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30 January 2014

There is a pain—so utter—

There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
Around—across—upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop him—Bone by Bone.

                                                                                      F515 (1863)  J599

This Abyss of pain differs fundamentally from the Pit of seven poems ago (F508). The Pit exists oppositionally to heaven. Its threat is such that the sufferer cannot move, look at it or even dream lest she drop. There is no hint of its provenance, its purpose, or its composition. It seems to manifest as dread, angst, or despair. Perhaps it is the sort of unwelcome vision – or truth – that draws our great poets and thinkers but at the same time threatens their ability to function.
            The Abyss, on the other hand, makes experiential sense to most of the rest of us. It is a well of pain so deep and treacherous that to fall into it would be like death. We can imagine this type of pain even if we have never experienced it. Such grief swallows up lives leaving only a trance-like state, for to look at it straight on would be to "drop … Bone by Bone" into its abyss. What a gruesome image! Pain can dismember, dissolve the cohesiveness of the psychic skeleton. We see the bones let fall, one by one, until the abyss becomes a boneyard of broken lives.
The Sleepwalker
Walter Schnackenberg 1956
            Yet the sufferer is not completely immobilized as with the Pit. Memory blurs the event or subject until to think back upon the pain is to remember as if sleepwalking or in delirium. There is no vertigo without sight; thus, much less risk of falling. Dickinson portrays the sleepwalking quality of memory in the fifth line, where "Memory can step / Around – across – upon" the Abyss. Each of the three prepositions begins with a vowel; their iambic meter seems heavy. Memory's steps are slow and tentative: first around the pain, then stepping over and across, and finally venturing out upon the trance-veiled abyss itself.  

We have seen Dickinson explore this "Swoon" state before. In "From Blank to Blank" (F484), she pushes her "Mechanic feet" along from "Blank to Blank", concluding at the end that shutting her eyes and groping is "lighter" than seeing. Dickinson's powerful poem "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" describes sufferers as "regardless grown" so that they move in a "mechanical" and "Wooden way". The great pain can be remembered ("if outlived") as if freezing: Chill, Stupor, "then the letting go –" (F372). That letting go is the turning away from attachment: the seeing and feeling and sense of engagement with the world.

Since Dickinson's time, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and biochemists have studied how the brain responds to trauma and deep distress. One effective coping mechanism is dissociation: connections among the sufferer's identity, memory, thoughts, feelings are disrupted. Memories are distorted and even suppressed. Some scientists argue that traumatic memories are encoded in a different part of the brain than normal memories. Victims may have implicit memories of anger, sadness and terror but be without the explicit details. Their pain has pulled a sort of trance over the abyss. The question still being argued is when, how – and if – this trance should be broken.

27 January 2014

Three times — we parted — Breath — and I —

Three times — we parted — Breath — and I —
Three times — He would not go —
But strove to stir the lifeless Fan
The Waters — strove to stay.

Three Times — the Billows threw me up —
Then caught me — like a Ball —
Then made Blue faces in my face —
And pushed away a sail

That crawled Leagues off — I liked to see —
For thinking — while I die —
How pleasant to behold a Thing
Where Human faces — be —

The Waves grew sleepy — Breath — did not —
The Winds — like Children — lulled —
Then Sunrise kissed my Chrysalis —
And I stood up — and lived —

                                                                              F514 (1863)  J598

 The speaker of this poem is drowning, submerged in a hostile ocean. Fortunately her breath does not desert her and she survives until dawn when she emerges alive from her "Chrysalis".
       Dickinson makes the hostility of the ocean quite plain. It strives to drown the near lifeless figure while Breath strives to keep it alive. Its waves toss her about and mock her by making faces. It pushes away a sailboat that might have rescued her.
Fortunately Breath has greater fortitude and endurance. The waves eventually "grew sleepy" and the winds "lulled" like tired children. Sunrise, that symbol of life and hope, finally arrives. Its healing kiss opens up the speaker to what may be a new life. Certainly the word "Chrysalis" promises a transformation. What was a storm-tossed pupae wrapped in its coffin-like exoskeleton, emerges a butterfly in the morning light.
        Typically – both in literature in general and in Dickinson – the ocean represents death, passion, or the subconscious. Paradoxically, it can also represent life and life-giving forces. To be submerged in its powerful and unpredictable currents is dangerous but if survived may be deeply generative. 

