Search This Blog

08 December 2014

I like to see it lap the Miles —

*Note: the following poem is out of its Franklin order as I accidentally omitted it earlier.

I I like to see it lap the Miles —
And lick the Valleys up —
And stop to feed itself at Tanks —
And then — prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains —
And supercilious peer
In Shanties — by the sides of Roads —
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its sides
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid — hooting stanza —
Then chase itself down Hill —

And neigh like Boanerges —
Then — prompter than a Star
Stop — docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door —
              F383 (1862)  J585

Helen Vendler includes this poem in her wonderful collection, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. I really have not much to add to her commentary, but I can summarize a few of her points. Vendler notes that Dickinson's father was a backer of the railroad whose eventual station was located close to the Dickinson house. Dickinson would have been able to hear its "horrid – hooting stanza" as she wrote.
       Vendler has some fun listing the different animals the train is seemingly like: it laps and licks as a cat would; it neighs like a horse and also like a horse has a stable. It can also peer in shanties (superciliously!), pare down quarry walls and then crawl between them, and it has a "prodigious step" like a giant. Most interestingly, it is both "docile" and "omnipotent".
She makes other points about the poem, but she doesn't account, I don't think, for its charm. At least it has always charmed me! I, too, like to see the train lap the miles – but I like it better in this poem than in real life, for Dickinson has created a cartoon train. The entire poem unfolds as if it were an old Disney black and white. I follow each line and have no trouble visualizing the action. Frankly, it never occurred to me to question the mixed metaphors. Each segment of the poem seems another stage in a journey and I am along for the ride.
       Part of the energy comes from the use of "and". It goes here and it does this and that, and then finally it is home. It's a headlong adventure. The language is also fun. Lapping and licking the miles and valleys is fun, as is the train taking a break at a tank like a thirsty horse before it's off again. (Presumably imbibing the miles and valleys didn't quench its thirst.) The prodigious step is another fun phrase and image as is the Pile of Mountains. I see the train as a giant inch worm raising itself up and coming down on the other side of the hill. 
        It's not uncommon to see or imagine seeing people looking out the window of a passenger train at the yards along the other side of the track . There is something supercilious about it, but Dickinson has the train itself become like a snobbish passenger.
       Perhaps the most fun image is that of the mighty train carving its track through a rock quarry, and then having to crawl through, "Complaining all the while". Those hooting stanzas were probably painfully familiar to Dickinson. In Vendler's final paragraph she writes, "The train is Dickinson's self-parody, a bad poet."

I must confess that I always thought Boanerges was the name of some famous war horse. Vendler corrects me: in Aramaic it means "Sons of Thunder" and Jesus called James and John, two disciples, by this name. The Dickinson Lexicon lists an additional meaning as a "loud orator" or "vociferous preacher". Google helped me find it used in an 1862 manuscript about evangelists. In referring to a Mr. Bell, author Madison Evans writes, "He has a strong, deep voice, and his loud, rapid, and  sometimes vociferous utterance has won for him the sobriquet, Boanerges. … He closes every discourse  with a powerful exhortation, in which his voice sometimes  rises to the highest pitch" (from "biographical sketches of the pioneer preachers of Indiana"). I wonder if this frontier Boanerges also ended up at his own stable door "docile and omnipotent". That's another fun image.


  1. Welcome back! I love this poem -- it is beautiful, energetic and fun.

    ED writes many nature poems; this poem describes the industrial age altering nature -- without softening the destruction of nature by man but also without criticism. I love how trains give a view of a hidden side of the world -- "supercilious peer" into windows in the backs of buildings and houses, lost industrial landscapes.and glimpses of lives in passing.

    1. thanks -- something else that gives the poem such delightful energy is how it's written in one long almost breathless sentence. I like your point about the presentation of industrial-age destruction presented without criticism -- or softening. Maybe that Christian reference is a bit sly there.

  2. Funny, I always thought Boanerges was a famous battle horse too, even had it in my head that it was attributed to Napoleon for some reason - not sure why!

