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16 January 2015

The Angle of a Landscape —

The Angle of a Landscape —
That every time I wake —
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack —

Like a Venetian — waiting —
Accosts my open eye —
Is just a Bough of Apples —
Held slanting, in the Sky —

The Pattern of a Chimney —
The Forehead of a Hill —
Sometimes — a Vane's Forefinger —
But that's — Occasional —

The Seasons — shift — my Picture —
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake — to find no — Emeralds —
Then — Diamonds — which the Snow

From Polar Caskets — fetched me —
The Chimney — and the Hill —
And just the Steeple's finger —
These — never stir at all —
                    F578 (1863)  J375

This poem is an interesting contrast to the previous one where she views heaven as a small town where everything is downy and dewy. Here, the poet considers only the small view afforded by the gap between a window curtain and the wall. Although she can only see a small portion of a few things, the tableau offers a richness and complexity entirely missing from the charming scene of heaven. The minimalism of items reminds me of one of her last poems:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
                                            (F1779,  J1755; undated)

Dickinson claims the mind can extrapolate an entire ecosystem given a single bee and its one clover. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." In the current poem, the speaker finds jewels, opulence, and a meditation on time by looking out one "ample Crack" each morning. She goes on to create an interesting tension between the richness of living systems and the static patterns of the manmade.

Portrait of Lady Ponsonby in Venetian costume
by Liotard,1742-43

Compared to the vast panoramas of Edward Church and the majestic landscapes of Connecticut and Hudson river painters of her day, Dickinson's slice of window affords a very limited vantage – and one that forms an interesting parallel with her life. While some of her loved ones lived very expansive and social lives; while some were avid travellers or uprooted themselves to another continent, Dickinson was beginning to draw into herself and hearth. Yet her daily glimpse of apple bough, chimney, hill, and weather vane tip are sufficient to vault her imagination into realms more vast and penetrating than those of her compatriots.

She begins the poem by setting the scene. Whenever she wakes she sees a small "Angle" of the landscape that "Accosts" her eye as if it were as rich as the costly velvets and satins of Venetian nobility. Yet she sees nothing more than an apple bough, the brickwork of a chimney, the crest of a hill, and "Sometimes" the point of a weathervane. Her brief sketch conveys the warm red of apples and the brown of its branch, the ruddy bricks of a chimney lined in white mortar, the foliage or meadow of a hill, and the dark arrow of the vane. Rich and Venetian indeed!
New England steeple, by Heather Wilkinson Rojo
As the seasons progress the apple tree first loses its apples, then its emerald leaves. These are replaced by winter's snowy diamonds. In contrast to the apple bough, the chimney and hill remain the same. In an interesting shift, we reenvision the weathervane as part of a church steeple. So while the "Vane's forefinger" shifts in and out of view depending on the wind, the "Steeple's finger" never moves at all. 
        Dickinson scholar Cynthia Wulff and noted critic Helen Vendler make quite a bit out of the static vision that remains once the snow has fetched the diamonds from their "Polar Caskets". 

Wulff begins her reading by seeing the landscape in a role of violence: it "pushes its way into the speaker's bedroom and 'Accosts [her]". At the end, Wulff concludes, the static landscape is little more than a "Design of desolation" (Emily Dickinson, p.287-8). "All that remains is the immovable, elemental structure – an outline sketched with mutilated remnants". 
        Vendler contends that the poem initially brims with life but ends with death, moving "from wedding garment to shroud" (Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentary, p. 159-60). She reads the poem as a "heartbreaking picture of a once-enhanced Nature which, with the death of its participatory observer, itself suffers rigor mortis." 

With all due respect to Wulff, I don't see the landscape as pushy. The speaker does says it "Accosts my open eye", but the Lexicon defines "accost" as "encounter", "speak to", or "approach" – any of these definitions make more sense in the poem than "aggressively confront", which "accost" often means today. Instead, I take the speaker to be rather dazzled by what she sees. Dickinson is making the point that there are riches in an apple bough and hill, in the patterns of bricklaying and the occasional glimpse of a weathervane as it charts the winds. The vision, which might seem banal to some, is opulent to her (Vendler's word).
        I also don't find the last stanza to be describing "mutilated remnants" or "rigor mortis". Dickinson may be contrasting life with death: non-living things are fixed whereas the living things have various fates. Humans will die. The view out the window may go unobserved or the house itself might be altered or taken down. The apple tree cycles through its changes and will eventually die. The weathervane might outlive a human but will eventually grind to a halt.
        But I think Dickinson is simply contrasting the dynamic changes of the season against the backdrop of more permanent fixtures. The apple bough is the focus, the feature of most interest. The weathervane is also of interest,  as its entry into the tableau is only occasional and so to be looked forward to. The rest is backdrop. The chimney, the hill, and the steeple's finger, upon which the weathervane is anchored, "never stir". I like that the changeable vane is more interesting than the steeple. 
      These contrasts provide rich and inspiring morning viewing. I find the poem an excellent  reminder to look closely beyond my own window.