        Dickinson repeats "Three times" three times in what is surely extra emphasis. I cannot resolve the ambiguity about whether she means "on three different occasions" or "three times during this one night". The latter interpretation is tempting, describing an epic battle where the speaker was near to drowning three times, finally outlasting the waves as they quieted towards dawn. Yet the emphasis lends itself to a reading of three different events, similar in terrible struggle yet each outlived and leading to substantial change.
        Another ambiguity is "Breath": on the surface it clearly represents the life force of the speaker, but it may also refer to the spirit – perhaps the Holy Spirit who refuses to relinquish the victim to the throes of passion or other turbulence. It may also represent another person, a man (as it is a "He") who is as close to the speaker's soul as her own breath. When she was drowning in despair, he kept her afloat, he never slept until she was safe.

While this is not one of my favorite Dickinson poems I like its drama and its depiction of being nearly sucked under by forces out of your control and with no help available. The promise of the last stanza is both sweet and profound. What once seemed powerful and mighty waves have become sleepy and still. They are not so invincible after all. Likewise the howling winds that whip up the waves. Their force is also expended and they must, like sleepy children, rest. Meanwhile, the sun, absent throughout this terrible night, once again rises. Its kiss opens up the chrysalis where inside the immature speaker had matured into a more beautiful and spiritual creature than the larva who occupied it before. It's a message of hope and fortitude.

26 January 2014

The Spider holds a Silver Ball

The Spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands —
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl — unwinds —

He plies from nought to nought —
In unsubstantial Trade —
Supplants our Tapestries with His —
In half the period —

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light —
Then dangle from the Housewife's Broom —
His Boundaries — forgot —

                                                                        F513 (1863)  J605

I love the first stanza with the dancing spider and his silver ball. The mental picture I get is of a cobweb spider (family Theridiidae) with its large round abdomen. It extrudes silk, its "Yarn of Pearl", through spinnerets, pulling it here and there with the comb feet of its hindermost legs as it constructs its web. It may be, though, that Dickinson had a different image in mind as her spider is using its "unperceived Hands" to hold its ball of yarn. Sometimes the house spider can be seen carrying its egg sac, which can indeed seem to be a silver ball of pearly yarn. This makes more visual than biologic sense as the spider doesn't draw silk for webs from the egg sac.  
Cobweb weaver

        There's a Dickinsonian twist at the end of this droll poem. In the first two stanzas the spider seems almost magical, a sorcerer casting his spells. His web is so airy it seems to be anchored on nothing, fastened from "nought to nought", his yarn so gossamer it seems "unsubstantial". And yet within an hour he manages to construct a web that overshadows the household curtains. He creates a little continent spanning the ocean of space in the corners and windows. When the sun, or even a candle, shines on it, the web can be seen in all its glory.
    The spider's construction is short-lived, however, for within the hour a diligent housewife will take a broom to it and there, dangling from the bristles, is the spider's once-grand continent, its outline and boundaries now broken and forgotten. Readers can feel both sad and happy about this: sad because it is easy to root for the diligent, creative, dancing spider; happy because the house isn't going to look all cobwebby and spooky.
    On balance, I'm afraid the Housewife doesn't come out looking so good. Her brutal broom has destroyed a delicate and marvelous creation. Dickinson uses the admiring term "Continents of Light" to describe it and one suspects the housewife won't garner this sort of praise. As soon as I read the phrase, though, I thought of satellite images of earth at night. Our continents look just like webs of light. 

Does the spider represent anything or is this just a delightful sketch along the lines of "A Bird came down the Walk" 
(F359)? The spider is male while most weavers are depicted as female. Is Dickinson giving a note of sympathy to a man, perhaps a fellow poet, who creates a lovely work only to have it dismantled by an impatient wife? Or is she referring to the process of creativity or poetry itself? Constructed seemingly on nothing, spun from some inner silk, it "rear[s] supreme" for maybe an hour of glory before the needs of the curtain require its destruction. Dickinson might be thinking of her own poems and ruefully considering the response she would get if she stopped her baking and housewifery to concentrate solely on her art.
    She did submit some poems rather early on to a respected author and man of letters, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but although he was warm and somewhat supportive, he reportedly criticized her structure, meter, and rhyme. He was one to value the curtain over the unexpected web.

