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17 September 2013

Note to Readers

I set out to comment on all of Emily Dickinson's poems. So far I've done 500 of them – and that's not even a third! Alas, readers, I am needing to take a break. There's that novel in the drawer... . I do intend to start up again, but for now I am laying down the Franklin. I am a Dickinson student, not a scholar, and I have learned a lot from the poems. Just looking up pictures, for example, to illustrate some of the words and phrases in the works has been an education in geography, blacksmithing, Victorian fashion, Puritan New England, and Massachussetts flowers.
        Greater than any of that, of course, are the deep insights flashing through Dickinson's incredible poetry. Studying the poems I experienced horror, love, grief, glee, madness, torment – at a deeper level than when I had experienced those emotions in "real" life. I will forever reverence the bees: the June bee, who is like Heaven; the lover bee who "Counts his nectars – Enters / and is lost in Balms; the God Bee who along with butterflies and breezes comprise the holy Trinity; and the drinking buddy Bee who toasts his wife with "minute flagons."
       Harold Bloom in Genius says that Dickinson "is so original a genius that she alters one's sense of what poetic genius can be." I have been studying marvels.

I particularly want to thank those who took the time to comment. So many poems came alive to me in new ways because of a reader's insights. It was also great just to get a smiley face.

I would like to propose that if any of my readers (you know who you are...) would like to pick up the reins and carry on with the project for the next year or half a year, they should contact me. It would be a grand adventure! Leave a comment or else contact me directly:
susan at natperspective.... com.

16 September 2013

Best Gains must have the Losses' test –

Best Gains  must have the Losses' test –
To constitute them – Gains.
                                                                     F499 (1863)  J684

Not "Revelation" – 'tis – that waits,

But our unfurnished eyes.
                                                                      F500 (1863)  J685

Both of these aphorisms came from a letter (L280) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson had anticipated a visit from him the previous summer, but learned later in the year that he had gone away to war. Up until that time he been a captain in a Massachusetts Infrantry division, but following an injury he was appointed colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers – which was the first regiment of freedmen (the Secretary of War required that the regiment be led by a white officer; Higginson was a good choice, then, for he was an ardent abolitionist and human rights activist).
       In her letter Dickinson says that she had discovered what happened "by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year, and obtain no cause – but suppose it is a treason of Progress – that dissolves as it goes." Her affectation of bemusement is odd as, according to biographer Thomas Johnson, The Springfield Republican published detailed information about Higginson and his troops. Also odd is the seemingly dismissive tone towards the war, now at its bloodiest. Earlier in the letter she is even more dismissive: "War feels to me an oblique place – Should there be other Summers, would you perhaps come?"
       But perhaps Dickinson's goal is to inject a bit of wit and cheer, for she ends the letter this way:
Should you, before this reaches you, experience immortality, who will inform me of the Exchange? Could you, with honor, avoid Death, I entreat you – Sir – It would bereave
                Your Gnome

As for the aphorisms (I resist calling them poems), they both have a theme of discovery. The value of a supposed gain is established by the "test" of believing it lost. By this means, Dickinson discovered that a visit from Higginson would be a great gain.

       The second aphorism is introduced by the comment, "I was thinking, today – as I noticed, that the 'Supernatural," was only the Natural, disclosed –".  This is very much Enlightenment thinking. It isn't that "Revelation" is needed to reveal the veiled truth, but that our eyes are not sufficiently developed. Or, as Dickinson wrote in "'Faith' is a fine invention" (F202)
Faith" is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
When faced with a mystery, don't wait in faith that a revelation will occur; get a microscope or better glasses!

What I like from this letter to Higginson is that Dickinson says she told the "Best Gains" lines to her big Newfoundland dog, Carlo, and that "My Shaggy Ally assented." I love to think of the small Dickinson confiding in the giant shaggy dog.

15 September 2013

I lived on Dread —

I lived on Dread —
To Those who know
The stimulus there is
In Danger — Other impetus
Is numb — and vitalless —

As 'twere a Spur — upon the Soul —
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre's aid
Were challenging Despair.

                                                                      F498 (1862)  J770

I've read here and there that Dickinson is "the poet of dread." I don't necessarily believe it; Dickinson can't be summed up so easily. Yet dread ("fear; apprehension; panic" according to the Emily Dickinson 
Lexicon ) does fuel or infuse quite a few of her poems. In this one she begins by saying she lived on fear – and further, that it is a useful state. Without this stimulus and spur to her soul she might devolve into Despair – another state that suffuses various Dickinson poems.
       Although the first declarative line is first person, Dickinson immediately switches to third person. Not just to her, but to "Those" people who know the stimulation of danger, other states can seem "numb" and lifeless. Danger and dread spur the soul, urging it onward; without such a "spectre" we would end up confronting Despair.

