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16 July 2014

The One that could repeat the Summer Day —

The One that could repeat the Summer Day —
Were greater than Itself — though He –
Minutest of Mankind – should be —

And He — could reproduce the Sun —
At Period of Going down —
The Lingering — and the Stain — I mean —

When Orient have been outgrown —
And Occident — become Unknown —
His Name — remain —
F549 (1863)  J307

This poem is fairly self explanatory and I could no better at explication than David Preest in his summery:
 … Emily returns to the theme of poem 291 [F327, "How the old Mountains drip with Sunset"]. There she claimed that even the greatest artists could not properly reproduce the sunset. Here she says that if (the meaning of ‘And’ in line 4) an artist could reproduce the actual moment of sunset, his name would remain until the end of time, even if he were the ‘minutest of mankind,’ since he would be greater than nature itself.
Of course Emily herself attempted to reproduce the sunset in many poems.

But Dickinson does some nice poetic things that I think deserve appreciation. First, she varies from her more usual ballad or hymn form, adopting longer lines, using three-line stanzas, and having a (slant) rhyme scheme of AAA / BBB / BBB. The rhymes are nearly all long vowels which places a subtle emphasis on the last word of each line. There are long vowels heavily salted throughout the poem, slowing it down as if it were a long summer day or the sunset "Lingering" between the "outgrown" east of morning and the darkness in the west into which the sun sinks. 

The most effective use of long vowels comes at the very end in the shortest line of the poem: "His Name – remain – ". Dickinson's use of word sounds underscores the meaning.  The rhyme of "Name" with "remain" is very tight, too, with the similar-sounding "n" and "m" sounds reversed from one word to the other.

There's an assumption of artistic power throughout the poem. The artist who can reproduce a summer day is greater than a summer day. Perhaps Dickinson is winking at Shakespeare who famously began Sonnet 18 by asking, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" He ends by claiming that through his poem the subject of the poem will never age or wither; consequently she is superior to the summer day.
  The artist will experience similar longevity, for the name of one who captures the sunset will live on – just as Shakespeare is as immortal as his creations. The artist and their art give life to each other. 

I find Dickinson's use of "Stain" to describe sunset color quite interesting. Does she mean that a true rendering would include some reverberation of, for lack of a better word, sin? "Stain" in both her her dictionary and our modern ones means "discoloration" and "taint". Or is she simply referring to the streaks and swatches of sunset color? 
  That line about the Occident becoming unknown  is a bit mysterious. The pairing of "Unknown" with "outgrown" is lovely and perhaps it mirrors life. We outgrow our morning and noon and fade into that last "undiscovered country".

15 July 2014

The Black Berry — wears a Thorn in his side —

The Black Berry — wears a Thorn in his side —
But no Man heard Him cry —
He offers His Berry, just the same
To Partridge — and to Boy —

He sometimes holds upon the Fence —
Or struggles to a Tree —
Or clasps a Rock, with both His Hands —
But not for Sympathy —

We — tell a Hurt — to cool it —
This Mourner — to the Sky
A little further reaches — instead —
Brave Black Berry —
                                          F548 (1863)  J554

Dickinson has a little fun here anthropomorphizing a blackberry bush – although this one behaves more like a vine, growing along a fence or tree and reaching for the sky. Strictly speaking, the thorn doesn't touch the cane, so it shouldn't hurt, but it would be churlish to insist on it. Better to just imagine the noble plant offering his delicious berry to the first comers despite the thorn in its side. 
Photo: Tim Whithall, Solant News

        Dickinson gets as much drama as she can out of the scene: the "Brave Black Berry" "holds" on to the fence, he "struggles" up the tree, "clasps" a rock with "both his Hands" – and when the pain still continues, he reaches to the Sky. Shouldn't we all take a lesson from this "Mourner"?  Instead, we tend to talk about our hurts to "cool" our pain. 

Hey, that works for me – as does a lovely blackberry cobbler, preferably with Mr. Ice Cream.

Dickinson uses a slant rhyme on "cry" throughout the poem: cry, Boy, Tree, Sympathy, Sky, Berry. 