I am so enthusiastic about the first stanza, though, and the image of "continents of light", that I happily choose to think of this work as a spider poem.  

JUST FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE: Here is a great animation by Dr. Sameul Zschokke that traces just how a spider builds its web

As a final note, this poem isn't necessarily a final product. Dickinson noted several alternate or variant words: "Theories" for "Continents"; "perished" for "dangle"; and "Sophistries" for "Boundaries". Cumulatively, they suggest that the spider may represent the sort of philosopher or poet whose ideas are founded on nothing and whose arguments are falsely reasoned. Let them perish by the broom!

23 January 2014

Unto my Books — so good to turn —

Unto my Books — so good to turn —
Far ends of tired Days —
It half endears the Abstinence —
And Pain — is missed — in Praise —

As Flavors — cheer Retarded Guests
With Banquettings to be —
So Spices — stimulate the time
Till my small Library —

It may be Wilderness — without —
Far feet of failing Men —
But Holiday — excludes the night —
And it is Bells — within —

I thank these Kinsmen of the Shelf —
Their Countenances Kid
Enamor — in Prospective —
And satisfy — obtained —

                                                                      F512 (1863)  J604
This is one of those Dickinson poems where the reader must pay close attention, for grammatically it is loosely sketched. The theme is books and how much comfort and joy the poet takes in them.
       Dickinson biographer Richard B. Sewell argues that Dickinson "saw herself as a poet in the company of the Poets – and, functioning as she did mostly on her own, read them (among other reasons) for company" (The Life of Emily Dickinson, p.6710). They were her "Kinsmen of the Shelf."
The famous Shakespeare & Company
bookstore, Paris' Left Bank
Photo by John Rogers, Visualist Images
The poem follows a simple structure and is written in common ballad form. In the first stanza we see the speaker turning to her books at the end of a busy day. There is so much pleasure in doing so that it makes the longing for them enjoyable. She compares the anticipation to that of guests waiting for a delayed dinner: the smells coming from the kitchen keep them in good cheer. Likewise, the poet can savor the "Spices" of her "small Library" long before she settles in for a good read.
      Dickinson becomes completely engrossed with her books. It might be "Wilderness" outside, there might be struggling and weary travellers, it might be late at night; but for this reader it is all "Holiday"; it is as if she were in a delightful place and bells were ringing in celebration.
       She ends the poem rather humbly, thanking her kinsmen with their kid-leather faces. They are always enticing and they always bring complete satisfaction. Dickinson often became quite passionate when talking about books. This one seems simple and quiet.

20 January 2014

He found my Being — set it up —

He found my Being — set it up —
Adjusted it to place —
Then carved his name — upon it —
And bade it to the East

Be faithful — in his absence —
And he would come again —
With Equipage of Amber —
That time — to take it Home —

                                                        F511 (1863)  J603

One scholar says the "He" in this poem is Jesus. Another says it is Samuel Bowles. Arguments can be made for both. The central image of the poem is the sun, rising from the east in his amber glory, so whether or not that is read as Christ, as a beloved earthly lord, or as the sun itself – symbol of light and life or, as the last line suggests, a carriage to the afterlife that awaits after sunset, depends upon who is reading the poem and the way the poem is read.
       Dickinson has written about a lover as sun god before. In "He touched me, so I live to know" ( F349 ) she has been touched by her lover and "transfigured". She wants to go to his East as Rebecca went to Jerusalem to meet her husband, or as a Mithra worshipper adores "her imperial Sun". Even more specifically, in "The Daisy follows soft the Sun"  (F161 ) the subject is a love-struck daisy who turns her face to follow her beloved sun as he courses through the sky. At night she "Sits shyly at his feet" until he awakens in the morning for the new day. Both poems may well refer to Bowles and so it is not wild speculation to think that this poem refers to him as well.

       Reading the poem this way, I see a woman so in love with a man that other men do not exist for her. Her beloved commands her very essence. He tells her to wait for him, that as surely as the sun rises, he will come in a golden carriage to take her with him. In "There came a Day – at Summer's full" (F325 ), the narrator and her lover exchange a pledge that after they die they will rise "To that new Marriage" possible to them in heaven. If the man dies first, the woman would wait faithfully for his return – from the East, the location of sunrise, rebirth, passion, and paradise. She joyfully expects to see him after she dies, coming in his amber carriage to take her to their eternal "Home."