I think Dickinson's dread is existential and religious. Sometimes she seems terrified of the void of death, sometimes of falling through the "planks of reason," and sometimes even of God. In "He fumbles at your Soul" 
(477) she seems to advise a constant state of alert regarding God:  
Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —
Myths reinforce the need for both dread and fear -- as 
does the story of Moses finding God in a burning bush

It is best to not "bubble Cool" but to maintain a sense of dread so that God can't catch your "naked soul."

At least that divine drama is exciting. The alternative is despair. Earlier poems are full of descriptions of this leaden state. Examples: "A wooden way," "A Threadless Way," and "quartz contentment." In "It was not Death, for I stood up," she describes despair " As if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame, / And could not breathe without a key, / And 'twas like Midnight, some –" 
(F355) .  It is a state of living death.
       Dickinson makes a similar case for preferring danger over despair in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – " 
(F407) . We would be better off confronting ghosts and assassins, she says, than a "lonesome" confrontation with the "Cooler Host" of our brain. It's a frightening poem and one that makes me dread despair … hmmm – handy, that.

10 September 2013

One and One — are One —

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for schools —
But for minor Choosing —

Life — just — Or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising —

                                                                F497 (1862)  J769

Scholar Gary Lee Stonum claims that some two hundred of Dickinson's poems include specific math references. In this poem, Dickinson uses mathematics as a clever entré
 to metaphysics.

She begins with the attention-grabbing assertion that one plus one equals one, dismissing one plus one equals two as school learning. She's finished with that sort of thinking. The next line, the last in the first stanza, is difficult. On her manuscript, Dickinson included "inner" as a variant for "minor" and this complicates interpretation. "Inner Choosing" would be the soul's choices. "Minor Choosing," on the other hand, suggests decisions about unimportant matters. However, I think that Dickinson decided to wield "minor" ironically: arithmetic is fine for schools but not for such "minor" matters as life or death or the everlasting.

Those three "ors" present difficulties. The first stanza uses "and" for an additive effect "Or" signals a selective effect. We can choose to focus just on life, or death or the everlasting. Dickinson seems to be instructing us not to contemplate, for example, how the first two add up to the third – which would be an interesting unity.
        Instead, we are to think of how each of those three concepts is a one-ness comprised of many individual ones as if they are fungible entities. Dickinson wrote a second variant word on the manuscript: "two" for "More." While "two" would make a nice wordplay with "too," "More" gives us the richer idea that anything more than one of her grand metaphysical trio would be "too vast" for our understanding.

         That "vast" warrants a bit of scrutiny, too. What could be vaster than Life, Death, and Eternity? Those concepts are plenty vast. But that's what Dickinson is getting at: they are so vast they could take over your life. That makes sense coming from a poet who recused herself from the world in order to contemplate, let's see … Life, Death, and the Everlasting. She eschewed marriage, child rearing, church attendance, social events, and travel. For a poet of the mind and soul, any of those would, added to contemplation of Life, Death, and the Everlasting, be simply too vast. 

(I conflate the three on purpose, despite my comments about the "ors." I think Dickinson intends for the reader to think about them both as a unity, a One-ness, as well as severally.)

09 September 2013

The Beggar Lad — dies early —

The Beggar Lad — dies early —
It's Somewhat in the Cold —
And somewhat in the Trudging feet —
And haply, in the World —

The Cruel — smiling — bowing World —
That took its Cambric Way —
Nor heard the timid cry for "Bread" —
"Sweet Lady — Charity" —

Among Redeemed Children
If Trudging feet may stand
The Barefoot time forgotten — so —
The Sleet — the bitter Wind —

The Childish Hands that teased for Pence
Lifted adoring — them —
To Him whom never Ragged — Coat
Did supplicate in vain —

                                                                                   F496 (1862)  J717

Dickinson had books by Charles Dickens and at least one book about William Blake in her personal library. Both authors wrote famous works about poor, starving children. Perhaps Dickinson was reading Oliver Twist or thinking about Blake's "The Chimney Sweeper." I vote for the latter, for there is a hint of Blake's caustic irony in this poem. Well, there is if you look at the poem just right.