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today —
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have — alway —

The Neighbors rustle in and out —
The Doctor — drives away —
A Window opens like a Pod —
Abrupt — mechanically —

Somebody flings a Mattress out —
The Children hurry by —
They wonder if it died — on that —
I used to — when a Boy —

The Minister — goes stiffly in —
As if the House were His —
And He owned all the Mourners — now —
And little Boys — besides —

And then the Milliner — and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade —
To take the measure of the House —

There'll be that Dark Parade —

Of Tassels — and of Coaches — soon —
It's easy as a Sign —
The Intuition of the News —
In just a Country Town —
                           F547 (1863)  J389

Dickinson's sharp eye for detail makes this poem as vivid a slice of life as any Norman Rockwell painting. Various local characters make an appearance as the poet watches from her window. Neighbors come and go, some probably carrying casseroles or flowers as they do today. The doctor, his labors over, drives away in his no doubt important-looking carriage. Some servant throws open a window and "flings" out a mattress and of course the local children will be telling each other that just hours ago someone died on it. 
        My favorite is the minister. This is his moment and he makes an appropriate entrance – "As if the House were His / And He owned all the Mourners – now – / and little Boys – besides." Very droll, and no doubt the children scattered at his approach. Dickinson casts herself in this role, looking back to when she was a boy. It's a playful persona and boys had more freedom to run about than girls, so no wonder Dickinson adopts that vantage.
The milliner arrives to take measurements for an appropriate burial hat. At last the undertaker, he "Of the Appalling Trade", arrives to determine the size of the casket – the body's "House". Once the corpse is housed it will begin its "Dark Parade" as black-garbed mourners, the hearse and coaches full of mourners – many with black horses – head to the cemetery. 
        Who needs the Internet to find out what's going on? In a small town everyone knows what's going on.

Dickinson's observations are emotionally detached. She has nothing to say about the family or the deceased, no speculations, no formulations of grief or sympathy. She is simply recounting what happens on a day of death. Nothing is conventionally pleasant; even the house has a "numb" look. The window from which the mattress is flung opens abruptly and "mechanically".  The minister and undertaker are not sympathetic characters, and of course the funeral procession is "Dark". 
        Even so, the poem is a pleasure to read. We feel the vicarious thrill of watching great drama enfold while ensconced in our own room. We can giggle at the minister, shudder at the undertaker, and nod knowingly at the familiarity of the scene. It is, perhaps, this very familiarity that allows life to go on smoothly all around.

In 1863, the year Dickinson wrote this poem, there would have been more funerals than usual because of young men who came home wounded from the war and didn't survive. But I don't think Dickinson is making a large point here. 

11 July 2014

I prayed, at first, a little Girl

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —

If I believed God looked around,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —

And told him what I'd like, today,
And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force 'twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn't stay —
                                                                F546 (1863)  J576

Dickinson's earlier poems sometimes adopt a scoffing even bitter tone about prayer. In  "At least – to pray – is left – is left –" [F377] the poet is "knocking – everywhere" but not finding "Jesus – in the Air." Prayer, what is left, seems hollow. Similarly, in "My period had come for Prayer (F525), God couldn't even be found when wanted. Dickinson concludes that poem by choosing to worship rather than pray, an important distinction that pertains to this poem.
        Bitterness comes out in "I should have been too glad, I see" [F283]. The speaker in that poem sarcastically complains that had she been too "glad" or her "Fear too dim", she couldn't pray as Jesus prayed as he was crucified, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The gist of that poem is that misery in life begets the sense of fear and defeat that underlies faith and prayer.

This poem lacks the bite of those poems, adopting instead a philosophical wistfulness.

As a young girl, the poet prayed as she was taught – until she considered God's point of view. At that, she quit praying, seemingly out of consideration. Perhaps this god wouldn't feel particularly happy about confronting the "Childish honesty" of children who have needs and wants – and questions about his intentions and inherent contradictions. Perhaps he has many more important things to attend to. But then again, perhaps his "Infinitude", his "Silence" amid the "Vast Prairies of Air" (F525) is simply of a different order and magnitude than our mortal concerns. It would be like calling down a whirlwind to clear the patio of fallen blossoms. This is where Dickinson decides to worship rather than pray.
As an adult, the poet sometimes wishes the god of her youth existed, or that that he does exist and she could call on him – the poem can be read both ways – to give her a helping hand. In the last stanza, among Dickinson's most poignant, she explains she needs a steadier "Balance" in life as if she is on a rickety plank or her legs unsteady. Her precariousness is a "Danger", particularly since her balance "tips so frequent now". It's all she can do to achieve "poise". This reminds me of poem Fr508 where she is poised between Heaven and a fearful Pit. In the current poem, the moment of balance and equilibrium, finally achieved, "doesn't stay".
This existential tension fuels many Dickinson poems. Like many of our best poets, she doesn't shy away from personal truth. Dickinson once ended a letter to her young cousins by saying, ‘Good-night. Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.' That is what poems such as this do.

In thinking about Dickinson's poetry in this way I am reminded of one of my favorite Rilke poems:

Mountains of the heart
Rainer Maria Rilke
Exposed on the mountains of the heart. See, how small there,
see: the last hamlet of words, and higher,
and yet so small, a last
homestead of feeling. Do you recognize it?
Exposed on the mountains of the heart. Rocky earth
under the hands. But something will
flower here; out of the mute abyss
flowers an unknowing herb in song.
But the knowing? Ah, that you who began to understand
and are silent now, exposed on the mountains of the heart.
Yet many an awareness still whole wanders there,
many a self-confident mountain animal
passes through and remains. And that great protected bird
circles about the peaks of pure denial. But
unprotected, here on the mountains of the heart.

