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13 March 2014

I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —

I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —
Life's little duties do — precisely —
As the very least
Were infinite — to me —

I put new Blossoms in the Glass —
And throw the old — away —
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there — I weigh
The time 'twill be till six o'clock
So much I have to do —
And yet — existence — some way back —
Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —

We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman — When the errand's done
We came to Flesh — upon —
There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —
Of Action — sicker far —
To simulate — is stinging work —
To cover what we are
From Science — and from Surgery —
Too Telescopic eyes
To bear on us unshaded —
For their — sake — Not for Ours —

Therefore — we do life's labor —
Though life's Reward — be done —
With scrupulous exactness —
To hold our Senses — on —
                           F522 (1863)  J443

Many of Dickinson's poems describe a circumscribed life (Most recently, "A still Volcano – Life –" and "A Pit –  but Heaven over it –") even though Dickinson herself famously said her business was circumference. The two ideas are related, of course. The soul beats at its confining flesh, the poet at the limits of knowledge and language, and every person struggles against defeat, disappointment, and the vagaries of chance. We are circumscribed, yes – but of what nature are the bounds, how established, how surmounted or endured, and how does one determine what and where they are? This is the business of circumference, seeing the whole circle and venturing out along its verge. This is where Dickinson sometimes takes her readers.
        In this poem, Dickinson examines how people circumscribe themselves, choosing to perform the minutia of daily life "With scrupulous exactness" long after they have lost a sense of purpose or meaning in life. Doing so protects sanity by holding the "Senses" on. Without tactile and specific tasks – the bonnet ribbons or the silk of the scarf between our fingers – we might come completely unmoored.  

        It also protects others from glimpsing the abyss in the affected ones' souls. Pretending everything is normal is "For their – sake – Not for Ours." What would the sister, the father, the brother, the dear friends say if they saw that the "ticking" of real, vital life had stopped?

        Dickinson begins the poem with a sketch of a woman preparing herself for the long hours between getting dressed and supper. Attention is lavished on the tying of the hat, the creasing of the shawl. Such small tasks are undertaken as if they had "infinite" meaning. When nothing has meaning anymore, even "the very least" can become sacramental. These careful gestures we see later are part of a deliberate strategy. 
        The woman turns her attention to small household tasks. She throws out yesterday's flowers to make room for new ones.  There is no delight in the blossoms that she must have just picked, no lingering regard for the spent ones. Flowers, the symbol of life and love and rebirth, are as lifeless to the depressed speaker as the creases of a shawl. A delicate petal seems heavy to her: it is "anchored" to her dress as if its negligible weight pulls her down. She has to "push" it away. 
        Time itself is heavy. The speaker "weighs" the time until dinner. She has plenty of tasks to fill the time but nothing to look forward to. The clock will be ticking, yet her own existence, her vital forces, have stopped. Dickinson says "Stopped" but then adds "struck" – a word that implies the striking of the hour by a clock, but also that she has suffered a blow. Whatever has stopped her inner clock did so through one event, not ennui.
       The rest of the poem is a reflection on life as the speaker turns from the particulars of her own life to a broader generalization. Going back to the household task analogy, she notes that when our life's "errand" is done, which I take to mean a signal achievement or some transformative experience, we "cannot put Ourself away" as we would the plant who has flowered and gone to seed.  Instead, between the accomplishment of the great errand we were born for ("came to Flesh – upon") and death, we still have "Miles on Miles" of nothing, of meaningless actions ahead. This is the dreariness of one whose life has peaked too soon and who can finds nothing left of interest.
        Simulating being truly alive "is stinging work" but must be done to cover up the hollow reality. The doctors, the scientists, the dear friends and family with their "Telescopic eyes" who look at us deeply, "unshaded", must not be allowed to see the truth. Paradoxically, Dickinson says shielding them is for their sake rather than for our own. Perhaps it would be too distressing to see a loved one or a patient in uncurable depression. 
       The last stanza, however, brings us back to the speaker. She continues with "life's labor" as seemingly nothing more than an alternative to suicide. The only thing holding body and soul together is the strategy of complete mindfulness to each small task. It is a flattened and depressed expression of what Thich Nhat Hanh discusses in The Miracle of Mindfulness: " I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath.” And yet for Hanh this mindfulness leads to joy. To the speaker of this poem it barely ensures survival. 

