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29 June 2013

Whole Gulfs — of Red, and Fleets — of Red —

Whole Gulfs — of Red, and Fleets — of Red —
And Crews — of solid Blood —
Did place upon the West — Tonight —
As 'twere specific Ground —

And They — appointed Creatures —
In Authorized Arrays —
Due — promptly — as a Drama —
That bows — and disappears —

                                                                            F468 (1862)  J658

I'm enjoying the occasional sunset and sunrise picture Dickinson paints. This one imagines a red gulf with a fleet of red ships crewed by sailors "of solid Blood." The montage seems assembled as if it were a performance on a particular parade ground. Each boat and crew member has an alloted position, a time to appear, and then when the show is over, the crew takes its bows "and disappears."

The first line comes on strong with the one-syllable words in regular iambic tetrameter. The reversal of the 'lf" of "Gulfs" with the "fl" of "Fleets" adds a textured contrast to the short bursts of the repeated "Red." The rest of the first stanza maintains the momentum as the sunset climaxes.
         The second stanza, just like the sunset, begins to ebb. There are more ellipses, the reader needing to fill in words the poet has left out. The tetrameter lines lack the final accented syllable, trailing off with a feminine ending. The last word, "disappears," seems almost whispered in contrast to the poem's hearty and vivid opening line.

27 June 2013

A Solemn thing within the Soul

A Solemn thing within the Soul
To feel itself get ripe —
And golden hang — while farther up —
The Maker's Ladders stop —
And in the Orchard far below —
You hear a Being — drop —

A Wonderful — to feel the Sun
Still toiling at the Cheek
You thought was finished —
Cool of eye, and critical of Work —
He shifts the stem — a little —
To give your Core — a look —

But solemnest — to know
Your chance in Harvest moves
A little nearer — Every Sun
The Single — to some lives.

                                                                            F467 (1862)  J483

I can't help but think of another New England poet, Robert Frost, when I read this. His "After Apple Picking" also has a tree where fruit ripens and is picked or falls, a harvest time, and the sense that souls ripen in their season. No doubt Frost read Dickinson (in fact, he taught at Amherst College off and on for over forty years, beginning in 1917 -- not that long after Dickinson's poems began to be published), and like her, his use of everyday detail is frequently metaphysical. I think of him as in her lineage.
         In Frost's poem, he is the apple picker; it is his "two-pointed ladder" that is sticking up "toward heaven" as he picks and picks and picks.  Yet just as the harvest season serves as a metaphor for his own mortality, his act of sorting (some apples for the cellar to keep and others, the fallen, for the "cider-apple heap / As of no worth" – even if they are "not bruised, or spiked with stubble") places him as a somewhat conflicted god.

Paul Ranson, 1902
Dickinson's poem, on the other hand, is all apple. The Soul hangs on the tree of life, ripening along with all other souls. The Sun, a careful orchardist, is both crafting and evaluating the apples, "toiling at the Cheek" and shifting "the stem" a little to evaluate the "Core."  It's a rather analytical process: the Sun is "Cool of eye, and critical of Work" just as a master orchardist should be. As far as Dickinson's portrayals of the Deity, or the course of life, this is quite 'sunny'.
Dickinson would eventually write stanzas such as the following that paint him as hostile, if not cruel:
The blond assassin [frost that kills the flowers] passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.              (F1668)
He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full  music on;
He stuns you by degrees              (F77)
Essential oils are wrung:   
The attar from the rose   
Is not expressed by suns alone,   
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    
         But while the soul's ultimate ripeness is "A Solemn thing" as it senses its time is near and hears other beings make that long "drop," this interactive maturation is "Wonderful." An individual might feel she is ripe, but the master orchardist might think otherwise: perhaps she needs some extra sunshine, some new experience – good or bad – to bring a bit of redness to her cheek.
         I like the rather transgressive aspect of the sun moving the stem aside to peek at the "core" of the soul. Dickinson must have liked it too, for it is part of the "wonderful" stanza. It doesn't sound so very wonderful to me, but my core is nowhere near as forged as Dickinson's. She must have wanted, on some deep level, an appropriate and appreciative audience, someone to truly see her.
         The last stanza brings us the most solemn thing, which is to know that every day brings us closer to ripe falling – for fall we will – and that every day is the single last day for some lives. That is indeed a most solemn thing. The tactile sense of hearing them drop is eerie, fascinating, and chilling all at once. One wonders if, as in Frost's poem, they are headed for the cider heap, or if Dickinson is suggesting that the ripeness is all and after that ... the fruit simply falls.