Yet the poem lends itself to a Christian interpretation as well: Jesus finds the speaker's "Being" and adjusts it so that her entire orientation is toward the East faithfully waiting for his return – the Second Coming. He has "carved his name" upon her as if inscribing his ownership. This is reminiscent of a couple passages of the New Testament book of Revelations. In chapter 14, verses 1-5, the book's author describes a multitude of "blameless" people whose foreheads were inscribed with Jesus' name. Later in that book,   Revelation 20:11-15 , the book of life and the book of
death are described. Anyone whose "name was not found written in the book of life, was thrown into the lake of fire." Since the poem's speaker has Jesus' name "carved" on her being, all she must do is wait patiently until he comes to take her home to paradise in his "Equipage of Amber."

The carriage motif is farmiliar, too. In several poems the speaker is carried off in a carriage after death to meet her fate. In "Dropped into the Ether Acre" ( (F286 ), she is in a "Coach of Silver … "Riding to meet the Earl."  In "Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord" ( F338 ), the speaker prepares to take that final ride "to the Judgment – / And it's partly, down Hill." The nost famous, of course, is  F479 , "Because I could not stop for Death," where death is a gentleman in a carriage who politely drives the speaker off to Eternity.

The poem is a bit disconcerting because the tone is so neutral. Although the verb "carved" is quite strong – almost shocking – the speaker does not seem overtly violated. It might be that she accepted the Him so strongly that it was as if he had carved his name on her being. Or it might be that the He is so magnetic or so divine that the carving is almost an organic outgrowth. The speaker does not say whether or not she is following the instructions to wait faithfully for his return in the East, but we assume she is. After all, He set her up and adjusted her so that she would. 
       There is no sense of hope or faith, but then neither is there a sense of doubt or despair. There is an almost profound passiveness about the first line: "He found my Being." In fact, as I think about it, perhaps the tone is passive more than anything. The speaker is having things done to her, she must wait for more things to happen to her. In the meantime she reports on the events as in a distant fog.

We don't know if the He will return – and seemingly, neither does she.


16 January 2014

Of Brussels — it was not —

Of Brussels — it was not —
Of Kidderminster? Nay —
The Winds did buy it of the Woods —
They — sold it unto me

It was a gentle price —
The poorest — could afford —
It was within the frugal purse
Of Beggar — or of Bird —

Of small and spicy Yards —
In hue — a mellow Dun —
Of Sunshine — and of Sere — Composed —
But, principally — of Sun —

The Wind — unrolled it fast —
And spread it on the Ground —
Upholsterer of the Pines — is He —
Upholsterer — of the Pond —
                                                            F510 (1863)  J602

In the previous poem Dickinson portrays a cloud as fabric: first a sheet and then a sumptuous robe. In this charming poem she has the wind unrolling a carpet on the forest floor. He ruffles the pond with his breath and its leaves and reflections make a lovely carpet, too.

Brussels carpet, 1870, Sen. Washburne
home, Illinois, by John Burrows
As the poem begins, the narrator is looking at some kind of carpet and thinking about its origin. Nope, not Brussels, she thinks. Kidderminster? No way. Both of these locations were famed for their carpets in Dickinson's time and are still famed today. Kidderminster carpets are found in the poshest and trendiest places in the world. Brussels craftsmen, known for their wool carpets, introduced the machined uncut-loop pile. Dickinson would probably have seen at least one American-made Brussels carpet on someone's floor in Amherst.
       The narrator's carpet comes from the woods, bought and carried by the winds who sold it to her. The price, fortunately, was so "gentle" that even a beggar or bird could afford it. Ah, generous wind to so please the impoverished bird and beggar.
What did this carpet look like? This is the puzzle part of the poem. To begin with, its "Yards" (a measurement unit common to fabric and carpets) are "small and spicy." I take that to mean there is something small in or about the pattern and that the carpet has a spicy fragrance. Its primary color is a dull brown, and the rug is made of dry earth or leaf litter and sunshine, "But, principally – of Sun."
       The wind unrolled this carpet fast, and we are to imagine a big gust swirling leaves or pine needles across the ground, upholstering the forest floor. Dickinson's titles of "Upholsterer of the Pines" and "Upholsterer – of the Pond" are delightfully droll. And face it, "Upholsterer" is a great word for a poem – it has a satisfying fullness with its strong emphasis on the second syllable and its trailing off into "erer" as if in a mumble. It also has a quasi pretentiousness. "Carpet layer" just doesn't plump the mouth.
Joe Manomet: Pine needle carpet, Massachusetts
Since Dickinson provides us with the type of forest, pine, I think we are meant to envision a carpet of sun-dappled pine needles. I grew up in pine country and remember vividly both their scent and the soft sound of needles falling through the trees.

