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22 July 2013

Just Once! Oh least Request!

Just Once! Oh least Request!
Could Adamant refuse
So small a Grace
So scanty put,
Such agonizing terms?
Would not a God of Flint
Be conscious of a sigh
As down His Heaven dropt remote
"Just Once" Sweet Deity?
                                                                     F478 (1862)  J1076

Dickinson put this little prayer in a note to Samuel Bowles, urging him to accept a barrel of apples that her mother wanted to send him. Why Dickinson makes it seem as if he is likely to refuse is something of a mystery as he wrote about the gift "from the elder Mrs. Dickinson" and said he found apples "a real treat."
    But the poem does double duty. It not only served its purpose at the time of providing a bit of droll flirtation to the beloved Samuel Bowles, but a little poem we can all trot out when praying for our horse to pull ahead.

He fumbles at your Soul

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys —
Before they drop full Music on —
He stuns you by Degrees —

Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard —
Then nearer — Then so — slow —

Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —

When Winds hold Forests in their Paws —
The Universe — is still —

                                                                                   F477 (1862)  J315

I have always read this poem as Dickinson’s depiction of the terrors of God, how an encounter with the male deity can be seen as (in Adrienne Rich's words) "seduction and rape."  He is a methodical assailant lulling and preparing the subject until ready to strike his imperial blow. Revelation, or perhaps salvation, does not come easily. The path to truth is not for the faint of heart.
       Some scholars read the poem as a sketch of Rev. Charles Wadsworth's powers in the pulpit. The talented but married Wadsworth is considered by many to be one of the great loves of Dickinson's life. Certainly the poem makes sense if read as what it would be like to sit in the church under the spell of a charismatic preacher.
       But however we read the "He" – God, preacher, patriarchy, or even, as Lyndall Gordon would have it, epilepsy, images of violence mingle with the sensual. In the first lines we see piano players noodling a few notes to warm up before dropping the "full music on" the audience. The musicians are well aware that their warm up notes toy with the listeners' desire to hear the music. Then there is the slow tease of the "fainter Hammers" approaching
Star Trek crew member is compelled by an
alien to play the climax to its lonely music
gradually in a sort of foreplay. The very masculine thunderbolt is dealt to a "naked" soul who has been "prepare[d]." And finally, the winds are seen with "Paws" rather than claws – which is a frightening yet tender image: Papa Bear has paws; tigers have claws.
       I find it interesting that the wind isn't shaking the trees but rather holding them – as if the forest shakes on its own and the wind that restrains it. A second, more ominous image that comes to mind is that of the wind holding the forest as it prepares to shake the dickens out of it. The potential violence is so real that the universe seems to hold its breath. The wind, like God, is a predator. The forest, like the victim speaker, is the prey.

This poem never fails to grip and frighten me. I like this about the poem and so I choose not to dwell on it as if it were about a preacher or a grand mal seizure. Much of its frightening power comes, in addition to the concept, from strikingly vivid words. In the first line the attacker "fumbles" at the generalized you's soul. The image is immediately sexual and invasive: the soul is the ultimate private part; "fumbler" suggests a teenage or inept lover. But we soon see that this fumbling (by the end of the poem we look back on that as pawing, the word having been provided in the last couplet) is God pawing at our souls to see if there is anything of interest there, any resistance, any yearning. "Fumbles" is at once dismissive and horrifying. I also think of someone fumbling with the lock, the inhabitants cowering behind the bedroom door.
       Once done with the fumbling, God begins his actual assault very slowly, as if "ethereal hammers" were gradually drawing nearer. We are in the blacksmith's forge now, as we were in "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat'?" (F401).  The metal of our souls is brittle and must be prepared, otherwise an imperial blow would shatter rather than "scalp" the soul. What a frightful word! Yet for Dickinson, it was probably even more visceral than it is to us today. She must have read the frontier narratives of the day where the Native Americans took scalps as battle prizes. The idea that God scalps your soul is far from the portrayal of Jesus as the loving Savior; it takes us back to the angry Jehovah who annihilates whole populations. She adds nothing to either soften or justify this portrayal. The prepared soul, having been stunned "by degrees" is "naked" and defenseless. Is it better off for having been scalped? Dickinson doesn't say. My guess is that she is recounting what it was like for her to encounter God.
       Another strikingly vivid phrase comes in the anticipation of waiting: the speaker has time to "straighten" her breath; whatever terror or dread you experience is lulled by the hammers that seem to draw closer but very slowly so that the 'you' is calmed. The brain, initially on full and frightened alert by the unmistakable signs that God is stalking, has time "to bubble Cool." As in a horror movie, we want to yell at it to look out, don't close your eyes!.