24 June 2013

I dwell in Possibility —

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors —

Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of Eye —
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —

Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

                                                                        F466 (1862)  J657

In F445 Dickinson complained that “they” had tried to “shut me up in Prose” as if she were a little girl and could be put in the closet and made to be quiet.  At the end of that poem she dismisses the effort as vain: they might as well try to put a bird in jail for treason as keep her brain from going round. That was Dickinson’s negative framing of her freedom-within-confinement.
         This poem has none of the negativity and all of the freedom. Here, the poet dwells in “Possibility” and that, almost by definition, is freedom limited only by imagination. The White Queen boasted she “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” – surely a feat requiring prodigious imagination. I imagine Dickinson could keep up with the Queen.
         What is possible is, again by definition, more vast and varied than the Prose world of observation and logic. It is the world of imagination and of poetry. Little wonder Dickinson finds her imaginative world – her true dwelling – “fairer” than the cramped quarters of the prosaic, that is to say, her actual, physical house and home. Possibility has more doors and windows – the better to let in light and to look out of!
Tinturn Abbey, now open to the sky
Yet there is a wonderful privacy, too. Those "superior" doors have a dual purpose. And despite the numerous windows, there are private “Chambers” as “Impregnable” to the eye as a cedar tree. The poet can be as reclusive as she wishes in this marvelous house. The only visitors allowed are the very “fairest.” I must admit I think of tiny fairies or the bees and robins that Dickinson seems at times to converse with. There are also the mysterious “Hosts” that visit her (F303). No doubt they are among “the fairest.”
        The most charming part of this poem, I think, are the last two lines. The poet’s narrow hands spread wide enough to “gather Paradise.” That is her “Occupation.” “My business is Circumference,” she wrote Higginson (L268). I picture her spreading her hands as if to indicate that even Paradise falls within their span.

23 June 2013

The name — of it — is "Autumn" —

The name — of it — is "Autumn" —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —

                                                             F465 (1862) J656
photo: Christopher O'Donnell

Reader, you may choose to read this poem as an extended metaphor of the famous flaming New England fall colors as blood. The red trees follow the cliffs on the hill and the river valleys as if they were veins or arteries. The wind swirls the colored leaves off the trees, and they fall like “Scarlet Rain.” Trees from the upper cliffs drift down to sprinkle the hats and bonnets of people below. Dips and hollows fill with the scarlet leaves until a gust of wind eddies and swirls them away “Upon Vermilion Wheels.”
        Or, reader, you may feel, as I do, that such a close focus on blood is her horrified reflection on this very bloody year of the Civil War. In 1862, the year Dickinson wrote this poem, the War was raging at perhaps its most intense level. Notorious and bloody battles in this year were those of Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
        Dickinson scholar David Cody wrote an article on this poem* pointing to a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” It was published in The Atlantic in October 1862, and Dickinson would probably have read it. The poem is in praise of Nature whose “bloom and greenness sweeps / The battle’s breath of hell.” It includes this stanza:

She meets with smiles our bitter grief,
    With songs our groans of pain;
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
    The war-field's crimson stain.

“Stain” is a poetically convenient word in terms of rhyme potential (“rain” [Dickinson] and “pain” [Whittier]). It is expected in the Whittier poem as a contrast to Nature’s “fields and fruited trees,” but it is jarring in Dickinson’s poem, which is seemingly about a beautiful autumnal scene. It forces one to re-think the red blossoms as something more sinister. The same can be said for “Globules” –which I doubt have ever before or since been used to describe the leaves of New England.
       No, I think Dickinson is describing a landscape drenched in blood where the dying of the year and the dying of the soldiers mingle into a haze of dripping and flowing red.

*David Cody, “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s 'The name of it is Autumn.'"  The Emily Dickinson Journal. V. 12.1, 2003

22 June 2013

Without this — there is nought —

Without this — there is nought —
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird —
Heard opposite the Sea —

I could not care — to gain
A lesser than the Whole —
For did not this include themself —
As Seams — include the Ball?