14 January 2014

A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,

A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,
'Twas like a sheet with Horns;
The sheet was Blue —
The Antlers Gray —
It almost touched the Lawns.

So low it leaned — then statelier drew —
And trailed like robes away,
A Queen adown a satin aisle
Had not the majesty.

                                               F509 (1863)  J1710

Like many people, Emily Dickinson enjoyed cloud watching. We've seen them as ships, sailors, and pirates in earlier poems as the poet reverses sea and sky. In this poem, however, she draws an amusing sketch of a big flat cloud, low to the ground, that looked like a sheet with antlers. In the second stanza it gains some dignity, drawing back in a stately fashion to trail away. No longer looking like a sheet, the cloud now appears to be beautiful robes, more majestic than any queen's.

The poem is in common ballad or hymn form: iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. Dickinson divides the third line of the first quatrain into two lines to make a nice emphasis on the contrasting colors, blue and gray.
         It's odd to have a blue cloud, but when the cloud is thin and the sky intense, they can look very blue. Perhaps its color is what "surprised the Sky."

13 January 2014

A Pit — but Heaven over it —

A Pit — but Heaven over it —
And Heaven beside, and Heaven abroad;
And yet a Pit —
With Heaven over it.

To stir would be to slip —
To look would be to drop —
To dream — to sap the Prop
That holds my chances up.
Ah! Pit! With Heaven over it!

The depth is all my thought —
I dare not ask my feet —
'Twould start us where we sit
So straight you'd scarce suspect
It was a Pit — with fathoms under it —
It's Circuit just the same
Whose Doom to whom
'Twould start them –
We – could tremble –
But since we got a Bomb –
And held it in our Bosom –
Nay – Hold it – it is calm –

                                                                    F508 (1863)  J1712

The speaker is trapped in a Gothic nightmare landscape, paralyzed with dread. All that exists is a deep pit surrounded by heaven (which is not only "over it," but "beside" and "abroad").  Despite all this heaven, neither help nor hope seems to be forthcoming. The speaker exists by sitting completely still and holding a secret bomb. Sitting still presents her from falling into the pit; the bomb keeps her calm.
        The poem reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), where a prisoner of the Inquisition is nearly forced into a hellish pit while his judges watch him from hidden windows. The following passage comes after the prisoner is being forced to the edge of the pit by the closing in of his prison walls, now heated to fiery red:

But the alteration stopped not here-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. "Death," I said, "any death but that of the pit!" Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or, if even that, could I withstand its pressure And now, flatter and flatter grew the lozenge, with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. Its centre, and of course, its greatest width, came just over the yawning gulf. I shrank back -- but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward.
Poe's language evokes terror and dread. In Gothic style he employs specific details punctuated by expressions of terror and horror. Compare that with Dickinson's tone. Although the setting is Gothic, the speaker seems more mystified than horrified as she contemplates a heaven-embraced deadly pit. She repeats wonderingly, "And yet a Pit – / With Heaven over it." The plain rhyme is childlike. The child cannot imagine such betrayal. Poe's protagonist, on the other hand, is not wondering at the irony of Christian priests designing and presiding over his torture. He is too caught up with the physical details of his fate.

Arthur Rackham’s interpretation of
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” 1935.

