Search This Blog

25 February 2015

No Romance sold unto

No Romance sold unto
Could so enthrall a Man – 
As the perusal of
His Individual One —

'Tis Fiction's — to dilute to plausibility
Our – Novel. When 'tis small eno'
To credit — 'Tis'nt true –
                                                            F590 (1863)  J669

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.  – Albert Camus
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” ― Jessamyn West

Novels are sometimes thought to be more true than life perhaps because they illuminate some insight or develop certain themes that resonate with readers. The novelist arranges parallels and resonant details to amplify the inner lives of their characters. Consequently, characters in Romance are more vivid, their details more sharp than the people we know. Real people flounder about with no such illuminating devices. 
        Dickinson, however, claims that the novelistic process is dilution, not amplification. Jewelers cut through earthy or mineral matrix to isolate a crystal, and then facet the resulting jewel to best display its fire. Likewise, the novelist chisels away at life to produce a polished, coherent, and plausible story. Dickinson' point is that much of that story is imbedded in in the rock and matrix in which it grew. The truth of the crystal is in the volcano, the gradual depositions of water, the tectonic foldings of earth – all of which has been severed from the jewel. The truth of life is tangled in the interplays of history, locality, society, and family. It often turns out as implausibly as the daughter of a straight-laced Calvinist lawyer becoming a reclusive and explosive poet.  
Crystals in matrix
photo: James W. Johnson

        But Dickinson doesn't just say that much is lost in novelistic paring down and shaping: she says that when the novel is finally "small eno'" to be believable, it "'Tis'nt true". Something vital has been lost; what is left is a false presentation; a severed jewel.

I read all that into in the second stanza of the poem. In the first, Dickinson makes the claim that we find our own life more interesting than those portrayed in any "Romance" we could buy. By "Romance" she is probably referring to such books as those she read by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot. You could never be as enthralled in a book, she says, as in the contemplation of your own life.
        Certainly many of us devote untold hours recounting the odd jigs and jags of our lives, snippets of conversations, musings about what might have been, and wonder at how we ended up where we are. And yet … many of us would pick up a book for a happy afternoon far more quickly than embark on a real "perusal". Even Dickinson reported herself transported by literature. She read George Eliot's Middlemarch in the same year as she wrote this poem. Ten years later she famously wrote her cousins, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this 'mortal has already put on immortality.'"
        I would agree with her about Middlemarch. I'm not so sure about how my own life stacks up against it, at least in terms of enthrallment. But Dickinson may also, I think, be talking about how we each craft our own Romance novel. We peruse our life, pick out what we find the most salient episodes, the critical turning points. We string these together to make "Our – Novel." Yes, that would be pretty good reading.

23 February 2015

They called me to the Window, for

They called me to the Window, for
" 'Twas Sunset" — Some one said —
I only saw a Sapphire Farm —
And just a Single Herd —

Of Opal Cattle — feeding far
Upon so vain a Hill —
As even while I looked — dissolved —
Nor Cattle were — nor Soil —

But in their Room — a Sea — displayed —
And Ships — of such a size
As Crew of Mountains — could afford —
And Decks — to seat the skies —

This — too — the Showman rubbed away —
And when I looked again —
Nor Farm — nor Opal Herd — was there —
Nor Mediterranean —
                                         F589 (1863)  J628

Dickinson seems to take particular pleasure in sunrise and sunset. I've put a list of sunset poems below – several of which are among my favorites. Like others on the list, this one lyrically sketches the ephemeral but epic loveliness of the setting sun. 
        In the previous poem we had an Inquisitor. This poem features a "Showman" displaying his art. The material, the sky; the medium, setting sun and clouds. The real showman, though, is the poet who sees an ever-changing panoply of scenes and presents them to the reader for delight.

The first stanza is ironic at the expense of her family – or whoever might have been present. It was certainly no secret that Dickinson enjoyed the rising and setting sun, and this particular sunset must have been particularly lovely. So these well-meaning folk call her
over, "for / 'Twas Sunset". It is the following "I only saw" that is ironic, as if she rushed over to see this grand thing and instead only saw ... well, she embarks on what she saw in an imaginative tour de force. The some one's "Sunset" becomes a series of dazzling images: a sapphire farm with a herd of opal cattle feeding on an ephemeral hill of cloud; then the clouds become giant ships upon the deep blue Mediterranean, so big their decks could "seat the skies". We are to be imagining the sky becoming dotted with stars. The clouds floating below them would offer the decks upon which they ride.
But at last the Showman rubs away the evening's entertainment with the setting of the sun. It's a lovely performance by both Showman and Poet.

Other sunset poems (you can find these by using the search bar beneath the banner)"

"The Guest is gold and crimson" (F44)
"If this is 'fading'" (F119)
"The Sun kept stooping – stooping – low!" (F182)
"Where Ships of Purple – gently toss" (F296)
"This – is the land – the Sunset washes" (F297)
"She sweeps with many-colored Brooms" (F318)
"Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple" (F321)
"How the old mountains drip with sunset" (F327),
"Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red" (F468), 
"The Day undressed – Herself" (F495)
"I send two Sunsets" (F557)

16 February 2015

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –

The Heart asks Pleasure – first – 
And then – excuse from Pain – 
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering – 

And then – to go to sleep – 
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die –
                         F588 (1863)  J536