I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide —
'Twould magnify — the Gratitude —
And not reduce — the Gold —

                                                                        F464 (1862) J655

One immediately wonders about the “this” of the first line. What could it be, without which “there is nought”? The rest of the poem might be interrogated with increasingly rigorous measures but without yielding any conclusive answer. “This” might refer to the “Whole” of stanza two, to God, or to some unnamed quality or entity that is central to the poet’s sense of wellbeing. Whatever it is, all other riches are as nothing in comparison. Such riches are as relevant as bird twitterings on the other side of the ocean.
         The second stanza advances our understanding a little, for we learn that the poet wants the “Whole” rather than some lesser quantity or quality that would be subsumed by the whole. Dickinson uses a ball as an example. Made by stitching leather or fabric together, the ball might be considered interior to the seams encompassing it. I am reminded of Dickinson’s poetic project of circumference. She announces this project in a letter to her chosen “Preceptor”, T.W.Higginson:

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My Business is Circumference –… (L268, July 1862).
Flower Fractal Bubbles, Grietje Haitsma

In a later poem she calls “Circumference” the “Bride of Awe.” At least part of Dickinson’s poetic quest is to trace the seams, to see the whole.
        And so I think that Dickinson is talking about the Gold gift of poetry that she describes (less than ten poems ago) in F455, “It was given to me by the Gods”:

Rich! 'Twas Myself — was rich —
To take the name of Gold —
And Gold to own — in solid Bars —
The Difference — made me bold —

Poetry occupied all of Dickinson – used all of her faculties and powers. It was her Whole. The rest of life was the ball within its seams.

In the third stanza she wishes she were able to “subdivide” her heart, establishing some link between the Whole of stanza two and her heart – or love. Perhaps the heart, mainspring of love, is also the seat of the Whole. Subdivide it into smaller hearts and she could “magnify” the great gratitude she has for her poetic gift – and yet not lose or “reduce” any of “the Gold.” The circumference would remain the same no matter how atomized its parts.

A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —

A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —
That makes no show for Morn —
By Stretch of Limb — or stir of Lid —
An independent One —

Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away —
Nor once look up — for Noon?

                                                                            F463 (1862)  J654

For many of us our most famous day will be the one where we don’t wake up. The news will go out and people who haven’t thought of you in years will suddenly tweet about your penchant for tortilla chips and ice cream. In discussing the long and famous sleep, Dickinson here takes another look here at what it means to be dead. For a rather Gothic poet, she expresses a surprisingly mellow view of the experience.
            The (probably) hypothetical subject of the poem died in bed during the night. Consequently she’s not yawning or trying to open her eyes when morning arrives. Her sleep is “independent” now, no longer needing either her or her bed. It has taken over now, leading its own idle existence through the corpse.
Dickinson conveyed a similar sense of being in for a long, long sleep in F124, “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” In that poem the “meek members of the Resurrection” are “Untouched by morning – / And untouched by noon” and will be sleeping there while “Worlds scoop their Arcs – / And firmaments – row.” Perhaps her sleepers simply didn’t hear the trumpet call of Resurrection and so continue sleeping century after century, but I think it more likely that Dickinson is suggesting that you could wait forever for that trumpet to blow. In this poem the dead are also going to sleep for centuries. Having missed the morning wake-up call, they sleep through noon as well with no indication that they will ever wake up or be raised.
            Being dead is not a bad thing, though.  In F124 the dead sleep in “alabaster chambers” with “Rafter of satin and roof of stone.” In the current one they “bask” on their bank of stone.  It is an image we saw in F238, “How many times these low feet staggered,” with the “Indolent Housewife” lying in the daisies. In F417, “The Months have ends – the Years – a knot,” the earth tucks the dead into her “mysterious Drawers” where they will have “An ultimate Repose.” See? It’s just like sleeping …

            The first line of the poem is a ‘dead’ giveaway as to this theme: It stretches on and on and simplty cannot be hurried. The dashes slow it down as do the word sounds. But once we get past that great slowdown, the poem picks up to a normal pace. The last two lines practically trip off the tongue.

Another version of the poem reads “Within a hut of stone” rather than “Upon a Bank of Stone.” I think the “Bank” is better for we picture the sleeper in her tomb as if she were asleep on a riverbank rather than shut up in a little hut.

