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27 December 2014

It was a quiet way —

It was a quiet way —
He asked if I was his —
I made no answer of the Tongue
But answer of the Eyes —
And then He bore me on
Before this mortal noise
With swiftness, as of Chariots
And distance, as of Wheels – 
This World did drop away
As Acres from the feet
Of one that leaneth from Balloon
Upon an Ether street.
The Gulf behind was not,
The Continents were new —
Eternity it was before
Eternity was due.
No Seasons were to us —
It was not Night nor Morn —
But Sunrise stopped upon the place
And fastened it in Dawn.
                                      F573 (1863)  J1053

Dickinson is one of our foremost imaginers of death. Sometimes she imagines fading through the centuries in a grave or tucked into the "mysterious Drawers" of earth (F417); sometimes she fancies a glorious and royal Heaven; sometimes she conceives of death as a journey crossing a sea or traversing the "Forest of the Dead" (F453). This poem falls into the journey category and reminds me of "Because I could not stop for Death" (F479). In that famous poem a kindly gentleman caller, Death himself, takes the narrator on an otherworldly carriage ride where she learns only gradually that the carriage horses' heads "Were toward Eternity".  This poem also has a male companion or guide who ushers the narrator into eternity before she realizes it.
  The experience begins – and continues – quietly. Someone asks the speaker if she is his. At first we think he may be a lover and that the narrator is shyly agreeing to an assignation, answering only with her eyes. Eyes are the windows to the soul and the lover sees "yes". When he takes her in his arms and bears her "Before this mortal noise", we know it is an immortal lover, perhaps Jesus. Their journey together sounds marvelous: he carries her as swiftly as if driving a chariot, its wheels carrying them aloft. The narrator seems to enjoy the view, looking down as the world drops away as if they were traveling in the basket of a hot-air balloon. This is an idyllic abduction, a seduction from life. 
        But instead of seeing the familiar landmarks of her life pass before her, as did the narrator in "Because I could not stop for Death," everything she sees is new: there is no more shore line, no more curve of Cape Cod; the land itself is unfamiliar as if she were traversing an entirely different continent. 
At this point she realizes that she is in that "undiscovered country" of eternity, compactly noting that hers was a too-early death: "Eternity it was before / Eternity was due". By having "before" as the last word in the first line, Dickinson creates a nice ambiguity. We first read the line "Eternity it was before us" as if she were looking at an immeasurable vista. But reading on we discover that "before" belongs with the next line: they had reached eternity before it was due. She thinks she has died prematurely. But maybe eternity always seems premature.
        The eternity in this poem is no crumbling granite tomb, no sward of green or boulevard filled with stately angels. Instead, the narrator and her companion become transfixed in one "Place" where it is never winter or summer, never night or morning, but always and forever sunrise. Dickinson portrays it rather dramatically by saying that the sun "stopped upon the place / And fastened it in Dawn". The couple sees the sun about to rise and usher in a new day. Instead, it stops its routine to fasten the place where they wait in eternal dawn as if buttoned together a tableau.
        Dickinson often uses dawn as a metaphor for rebirth or resurrection. But here it is stasis. The rebirth turns out to be the symbol of itself; a constant new day with all the promise that can be no promise. There is no day ahead in which to do things. 
        I cannot tell if Dickinson means the image to be one of cheer or one of diminishment. "Fastened" is rather neutral; it doesn't suggest a joyous state, but neither is it harsh by Dickinsonian standards (think "riveted" or "stapled" – fastening verbs of choice in other poems). It certainly implies a lack of freedom. We fasten something so that it cannot move or go beyond a limited area. We also fasten something to us because we want it always. In that way eternity would be a constant state of awakening.

One could read this poem as if it were an assignation. It is Juliet wanting to fix time forever at daybreak with her Romeo. But perhaps it is a mystic union with the man/god where at the apex all becomes radiantly new in one entire, timeless moment pregnant always with possibility.

21 December 2014

The Day came slow — till Five o'clock —

The Day came slow — till Five o'clock —
Then sprang before the Hills
Like Hindered Rubies — or the Light
A Sudden Musket — spills —

The Purple could not keep the East —
The Sunrise shook abroad
Like Breadths of Topaz — packed a night —
The Lady just unrolled —

The Happy Winds — their Timbrels took —
The Birds — in docile Rows
Arranged themselves around their Prince
The Wind — is Prince of Those —

The Orchard sparkled like a Jew —
How mighty 'twas — to be
A Guest in this stupendous place —
The Parlor — of the Day —
                                   F572 (1863)  J304

Sunrise approaches slowly until suddenly, at 5 a.m., it springs like rubies suddenly uncovered – a metaphor mixing the animal with the mineral – or, in a masculine, martial simile, like the light from musket fire. Dickinson pivots to the distaff side when describing how the purple of night is covered over as the rising sun shakes out its Topaz cloth as if the lady of the house were unpacking the linen for the day's use.
Photo: John O Neill
        The "Happy Winds" begin to shake the trees, the rustling of their leaves and branches percussive and musical, like tambourines. The birds line up on fence and branch amid the stirrings of their "Prince", for it is his breath that helps them soar. 