Dickinson has a great line: "Whose Doom to whom." It is slow and spooky like an owl's call, but it does not invoke horror. It suggests that no matter who dooms whom, the pit of death or annihilation awaits. The pit is the same for everyone and is centered under heaven. This unimaginably cold situation dwarfs such petty concerns as justice and fair play. While this view of heaven has its own horror, it is not a Gothic horror.
        In "The Soul has Bandaged moments" (F360), Dickinson treats a similar theme, but does so with Gothic gusto. In that poem a "ghastly Fright" caresses an appalled but "bandaged" soul, and gives her ghoulish kisses. At times the sol escapes, "dances like a Bomb," but is always "retaken" with "shackles on the plumed feet / And staples, in the Song, . . / The Horror welcomes her again…".
        The current poem is much quieter: the Bomb is restrained, held tight against the chest. We don't know what this bomb is but it is not likely to be a wild and delirious dance of stolen freedom. I see it as knowledge: a poet sees deeply and truly. Her truths can shatter. Although drastic, this is the only possible defense Dickinson allows in this grim and austere existence.

11 January 2014

Like Mighty Foot Lights — burned the Red

Like Mighty Foot Lights — burned the Red
At Bases of the Trees —
The far Theatricals of Day
Exhibiting — to These —

'Twas Universe — that did applaud —

While Chiefest — of the Crowd —
Enabled by his Royal Dress —
Myself distinguished God —
                                                                          F507 (1863)  J595

In Dickinson's time, theaters used gaslights and limelight to illuminate the stage. Gaslights could be operated at a distance and colored by the use of screens. They were placed at the foot of the stage and adjacent areas. Limelight was a completely different technology that required an attendant at all times to adjust the block of calcium oxide and the gas cylinders that fueled it. It's brilliant light could be focused, and so the best place for an actor on stage would be in the limelight.
       In this poem, the stage is set with forest and the footlights have been screened red. Dickinson uses a reverse bit of imagination. Instead of sitting in a theatre imagining that the footlights are rays of the setting sun, she is imagining that a real sunset illuminating the base of real trees is comprised of "Mighty Foot Lights." She develops the conceit as God presenting a show, call it "The Drama of Day," to an audience – the Universe.
       The footlights burn red towards the end of the show to signal that the "far Theatricals" are about to end. The universe applauds. The poet, observing all, believes she sees the playwright and producer among the crowd. His "Royal Dress" tips her off to his true identity: God. Maestro!

10 January 2014

Light is sufficient to itself —

Light is sufficient to itself —
If Others want to see
It can be had on Window Panes
Some Hours in the Day.

But not for Compensation —

It holds as large a Glow
To Squirrel in the Himmaleh
Precisely, as to you.
                                                              F506 (1863)  J862)

Light has its own existence, never needing compensation, shining equally on the poor as well as the rich, the squirrel as well as the squire. Its glow is available to all, even shut-ins who can enjoy the sunlight shining through a window.

Cotswald abbey; photo by author
    Much has been written about the many ways our world and all living things depend on sunlight. Religions have worshipped the sun and scientists have deepened our understanding of the universe by considering the properties of light. Such properties define our ability to acquire information, travel to the stars, grow food, and stay healthy. We realize the debilitating effects of too little sunlight on our health and our psyche.
    Dickinson conveys much of this with her simple opening line. She adopts a quiet and understated tone for this brief meditation on light, eschewing the emotional and grand depictions by romantic writers and painters. I like her calm but adamant assertion about the objective equality of light: its glow is precisely as great to a Himalayan squirrel as to you. Her switch to the second person with the last word of the poem effectively moves the poem from the abstract to the personal. Readers are left to confront their own response to light. 

09 January 2014

They have a little Odor — that to me

They have a little Odor — that to me
Is metre — nay — 'tis Poesy —     
And spiciest at fading — celebrate — 
A Habit — of a Laureate —
                                                                            F505 (1863)  J785

The laurel leaf wreath is said to have originated with Apollo. Having been maddened by love for Daphne after Eros wounded him with an arrow, Apollo chased her until she panicked and begged her father (river god Ladonas) to be transformed. Ladonas changed her into a bay laurel seconds before her capture. Apollo was reportedly so struck by the tree's beauty that he adopted the tree and decreed that its leaves would honor the best Greek poets and statesmen. The tradition has continued as great poets and other scholars have been awarded the laurel wreath. Dante, for example, is typically pictured with one. Closer to Dickinson, Mt. Holyoke College graduates have traditionally worn laurel wreaths or carried laurel chains. In fact, the word "baccalaureate" refers to laurel berries.
Frederick Sandys: portrait of his daughter
as poetic muse with laurel wreath

I provide all this background as justification for thinking this poem is about the bay laurel. Dickinson was a highly-regarded gardener and cook. No doubt laurel leaves, perhaps from her own garden, were a staple in her kitchen pantry. I picture her smelling their spicy aroma and thinking about two poet laureates whose poetry she enjoyed: William Wordsworth, who died in 1850; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who died in 1892.