20 June 2013

Of Being is a Bird

Of Being is a Bird
The likest to the Down
An Easy Breeze do put afloat
The General Heavens — upon —

It soars — and shifts — and whirls —
And measures with the Clouds
In easy — even — dazzling pace —
No different the Birds —

Except a Wake of Music
Accompany their feet —
As did the Down emit a Tune —
For Ecstasy — of it
                                          F462 (1862)  J653
What is the difference between a bird and a piece of fluffy down? Song and the sheer joy of being. Dickinson builds to this difference by first seemingly praising the down. Once it has been put afloat by an “Easy Breeze,” it soars and whirls in the heavens in from an “easy” to a  “dazzling pace.” In this the Down is “No different [from] the Birds.”
photo: Mary Smiley: Courting Great Egrets
       I picture birds, here, soaring up among the clouds, shifting and whirling with the wind – or even like the egrets in the picture, dancing for their mates. But unlike the quiet Down, birds are accompanied by a “Wake of Music.” It’s a lovely phrase and, like a wake itself, trails meaning as it passes. According to the essential Emily Dickinson Lexicon, meanings for the noun “wake” include “Serenade, divertimento, festival, funeral party, wave, air current, or track left by the passing of a vessel.
       I like thinking of birds leaving music in their wake. In an interesting transposition, Dickinson has music accompanying the birds’ feet rather than, say, their wings. There’s a kind of logic to it: we get about with our feet while the birds use their wings. In that sense their wings are their feet.
       Why do birds sing? Dickinson doesn’t know except to say that it is as if a bit of fluffy down emitted a tune just for the “Ecstasy” of it. I know some birders who would agree. Sometimes the birds really do just sing for joy.

18 June 2013

We Cover Thee — Sweet Face —

We Cover Thee — Sweet Face —
Not that We tire of Thee —
But that Thyself fatigue of Us —
Remember — as Thou go —
We follow Thee until
Thou notice Us — no more —
And then — reluctant — turn away
To Con Thee o'er and o'er —

And blame the scanty love
We were Content to show —
Augmented — Sweet — a Hundred fold —
If Thou would'st take it — now —

                                                                                 F461 (1862)  J482

In the old days, Dickinson’s days, when people died at home in their beds, a loving hand would lay a cloth or pull a sheet over their face. This poem addresses the departed at the moment when her face is covered: we do not cover your face because we are tired of it. In fact, it is you are more tired of us and life itself. You are ready for the next great adventure that awaits after Life. But please remember that we will stay searching for some sign from you, something to tell us that you are well on your way. That’s all we ask. Then we’ll reluctantly leave and dwell on our memories of you over and over.

            And we’ll also blame ourselves for the “scanty love” we showed. We could have done better. If we could we’d do it a hundred times better.

Isn’t that the way of it still, at so many deaths? The platitudes haven’t changed.

15 June 2013

The Himmaleh was known to stoop

The Himmaleh was known to stoop
Unto the Daisy low —
Transported with Compassion
That such a Doll should grow
Where Tent by Tent — Her Universe
Hung out its Flags of Snow —

                                                                           F460 (1862)  J481

This little poem has the same teasing tone as the previous one – and was written on the same piece of paper. Perhaps some particular loved one said or did something that sparked a little flash. Just to get biographical, I’d venture that the poems were directed towards Samuel Bowles, a man many scholars believe Dickinson loved and who may have been the “Master” to whom she wrote several passionate letters (though they were probably not delivered). Bowles was an editor of the influential and prestigious Springfield Republican newspaper. Dickinson sent him numerous poems but he was not encouraging. Although that paper published seven of Dickinson’s poems, none of them are among the ones she sent Bowles directly. Consequently, we don’t know if he had a hand in publishing them or not.
         Dickinson writes this poem as if telling a fable: Once upon a time there was a great mountain. Yet despite its size and grandeur it took an interest in a small daisy growing at its feet. The mountain was filled with love and concern for this little flower that lived amid the snowfields hanging out its own “Flags of Snow.”
      Of interest here are Dickinson’s diction and what the poet is getting at with “Flags of Snow.” I find the phrase wonderfully rich and ambiguous. The daisy’s “Universe” far below the mountaintop is growing “Tent by Tent” as if it were a travelling show setting up. Indeed, daisies would need to ‘travel’ in the Himalayas, coming out only in the brief spring and summer season before disappearing. The flags of snow would, in this context, be the flags that fly from the top of the tents – and the spreading patches of white flowers.
         But Dickinson clearly has other meanings in mind. We’ve seen in “Doubt Me! My Dim Companion!” Dickinson’s use of “snow” to suggest purity and virginity (F332):

Sift her, from Brow to Barefoot!
Strain till your last Surmise—
Drop, like a Tapestry, away,
Before the Fire's Eyes—
Winnow her finest fondness—
But hallow just the snow
Intact, in Everlasting flake—
Oh, Caviler, for you!