  The last stanza is problematic with its dewy orchard sparkling in the morning light "like a Jew". Did Dickinson believe that Jews are decked out with diamonds – and this a result of both acquisitiveness and ostentation? Did she never question this assumption?  Domhnall Mitchell makes the following comments about that in an article, "Temperance in Emily Dickinson's Writing, published in The Emily Dickinson Journal in November, 2006:

Bolt of silk cloth
Dickinson appears to play on the anti-Semitic stereotype of the miserly in one poem ["I Came to buy a smile – today" (Fr258)], and on the acquisitive in [this one]. Both works were enclosed privately in letters to friends, but they were also recorded in the fascicles. In other words, these are not throwaway or confidential remarks: they were preserved, which suggests a lack of self-consciousness about the images being deployed—a sense that they were acceptable to people other than herself. Had the references been made in letters only, one would have thought that Dickinson knew that they were suspect, but knew too that they would have no wider, public, impact. That she recorded them suggests an assumption of cultural approbation—and indeed others in her social circle felt confident enough to publish similar expressions, 

It is a casual anti-Semitism. The morning is glorious, she regards this "Parlor – of the Day" as a "stupendous place". Had there been an intended bite, the  jumble of simile and metaphor wouldn't have been so ecstatic. Nonetheless, I take Mitchell's point about the anti-Semitic stereotype – which cannot be casually dismissed.

20 December 2014

Two butterflies went out at Noon

Two butterflies went out at Noon 
And waltzed upon a Farm —
And then espied Circumference
And caught a ride with him –
Then lost themselves and found themselves
In eddies of the sun
Till Gravitation missed them –
And both were wrecked in Noon –
To all surviving Butterflies 
Be this Fatuity
Example – and monition
To entomology
                                                     F571 (1863)  J533

Alternate versions of this poem have engendered many papers and discussions, which I won't address here. Johnson's version comes from fascicle 16, written in 1862; an incomplete revision, filled with alternative words and phrases, was written in 1878. Franklin takes his version from Fascicle 25, dated 1863. I limit my discussion to Franklin's version but do include Johnson's below because there is quite a discrepancy.  

This poem seems something of a parable – a light-hearted version of the Icarus and Daedalus legend, a warning not to fly too high or too close to the sun. On the other hand, it seems a nature poem along the lines of "A Bird came down the Walk" (F359) where Dickinson contemplates the natural world with a cosmic twist. I find it easy to read it metaphorically with the butterflies as thoughts and an entomologist/poet waving her butterfly net in hot pursuit. 

           The story is simple: two butterflies venture out at noon, dancing about the flowers – no doubt mating and sipping nectar. I'm not sure what they "espied", "Circumference" being ambiguously abstract here, but it might have been the wind pushing clouds along the curved top of the sky. Such a wind would surely cause little butterflies to lose their way, pulled higher and higher as the heat of the sun creates rising eddies in the wind. The story has a sad ending for "both were wrecked in Noon". Their little excursion lasted less than an hour. 
          Dickinson ends the poem by citing the butterflies' foolishness as a warning to "all surviving Butterflies" and to entomologists. Don't fly so high that the earth can no longer hold you; don't go chasing off after something that will lead you too far astray.

The poem is written in regular ballad or hymn form. You have to like a poet that rhymes "fatuity" with "entomology". I also like the internal rhyme of "espied" with "caught a ride". 

Johnson's version:

Two butterflies went out at Noon –  
And waltzed upon a Farm —
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested, on a Beam —

And then — together bore away
Upon a shining Sea —
Though never yet, in any Port —
Their coming, mentioned — be —

If spoken by the distant Bird —
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman —

No notice — was — to me —      

18 December 2014

I tried to think a lonelier Thing

I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen —
Some Polar Expiation — An Omen in the Bone
Of Death's tremendous nearness —

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate — to borrow —
A Haggard Comfort springs

From the belief that Somewhere —
Within the Clutch of Thought —
There dwells one other Creature
Of Heavenly Love — forgot —

I plucked at our Partition
As One should pry the Walls —
Between Himself — and Horror's Twin —
Within Opposing Cells —

I almost strove to clasp his Hand,
Such Luxury — it grew —
That as Myself — could pity Him —
Perhaps he — pitied me —
                                     F570 (1863)  J532

