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27 May 2013

Love — thou art high —

Love — thou art high —
I cannot climb thee —
But, were it Two —
Who knows but we —
Taking turns — at the Chimborazo —
Ducal — at last — stand up by thee —

Love — thou are deep —
I cannot cross thee —
But, were there Two
Instead of One —
Rower, and Yacht — some sovereign Summer —
Who knows — but we'd reach the Sun?

Love — thou are Veiled —
A few — behold thee —
Smile — and alter — and prattle — and die —
Bliss — were an Oddity — without thee —
Nicknamed by God —
Eternity —

                                                            F452  (1862)  J453

Love is an adventure best undertaken by two. The poet depicts love as high, that by herself she might never scale it but with her lover they might take turns and arrive, proud as dukes, at its summit. Further, it is deep. Alone the poet couldn’t cross it, but if there were two together, one a rower and the other a boat, they might be able to cross the depths of the sky to reach the summer sun itself.

            Finally, love is “Veiled” and very few people ever truly see it. Most smile, prattle, and die as they change through life. But to the poet, heavenly “Bliss” would be an “Oddity,” really not bliss at all, if the beloved were not there at all. It would be more like “Eternity” – which is God’s nickname, and one not nearly so tempting as “bliss.”

            I don’t know what to make of the poem. I can’t say I like it or find much to say about it, so I’ll just include Frederick Edwin Church’s study of Mount Chimborazo, dated 1857. Dickinson may have heard of it, and certainly she was aware of such exotic travel locations. If anyone out there has something to add about this poem, please do so!

The Malay—took the Pearl—

The Malay—took the Pearl—
Not—I—the Earl—
I—feared the Sea—too much
Unsanctified—to touch—

Praying that I might be
Worthy—the Destiny—
The Swarthy fellow swam—
And bore my Jewel—Home—

Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I—the Jewel—got—
Borne on a Dusky Breast—
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber—fit—

The Negro never knew
I—wooed it—too—
To gain, or be undone—
Alike to Him—One—

                                                                 F451 (1862)  452

This poem is typically read as based on the love triangle of Emily Dickinson, her brother Austin, and the woman Emily loved and encouraged her brother to marry – Susan (Sue) Huntington Gilbert. Once Sue and Austin were married it became apparent to Emily that her relationship with Sue was much diminished; further, that Austin’s love for Sue was probably not as great as Emily’s. This is an over-simplification of course, but there books galore for interested readers (Judith Farr’s The Passion of Emily Dickinson, for one).
Austin Dickinson

         The poem centers on the differences between the opportunistic but indiscriminate “Dusky” Malay (Austin) and the Hamlet-ish and now embittered Earl (Dickinson herself). Dickinson’s role here is not that of an arrogant earl, however, but a highly sensitive one. His reluctance to venture into the sea wasn’t because he didn’t want to get wet or because he didn’t long for the pearl, but because he was “unsanctified” to touch it. Instead he waited, praying that he “might be worthy” of the sea’s great prize.
        There is an ambiguity here about which is unsanctified, the sea or the earl. But in either case the sea is not polluted or unclean: either the earl does not consider himself good enough, or else the sea is forbidden him on canonical grounds. If we think about the sea as sexual engulfment – a rather conventional association and one that Dickinson herself used – and the pearl as the product of that sea, then what the narrator is avoiding is the sea of female sexuality. Such a Sapphic sea in 1862 was unsanctioned for another woman while a man could dive in and take the pearl. We sense the conflicted Earl watching, deeply stricken.
        As much as Dickinson loved her brother, his depiction here as a “Malay” is surprisingly negative – and racist. He is Swarthy, Dusky, Negro. The Vest that bears the pearl is “Amber” and not “fit” for a pearl. (The amber vest is a restatement of “Dusky Breast.”) This contrasts, of course, to the white Pearl (and the assumedly white earl) and plays to the imagery and stereotypes of the day where white was good and pure, while dark and black were sinister, crude, and impure. (Although Melville turns this on its head in Moby Dick [1851] in his apostrophe chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)
        Dickinson even takes a dig at The Evergreens, the beautiful mansion her father built for Austin and Sue, calling it “the Hut!” As an aside, however, she mutters to herself, “What lot / Had I.” What could Emily Dickinson, a dependent of her father, offer Sue? The bitterest lines, however, are the last two. The Malay, now “The Negro,” did not even value the pearl. Whether or not he gained the prize or not was all the same to him. It would have been everything to the narrator, though.
The Evergreens,
where Sue and Austin lived

