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26 February 2014

God made a little Gentian —

God made a little Gentian —
It tried — to be a Rose —
And failed — and all the Summer laughed —
But just before the Snows

There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —

The Frosts were her condition —
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?
                              F520 (1863) J442

Just as the swan had to suffer taunts and awkwardness in "The Ugly Duckling", Dickinson's "little Gentian" fails miserably in its efforts to be a lovely rose. Poor thing – laughed at by "all the Summer." But you cannot judge a young waterfowl by its feathers nor a wildflower by its petals. The swan grows into its majestic beauty, discovering its true identity, and by the fall frosts, the humble gentian has spread all over the hills in a ravishing purple display. Take that, Summer! Hide your face and stop your mocking.
Dickinson draws the obvious moral here: While roses bloom in spring and summer, some flowers like the gentian bloom late in the year. The beauty of the gentian, its beautiful Tyrian purple blossoms, waits for the cold north wind to "invoke it" – which is an almost sacramental formulation.  After most all the other wildflowers have died, the North summons the gentian to bloom.
The lovely fringed gentian
photo: Tristan Loper
In the poignant last line, Dickinson turns the gentian's story into a metaphor for her own life. She is 33 years old as she writes this poem. She is in the prime of her poetic outpourings and seems in many of her poems to know her own power. She is, however, decidedly not like anyone else around her. She is beginning to gain the reputation as both an iconic and idiosyncratic spinster. Is it any wonder then that the poet calls out to the Creator to ask if it isn't yet her time to bloom? Dickinson, I think, was well aware that her dazzling poetry would also some day "ravish all the countryside".

It is in some ways a pity that her public blooming took place after her death, yet it may well be that the blooming of her reputation was necessarily not coincident with the blooming of her talent. Dickinson bloomed alone in her room with only a small writing table and a window facing sunset. Could she have written as she did in the spotlight of public approbation?

24 February 2014

This is my letter to the World

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me
                                   F519 (1863)  J441

This is among the most quoted poems among Dickinson scholars. I find it lovely and tender – in fact, tenderness is a part of the poem itself. While some scholars milk the first two lines for a bit of bitterness on Dickinson's part, my own reading of the poem is in line with Helen Vendler's. Dickinson is writing to all the peoples whether of her own age or ours or some distant future. The poetry she entrusts to future hands, the ones she "cannot see," is that of nature. As nature's poet, she hopes her "countrymen" will judge her "tenderly."
It's a humble thought. As Vendler puts it, Dickinson is implying that it is her theme and subject that elevate her poetry rather than any particular skill she may have with words. 
Vendler also contrasts the permeating femaleness of Dickinson's portrayal of nature and nature's emissary with the maleness of Jehovah, Jesus, and all the prophets and apostles that people the Christian tradition and its roots. While God's majesty is awesome (think of his thunderous demands for awe from the suffering and humiliated Job), Nature's majesty is "tender". Her emissary is a quiet woman in Amherst who gardens and bakes bread. Dickinson's "letter" can be contrasted with those of the apostle Paul who wrote letter after letter to early Christians exhorting them, chastising them, and employing arguments based on a rabbinical system of logic and deduction.
Dickinson's nature poetry shows death and rebirth with a daisy; it shows faith with a bee, magnificence with a sunset. Her heavenly saints, like the robins in the trees, make delightful music. 
The letter poem in Dickinson's
hand (with parts of the previous)
Dickinson wrote letters every day, many of them containing poems and many of them mined for poems that are not clearly set out by Dickinson as poems. It is fitting, then, that she uses the device of an informal letter to announce her transcendent role. 

Has she succeeded? Has Dickinson's relay of Nature's "simple news" been read by people she never saw? Have they judged tenderly of her? The answer to both questions is so overwhelmingly "Yes!" that Dickinson, not unaware of her poetic power, would probably be flabbergasted.

I find it interesting, now after 519 poems explicated, that although much of Dickinson's nature poetry is full of rebirth and of almost pantheistic connection, that her religion poetry divides between the somewhat saccharine (saints on streets of gold) and the brutal (God hammering at her soul or allowing the soul to be tortured). Yes, there are nuanced exceptions, but an interesting dichotomy remains. Perhaps the Transcendentalism which took root in New England during her youth attracted her without quite severing the Calvinist Christianity in which she was raised.