In the same vein, Dickinson included the following lines to an 1861 letter to Samuel Bowles (along with a poem, “Through the Straight Pass of Suffering” F187):

Dear friend
If you doubted my Snow _ for a moment _ you never will _ again _ I know _ Because I could not say it _ I fixed it in the Verse _ for you to read _ when your thought wavers, for such a foot as mine _

“Snow” in both snippets suggests purity. She had taken a moral stance against becoming a public, published poet just as a woman of her day might take a moral stance towards virginity. Dickinson also used “snow” to represent pages of poetry. And so “Flags of Snow” represents, in addition to the visual representation of daisy fields spreading in the spring, Dickinson’s growing “Universe” of poetry, growing poem by poem. No wonder the mighty mountain is fascinated.

As to the diction: two words burn an edge of bitterness into this otherwise playful poem: “stoop” and “Doll.” Dickinson having the mountain stoop rather than peer or bend suggests pride or even arrogance. While “Daisy” is a nickname Dickinson commonly uses for herself, “Doll” is not. The suggestion that Daisy is a Doll in the mountain’s eyes is not false modesty on the part of the poet but a cutting observation of how she believes Bowles (or whomever) regards her. She is an interesting little figure that must be tended to – like a beloved plaything writing poetry.
         Notice, though, that the Daisy has a “Universe” that is growing, that we read in the daisy a lot of fortitude as well as purity. It raises the question of which is the more impressive after all: the mountain or the daisy. This is the question Dickinson raised in an earlier poem:

In lands I never saw—they say
Immortal Alps look down—
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament—
Whose Sandals touch the town—

Meek at whose everlasting feet

A Myriad Daisy play—
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?

There is a lot of nuance in this short poem – as well as a lot of room for interpretation.

13 June 2013

"Why do I love" You, Sir?

"Why do I love" You, Sir?
Because —
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer — Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows — and
Do not You —
And We know not —
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so —

The Lightning — never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut — when He was by —
Because He knows it cannot speak —
And reasons not contained —
— Of Talk —
There be — preferred by Daintier Folk —

The Sunrise — Sire — compelleth Me —
Because He's Sunrise — and I see —
Therefore — Then —
I love Thee —
                                                            F459 (1862)  J479

Is Dickinson paying an homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning here? Browning's sonnet “How do I love thee?” might very well have caught Emily’s eye. Dickinson would also have been familiar with King Lear’s daughters and their answers to Lear’s question about how much they love him. But here Dickinson addresses a more interesting question: Why do I love you? Her answer is … because he is such a force of nature, like wind and lightning and sunrise, that there is no question of not loving.
Cordelia (Diana Rigg) in a frustrating
exchange with King Lear (Paul Scofield)
    The poem is written as if in answer to a specific question from the beloved man in question. Why do you love me, he seems to have asked. Dickinson takes a droll tone and adds a bit of an edge to it. It has none of the stately hyperbole of Browning’s poem, and none of the saccharine flattery of Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan. If anything, Dickinson channels a bit of Cordelia who replies with some frustration that she loves her father as is “fit” but that she “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth.”
         Similarly Dickinson begins her answer by saying that although the wind blows the grass the wind doesn’t require the grass to explain why it is swaying. The wind is quite aware of why the grass moves. Likewise, the man surely knows why the poet loves him. It is beyond the wisdom of woman and grass, to understand. It is enough for them to have the “Wisdom” to recognize the power of the force that moves them.
            In the same vein, the Lightning has no need to ask an eye why it shut while lightning flashed. It knows full well that eyes can’t talk; neither can folks “Daintier” than the lightning put their reasons into words: they cannot heave their hearts into their mouths.
            In the last stanza, Dickinson adopts the first-person voice and makes the poem personal. The Sunrise compels me, sir, she says, because … well, “He’s Sunrise” and I have eyes in my head to see it. That’s the reason I love thee. You are my sunrise. Please don’t ask me any more questions! 