The "still" universe at the end implies to me that an act of divine violence or revelation or love creates a surrounding silence, perhaps of despair, perhaps of horror, or perhaps of peace. I rather think of it as shocked awe. Dickinson write in the first stanza of the "full Music" being dropped on us. Several earlier poems refer to some distant, cosmic music; a music fraught with meaning and intent. It sounded seductive and desirable in those poems. In this one, we learn what it is to have the whole force of that music directed at you. No wonder the response to that scalping noise is silence.
    I am also reminded of the stillness in "A Certain Slant of Light" where there is a sense of cosmic suspension. "[T]he landscape listens" and "Shadows – hold their breath."

Here are a couple of stanzas from "Better than Music" that show a different sort of music:

Not such a strain—the Church—baptizes—
When the last Saint—goes up the Aisles—
Not such a stanza splits the silence—
When the Redemption strikes her Bells—

Let me not spill—its smallest cadence—
Humming—for promise—when alone—
Humming—until my faint Rehearsal—
Drop into tune—around the Throne—
                    F378 (1862)  503

19 July 2013

We pray — to Heaven —

We pray — to Heaven —
We prate — of Heaven —
Relate — when Neighbors die —
At what o'clock to Heaven — they fled —
Who saw them — Wherefore fly?

Is Heaven a Place — a Sky — a Tree?
Location's narrow way is for Ourselves —
Unto the Dead
There's no Geography —

But State — Endowal — Focus —
Where — Omnipresence — fly?
                                                                               F476 (1862)  J489

Dickinson scoffs at the idea that the prayed-to, chattered-about heaven can be considered a specific place that our souls can fly off to. That, she says, is a "narrow way" to think, germane only to living people. We require places where our bodies can meet, survive and thrive; somewhere to put down a coffee cup. But for the dead, she points out, " There's no Geography."  Without a body what need for planet, cloud, or table? The freed soul's environment or milieu is no doubt much richer than one limited by bodily abilities. 
          Dickinson pictures it as a state of being – not cast adrift, but under some "endowal" or bestowal (which implies a Beneficence); there is "Focus," too, or unity of purpose and awareness. A state of being endowed with focus – If this sounds less like Christian doctrine than Eastern mysticism, it may well spring from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, both prominent Transcendentalists that Dickinson deeply admired – as well as from Thoreau and Margaret Fuller whose books she probably read. 
        Her final question parallels the first, "Wherefore fly?" That question asked to which destination the soul was headed – heaven or hell or elsewhere. The last line is about something else entirely. Where, if all is "Omnipresence" – or if even just the soul in question now enjoys omnipresence – or if God and his heaven are omnipresent, would a soul possibly fly? It would be, or at least be within, everything at once.

Dickinson wants the reader to work for meaning in these last lines. The elided words and dashes create a provocative sense of ambiguity and vagueness. Meaning seeps out as one thinks of the words in various combinations with those around it or in their unitary connotations. The meaning, like the soul, becomes diffuse and protean.
I used this picture with an earlier
Dickinson poem that featured"
a very geographic heaven
          In contrast, the first lines aim for clear meaning. Dickinson uses parallel structures, repeated and rhyming words, and simple diction. The second stanza complicates the breezy treatment of Christian death narratives. The poet builds an argument against the portrayal of Heaven (or Hell, etc.) as a unique place. The ponderous second line interrupts the quick flow of the surrounding lines and provides the key insight of the poem. The last two lines slow to a crawl. There's no way to skip through words like "Endowal" and "Omnipresence" – particularly if they are surrounded by dashes.