20 February 2014

When I was small, a Woman died —

When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory

To look at her — How slowly
The Seasons must have turned
Till Bullets clipt an Angle
And He passed quickly round —

If pride shall be in Paradise —
Ourself cannot decide —
Of their imperial Conduct —
No person testified —

But, proud in Apparition —
That Woman and her Boy
Pass back and forth, before my Brain
As even in the sky —

I'm confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In yonder Maryland —
                      F518 (1863)  J597

This poem was long thought to be about Francis H. Dickinson, an Amherst man who was killed in a Civil War battle on the Maryland border (Ball's Bluff, Virginia). Some scholars disagree, saying that while Francis died in 1861, the poem was written in 1863, belying the "Today" of the soldier's death. Franklin suggests in his New Variorum that Dickinson may not be writing about any real people at all.
Death of Col. Edward D. Baker at the
Battle of Ball's Bluff, by Currier and Ives
It's a poem of comfort, no matter who it is or isn't about. The death of a woman followed by the war death of her beloved son seems like a grim topic for a poem, but Dickinson pulls out all the stops to provide something both sentimental and positive. In marvelous economy, the first stanza tells the story of what happened. The poet knew the woman who died and seemingly knew her son – or at least knew of him. The son died in a battle by the Potomac River, and in death his face was "all Victory".
        Dickinson imagines the reunited mother and son walking back and forth together as she gazes on the evening sky. And although she cannot decide whether or not pride has a place in paradise, Dickinson imagines that the pair is proud, particularly in regards to the son's heroism in battle. She goes so far as to suppose that the heavenly throng cheers for such bravery – even if it took place in "remote" Maryland. 
        In an earlier version of the poem, Dickinson used "scarlet" in place of "yonder" – a substitution that changes the poem quite a bit. "Scarlet" focuses the poem on bloody battles, while "yonder" serves to contrast earthly strife with the eternal and superior heavenly abode.

I'm not particularly keen on this poem, but I do like the bullets that "clipt an Angle" through the revolving seasons of the motherless boy's life. It's like a shortcut card on a board game.

07 February 2014

A still — Volcano — Life —

A still — Volcano — Life —
That flickered in the night —
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight —

A quiet — Earthquake Style —
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples —
The North cannot detect

The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol —
The lips that never lie —
Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —
And Cities — ooze away —
                                       F517 (1863)  J601

The volcano symbolizes a certain way of being alive. Could it be a poet's way (whose lips "never lie"), a woman's whose life amid a patriarchal Calvinist family and society meant her strongest passions and questings must either be silent or rupturing? I think so, and this is not the only Dickinson volcano poem that attentive readers and scholars suggest are a self portrait. 
The poem is full of paradoxical phrasings: the Volcano Life is "still"; the Earthquake is "quiet; and the Symbol (the volcano standing for the poet/speaker) is both "Solemn" and "Torrid".  The first two stanzas hint at the volatility and upheaval beneath the poet's surface. The Volcano is only flickering, and this at night. Related earthquake activity is so "subtle" that those north of or on the other side of the ocean from Vesuvius (the famous volcano near Naples, Italy) cannot detect it. These would be the cooler, more restrained types – think New Englanders or northern Europeans – unlike those hot-blooded Mediterraneans.  

Yet the third stanza warns that despite the lulling quiet, the volcano/poet need only part her coral lips, just open and shut them, and the resulting eruption will destroy any cities in its path. Yikes! 