09 June 2013

She dealt her pretty words like Blades —

She dealt her pretty words like Blades —
How glittering they shone —
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone —

She never deemed — she hurt —
That — is not Steel's Affair —
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh —
How ill the Creatures bear —

To Ache is human — not polite —
The Film upon the eye
Mortality's old Custom —
Just locking up — to Die.

                                                                              F458 (1862)  J479   

The stoical narrator of this poem suffers verbal assaults from a woman without showing how deeply she is hurt. Instead, like a janitor making the rounds at the end of the day, she just begins “locking up” her damaged life in readiness for a figurative (I presume) death.
          The powerful first stanza uses two images to show how deadly cruel the subject’s “pretty words” were. The first is of a person wielding a “glittering” knife as she sets upon the narrator. Her words are polished and fine on the surface, but they cut deeply. This woman is no innocent: she deals the words purposely “like Blades.” I picture a decorative knife such as a letter opener: a seemingly harmless bauble but capable of great harm.
         Dickinson doesn’t just portray the cutting or stabbing pain of a blade, however. Her overlain image is one of rape. The blade unbares a nerve the way a rapist might strip off his victim’s clothes. It then “wantoned with a Bone” sensuously enjoying fileting the victim. I feel the force of the cruelty every time I read this stanza.
         The victim excuses the woman: she didn’t know how sharp her words were; didn’t mean for them to “hurt.” But such niceties don’t matter to the blade. It doesn’t care if the wielder believes it capable of murder or not. The knife’s “Affair” is to cut – quickly and smoothly. I don’t find the poet convincing in her feeble defense of the attacker, nor do I think she meant to be. Someone who “dealt” their words like blades would know something of their power.

  For whatever reason, the victim never lets on. It would be “vulgar” to wince from the pain. It would be in poor taste, a sign of weakness, if “the Creatures” bear the pain “ill.” Further, it isn’t “polite” to have tears of pain welling up. Much better to just follow the old (feminine) way of keeping silent – and dying inside.

Biographer Richard Sewall, as well as other scholars, believes Dickinson was writing about her friend and sister-in-law Sue Dickinson. This would have been about the time the two’s friendship hit a low point and Emily avoided going to Sue’s house (one hundred yards away) for nearly fifteen years. People who knew Sue mentioned her sharp tongue, and Emily’s sister Vinnie was firmly convinced that Sue’s behaviour to Emily had shortened the poet’s life considerably.
         Be that as it may, the poem succeeds with or without a biographical reading. Was it Rumpole who said of his wife, “She has a sharp wit and wields it like an axe”?

08 June 2013

Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —

Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —
Sometimes — scalps a Tree —
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die —

Fainter Leaves — to Further Seasons —
Dumbly testify —
We — who have the Souls —
Die oftener — Not so vitally —

                                                                    F457 (1862)  J314

Wildfires, lightning can damage trees severely. If these “Green People” don’t die, they show the scars and marks. Their leaves are fainter, testifying for years to come that they had once endured a serious blow. Anyone who has walked in the woods has noticed the dead snags, remnants of trees that fell to fire, trees shorn of their uppermost branches from some wind storm, and young trees bearing the scars of fire around their lower trunks. Often the structural damage will make it difficult for the trees to thrive; thus, the “fainter Leaves.”


Unlike trees, people have souls. What does Dickinson mean that we therefore “Die oftener” and “Not so vitally”? I suspect she means that we suffer more “killing” blows than do the trees and saplings. It’s not just Nature that can deal us blows, but other people – intentionally or unintentionally. But these blows do not touch our soul. That might explain the saints’ strength in the face of great torment and suffering. We know that Dickinson read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and based some of her poems on its harrowing accounts. Small wonder then, that while she sees the marks of tragedy on both human and tree, she believes that the human soul survives intact (and perhaps is strengthened by) what wounds the flesh.

07 June 2013

It was given to me by the Gods —

It was given to me by the Gods —
When I was a little Girl —
They give us Presents most — you know —
When we are new — and small.
I kept it in my Hand —
I never put it down —
I did not dare to eat — or sleep —
For fear it would be gone —
I heard such words as "Rich" —
When hurrying to school —
From lips at Corners of the Streets —
And wrestled with a smile.
Rich! 'Twas Myself — was rich —
To take the name of Gold —
And Gold to own — in solid Bars —
The Difference — made me bold —
                                                                                    F455 (1862)  J454

Those who feel pity or sad bafflement about Emily Dickinson’s famous reclusiveness are missing not only the extremes of joy and anguish that punctuated her ‘quiet’ life, but her self-aware pride. That pride is on full display here.