I've had a phrase in my head for years and always want to credit it to Pope but can never ascertain if he said it or not, or who did: "the bird who presses its breast against a thorn to sing". Maybe I got it as a quote in Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds or something. I'm reminded of it by this poem where Dickinson subjects herself to an intense thought experiment, seeking to imagine the loneliest "Thing" she can. That Thing turns out to be her "Duplicate" or double.
         The poet makes her purpose clear: this is an expedition of "Expiation", some cleansing through an extreme, "Polar" experience. Dickinson has associated northerly polar regions with God before, notably in "My period had come for Prayer" (F525) where she steps "upon the North" to look for God. In "Through the Straight Pass of Suffering" (F187) she compares the faith of the martyrs to a compass needle which "to the North Degree / Wades – so – through Polar Air!" but in this poem she is going for the bitter, remorseless cold where she can feel Death in her bones. 
         Dickinson doesn't give any clues about why she seeks expiation, but it clearly involves making contact with her Duplicate. She probes "Retrieveless things" to "borrow" him. Perhaps that is the realm of the dead for surely all who pass there become retrieveless. She doesn't want to keep or reanimate this soul, but merely form some fleeting connection. Just the idea that such a creature is possible brings her a "Haggard Comfort". Dickinson's surmise that he exists "Somewhere – / Within the Clutch of Thought" strengthens the word likeness of "Expiation" to "Expediton", for on this trip Thought is its own realm. The other meaning of "clutch" – to grasp – suggests the difficulty of this thought expedition. 
The Count of Monte Cristo as prisoner
         What makes the imagined potential creature her Duplicate is that he too is an outcast, someone "Of Heavenly Love – forgot". Dickinson implies that Heavenly Love has been extended to all others; only she and "one other Creature" are forgotten. Could it be that the expiation involves an actual person, now dead? Some soul mate? To reach him she plucks at the partition between life and death as if she were a prisoner and he, "Horror's Twin", was in a cell on the opposite side. The phrase suggests that the plucking prisoner/poet is the Horror. 
         Dickinson makes a similar ambiguous identification with horror in "That after Horror – that 'twas us"  (F243) where a brush with death is like having a "Face of Steel" look at you with a "metallic grin": "The Cordiality of Death – / Who drills his Welcome in". The terror of this encounter explains perhaps why in the current work the poet "almost strove" to take her Duplicate's hand. She doesn't want a closer brush with death than the "Omen in the Bone". 
This encounter is a truly lonely moment. She clearly senses the Duplicate; he seems to be within reach. Yet having struggled to find him, to borrow him, she stops short of touch.  But the poem does end with a bit more than the hoped-for "Haggard Comfort". She imagines a bond of pity between them, and this is "Luxury". It's a dark place when pity passes for luxury, but it is a place of truth. Not many dive into the depths without the safety net of heavenly love.  Who could pity a Horror? Perhaps only "Horror's Twin". 

15 December 2014

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —

A precious — mouldering pleasure — 'tis —
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A privilege — I think —

His venerable Hand to take —
And warming in our own —
A passage back — or two — to make —
To Times when he — was young —

His quaint opinions — to inspect —
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind —
The Literature of Man —

What interested Scholars — most —
What Competitions ran —
When Plato — was a Certainty —
And Sophocles — a Man —

When Sappho — was a living Girl —
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified —
Facts Centuries before

He traverses — familiar —
As One should come to Town —
And tell you all your Dreams — were true —
He lived — where Dreams were born —

His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —
                                       F569 (1863)  J371

In this charming ode to classical literature, Dickinson metaphorically meets the old vellum volumes as elderly gentlemen who enjoy being asked about their lives and times, whose "quaint opinions" are still of interest, and whose very presence is "Enchantment". Such encounters are a pleasure and a privilege, the pleasure being both "precious" and "mouldering". Antique books (and old gentlemen) can be a bit musty, but that is part of the precious pleasure, signaling a vantage of the storied past.
Some of the books Dickinson was
known to have read

        The extended book/man metaphor is introduced as we see the poet meet the Antique Book in the "Dress his Century wore".  We imagine seeing the ancient Greeks in draped tunics and cloaks, or Medieval gentlemen in doublets and hose.         Opening the book is like taking the gentleman's hand. It warms to the touch and, with this offered encouragement, he opens up and tells his tale. I like Dickinson's phrase, "To Times when he – was young", for it reminds me that old books may seem venerable now, but they were first being read in their youth, when what they said was fresh and new. 
        Dickinson wants to inspect his opinions, ascertain his views on such themes of interest as literature, scholarly work, and "What Competitions ran". That last one is a puzzlement. Perhaps she wonders if there were prizes for poetry reading or costume as well as, of course, for sport. No doubt the sort of competitions an era engages in provides some insights into its values. 
        She reveals her literary excursions through her examples. What literature, scholarly focus, and competitions were current when Plato "was a Certainty" (perhaps a droll reference to his contention that it is a changeable and deceptive world our senses perceive); when Sophocles was a living man and Sappho a living girl; and, delightfully, when Dante's Beatrice wore what must have been a very becoming gown.
        His knowledge is centuries old, and his stories tell you "all your Dreams – were true" for He lived – where Dreams were born." That's a lovely line and may refer to Western literature's heavy reliance on Greek myth and literature whose themes and icons echo even now. It is seducing to think that in the gentleman's youth those fabled stories were true. But the "Old Volumes" just shake their "Vellum Heads" the way an old grandfather would when asked for more tales from his impossible youth – half encouragement, half demurral.