04 July 2014

They dropped like Flakes —

They dropped like Flakes —
They dropped like stars —
Like Petals from a Rose —
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers — goes —

They perished in the Seamless Grass —

No eye could find the place —
But God can summon every face
Of his Repealless — List.
                                                                      J409,  Fr545 (1863)  

At first the poem sounds like a children's song. It has the cadence and meter of a lullaby or common ballad and most of the key words are one-syllable concrete nouns. Something is falling softly and quietly, something like snowflakes, rose petals or shooting stars – seemingly something lovely and ephemeral. The only force we see is that of a June "wind with fingers" that ruffles the roses. But immediately into the second stanza the word "perished" banishes any such preconceptions. Something terrible has happened.
        During the Civil War, Dickinson wrote only a small percentage of her poems about it; this is one of them. The Battle of Gettysburg, a terrible three-day battle with 51,000 casualties, occurred in the same year as she wrote this poem. Dickinson would have read the news accounts with their lists of dead and wounded and even though the battle was an important Union victory, the mood upon first publication of casualties was somber. The Springfield Republican, the Massachusetts newspaper edited by the Dickinson family's dear friend Samuel Bowles, had this to say about the battle: 
Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani
Our soldiers credit the rebels with the most unyielding and fearless courage in the late battles. Torn to pieces as they are, having lost 30,000 or 40,000 men in this last five days, they are not used up. … Their endurance, their desperation, their utter disregard of life is surely worthy of a better cause. [July 8, 1863  p2].

A couple of weeks later, Harper's Weekly published an unattributed poem in a decidedly triumphant tone. The first two stanzas follow:

Grandly the army wrought, on the murderous field of battle;
It has wiped the stain of defeat from every soldier's brow:
Mid the clash of steel on steel, and shouts, and the harsh death-rattle,
The Army of the Potomac has won a victory now!
Honor to ye brave men, from the battle wounded and gory!
Honor to ye brave men, whom the angel of death passed by!
Ages on ages hence shall others rehearse your story,
And pray that when duty calls like you they may live or die.   [7/18/1863, p.450]

Gettysburg Nat'l Military Park
In contrast to the clash and carnage of war and to the (understandable) chest-thumping of the victors, Dickinson's poem is all quietness and grace. Once the poem has been absorbed, however, this quietness has its own chill. It is like watching a movie battle with the sound turned off, the soldiers shot, bludgeoned, or bayonetted in silence, falling to the ground in silent slow motion. As in time-lapse photography, the scene fast forwards until the "Seamless Grass" covers much of the battlefield where dying soldiers once lay. Dickinson's vision offers the scope of time and one can wonder if she envisioned the thousands of acres of meadow and woods that now comprise the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Dickinson's similes all come from nature. She has used snow imagery before to symbolize purity; using it here suggests here that the soldiers are innocents falling together in a blizzard of death. Like falling stars their sacrifice shines brightly as they die, their shed blood red as the scattered petals of a rose. What she leaves out is any allusion to cause or outcome. War seems to be a fact of nature just as snow, meteoroids, and roses are. Life goes on, as does the grass – and Whitman's beautiful line where he considers grass to be "the beautiful uncut hair of graves" foreshadows Dickinson's tone.

 The last two lines don't seem organically tied to the rest of the poem. God can "summon" every soldier, and "summon" does double duty here meaning both 'recall' and 'call', as if the soldiers were lost. That clearly wasn't the case, although the spot where each soldier died would be impossible for mortals to note. And the function of the last line is unclear to me. God's list can't be repealed. Yes, but how does that relate to the fallen soldiers? Are there other lists that are repealed? I imagine newspaper lists are amended as better information is obtained, but their lists are of a completely different order and category than God's. 

        Perhaps Dickinson wanted a reassuring close to the poem. She may have intended it for acquaintances who lost a family member in the war and reckoned that the Seamless Grass wasn't quite enough for such a one. Or perhaps this is Dickinson's oblique way of saying that each fallen soldier can be summoned by God – regardless of flag.

