marriage after death, most notably in F267, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ Affection,” where she proclaims that while she had a “Love that never leaped its socket,” after death she would trade the thorns for the “Diadem” and join her beloved in a triumphant union. There is also the description of the day when she exchanged crucifixes with her lover and gave “Sufficient troth” for a  “new Marriage – / Justified – through Calvaries of Love!” (F325).
The next three stanzas detail the poet’s grief. We must imagine her speaking to the body, the “it,” of her lover as if in some heavenly future. She’ll tell him “All” about it: how his body grew “Bald” of its life, how that first midnight felt, and how time stopped until the sun rose, its light pinching her grief with its coldness. I think this coldness is the hard impartiality of light. Her love raptures flow in the darkness of night but get “pinched” in the brightness of day.
           Then, as in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (F372), the numbness set in. She retreats into a dark space where all her soul could do was send signs across the great void of death, so that “this way – thou could’st notice me.” But then she has a cheerier thought. She addresses the soul of her lover as if in the future after her own death, after “this Deep – / All Waded,” when the two of them will “look back for Play” at the misery, the “Calvary” of their earthly lives. She’ll tell him how she kept a smile to show him.
The final stanza takes us back to the imaginary corpse. In beautiful parallelism, she apologizes for two things: for delaying his burial because she wants to look at him, and for denying paradise to him for a while longer so that she can touch him. Coming after the outpouring of grief, bitterness, tenderness and hope, the last two lines, “Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost / Outvisions Paradise!” is hair-raisingly powerful and sad. It is Dickinson with her knife. The poet envisions her grief and how she might stroke the cold body of her beloved – and admittedly prefers this vision to Paradise.
Is there another dramatic monologue to a lover that matches this in pathos and an almost Gothic twist of imagination? I don’t think so, but I do believe the great 20th
Century poet, W.H. Auden, was very much aware of this poem and its line, “How all the Clocks stopped in the World,” when he began his widely quoted eulogy for his dead lover with “Stop all the clocks.”
Final note: Although our modern sensibilities might be a little repelled by the wish to be ensconced with a loved one’s dead body, Dickinson wasn’t completely off the charts in her own time. The dead were often posed for pictures as if they were alive. Bodies were kissed and held. Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) reminds readers that even the great transcendental philosopher Emerson reportedly dug up his dead wife to embrace her.

25 March 2013

A charm invests a face charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
'Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.

                                                                     F430 (1862)  J421

Reading this little poem today, it’s hard not to think about the various countries in the world where women are veiled. Although often associated with patriarchal attempts to control women (rightly or wrongly), there is also the romantic tradition of the veiled woman, popularized in the West by The Arabian Nights. In that series of interlocking tales, the veil might hide some monstrous face but was more likely to hide beautiful women, enchanted women, or women in need of protection.
        While in some cultures the veil is worn because of assumptions about male lust, if Dickinson and the author of The Arabian Nights are correct, veils are more enticing than faces. Dickinson reflected on a similar theme in F203, “The thought beneath so slight a film.”
The thought beneath so slight a film –
Is more distinctly seen –
As laces just reveal the surge –
Or Mists – the Apennine.
A bit of mist and mystery increase the charm and attractions of both mountains and ladies. Our imaginations are pretty good at filling in details.

There is a wistful quality to the poem. The speaker dares not show her real self for fear her charm will be “dispelled.”  Worse, although she would like to share her thoughts and feelings with others (or perhaps just one special other), she “denies” them any “interview” for fear they would soon lose interest in her. It is the “image” that satisfies them (or him) rather than the actual woman.
        Well, what can we say about that? That the speaker lacks self confidence? That she lives in a sexist society, or that she does not trust the gentleman or people who want to get to know her better? Or that people are more charmed by a bit of mystery than with the plain reality? Probably all of the above.
        Dickinson employs the legal language of her lawyer father and brother again. Removing the veil would “annul a want.” The formulation is quite harsh: desire for the veiled woman would not just diminish but be entirely erased as if it had never been. Marriages can be annulled, too, and so the use of the term here might speak to a fear of marriage: will the groom’s love hold steady once the bridal veil is removed? The speaker of this poem does not believe it will. And so she prefers instead to simply peer from behind her veil, wishing for more but denying any opportunity.
        The poem speaks to all of us, however – at least those of us who are not very extroverted. We have our public personas, our personas for our acquaintances, and even our personas for family and loved ones. How often do we truly lift the veil? Aren’t we all a bit afraid of showing others what is there?