            Stop and think, people! it suggests. And that's odd from this poet who has written more than a few poems about the physical attributes of heaven and the saints and angels who inhabit it.

16 July 2013

Myself was formed — a Carpenter —

Myself was formed — a Carpenter —
An unpretending time
My Plane — and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came —

To measure our attainments —
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed — He'd hire us
At Halves —

My Tools took Human — Faces —
The Bench, where we had toiled —
Against the Man — persuaded —
We — Temples build — I said —

                                                                               F475 (1862)  J488

Dickinson tells a simple story here, one both moral and lofty. She, an honest carpenter, is approached by a "Builder" to see if she has the right kind of skills. If so, she would be hired and receive half the profit. But her very tools and even her workbench persuaded her to turn down the offer. Her grounds: She is in the Temple business, not just putting some boards together on commission.
       It's a metaphor for her poetry, of course. She was born a poet, "formed" that way. Alone in her room with just her paper and pencil (or pen), she wrote honestly and unpretentiously for herself. But then people noticed. It's nice to think that the Builder, a publisher – newspaper, journal or booklet – approached Dickinson and said that if she could write in a more standard poetic style (the "Art of Boards" –even meter, perfect rhymes, standard grammar and punctuation), he would publish her work and pay her half of what he received, but I suspect the entire poem serves simply to make a theoretical point. Although literary men, Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth HIgginson, for example, found value in her poetry, they discouraged her from publishing because they considered her work rough (Higginson reportedly used the word "spasmodic").
Temple of Minerva in the Acropolis
The last stanza suggests that a part of Dickinson wanted to publish and was willing to modify her style to accommodate the Builder. But she was "persuaded" against it. Her very tools – her pen, pencil, paper, lamp – perhaps even the geranium from two poems ago, "I was the slightest in the House," took on human faces and spoke against it. So did the "Bench, the little writing desk where she had "toiled."
       The last line is supremely proud. It is the arrogance of the artist who spurns the commercial job and the money and even fame that might accompany it. "Arrogance" is not a good word here, for I am meaning a pride mixed with integrity and a deep sense of self worth. That is what I read in that last line. Temples are holy, consecrated places, places of spirit and power. That is what Dickinson says she builds with her poems. I believe her. I think she does. Not every poem (and I've now read and thought carefully about 475 of them) but in many.
       The idea of Temple brings us back to the first line where Dickinson claims she was "formed – a Carpenter." The obvious reference is to Jesus, trained, we assume, in his father's occupation before his coming of spiritual age when he lingered for days in the temple where the elders were astounded at his learning and understanding. The combination of honesty, wisdom, and power is quintessential Dickinson.

15 July 2013

You love the Lord — you cannot see —

You love the Lord — you cannot see —
You write Him — every day —
A little note — when you awake —
And further in the Day.

An Ample Letter — How you miss —

And would delight to see —
But then His House — is but a Step —
And Mine's — in Heaven — You see.
                                                                                       F474 (1862)  J487

David Preest suggests this poem is about missing Jesus, the little notes the poet writes him being her poems. Jesus's "House" is the step of death away, in this interpretation, and the poet would have a house in Heaven when she dies. I guess this fits: she is whimsically asking herself why she bothers writing the Lord these letters when all she has to do is die to be with him always. Nonetheless, this interpretation seems unsatisfactory to me. There is the business of the "Ample Letter" rather than the short and highly abstract poems Dickinson wrote. The specificity of the "How you miss" and "would delight to see" also argue against her poems being letters to Jesus.