03 July 2014

"Heaven" has different Signs — to me —

"Heaven" has different Signs — to me —
Sometimes, I think that Noon
Is but a symbol of the Place —
And when again, at Dawn,

A mighty look runs round the World
And settles in the Hills —
An Awe if it should be like that
Upon the Ignorance steals —

The Orchard, when the Sun is on —
The Triumph of the Birds
When they together Victory make —
Some Carnivals of Clouds —

The Rapture of a finished Day —
Returning to the West —
All these — remind us of the place
That Men call "Paradise" —

Itself be fairer — we suppose —
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace —
Not yet, our eyes can see —
                                    F544 (1863)  J575

It's no surprise by now to find that when Emily Dickinson thinks of heaven she thinks in terms of all the delights she finds around her every day. She is not one to longingly wait for her release from this world of woe. Her earthly heaven includes such marvels as "The Triumph of the Birds" and "Carnivals of Clouds". There is even "The Rapture of a finished Day". 
  Perhaps of more significance, she senses a Presence in this world – and this alone piques her interest in the afterlife. If whatever is behind the "mighty look" that comes with Dawn is part of Heaven, that would be "Awe"some. Her "Awe" shadows her lack of knowledge of heaven; it "steals" upon it in fascination as if the profound mystery that attracts her each day might be magnified in the afterlife. 
But then she returns to the triumphs and carnivals and raptures of life here below.
She concludes, almost grudgingly, that "we suppose" heaven will be "fairer" than earth. I can't help but find that "we suppose" to be a very pointed qualifier. She's pretty enamored of life (at least in the meadows, woods, and orchards of Amherst). But, for sake of argument, she grants Heaven the advantage. Then, with almost a wink, she then seems to ask, "Okay, so earth can be improved on; but how are people going to be spiffed up enough to encounter some "Superior Grace"? That's a thornier question involving questions of resurrection, bodies, and souls. There is no answer to that question, at least "Not yet" while we are still alive.
I find this a thoughtful and lovely poem. Each stanza is a gem, each image worth dwelling on. Dickinson finds her "Signs" of heaven in each part of the day. She begins with noon, its ripe fullness the "symbol of the Place" – and then backtracks to dawn to move forward chronologically. Dawn is when the Presence casts its eye "round the World" before settling down like a watchful cat in its hills. Later, "when the Sun is on" – a nice metaphor as if the sun were a lamp, or perhaps as if it were a trinket donned by Day – the orchard fills with birdsong. Together, the birds make "Victory" over dark and, it follows, over death. 
        As the day progresses the clouds cavort overhead as if in a carnival. The "finished Day" ends in "Rapture" as it returns to the West, and this is the direction of the setting sun, of the Hesperides – a mythical garden in some distant west where nymphs tend Hera's golden apple trees, and in general the direction of death and immortality, for this is where the sun sinks at the end of day.

01 July 2014

Unit, like Death, for Whom?

Unit, like Death, for Whom?
True, like the Tomb,
Who tells no secret
Told to Him —
The Grave is strict —
Tickets admit
Just two — the Bearer — and the Borne —
And seat — just One —
The Living — tell —
The Dying — but a Syllable —
The Coy Dead — None —
No Chatter — here — No Tea —
So Babbler, and Bohea — stay there —
But Gravity — and Expectation — and Fear —
A tremor just, that all's not sure.
                                                 F543 (1863)  J408

The poem reads as a spontaneous meditation on death as if the poet has come across an open grave in her ambles. She pauses to wonder whose gravesite it is (the essential Dickinson Lexicon gives "unit" the definition of "dwelling place"). But since the "Grave is strict", like the more durable structure of a stone tomb, and "tells no secret", she is unlikely to ever know. 
Dickinson then imagines the burial as a bit of theater or a social event. There are tickets, but unlike theater tickets, there are only two issued: one for the dead and one for the bearer. Only the dead, however, actually get a seat.  

During the funeral the living chat away. Dickinson contrasts this with the dying who but moan or gasp a "Syllable" – perhaps a name, perhaps simply a groan. Those "Coy Dead", though, have nothing to say. Whatever they know they keep to themselves. "No Chatter … No Tea" – the grave is no place for babblers. They and their tea should stay alive and with the living. "Bohea"* is a type of tea, and the Lexicon notes the word is not only the name of a tea but suggests "Bohemian". 
Whether tea drinker, babbler, or Bohemian – all feel something at the grave, and Dickinson names the feelings: Gravity, Expectation, and Fear. The occasion is heavy and serious; it reminds the living that they, too, have an expected date with death and this date is what engenders the fear. But in keeping with the tea and chatter, the fear isn't so very bad. It is just a "tremor", a brief frisson. What seems so sure in daily life suddenly seems not quite so sure.

* Dickinson might have read the poems of Alaric Watts in which case the chattering drinkers of Bohea might have come to her mind. Note the alliteration that goes in alphabetical order from line to line.

"About an age ago, as all agree,
Beauteous Belinda, brewing best Bohea
Carelessly chattered, controverting clean,
Dublin's derisive, disputations dean ..."
Attributed to Alaric A. Watts (1820)