        There is a bit of context for the Malay imagery. Judith Farr suggests that the Malay figure springs from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a book Dickinson herself obtained for the family library. A Malay appears in dreams to subject the author to harrowing experiences as punishment for some terrible deed. He was buried alive, drowned, and given “cancerous kisses, by crocodiles” among the reeds and mud of the Nile. If the Malay does indeed represent Dickinson’s beloved brother Austin, what does that say about her estimation of the wedding night?
       Also, Dickinson used the imagery of pearl diving in earlier poems. In F417, “Removed from Accident of Loss”, the narrator muses that she had been as “unconscious” of her riches “As is the Brown Malay / Of Pearls in Eastern Waters”. It isn’t, then, that the brother is a cad as much as, being a man – and a wealthy, highly respected one at that – he might have had any number of pearls. The sea was his to explore. He represented the “Destiny” of the pearl, unlike the narrator for whom such treasure was unsanctified.
       In another poem, F121, “Her breast is fit for pearls,” Dickinson writes that “I was not a ‘Diver” and consequently she must build her “perennial nest” inside her beloved’s heart, like a humble little sparrow. It is ironic to think that Dickinson, who plumbed the depths in sometimes almost feverish intensity, considered herself not a diver.

I find this poem compelling, with or without the biographical interpretation. The sea is dangerous, particularly to the fearful and to those who think too much. The pearl is the essence of the sea but gives itself up to even the most blasé diver. Those who would love must be prepared to risk the sea or be resigned to disappointment. Yes, universal themes that are enriched by Jungian, mythical, and literary analyses.
        Dickinson’s rhyme scheme is AABB – a variant for her as she typically used the ABCB of common ballad or hymn style. The pattern allows the second line of each stanza to emphasize the first because of the rhyme. For example, the opening line is quite strong: “The Malay – took the Pearl.” It is the opening to a story with character and action. We await a motive and a consequence. The second line, “Not – I – the Earl,” adds an opposing character who thereby is revealed as the poem’s narrator. The rhyme of Pearl with Earl adds irony, if not bitterness. We expect pearls and earls to go together as easily as they rhyme. That the Malay took the pearl, and “took” is a very active verb, becomes a bit shocking. The concluding couplets have the shadow of Shakespearean tragedy.

24 May 2013

The Outer — from the Inner

The Outer — from the Inner
Derives its magnitude —
'Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according
As is the central mood —

The fine — unvarying Axis
That regulates the Wheel —
Though Spokes — spin — more conspicuous
And fling a dust — the while.

The Inner — paints the Outer —
The Brush without the Hand —
Its Picture publishes — precise —
As is the inner Brand —

On fine — Arterial Canvas —
A Cheek — perchance a Brow —
The Star's whole Secret — in the Lake —
Eyes were not meant to know.

                                                                                   F450 (1862)  J451

What our eyes see is only the visible manifestation of deeper, more fundamental truths. In terms of humans, our inner truth is a living spirit, a “Brush without the Hand.” Our outer selves, our looks and personas, are the canvas on which the spirit expresses itself.
         Dickinson begins with moods, however. Dukes and dwarves exemplify them. On a Dwarf day one feels much less powerful and confident than when one is feeling Duke-ish. As an order of “magnitude” the Duke is much more expansive and pre-eminent. It isn’t the persona who drives this, however, but some inner “mood,” as if moods have their own singular identity.

The next stanza uses the wheel as a metaphor for inner strength and integrity. It is the axis that holds the wheel together on its revolutions. Those “conspicuous” spokes spin about flinging dust all the while. They might look flashy but without the “unvarying” and regulating axis, they would fly apart and go nowhere.
         The final stanzas develop the metaphor of artist and canvas. The unseen artist lives within, painting the outer self on “fine – Arterial Canvas.” As life goes on the outer work of art mirrors precisely the inner self. Dickinson calls it the “inner Brand.” “Brand” here would have multiple meanings: a burned mark of ownership, spiritual essence, identity, and a property label. Over time, Dickinson is saying, our physical selves reflect the work of that unseen inner artist. She may also be suggesting that we are internally branded: a heavenly hurt that leaves no scar, or perhaps the deity’s not-so-gentle mark of ownership.
         Either way, the cheek that we see, the brow that indicates character and personality, become indicative of the true individual just as the star’s reflection in a lake reveals the star itself. The lake represents the eyes (located as they are between cheek and brow). The burning brand of the inner self might be discovered there – except that “Eyes [other eyes] were not meant to know.” 