There's a nightmare quality to the poem. We see the poet in her room, her passions roiling beneath the surface. She is writing at night where her poetic sight is clearest and where others won't get a glimpse of the hot light she keeps damped within. We see the tremors of her soul, moved by large questions, powerful emotions, and startling visions. In a bit of a dig, she suggests that while some people would sense her power and heat,  most are unacquainted with volcanoes; their emotional or spiritual climate is too cool. I am reminded of "More Life – went out – when He went" (F415) where she contrasts the "Peat life" to that of the flame-proved anthracite. The peat people ignore the existence of volcanoes.
In the monstrous last stanza Dickinson gives us a glimpse of her power. There is nothing coy, nothing humble, and nothing ladylike about it – although it is completely female. Her façade is "Solemn" for she is fully aware of herself. Her deeper nature is scorching, burning with heat. Her lips never lie, and when they open the erupting magma hisses and flows, whole cities destroyed as they "ooze away" in its flow. Now that's poetry!
That last image gains double power from the doubled image of the poet's lips. They are the guardian gates to the eruptive truths Dickinson hammers in the forge of her soul. "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat'?" she asks in another poem (F401). They are at the same time labial which if opened would release a hot flood of female sexuality. Their flow is like magma, its force lethal for those in its path. The idea of "ooze" is primordial.

As a final note, Dickinson differentiates the North from the South in "Our lives are Swiss" (F129) where the northerners are "still" and "Cool" while on the other side of the Alps, the Italians live in earthy and hot passion. 


04 February 2014

It troubled me as once I was —

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

                                                                                F516 (1863)  J600

Dickinson is reflecting on a childhood mystery that becomes a deeper question as she ages. As a child she wondered why everything falls earthward except the blue skies of heaven. Overhead the sky seems heavy and "solid" and is not bolted to anything. Why shouldn't it fall? Ah well, she thought; grown-ups – "Giants" – understand this sort of stuff.
       That literal question wouldn't turn out to be too difficult for the poet who, after all, studied some astronomy. Plus she encountered "larger" problems than that of the distant sky. She knows that some of them won't be solved until that greater life beyond earth, where "Algebra is easier" or at least more easily proved. And if that be true, then surely she will learn why Heaven stays in its place and does not "tumble – Blue" on her.
       The difference, I think, between the childish question and the adult question is the difference between "Heavens" as the sky that we see above, a terrain as real and complex as that of the ground below, and "Heaven" as a symbol for the divine. While Dickinson's dearest friends and relations had all made deep and public commitments to Christianity during the religious revival that began to sweep New England in her youth, Dickinson herself held out. Although she could express conventional and loving sentiments towards the Christian Trinity and Heaven, she also probed deeply into the difficult questions involving an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing deity presiding over a world of suffering. Why wouldn't Heaven crash down in its oceanic blueness on the head of one of its deepest questioners?

In Dickinson's probing moods, she penned poems such as "The nearest Dream recedes – unrealized –"  (F304) , where heaven invites us to pursue it but then evades us and mocks our efforts. Although we long for "steadfast Honey", the Bee (standing for God as in other poems) does not brew "that rare variety!" In other poems the dead may enter a sort of timelessness or eternity (as in "Because I would not stop for Death" [F479] or "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"   [F124]) , but they do not experience the Pearly Gates Heaven. "Location's narrow way is for Ourselves" she writes in  F476 , "Unto the Dead / There's no Geography."

Having subverted its pillars, Dickinson is perhaps right to puzzle over why Heaven doesn't "break away" to fall on her.

The poem begins with a charming chiasmus – the reversal of grammatical structure in "as once I was" and "I was once" – that suggests a story or fable. Continuing the fable tone, Dickinson contrasts an atom with the Heavens – a dichotomy of the very smallest against the very largest. Adults are whimsically referred to as "Giants" and in another bit of humor, she suggests that Algebra won't become clear to her until she gets to heaven. (This notion that we will understand suffering and purpose after we die is treated with more bite in "I shall know why – when Time is over –"  [F215] where "Christ will explain each separate anguish / In the fair schoolroom of the sky".)
       The light tone is maintained throughout the poem. Heaven wouldn't conceivably crash, but rather tumble; it would be "Blue" rather than black or stormy; the "Bolt" is a fastener rather than a dangerous shaft of lightning; and she doesn't anguish, but rather puzzles over the existential question. I think the effect of this light tone is to soften the idea of heaven collapsing on her. Perhaps the idea wasn't terrifying so much as wondrous: a tumbling blue mass of heaven.