         I think, rather, that Dickinson was writing about an earthly Lord – a gentleman who is never or rarely seen but loved very much anyway. The poet writes him a little note when she wakes up and then a nice long letter later in the day. The crux of the poem comes when she  confesses that the Lord lives "but a Step" away. Why then, if it would be such a delight to see him, does the poet not arrange to do so? Why write if she might simply walk over and knock on the door or meet at social events?
         Dickinson provides the answer: her home is in heaven. She might love the Lord (and it is tempting here to think she was indulging in a bit of word play and referring to Judge Otis Lord, a suitor and perhaps lover later in her life*), but she would rather write him letters than go the step to his house. Her loyalties belong elsewhere – to poetry, perhaps; to the pursuit of truth and an understanding of Circumference. No, she will stay on her father's premises in her white dress and maintain her consecration to poetry.
Judge Otis Lord, later
in his distinguished life

         I also like to think of the first line as standing alone as an aphorism, something along the lines of "absence makes the heart grow fonder." The rest of the poem expands upon that insight. Better the Lord stay in his house, or at least that the poet not venture there. After all, familiarity breeds contempt!

The two stanzas are written in standard hymn or ballad form. The regularity of the meter and rhyme lighten the tone of the poem. It trips lightly off the tongue. The effect is heightened by Dickinson's use of exact rhymes for the rhyming lines: "day" and "Day" in the first stanza, and a repeated "see" in the second. That "see" also ends the first line of the poem. When it pops up as the last word of the last line, it becomes a bit of drollery.

         There is an odd change of person and stance in that last line as well. Until then the poem is written in second person: the poet describes the thoughts and actions of an abstract "You" who we are meant to interpret as the poet herself. The last line, however, switches to first person. That "Mine" should have been "Yours" for consistency's sake. The "You" in that line is now the audience: the reader as confidante. The poet has confided a droll secret to the reader.
         I can't say that this maneuver adds anything to the poem except a bit of whimsy, closing the poem with "You see" after opening it with "you cannot see." If anything, the line does reinforce the poet's claim that her house is in heaven. She is serious about that, so serious that she changes POV to make us stop and take note.

* In A Summer of Hummingbirds, Christopher Benfey suggests "that the attraction [between Emily Dickinson and her father's best friend, Judge Otis Lord] went back to the summer of 1862, when Lord came to Amherst as commencement speaker. ("Emily's Secret Love," Lyndall Gordon,, 20 June 2010)

13 July 2013

I was the slightest in the House —

I was the slightest in the House —
I took the smallest Room —
At night, my little Lamp, and Book —
And one Geranium —

So stationed I could catch the Mint
That never ceased to fall —
And just my Basket —
Let me think — I'm sure —
That this was all —

I never spoke — unless addressed —
And then, 'twas brief and low —
I could not bear to live — aloud —
The Racket shamed me so —

And if it had not been so far —
And any one I knew
Were going — I had often thought
How noteless — I could die —
                                                                      F473  (1862)   J486

Although there is a lot of pathos in this poem, it isn't explicitly autobiographical. Emily Dickinson shared a room with her sister until they were grown, she never had the smallest room, and she was not so very quiet, either. Yet for all that, it may be that the poet made her essential self small and quiet. It may be that although she could be outgoing and talkative, in a deeper level the "Racket" of small talk and conversation, the transactions of daily life "shamed" her. Perhaps it would seem shameful to dwell on the mundane – and even the received and proscriptive doctrines of the Church – if your soul were in love with Possibility and Circumference.

The poem is written as a memory. We do not know from what vantage the narrator writes. Is she in some happier or more meaningful place? Has she become more assertive? How much time has passed?

    I suspect that the poet, now in her thirties, is writing about her early years as a poet, the time before she consecrated herself. She was still on call to family and friends, still engaging in community and social events. It wasn't until she had withdrawn from the world that she owned more of herself. Her room became figuratively larger because she made more space for herself.
     Looking at the museum her room and house have become, we see she never claimed more than a small room, a litte lamp, a very small writing table, and other simple furnishings. I like the poem's specificity of "one Geranium."  It enables us to picture her there with her book, lamp, and flower. Once she "stationed" herself there, the golden "Mint" of inspiration "never ceased to fall" (how fantastic! but no doubt exhausting) – and that reminds the poet of her basket, that part of her that received the glorious Mint.
Danae impregnated by  the golden
shower  of Zeus (Gustav
Klimpt, 1907)

    The last stanza is confessional. The younger speaker, recognizing her insignificance, thought that if it weren't such a frightening and lonely idea, she could die without leaving scarcely a ripple. She made a similar point in F11: "Nobody knows this little Rose," where

Only a Bird will wonder—
Only a Breeze will sigh—
Ah Little Rose—how easy
For such as thee to die!