        While eyes have been called the window to the soul, it is a rare person who can look into another’s eyes and see that soul. As in a wind-ruffled lake, we see distortion – the Duke or the Dwarf, perhaps, or spokes, or the various smokescreens we all hide behind – but not the secret of the star that burns its brand deep within. It is a true poet who can read that lake.

18 May 2013

Dreams — are well — but Waking's better

Dreams — are well — but Waking's better,
If One wake at morn —
If One wake at Midnight — better —
Dreaming — of the Dawn —

Sweeter — the Surmising Robins —
Never gladdened Tree —
Than a Solid Dawn — confronting —
Leading to no Day —
                                                                           F449 (1862)  J450

This rather maddening poem contrasts dark and dawn, waking and dreaming, life and death, and heaven and hell. I find the poem“maddening” because Dickinson’s grammar is so sketchy. Words are left out with abandon and it sometimes isn’t clear to me which clause goes with which other clause.

         The first line begins clearly enough and then the poem slowly slides into the ambiguities and mysteries of the second stanza. It’s tempting to feel that if missing words could be supplied, if grammar could be regularized, then the poem would make complete sense. But I’m pretty sure Dickinson wanted this poem to be suggestive rather than descriptive.
         First stanza: It’s good to dream but waking up is better – as long as you wake up in the morning. If you wake up at midnight, on the other hand, you’d be better dreaming of dawn. After this, I am conjecturing: such dreams would be much sweeter than being confronted by a “Solid Dawn” that doesn’t lead to any day. The dream sweetness would better than even the dreaming, “Surmising Robins” who wake up and gladden the trees with song.
        What is the “Solid Dawn” that leads to “no Day”? While “dawn” suggests a new and heavenly or eternal life, its opposite, “Midnight,” suggests the blackness of torment, the grave, or hell. Dreaming of dawn would be sweeter indeed in comparison. With that in mind, Midnight itself is the “Solid Dawn”: the dark, black of the grave. Waking at the blackness of midnight (remembering that Dickinson would never have experienced the light pollution we currently ‘enjoy’) presages waking into that eternal night. There’s a resulting terror in the last line of the poem, warning that no day will ever follow that black dawn.

Dickinson uses a few word sound groups to emphasize her images. The poem is sprinkled with the “d” sounds that remind us of “death,” but here go with “Dreams, Dreaming, Dawn, Dawn, and Day – all of which take on a darker meaning as the poem progresses. The breathy “W” sounds of “Waking,” and the repeated “One wake” provide a hushed and mysterious mood. The one bit of lightness comes from the “S” sounds of “Sweeter – the Surmising Robins.”


13 May 2013

I died for beauty — but was scarce

I died for beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room — 

He questioned softly “Why I failed?”
"For Beauty," I replied —
"And I — for Truth — Themselves are One —
We Brethren, are," He said —

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — Our names —
                F448 (1862)  J449

The setting: a mausoleum with separate rooms. The narrator lies in one room, recently dead, but long enough so to have “Adjusted” herself when another body is laid in the next room. The recent arrival strikes up what is to be a very long conversation by provocatively asking his neighbor why she “failed.”
         Helen Vendler claims “failed” is used in the sense of “weaken and die,” as if the pursuits of beauty and truth compelled the seekers to efforts beyond their strength. One thinks of the poet or philosopher burning the midnight oil, scarcely eating, taking no heed for their personal wellbeing until their health failed. But now they have seemingly endless time to contemplate and discuss their two pursuits.
         The dialog between Truth and Beauty is meant to recall two poems from two of Dickinson’s favorite poets: John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. From the ending of Keats’ “On a Grecian Urn”:

 Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Keats, according to Helen Vendler, in thinking about beauty would be considering “aesthetic creation and its product.” Truth would be “both philosophical and representational.” The Truth seeker, like Keats, comments that Truth and Beauty are “One.”
Browning takes a slightly different angle in “A Vision of Poets” where a poet is led by a Muse through trial and terror to a vision of great poets of the past whose foreheads were “royal with the truth”:

These were poets true,
Who died for Beauty, as martyrs do
For Truth — the ends being scarcely two.
A moss-covered family mausoleum

So while Keats says that truth and beauty are the same, Browning says it is the people, that the lives and deaths of poets and martyrs for truth are very similar. Both give up their lives. One remembers that Dickinson herself gave up her life, her potentially ‘normal’ life, that is, for poetry.