Fascinating scholarly difference: Remember this provocative stanza from F508, "A Pit – but Heaven over it –"?   

'Twould start them —
 We — could tremble —
 But since we got a Bomb —
 And held it in our Bosom —
 Nay — Hold it — it is calm —

Well, Johnson puts it in THIS poem as the penultimate stanza. I quite like it there, as it ties together the idea of shielding others and holding on to our senses.


  1. This is a stunning poem. I can't quarrel with your interpretation. "When nothing has meaning anymore, even 'the very least' can become sacramental" -- is amazingly insightful.

    I don't like the view equating this experience with depression -- although I admit there is ample support in the text for this view -- the sense of time weighing heavy -- and a person simulating life, as a depressed person might "go through the motions" of life. But depression, to my mind, has an indulgent quality that is lacking in ED's poetry. It also has a quality of laziness and avoidance that, I think, contrasts with the precision and awareness of sensory experience that is an essential element of the experience described in this poem.

    But this is just quibbling about labels. I don't think that labels are necessary -- the experience is adequately described and it is left to us to decide if the poem resonates -- if it is true for us.

    The poem is really about an event that is not described -- a void in the center of a life -- a peak experience that is "life's Reward" but that here is described by its absense -- a hollowness, a loss. It is like a photograph of the result of a tsunami -- the details that stick in the mind and by the very experience of life continuing and our sense functioning -- highlight lives lost.

    1. It's interesting, vis a vis your comment about the void in the center, to compare this to "After great pain a formal feeling comes." In that poem the narrator is also numb, her feet moving mechanically. Yet that numbness springs from a painful event rather than a peak experience.

  2. I agree. ED often comes back to the same subjects, from different angles or perspectives. In "After Great Pain" the experience has just occurred and the writer can hardly image outliving the event ("remembered, if outlived"). In this poem, the event has faded -- leaving, in the poet's imagination, a life that feels a simulation -- like a husk. But, oddly, a life where the senses are vivid and the intellect engaged.

    Altogether an extraordinary poem.

  3. You say that "numbness springs from a painful event rather than a peak experience," but might they be the same? They both can speak of loss of something important to life.

    1. Wouldn't the peak experience, then, have to be painful? e.g., the last race of a career. What sort of examples were you thinking of?

  4. I'm not sure it's fair to characterize Johnson's inclusion of the stanza from F.508 as a "scholarly difference"—as if Johnson, were he alive, could make a compelling case for retaining the stanza here in F.522. It was an honest mistake on Johnson's part, understandable because it was (excepting the pinned slips, I believe) the only time Dickinson ever completed a fascicle poem (F.508) somewhere other than on the succeeding page. Franklin's bibliographical study of the manuscript booklets demonstrates incontrovertibly that the stanza does not belong in this poem, and I feel quite certain Johnson would accept Franklin's conclusions. The fact that you "like it there" testifies to the power of our minds to find connections and meanings that were never intended to be "there." (It's why we read, after all.) I've just discovered your blog and find it a marvelous project. Best wishes in completing it.

    1. Fair points.
      Thank you for adding this to the discussion.

      I hadn't delved into manuscripts or fascicles or other such. It's great to have the Archive now as a convenient reference -- and various other books such as Cristanne Miller's
      'As She Preserved Them' tome.

  5. Another of her double meanings, perhaps - “ticking” is traditional mattress material which would not show “through” if a bed were properly dressed.

  6. Stanza 2,especially, made me think of TS Eliot’s measuring of time in “coffee spoons.”

    1. Yes to both comments. I think of Eliot as in Dickinson lineage (vs. Whitman -- which is one way I have of looking at U.S. poetry). And as for the 'ticking' - I pause everytime I read it, the pause necessary for me to substitute a clock for a mattress. So both images resonate there although the timepiece is clearly the most powerful.