  1. There is another of EDs poems where the subject is the view from her window. I can't recall the first line but could probably find it with a word search of the Franklin edition. Do you know of any searchable databases of EDs poems on line?

  2. I found the poem. It is "By my Window have I for Scenery" (J. 797; Fr. 849).

    1. Great -- it's one of the 1200 poems I haven't gotten to yet. Sigh. That sounds so daunting.

      As for searchable databases for Franklin ... you can open the Reading Edition in Google Books:

    2. I know! I have to laugh whenever I think about this project you have taken on. I rate it up there with building the pyramids, digging the Panama canal, and writing the OED -- all of those projects involved many people -- and this one is all you!

      I am grateful and very happy to be able to enjoy these poems with you -- made much easier by your thoughtful and passionate analysis. I know that I couldn't do even what you have done so far!

  3. Ditto, Susan, I'm a few months behind you, not to put any pressure on you but I need your daily commentary to my daily ED poem. I have slowed down in order to stay far behind you. Please take my "need" to mean "thank you so much for your dedication and insight."

    1. I have slowed down, I know. One, lost the first fire and have shifted gear to a more sustainable level. Two, the bar is higher now. I've read too many poems and can't just think about the poem at hand. I feel compelled to reference back to earlier ones.

      Now, I have been tempted to go back to the earlier mode: just write what I see. Maybe that's a good idea. There are several very excellent regular commenters now (unless "Anonymous" is actually just one or two people... wish folks would use some moniker...); I could actually just lay out something more quickly and let readers add their insights.

    2. Ha! Same here, anonymous! I have had to ration myself to one or two a day, but I know I’m going too fast! What I really worry about is what happens when I reach 1789...start over?!
      Susan, do you have any designs to publish, as in book form? What a lovely edition that would be.

    3. I like "lay out something more quickly and let readers add their insights." Yes, a rough sketch of the diamond, and then let the facets fill with light by readers later. You can always add your comments later too.

  4. And I kept misreading that first line as Angel of a landscape-

  5. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for your project on Emily Dickenson. My husband just gave me "Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickenson's Envelope Poems" by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner which presents a collection of Dickenson's handwritten work on different shaped pieces of envelopes. The quirkiness of the shapes of paper and fresh feeling to the "jottings" have helped me gain access to Dickenson's work.

    In my research for the title for an exhibition of paintings and photography I came across the title for the poem you discuss here. While the poem's subject—a narrow view containing both changing and unchanged elements—isn't entirely the same focus as the exhibition, the poem's title evokes what I am after. In any case, it was a pleasure to discover your blog and I expand my exposure to Dickenson's inspiring work.

  6. I teach at a HS in Queens and every year I have give the students the assignment of looking out the window and describing what they see. I usually use a James Schuyler's poem as a sample, but maybe this year I'll use this one. The poems the students come up with are often spectacular. The frame of the poem, and play of imagination, turn all of the details into metaphors, into reflections of self. Every kid is a poet, whether he or she know it or not.

    Emily's "angle" here is instructive. The apple tree transformed in ED's prolific imagination into a Venetian is swoony. And emerald trees turned to diamonds in the winter is a rich transformation.

    And the landscape comes to life here too, the forehead of a hill, the finger of a vane.

    I read the previous poem in the fascicle, "I went to heaven" is a similar kind of imaginative transformation of a scene from her window too.

    I love these kinds of observational poems from ED, like the blue cloud with gray antlers from several poems back crossing the sky, statelier than a queen down a satin aisle.

  7. To paraphrase Thoreau, ED traveled widely in her room. An ample Crack opens a Louvre to her imagination. Her room’s view rolls by, slow and fast, a river large enough to fill an ocean with poetry.