Dickinson’s Truth seeker takes both Keats and Browning’s positions: Truth and beauty are the same; consequently, the two of them, the two souls in the mausoleum, are “Brethren.” Beauty, note, makes no comment except that “as Kinsmen” they spoke together until the moss covered their names. Their “lips” would be, as in F210, the granite grave markers. Their conversation would have lasted at least a hundred years – probably much more!
        The two have an idealized and Platonic relationship, satisfying and comfortable unlike the frustrating relationships Dickinson experienced with many of the people she loved in her lifetime. Nonetheless, a wall separates the two. There will be no physical union or consummation here. Can Truth, one is led to ask, never completely be joined with Beauty?
        Perhaps, but Dickinson sets her scene in a mausoleum, typically a structure to contain the graves of family members. Although she may have simply meant that there were two graves side by side, I think it more likely that she is reinforcing the close kinship between the two. They share the same DNA.

The quiet end is terrible in a way despite its gentle peacefulness. As the moss spreads over bones and stones, it obliterates the separate identities through which the two souls communicated. It is a second death. Nothing fearful about it. The consciousness of the Beauty narrator continues to exist but it is in a diffused state. There is some sort of deep irony about the poem being a communication from that distant state. Perhaps it is a Truth about Beauty.

Another stanza from Browning’s poem also depicts the death of Poet/Beauty as peaceful:

Since sweet the death-clothes and the knell
Of him who having lived, dies well;
And wholly sweet the asphodel

12 May 2013

In falling Timbers buried —

In falling Timbers buried —
There breathed a Man —
Outside — the spades — were plying —
The Lungs — within —

Could He — know — they sought Him —

Could They — know — He breathed —
Horrid Sand Partition —
Neither — could be heard —

Never slacked the Diggers —

But when Spades had done —
Oh, Reward of Anguish,
It was dying — Then —

Many Things — are fruitless —

'Tis a Baffling Earth —
But there is no Gratitude
Like the Grace — of Death —
                                                                     F447 (1862)  J614

I was going to dismiss this poem about how the diggers fight their way through rubble only to find the man just a moment too late. I was going to say the last line was a bit morbid: the would-be rescuers would find no gratitude from a dead man –  or his kin. Their one comfort would be the thought that the trapped man was now dead and out of the reach of suffering.
        But then I thought of Bangladesh, the collapsed factory trapping and killing many women and girls. The death toll has passed 1100 as I write. The diggers there are now, with the amazing exception of a 19-year-old who survived 17 days beneath the rubble, pulling out only dead and decomposing bodies.
Thinking on these rescuers, then, Dickinson’s poem takes on a new relevance. No, the diggers in Bangladesh will find little gratitude although no doubt many people appreciate their efforts. But what they must be confronting over and over, are the dead. How else could they cope with this horrific event if they could not reassure themselves that “there is no Gratitude / Like the Grace — of Death”?
       The last stanza bears some unpacking. “Things,” Dickinson rather vaguely points out, are often “fruitless” and this word carries the twin meanings of “barren” and “pointless.” The unspoken question of “why” points to the poets shrugging dismissal: “’Tis a Baffling Earth.” Our sense of justice and happy endings will be constantly thwarted. The rescuers won’t be in time. But (and that transition is key: note that Dickinson does not use “therefore” or “consequently”) death will come. Lovely easeful death – “the Grace – of Death.”
         “Grace” is one of those rich words, blessed with many meanings. Here it suggests the grace of God – his free and unearned favour; eternal life; privilege; mercifulness; graciousness and beauty; and, finally, a prayer of thanks. Grace doesn’t just apply to the awful death of those trapped in rubble and fallen timber. It applies to all of us and it is with that hope that both the buried and the diggers can bear this baffling life.

09 May 2013

This was a Poet –

This was a Poet –
It is That
Distills amazing sense
From Ordinary Meanings –
And Attar so immense 

From the familiar species

That perished by the Door –
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it — before — 

Of Pictures, the Discloser –

The Poet — it is He –
Entitles Us — by Contrast –
To ceaseless Poverty — 

Of portion — so unconscious –

The Robbing — could not harm –
Himself — to Him — a Fortune –
Exterior — to Time –
                                                                    F446 (1862)  J448

In this paean to poets – amid whom Dickinson was in the process of assigning herself a place – Dickinson begins with a rhetorical device: “This was a Poet” – an address directly to the reader as if she were an orator with the body laid out before him on a slab of marble. And then she describes the poet. The “He” is probably a universal “he” and would include any women poet as well (such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning whom Dickinson admired – as she did Robert Browning).
    The true poet can distill “amazing sense / From Ordinary meanings.” Yes, a very good depiction of the poet, at least in some critical circles. The essential oil of life, the “attar,” that the poet wrings from life is orders of magnitude better than anything the we might have expected common door-side roses to produce. The “immense” is a bit surprising, as one expects the poet’s attar might be “intense.” I suppose the oil is so fragrant it fills the air. The poet’s perceptive insights fill readers up, too, until we wonder how we’d never seen things quite that way before.
Painters, such as Matisse, can also make us see those
common doorway flowers in a new way

    The poet tells us what the pictures are, shows us their meanings. So gifted is he/she that the rest of us in contrast are in “ceaseless Poverty.” His good fortune is so great that we could rob him of a bit of it and it would not hurt him. The poet, caught up in his (her) art is “unconscious” of being copied or even plagiarized. Poets like Shakespeare are not bound by time. Indeed, he stands outside of the flux that shapes and propels the rest of us. Perhaps he even contributes to the flux.