The fragility of life, the sheer randomness of luck and death, the great societal currents swirling about that engulf the individual – grist for the poet's mill. How easily we seem to slip from the living to the dead; how rarely does it matter. Like the little rose missed by only a bird and a breeze, the poet felt her grip on life so insignificant that her death would be likewise.

07 July 2013

'Tis good — the looking back on Grief —

'Tis good — the looking back on Grief —
To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —

To recollect how Busy Grass

Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.

And though the Woe you have Today

Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They're Water — equally —
                                                                             F472 (1862)  J660

Dickinson has written about despair and the crippling effect it has on psyche and soul (recall "The Soul has Bandaged moments" where the Soul has "shackles on the plumed feet, / And staples, in the Song" ). Grief, however, is different. Dickinson can "Wade Grief" (F312), has strategies for coping with it, and believes that time can indeed heal sorrows.
         That's the gist of this poem. Take time to look back on grief and get some perspective, she advises. No matter how terrible something was, even if at the time you thought it meant the "Funeral – / Of all Conceived Joy" (notice how these words are made even more ponderous and weighty by being all capped), the passage of time dulls the pain to the point of imperceptibility.
          Dickinson compares the healing distractions of daily living to the "Busy Grass": blade by blade, small task by small task, the grief is covered over. I love the image of the grass meddling with the fresh grave, growing thick and tall until it reaches the top of the gravestone and waves in the summer breeze.* Just so, is grief covered over by a thousand thousand little conversations, new worries and new joys, and all the myriad things that must be done every day.
         The third stanza develops grief as a rather fungible emotion. One might suffer a "Woe" so much larger than the Funeral-Of-All-Conceived-Joy variety that it would be as if a drop of sea water were held up against the whole sea. The Sea might look impossibly daunting, but just like the drop, it will eventually run off , evaporate, or sink into the earth. Both are "Water – equally."
    It's a comforting thought and I think the poem is meant to comfort.
Photo: Adrian Pingstone

Dickinson must have learned something about coping with grief between the time she wrote F423, "The first Day's Night had come," and this poem. In the former, the narrator looks back after some years on two days where one terrible thing was followed by something twice as bad. Time has not healed these wounds, however. She does not "feel the same" as the person she had been. Her "Brain keeps giggling," and she wonders if she isn't mad.

         This sense of deep change was presaged in F372, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," where the mourners endure an "Hour of Lead" which, "if outlived," is followed by something like freezing to death: "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –".
         With those greater poems in mind, the comfort inherent in this one rings a little hollow.

* Whitman also wrote about the grass of graves, but from a completely different angle. As part of an answer to a child's question about what grass is, he says that it is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves" and that "the smallest sprouts show there is really no death." There is comfort to be found in this transformation: the graves of soldiers become life sources.
        Dickinson's poem finds comfort in a different place as she depicts a social and domestic quality of the world life fabric. Her grass "meddles" and tidily tucks grief beneath a coverlet of summer as if the world were directed by a kindly mother (this recalls "The Earth lays back these tired lives / In her mysterious Drawers—" from F417, "The Months have ends – the Years–a knot" ).

05 July 2013

To make One's Toilette — after Death

To make One's Toilette — after Death
Has made the Toilette cool
Of only Taste we cared to please
Is difficult, and still —

That's easier — than Braid the Hair —
And make the Bodice gay —
When eyes that fondled it are wrenched
By Decalogues — away —

                                                                                                              F471 (1862)  J485

There's no point getting all dolled up once you're in the grave. There's nothing going on (unless you're chatting with Truth through the walls of a crypt), and dressing up just to please yourself can become a real hassle. Still, it would be preferable to fixing yourself up when your lover has been "wrenched" away by one of the Ten Commandments – no doubt number seven: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

That's how I read this poem, anyway. Although it's awfully clever, it doesn't seem particularly relevant except out of biographical interest. Was Dickinson saying that some object of her own desire, probably a married man, had been fondling her Bodice (let's admit it, bosom) with his eyes? I think this little poem was written as a letter – a very droll and sophisticated one! And it need not have been meant for anyone in particular. I think Dickinson imagined herself in all kinds of guises, identities, predicaments, triumphs and affaires de couer.