13 December 2014

A Prison gets to be a friend —

*Note: the following poem is out of Franklin order because I inadvertently omitted it earlier. This is the last of the out-of-order poems.

A Prison gets to be a friend —
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours — a Kinsmanship express —
And in its narrow Eyes —

We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us — stated as Our food —
And hungered for — the same —

We learn to know the Planks —
That answer to Our feet —
So miserable a sound — at first —
Nor even now — so sweet —

As plashing in the Pools —
When Memory was a Boy —
But a Demurer Circuit —
A Geometric Joy —

The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor — Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty —

As this Phantasm steel —
Whose features — Day and Night —
Are present to us — as Our Own —
And as escapeless — quite —

The narrow Round — the stint —
The slow exchange of Hope —
For something passiver — Content
Too steep for looking up —

The Liberty we knew
Avoided — like a Dream —
Too wide for any night but Heaven —
If That — indeed — redeem —
                             F456 (1862)  J652

At first glance the poem seems to share similarities to other of Dickinson's work where she is numbed to liberty or otherwise circumscribed or impeded. But Dickinson's use of the first person plural, the frequent "we" and "our", signal that in this poem she is talking about the human condition. The metaphorical prison bars are a "Phantasm" that that we choose – or learn – to observe. We avoid liberty, willingly exchanging it, or at least coming to acquiesce in the exchange, for the quieter, "passiver" state of "Content". Heaven might offer real freedom, but in the last line Dickinson expresses some doubt that heaven can in fact "redeem" us.
Newgate prison cell, 1856
The physical body is very present in this poem. It begins with the human face contrasted with the "Ponderous face" of the prison. Its window eyes are viewed with our eyes. Our feet feel the floor, we hear its noises; we recall splashing in pools of water. But the essence of the poem centers on freedom. 
        Should we mourn the loss of childish freedom when unfettered life is "Too wide" to comprehend or negotiate?  Freedom may have been as lovely to a child as the cheek of its mother, but even that image reminds us that children are held in loving bonds to their parents. Childish pleasures, Dickinson implies, give way to a "Geometric Joy" where immersion in confinement produces the sort of mindfulness espoused by sages and ascetics. 
        If all we can now see of the sun, so long taken for granted, is its light filtering through prison windows at predictable times, we respond with "gratitude". The noisy planks converse with our feet, becoming over time a sweeter sound than that of our childhood "plashing". This is is a walking meditation Dickinson describes. Joy can be found in the geometry of a cell. 
        This is not indicative of agoraphobia as Maryanne M. Garbowsky ("The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia") has suggested, but rather an insight into transcendence. How do we transcend the prison of our earthly existence? Not, according to this poem, by travel or adventure or the pursuit of wealth or ambition; but rather by self knowledge. For I think that Dickinson's metaphor can be read not only that earthly life is a prison, but that we ourselves are both prisoner and prison.
        We exchange the hope of youth, the dreams we had, for contentment, a much quieter and less exciting state of being. We avoid "The Liberty we knew" as something unmanageable and quite beyond our grasp. The transcendence of the "stint" comes when we find the sweetness, the "Demurer Circuit", and that "Geometric Joy. 
        Despite all that, I do not think that Dickinson is celebrating the "stint"; she paints a rather meager transcendence and an over-all cramped vision of life. And it is rather sad to read the poem written, in Franklin's chronology, just previous to this one, "It was given to me by the Gods"  [F455], where she exults in her youthful discovery of poetic talent:

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

It was in her small bedroom where Dickinson dreamed and wrote. She increasingly chose that room over all other places. Adreinne Rich, in her marvellous essay on Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home",  wrote:
Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned and said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”

So while the poem isn't really celebratory, it is a reflection of Dickinson's own transcendence of her "narrow Round" and "Phantasm steel". 

The first two stanzas alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter – a common ballad structure. But beginning with the third stanza Dickinson uses iambic trimeter in all but the third line. The effect is to emphasize the last words of the first two lines of each stanza: Planks / feet; Pools / Boy; Key / Day; steel / Night / stint / Hope / knew / Dream. 
        Each word is one syllable; most have a long, lingering vowels. One exception, "stint", cuts through the slow sounds around it (narrow Round, slow exchange of Hope), adding extra emphasis on the word that in its double meaning of limitation and task is at the heart of the poem.