It should be noted that women around Amherst in the 1860’s probably did not wear veils – neither Puritan nor Victorian fashions featured them, so Dickinson is speaking metaphorically.

21 March 2013

You'll know it – as you know 'tis Noon –

You'll know it – as you know 'tis Noon –
By Glory –
As you do the Sun –
By Glory –
As you will in Heaven –
Know God the Father – and the Son.

By intuition, Mightiest Things

Assert themselves – and not by terms –
"I'm Midnight" – need the Midnight say –
"I'm Sunrise" – Need the Majesty?

Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –

His lisp – is Lightning – and the Sun –
His Conversation – with the Sea –
"How shall you know"?
Consult your Eye!
                                                                  F429 (1862)  J420

Dickinson was not a conventional Christian for her time and place. She didn’t care at all about going to church. She decided not to stand and affirm herself a Christian when revival fever swept Amherst, including her dearest friends and family. At times her poetry challenges the notion of the all-knowing, all-good God. Throughout her poems we see her find holiness and a holy presence in nature. Her orchard is her church, the birds her choristers.

         In this poem she affirms that to know God is only to look around, to “Consult your Eye!” There is “Glory” in the fullness of day and in the golden radiance of the sun. You don’t have to be a scientist and know all the names for things. The spectacle of wonders that unfold for us every day is enough. The inky black mystery of midnight does not need to have a name. It is entire of itself.
         Dickinson goes a bit further into the mysteries by saying that the “Mightiest Things,” the deepest and most important and powerful things (God, death, rebirth, etc.) are best experienced through intuition. This is a mysticism not sanctioned by the Puritan-influenced church of her day. While that tradition would agree that God speaks in the heart, it would not agree that revelation happens in the intuition. Rather, one should study the Bible and the words of renowned preachers. If revelation is to be made, God will do it himself, as he did to Moses in the burning bush, or to Samuel when he whispered to him at night. Or perhaps he will answer a prayer through a feeling or a sense of internal conversation.
         But to Dickinson, the omnipotence of God – or perhaps she is thinking of a more generic un-named Omnipotence as a sort of Divine Presence, as did the Transcendentalists of her era (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) – doesn’t speak or use language. In a wonderful image she says that the sun is his “Conversation – with the Sea.” I love it. Shakespeare, in Richard II, calls the sun the “eye of heaven, the searching eye of heaven.” I much prefer Dickinson’s version. The sun is what drives the winds, ocean currents, and climate of our planet, mostly by its interaction with the sea. What need does heaven have to spy on us, Dickinson might ask. Better that we observe the glories all around us and that way come to know the majesty and power of the divine.
         “Consult your Eye!” she says, as if  exasperated that what seems as plain as the noonday sun to her isn’t obvious to everyone.

We grow accustomed to the Dark –

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye

A Moment We uncertain step
For newness of the night
Then fit our Vision to the Dark
And meet the Road erect

And so of larger Darkness
Those Evenings of the Brain
When not a Moon disclose a sign
Or Star come out within

The Bravest grope a little
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead
But as they learn to see

Either the Darkness alters
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight
And Life steps almost straight.
                                                                    F428 (1862)  J419