       “The Gods” give us their gifts when “we are new – and small,” and Dickinson’s gift was poetry. Unlike many of us who are given gifts, only to ignore, squander, or reject them, Dickinson, even as a young girl, clutched hers like a precious gem. She “never put it down,” spending her life writing poem after poem until there were (at last count) 1789 of them! Her magnificent letters, too, give evidence of the poetry that radiated from her.
       In one letter she describes herself as “small, like the wren,” although her hair is “bold, like the chestnut bur.” Yet there is no sense of smallness here as she recalls smiling to herself as townspeople talk about wealth, knowing that she possessed bars of golden talent while they were just speculating and using a label. What made her bold was knowing the difference between what she had –consuming, compelling poetry – and the more dubious and transitory glory of material riches.
       One image I like in this poem is that of the “lips at Corners of the Streets” who talk about getting rich, or who’s rich and who isn’t. I think there are lips like those at all the corners. 

06 June 2013

I rose — because He sank —

I rose — because He sank —
I thought it would be opposite —
But when his power dropped —
My Soul grew straight.

I cheered my fainting Prince —
I sang firm — even — Chants —
I helped his Film — with Hymn —

And when the Dews drew off
That held his Forehead stiff —
I met him —
Balm to Balm —

I told him Best — must pass
Through this low Arch of Flesh —
No Casque so brave
It spurn the Grave —

I told him Worlds I knew
Where Emperors grew —
Who recollected us
If we were true —

And so with Thews of Hymn —
And Sinew from within —
And ways I knew not that I knew — till then —
I lifted Him —

                                                              F454 (1862)  616

The poem has a triumphal yet ambiguous note. The narrator details her efforts on behalf of her “fainting Prince,” taking a surprised pride at how she “rose” to the occasion, helped him, cheered him, and finally “lifted Him” through her own spiritual “Sinew.”
        First, though, she needed – rather, her Soul needed – to grow “straight” – as if it had been wandering from the straight and narrow path into twisty ways and byways. This was all occasioned “because He Sank.” Otherwise, she may have lingered on the winding paths.
        What is the problem with the beloved? The narrator doesn’t specify. But he was “fainting,” his forehead was sweaty, and he lost strength. Perhaps he was dying. Indeed, he may well have died and the service the narrator tendered was to urge and lift him towards heaven.
        First, though, she cheers him, and I take this to mean she re-awakened his will. She chants, firmly and evenly. The film of sweat on his brow was “helped” with “Hymn,” and when the sweat (“the Dews”) is gone, she meets him “Balm to Balm” as if the ointments with which she lovingly soothes him are answered with love, the sweetest balm. “I met him  / Balm to Balm” has a sensual quality. It is not just spirit that is being rallied, not just flesh that is being soothed, but the whole person who is being loved.
        She tells him everyone, even the best of us, must endure the hardships of the flesh. No knight in helmet (“Casque”), no matter how brave, can avoid the grave. She weaves tales for him. A poet, she knows “Worlds” – we saw her careening from one to another in “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.” She tells her beloved of how emperors grow in some worlds – an organic, polytheistic image. Good monarchs, these emperors will remember those who are “true."
        Notice that Dickinson here is not calling on the Christian heaven. There is the rewarding of the faithful, which is certainly a Christian image (though not exclusively), but the narrator is drawing upon her imagination, her storied worlds where her mind wanders (perhaps those twisty byways). 

Dickinson’s narrator presents herself as a woman bucking up her man. She sings to him, wipes his forehead, paints a picture of a better, perhaps eternal, life.
        In the last stanza Dickinson gives us the lovely image of “Thews of Hymn”: the musculature that holds her together, and the word “Thews” conjures up Homeric heroes, is made of church hymns. She is rising to the occasion on spiritual muscles and sinews  and on “ways I knew not that I knew.” Maddening poet. What are these secret ways? Again, there is a teasing sense of love’s ways (foreshadowed by the “Arch of Flesh” as well as the balms). Taken together with the spiritual strength and the physical ministrations, the narrator has “lifted” her beloved.