On a quick read we see how a "Beggar Lad" dies from cold and exhaustion, ignored by passersby. Dickinson economically conveys a callous upper class with its fine clothing through the phrase "Cambric Way." After death, such beggar children lift their "adoring" hands to Jesus – who reputedly answers the supplications of the poor (those in "Ragged – Coat"). Their earthly suffering, the "Barefoot time" and the "bitter Wind," are forgotten.
       Except that this rather saccharine ending is at odds with previous Dickinson poems that rail against salvation and grace coming too late, or the incomprehensible suffering of children beneath the gaze of a savior who promised to care for them.
Children of wealth showing charity

        In  "Some, too fragile for winter winds" (F91), Dickinson suggests that despite Jesus' assertion in the bible that even sparrows are not forgotten by God and people are even more precious, there are graves full of "children / Early aged, and often cold, / Sparrow, unnoticed by the Father – / Lambs for whom time had not a fold." In F195, "Victory comes late," the poet rather scathingly wonders why God's "Table" is “spread too high” so that we have to “dine on tiptoe” as if God is not a particularly loving father. In addition, what we receive is often too little or else too late. In "He told a homely tale" (F486), Dickinson describes a homeless orphan and implies that it is she who "ransomed it – alive," and that both heaven and earth, both early and heavenly father, had failed the boy.
        With that undercurrent of bitterness against the unfairness of suffering in this world, I'm tempted to read the last two lines of this poem ironically. Perhaps Dickinson means us to consider whether or not ragged-coated children ever do raise their supplicating hands in vain, and she is implying that they certainly do.

I must admit, though, I am reaching a bit with this interpretation. It is likely that Dickinson penned this from sincere sentimentality (common among Victorian authors) – and hope that the next life will be a better one for the suffering children.

06 September 2013

The Day undressed — Herself —

Garter of gold
The Day undressed — Herself —
Her Garter — was of Gold —
Her Petticoat of Purple — plain —
Her Dimities as old

Exactly — as the World
And yet the newest Star
Enrolled upon the Hemisphere
Be wrinkled — much as Her —

Too near to God — to pray —
Too near to Heaven — to fear —
The Lady of the Occident
Retired without a Care —

Her Candle so expire
The flickering be seen
On Ball of Mast — in Bosporus —
And Dome — and Window Pane.

                                                                               F495 (1862)  J716

This charming poem has the sun undressing herself at night. We see the garments scattered across the sky: her golden garter would be the wispy gold clouds; the purple petticoat, a darkening cumulous cloud. Her "Dimities" might be her dress, or apron, or a delicate chemise. These would be the opalescent or sheer white clouds.
        Dickinson fancies these Dimities are as old as the world itself, although no doubt she is suggesting that the sun, rather than her undies, and the world are the same age (and I think she knew better as she enjoyed the study of astronomy). The sun is so old that even newer stars are as wrinkled as she is. Well, that takes the fun out of seeing the old girl take her clothes off!
Dimity blouse
  This lady makes her rounds high in the heavens. God is so close she doesn't have to say her evening prayers. She is so near the Christian Heaven that she has no fear of it.. One wonders what might fearful – other than the fear of not making it to heaven. I suspect Dickinson means the sun has no fear of dying and being judged of being worthy or not. In F437, "I never felt at Home – Below," Dickinson predicts that she won't "like Paradise – / / Because it's Sunday – all the time – / And Recess – never comes." Clearly the poet has lost her own fear of heaven by this time!
        The sun simply goes to sleep, retires in the west, or the Occident, "without a Care. The flickering of her candle as she sinks below the horizon can be seen from a ship's mast, from the Strait of Istanbul, from domes and even from the bedroom windowpane.

I think this poem compares well to Dickinson's other sunset poems. In case you want to read them, here's a list. Remember, you can just copy the title into the search bar (under the blog header) to get to the poem.

F297, "This is the land – the Sunset washes": the sky is the sea and purple sunset clouds are the boats unloading their "Opal Bales."

F327, "How the old Mountains drip with Sunset": a series of sunset imagery.

F468, "Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red": imagines the sunset to be a red gulf with a fleet of red ships crewed by sailors "of solid Blood."

F119 "If this is 'fading'": is bit of sunset rapture from a simpler time when people paid attention to sunset – after all, there wasn't electricity, so sunset actually heralded the onset of dark!

F182, "The Sun kept stooping – stooping – low!": portrays the setting sun as a splendid warrior battling the growing troops of darkness.

F296, "Where Ships of Purple – gently toss": once again has the inversion of sea with sky; here, the ships are purple clouds.

F321, "Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple": shows the sun, the "Juggler of Day," being quenched by purpling darkness.

F204, "I'll tell you how the Sun rose": has the evening sky a "purple stile" that the yellow clouds like boys and girls climb over.

F233, "A slash of Blue! A sweep of Gray": compares the sunset (in my reading of the poem) to the gathering Union and Confederate soldiers in their blue and gray uniforms.