Helen Vendler notes that Dickinson in this poem is speaking as a reader and not a poet. If so, Dickinson would be hearkening to Shakespeare, Browning, or Keats, for example, and musing about the power they hold.

Although I like the poem, I don’t think the imagery or ideas are among Dickinson’s most powerful or creative. 


06 May 2013

They shut me up in Prose —

They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me "still" —

Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain - go round -
They night as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason - in the Pound -

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —
                                                                         J613,   F445 (1862)

There is quite a bit of power in this poem as Dickinson likens being shut up in “Prose” to being stuck in a closet for not being quiet enough as a girl. It’s a critique on art, gender, and freedom in general.
        Two narratives emerge: the present and ongoing conflict where “They” inflict Prose on the poet, and the past where “They” restricted her freedom in her childhood. One narrative illuminates and informs the other as in both cases the poet’s irrepressible drive to express herself is under attack. In both cases the poet survives to scoff at the would-be prose/quiet enforcers.

The first line is ironic: clearly no one ever really shut Emily Dickinson up in prose. But what she may be saying is that she feels as if she were in a prose (dull, commonplace, uninspired) prison. Her letters reveal a shallow mother, a ponderously lawyerly father, and interminable sermons at Amherst’s First Church of Christ, (to say nothing of school lectures). Dickinson’s quick and startling wit, her fierce and original passions, and her nonconformity (even, perhaps, her self-mythologizing) would indeed have been under societal and family pressure. Except for her beloved sister-in-law Sue, with whom she had a very troubled relationship, and maybe the mysterious “Master,” Dickinson would have been pressured or cajoled on all sides, even by her chosen poetry Preceptor, Thomas Higginson, to rein herself in.

Part of this reining in involved gender expectations. A little girl should be quiet. A young lady should be proper and aiming to marry. A grown woman should be self sacrificing. Another reining-in involves art. Dickinson’s poetry was ahead of its time, difficult to understand, often shocking in implication. Other poets of her day (excepting Whitman) were extolling flowers, spring, and death in much more conventional terms and in much more conventional poetic and metrical form.
        But perhaps more fundamentally, the poem has to do with freedom. Dickinson identifies here with the bird, a familiar image for her, representing spirit, hope, and freedom. She, like the wayward bird, has been confined in the pound, an enclosure to confine stray creatures. But then the poet scoffs at the idea. What, you think that shutting me up can keep me still? My body, yes, certainly you can restrain that. But you can no more quiet my brain than you can impound a bird for treason. All it has to do is fly away, over the fences or through the bars, laughing at its erstwhile jailors. It would be as “easy as a Star” for it to escape – it only has to “will” it.
         Interestingly, her bird is impounded for “Treason” – a laughable thought, but I doubt that the poet tossed that charge in randomly. She, too, must have been made to feel that, like a traitor, she was in some way betraying her community and culture.

When I read this poem I envision a swan in a family of ducks. Perhaps I fixated too early on “The Ugly Duckling”.  But unlike that fable, in this poem Dickinson makes it quite clear that she knows she is the swan. She is not repentant, not subdued. As she famously said to her niece as she closed her bedroom door behind them and pantomimed turning a key, “It’s just a turn – and freedom, Matty!” Irony again. Confining herself to her room, to her father’s grounds, was to Dickinson her greatest freedom.

Modern readers might also think of Maya Angelou's powerful poem, although it comes from a place of greater oppression:

Caged Bird 
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind 
and floats downstream 
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky. 
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and 
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing. 
The caged bird sings 
with a fearful trill 
of things unknown 
but longed for still 
and his tune is heard 
on the distant hill 
for the caged bird 
sings of freedom. 
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own. 
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams 
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream 
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied 
so he opens his throat to sing. 
The caged bird sings 
with a fearful trill 
of things unknown 
but longed for still 
and his tune is heard 
on the distant hill 
for the caged bird 
sings of freedom.