    At the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, where Prof. Edward Hitchcock's dinosaur tracks are housed, there is a skeleton of a giant species of horse. Emily was certainly acquainted with the dinosaur tracks, and perhaps also with these skeletons of extinct megafauna. As such, I can see the whole poem as narrating the actions of the giant horse, as opposed to "mixed metaphors," the extinct animal reincarnated as it were by the energy & ingenuity of the industrial age. And also consistent with that era, even the resurrected mega-horse has been domesticated to serve the purposes of progress!

    1. Thanks -- that works for me. The famous battle horse I'd had in mind was Bucephalus -- Alexander the Great's steed.


  3. Your comparison to a black and white Disney flick gave me a good smile. When Walt wakes up from his frozen nap, we'll have to pitch it to him. You've seen his mash up with Dali, right?

    This one seemed too easy. Too cute. And it IS cute. But I should know by now to look for the clues that take the poem across the great divide. The train of this one took me to a stop in the future Emily could've hardly predicted. The catch for me was in the phrase "docile and omnipotent" because suddenly I was reminded of AI, something we've been thinking a lot about lately. Emily reminds us in the word "docile" that the nearly all powerful bent of the train of technology, which we seem to possess, is a product, completely, of our own will. If AI develops a will for destruction, it will be our will it is mirroring. Hopefully this trial, which feels like it could be tidal -the internet taken to its next exponential leap-- will check the world's ego in a way that will wake it up to its own penchant for self-harm.

    When I first read it I didn't see the irony in "I like to see". But then on fourth reading, there it is. Who wants to see valleys licked up? And the hooting is horrid!

    Emily Dickinson, 19th century eco warrior.

    Not to mention that "supercilious look" into poverty and all that that implies. In this quick aside, she's calling to a check all disparity it seems to me.

    The cute in this poem is like a trojan horse. This horse is hiding a bemused writer who is quietly, firmly, holding up her pen for justice. Somehow still with us.

    1. Thanks for pulling out "docile and omnipotent" for a closer look. The juxtaposition makes me shiver.

  4. 'I like to see it lap the Miles —', labeled here as F382, is actually F383.

    The real F382, 'Good morning—Midnight!' can be found at:

    There, 'Good morning—Midnight!' is incorrectly labeled F383, and is actually F382.

    Bookkeeping F numbers on a recalcitrant, unforgiving website must be an unending midnightmare. Slip-ups must return repeatedly to haunt Susan K, like Arnold in 'The Terminator'.

    Thank you again Susan. We denizens worship at TPB.

    1. Thank 'you' Larry. I figured out how to make the poem number change in the new editing configuration: Just read through the code stuff until I see a date!

  5. If I could, I would ask ED, “How did you do this at the pace you’re setting? No one since Mozart (died 39) and Schubert (died 31) turned out such gems at your pace. All I have to give is awe.”

  6. Note that “supercilious” is not an adverb modifying “peer”, it is an adjective modifying “it”, the train, and no, ED did not accidentally leave out the “ly”.

  7. Perhaps ED had read the article about Mr Bell as having a deep, booming voice, but when she referenced “Boanerges”, she was thinking of Reverend Wadsworth whose voice melted her sensitive soul in 1855 and impressed his congregations:

    “His deep voice and sturdy frame, he was five feet ten inches tall, confirmed his appearance of dynamic power. To many he seemed to possess a strength that was not of this world only” (Whicher, 1938, p 102).

  8. The hook of the poem: When first reading the last stanza, my speed-reading brain saw "Stop — docile and impotent / At its own stable door —". Then, immediately, a bright light flashed in another brain, "I've just been hooked and almost missed it."

    I'm with "d scribe", ED foretells our present, her future. The "train" is omnipotent. Is that a firm statement or an open question? We'll have to ask Emily in the great Bye and Bye.

  9. Vendler’s various levels of meaning omit the important one that “d scribe” nailed above:

    In 1862, ED watched technology give capitalists power to enhance and/or pervert her home town. Every afternoon a screaming iron horse announced its arrival in Amherst, bringing Irish beggars and blueblood scions. Docile, yes, to a limit; impotent, no, a misread; omnipotent, apparently.

    Yesterday an iron horse, today AI, tomorrow ??

    This morning’s weekly ‘Nature’ magazine, Britain’s equal to America’s weekly ‘Science’, announced AI has used a database of scientific information to write a credible, insightful, publishable scientific report. The atom bomb pales before AI.

    What’s next?