Dickinson has written before of ministering to the dying. In “I bring an unaccustomed wine”  (F126) she “always bear[s] the cup” that can slake the thirst of dying “pilgrims.” In “Delayed till she had ceased to know”  (F67), Dickinson bemoans having been too late to inspire a dying woman with visions of “Victory” in a palatial heaven. 
        But I’m tempted to read this poem as a one describing a mystical union with the dying and doubting Christ. Dickinson wrote one poem (F300) in “moaning fancy” imagining herself with young martyrs as they died – or as a saint herself. And she has written other poems previous to this that also might be read as mystical unions with Jesus. “Title divine, is mine” (F194) might be read this way. Likewise, in “Again – his voice is at the door” (F274) the gentleman caller who “never saw me – in this life” may well be Jesus (as well as doubling as an earthly love interest).
        I think Dickinson well capable of layering meanings, using ambiguities to allow imagination the freest play within her poetic vision. And so I have no problems reading this poem as one where a loving woman helps a loved one in a time of need, ministers to a dying beloved man, or joins with the crucified Jesus to help him surmount the bitterness and pain of crucifixion.

Dickinson does some wonderful things with word sounds and juxtapositions throughout the poem. “Rose” and “sank” are opposites, and Dickinson uses the word “opposite” in the following line to add the image of a seesaw or pulley. “Dropped” adds a nice internal alliteration in which the “p” sounds imply a soft dropping.
        “Film” with “Hymn” is a nice pairing, as are “Thews of Hymn” – which can be read as a pun on “his thews.” The homophones “Hymn” and “Him” strengthen this connection. Another slant rhyme I enjoy: “Prince” with “Chants.” The entire poem benefits from a careful attention to word choice. The more I read it, the more I find in every line to ponder.

02 June 2013

Our journey had advanced —

Our journey had advanced —
Our feet were almost come
To that odd Fork in Being's Road —
Eternity — by Term —

Our pace took sudden awe —
Our feet — reluctant — led —
Before — were Cities — but Between —
The Forest of the Dead —

Retreat — was out of Hope —
Behind — a Sealed Route —
Eternity's White Flag — Before —
And God — at every Gate —
      F453 (1862)  J615

The poem begins in good Victorian narrative style: we have a dramatic opening that promises a tale. The meter is based on traditional ballad style (quatrains that alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter)
"Abandon All Hope ye who enter here"
Gustave Dore's illustration for Dante's Inferno

, but Dickinson here uses tetrameter only in the third line of the stanzas. This adds tension, for rather than flowing with a natural speech rhythm, the trimeter pace seems chopped as if starting and stopping.
        Of course, this is exactly what is being described. The narrator, along with unspecified companions, is leaving the land of the living. They advance and then they stop and then they continue very slowly.
        The reader must picture the lay of the land: they had journeyed through life until at death they faced “that odd Fork in Being’s Road” – eternity – looming ahead. But the fork is not one where Life continues one way and Death/Eternity goes the other. No, there is no “Retreat” back to life. That way was “Sealed.” They must move forward. The fork instead, as I read it, leads to the different “Cities” with their gates. One thinks of the great and dread Judgment Day where God points the dead to either the gates of Heaven or Hell.
        So the pilgrims are standing in terror and dread at that fork. Their feet are then “led” reluctantly forward. They can see the fabled cities in the distance, but first they must pass through the “Forest of the Dead.” I don’t think Dickinson is imagining a wailing thicket of ghosts, spectres, or vampires here, but rather a cemetery. In earlier Dickinson poems we’ve seen the dead waiting in their granite tombs. Sometimes they seem to wait forever (in other of her poems, however, a dead person prances about in no time with a crown, on grassy meadows, or with grand and solemn angels).
        The last two lines should signal the sort of joy a lost sailor would feel upon seeing a lighthouse showing the way to harbour. But instead they seem fearful. “Eternity’s White Flag” suggests surrender, as if eternity is a place of surrendered will. Sure enough, God is at “every Gate.” The mise-en-scène turns grim. One fork surely leads to the torments of hell, the other to the bliss of heaven. But God stands everywhere before them with nary a word or glance of welcome. He is, rather, a conquerer figure before whom the eternal cities have surrendered – as must the pilgrims. 

**NOTE:  Please read comments for another, and I think probably better, interpretation of this poem.