This is one of Dickinson’s most accessible poems, I think. The first stanzas discuss how we adapt to night after the light of day or lamps. Her image is of leaving a neighbor’s house at night. The neighbor holds up the lamp as she bids farewell. It then takes “A Moment” for our eyes adapt to the dark. At first our steps are “uncertain,” but then we see better and can walk along the road confident and “erect.”
        I feel a bit sad reading this for despite the many benefits of electricity, we have lost most of our darkness and with it the wonder of the night sky – as well as the ruminations that seem to blossom in the dark. For most of us night is not dark until we lie down to sleep.
         In the third stanza Dickinson introduces the other half of the metaphor. Just as the day has both light and dark, so too do our hearts and minds. We have evenings of intense darkness where the moon and stars are occluded by clouds. Likewise, there are “Evenings of the Brain,” uncharted territory not illuminated by what we have been taught or what we have learned. There is nothing there we recognize as familiar signposts to tell us what to think or feel. Elders and self-help books typically advise us to shun thoughts that run this way and instead turn to practical or happy thoughts, or perhaps to read from the Bible or other book of guidance.

        That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there. Here she gives us the rather humorous image of “The Bravest,” those hardy souls who go out into that larger darkness, groping along, only to “hit a Tree / Directly in the Forehead.” I guess we shouldn’t smile, but I think she means us to.
         But then something happens – either the inner sight adapts to the dark or, more interestingly, the Darkness adapts to us. And just as the friend leaving the neighbor’s light can soon walk “erect” on the road, so too the explorer of the dark can walk “almost straight,” can learn to come and go safely – and can still function well enough in daily life that while others might find them eccentric or “touched,” they don’t find them mad.

20 March 2013

Sunset at Night – is natural –

Sunset at Night – is natural –
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature – Master–
So Midnight's – due – at Noon.

Eclipses be – predicted –
And Science bows them in –
But do One face us suddenly –
Jehovah's Watch – is wrong.

F427 (1862)  J415

As Dickinson reflects on the darkness at noon that an eclipse can bring, she initially portrays an innate faith in science. The universe is regular and predictable as a clock and scientists have been able to tell its time by charting the heavens. They certainly have eclipse prediction nailed. They bow them in with announcements and explanations and public lectures.
          The idea of the universe as a clock and God as a watchmaker go back a few centuries to the Enlightenment and the deists, articulated by such luminaries as Gottfried Leibniz and Newton, and espoused by the great U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. Facing this confidence, Dickinson remarks that a single unpredicted eclipse would topple the idea of “Jehovah’s Watch” – the clockwork universe. We would simply be faced with the paradigm-changing idea that everything about the cosmos we believed true would be suspect if not wrong.

Dickinson begins the poem simply enough. We expect sunset at night, not at dawn. For if there were sunset at dawn then noon must turn to midnight. Nature would be reversed. An eclipse at noon can certainly seems to reverse nature in this regard. But then Dickinson slips in “Master,” as if the poem is addressed to him.
          We know that she wrote impassioned letters and other poems to Master and this must, by that one word, belong to that group. Has Master done something so out of character that it is as if an eclipse came out of nowhere? Has he acted in a way the poet finds unfair or so arbitrary that it calls all her expectations of him into doubt? Or is this a continuation of an ongoing dialog? We’ll likely never know.

13 March 2013

About the lack of posting...

Readers, my partner and I just bought a house in Half Moon Bay (California) and have been doing the things that one does to make the "new" house liveable. We've had three shipments of stuff: from New Zealand, from Arcata (where we lived before NZ), and from lots of friends' basements.  With all this  mayhem I have not been able to do Emily justice. In fact, I haven't even tried.

But! Cleverly concealed in one of 14 book boxes, are some of my Dickinson reference books. So when I pick up again, it will be a new and improved blog!

Blogging starts again on the 20th.

Oh, and just because I have to tell someone: our little dog Maggie (Mistress of Mirth) that we re-homed in New Zealand is arriving tomorrow! Her new and wonderful family had an unfortunate change of circumstances just as we were signing the papers on this house with its fenced yard. We are pretty excited to have her back.