Speaking of imagination, I hope neither of the dresses pictured below represent Dickinson's best efforts in what she referred to as "mak[ing] the Bodice  gay."

The famous daily white dress
The teenage portrait dress (which
doesn't look that different from the one
pictured in the recently-revealed portrait
from a year or two before this poem)

03 July 2013

That first Day, when you praised Me, Sweet,

That first Day, when you praised Me, Sweet,
And said that I was strong —
And could be mighty, if I liked —
That Day — the Days among —

Glows Central — like a Jewel
Between Diverging Golds —
The Minor One — that gleamed behind —
And Vaster — of the World's.

                                                                           F470 (1862)  J659

The opening lines of this love poem sound quite contemporary to me in their casual directness. The poet, in a nostalgic mood, talks to a beloved, recounting the deep compliment that changed her life. As readers, we overhear the conversation.
          It was a powerful affirmation: Dickinson had it in her power to be "mighty" if she chose to. This encouragement may have been a crucial spark in Dickinson's dedication to her art. In "A solemn thing – it was – I said," her dedication is depicted as a consecration:
A solemn thing—it was—I said— 
A woman—white—to be – 
And wear—if God should count me fit – 
Her blameless mystery –

A hallowed thing—to drop a life
Into the purple well – 
Too plummetless—that it return – 
 Margaret Ellis
          As the poet reflects upon this consecration, the day of her beloved's affirmation "Glows Central – like  a Jewel." This jewel moment was the day of change. Before it, stretched the "Minor" road of simple joys and hopes, the activities typical of a New England maiden. After the consecration, however, the poet's path became the gold of the "Vaster" world – and by this, I think Dickinson means the cosmos.
          I am reminded of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," where he, too, recounts his jewel moment:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

01 July 2013

My Garden — like the Beach —

My Garden — like the Beach —
Denotes there be — a Sea —
That's Summer —
Such as These — the Pearls
She fetches — such as Me

                                                                F469 (1862)  J484

It seems likely that Dickinson penned this small, elegant poem to accompany some flowers sent to a friend. It's a simple poem, containing only a simile of her garden likened to the beach and the garden's flowers to the sea's pearls. And just as a beach implies a sea, so her flowering garden implies summer.
         The garden is decidedly hers: "My Garden" are the words that begin the poem. The word that closes it is "Me." The poet is emblematic of summer just as her flowers are. It's charming. Summer not only calls forth the flowers, it also "fetches" the poet. Since "Me" is the last word, the idea or image of Emily Dickinson tending her garden lingers in the reader's mind.
         Cycles and seasons are very much integral to Dickinson's poetic expression. Her sense of spacetime is vast, her engagement with the seasons granular. On winter walks I am often intoning "There's a certain slant of light / That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes" (F320). I like the way she limned autumn as "A few prosaic days / A little this side of the snow / And that side of the Haze" (F123). In the bitter-sweetness of Spring captured in "I Dreaded that first Robin, so" (F347), Dickinson is followed by T.S. Eliot's famous "April is the Cruelest Month, and Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Spring" where "April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers."
The Homestead where a portion of Dickinson's
garden is still maintained
       As for summer, who can forget "I taste a liquor never brewed" (F207) where the poet is "Reeling – through endless summer days – / From inns of molten Blue." Also memorable for the languid grandeur of a full summer day is F104:

A something in a summer's Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

But perhaps my favorite of her summer lines are the last two stanzas of "These are the days when Birds come back" (F122):

Oh sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.
 Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Ah yes. It is late June as I write. "Immortal wine" indeed.