       The fragrant leaves take on a bit of poetry to her – indeed have their own meter. They become more fragrant as they dry and wither. It is this last quality that links them to the poet laureates whose last poems may be best loved. Wouldn't we all like to be "spiciest at fading"?

In keeping with the classical theme, Dickinson uses a stately iambic pentameter alternating with iambic tetrameter. "Habit" enriches the last line with its double meaning of "custom" or "routine" as well as "dress."

08 January 2014

The Birds begun at Four o'clock —

The Birds begun at Four o'clock —
Their period for Dawn —
A Music numerous as space —
But neighboring as Noon —

I could not count their Force —
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.

The Listener – was not —
Except occasional man —
In homely industry arrayed —
To overtake the Morn —

Nor was it for applause —
That I could ascertain —
But independent Ecstasy
Of Universe, and Men – 

By Six, the Flood had done —
No Tumult there had been
Of Dressing, or Departure —
And yet the Band – was gone —

The Sun engrossed the East —
The Day Resumed the World —  controlled
The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

                                                                                    F504 (1863)  J783

This lovely summer poem uses two hours of a summer morning – between four and six a.m. – to not only pay tribute to birdsong but to remind us of the unseen wonders and miracles that move the world. Dickinson opens the poem in the first pearly hints of dawn as birdsong fills the air. She likens the multitude of voices to the swelling babble of numerous brooks as they join together in a pond. The only other "Listener" would be the occasional workman up early to begin his day.
       The fourth and fifth stanzas make a distinction between bird and human: the birds burst into song out of "independent Ecstasy" rather than for applause and recognition. Once the sun has "engrossed" the sky, however, the songs cease, the birds having finished and perhaps even flown away without any fuss. It is as if the birds daily gather in force to sing the day into miraculous existence. We humans are a bit obtuse, rarely noticing this – or if we do, quickly forgetting it.

Among the very nice images and metaphors Dickinson employs, I particularly like the rich paradoxical abstraction of "Music numerous as space – / But neighboring as Noon –".  Some contemporary physicists describe the vast, seemingly emptiness of space as woven by tiny vibrating strings. As birdsong fills the air, Dickinson implies, the music takes on a similar seamless quality despite the discrete nature of each vocalization. Despite this almost mystic plentitude, the birdsong is as close to us, as familiar, as "neighboring" as noon.
       Dickinson made some changes in this poem. Franklin's version has some key differences from that published by Johnson. The first is commonsensical: "The Listener" vs. "Witnesses." 
by Sandy Snavely
The workmen no doubt could hear but not necessarily see the birds. The second substitution is "Universe" for "Deity." That's a bit more telling. The birds' ecstasy is not only for orchard and flower beds (or whatever else they like about "Men"), but for all the world and cosmos. Perhaps Dickinson felt that "Deity" was too specific, or that while saints might sing in ecstasy of the Creator, birds are filled with joy at the creation.
       The last change is in the last stanza: "Resumed" for "controlled." I think this is simply a better poetic choice – richer, more subtle and surprising. It also makes a bit more sense. Daytime ushers in or resumes the active (in a human sense) world. It doesn't control it.

The poem has a regular rhyme and meter pattern. Each stanza (with the exception of the first line of the first) has the first, second, and fourth lines in iambic trimeter. The third line (plus the first line of the poem) is always iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines of each stanza feature slant rhymes. This pattern is similar to the common hymn or ballad form of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines (seen in the first stanza). To me, the variance introduces a rather expository abruptness. Contrast the flow of "The Sun engrossed the East / The Day controlled the World" to the first lines: "The Birds begun at Four o'clock – / Their period for Dawn." While the latter seems to roll off the tongue in a lulling story-telling mode, the former seems a bit choppy.
       The effect is partly visual as it diminishes when the first two lines are read as if they were one iambic hexameter. By dividing them and introducing choppiness, Dickinson maintains emphasis on the events on each line as is appropriate for a story condensed into a two-hour period.