In a relentless series of "And then –", Dickinson charts the Heart's progression from desiring Pleasure to asking for the "privilege" of death. That's quite a deterioration in two stanzas. Other poets might offer an example or two, a descriptive phrase here and there, or at least a few adjectives and adverbs. But Dickinson strips the poem to the bones. 
        She writes it straight: Pleasure, Pain, Anodynes, sleep, death. Of those, she expands only on Anodynes: they are "little" in the way an aperitif or sleeping pill might be little. Yet such small things can "deaden suffering". This phrase not only foreshadows the final line, but makes the progression from the pain in the previous line quite clear. We first ask to be spared pain. When we aren't spared, we try to numb it.
        Sleep is a deeper anodyne. Yet sleep doesn't come easily to an unquiet mind and that which is granted by a pill is a dead sleep.  It is an easy step from there to desiring death. Dickinson may have been hearing Hamlet as she composed this poem: "To die, to sleep – /… and by sleep, to say we end / The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks / That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished." [Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1). Hamlet continues, though, to say it is "the dread of something after death" that deters suicide. 
Tomas de Torquemado, Grand
Inquisitor of Spain, 1482-1498
        Because of this and, more specifically, the Calvinistic opinion that suicide is a grave sin, Dickinson adds a caveat to the desire for death: "if it should be / The will of its Inquisitor". She refers to God, and while his aspect as the Heart's Inquisitor might mean simply that he would be questioning her, the term is too loaded with negative connotations for Dickinson to have not intended them. Grand Inquisitors might well decide that a subject should be tortured or burned at the stake. 
        But the poem twists that ending. Here the heart, thwarted at every step, finally wishes to die; seeks the "privilege" of dying. It is the Inquisitor who has power and choice, not the speaker. He might withhold his permission – and that would be a form of torture.

A second reading of the poem might find Dickinson echoing a different Shakespearian passage altogether, that of Jaques' monologue in As You Like It where he lists the seven stages of man, from infant to decrepitude. In Dickinson's abbreviated version we begin as children wanting pleasure. We learn to avoid pain and then how to deaden it. We take to our beds and then ultimately welcome death.
This reading, though, seems too gentle for the stark terms of this poem with its thwarted heart and its dread Inquisitor who doesn't deal in happiness or relief, but only grants or withholds the final peace.

08 February 2015

She's happy – with a new Content —

She's happy – with a new Content —
That feels to her — like Sacrament —
She's busy — with an altered Care —
As just apprenticed to the Air —

She's tearful — if she weep at all —
For blissful Causes — Most of all
That Heaven permit so meek as her —
To such a Fate — to Minister.
                                        F587 (1863)  J535

We have Coventry Patmore to thank for the powerful, and thankfully now nearly defunct, Victorian image of "the Angel in the House". Patmore wrote a poem with that name in 1854, and the term came to refer in general to the selflessly devoted wife and mother, one submissive to and protected by her husband. Long before Virginia Woolf and later feminists skewered this notion, Emily Dickinson wrote these two simple but biting stanzas.
        Dickinson may have been sketching the stereotype, but she also may have had her dear friend and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson in mind. According to Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p.154-5), the poem protests the changes Emily observed in Sue a few years after her marriage to Emily's brother Austen. It's a bit of a dig, portraying Sue as having adopted the Victorian woman's guises of meek innocence and devoted self sacrifice. In earlier poems, thought by various scholars to also be about Sue, Dickinson refers to Sue as  "my moment of Brocade – / My – drop – of India (F388), or remembers how Sue came to town and "drifted your Dominions – / A Different Peru" (F418). 
Queen Victoria as Angel

But whether about Sue or about the stereotype of a good wife and mother, the poem gives with one phrase and takes away with the next. The first two lines are about the subject's happiness, but this happiness and contentment ring hollow. Next, she is "busy" but only as an apprentice to the Air. If she becomes "tearful" it is only for "blissful Causes" rather from any real anger or grief. The most blissful cause of all, though, is that she, such a meek woman, was permitted by Heaven "to Minister". Somehow that doesn't sound as sincere as it should. Might the subject have really feared Heaven wouldn't allow her to serve and tend others? I also hear echoes in "Minister" of its rhyming word, "sinister". More deviously, I am reminded that, according to Farr, Sue was in love with a minister: a certain Reverend Samuel Bartlett. 

I said earlier that the poem might have been a "bit of a dig" about Sue, but I was understating the quite sharp sarcasm that ruffles the surface of nearly every line. Dickinson adopts a regular iambic tetrameter with an AABB rhyme scheme. The poem is too regular. It lacks poetic surprise, interesting juxtapositions, and the odd grammars that often lend a dynamic quality to Dickinson's work. The triteness of the composition reflects that of its subject.
        Beyond form, the words are subtly barbed. The subject's contentment "feels to her" like Sacrament; not only is that a weak sort of conviction, but Sacrament should be entered into with awe and commitment and reverence rather than simple contentment (or even, in Dickinson's play on words, with "new Content"). Her busyness is attended by an "altered Care". She is not doing what once mattered to her. She is keeping busy but it is as if she apprenticed herself to the air. She's taking direction from every passing breeze. Both her contentment and busyness seem insubstantial.
         But it is the fake-sounding humility of the last stanza that adds the sharpness, especially if written about Sue, a notably proud and accomplished woman. Emily loved Sue for her passion, her exoticness, and her lively intelligence. But by this time Sue had children, a prominent husband, and an active social life. It may be that Dickinson didn't like the "new Content".

07 February 2015

Some say goodnight — at night —

Some say goodnight — at night —
I say good night by day —
Good-bye — the Going utter me —
Good night, I still reply —

For parting, that is night,
And presence, simply dawn —
Itself, the purple on the hight
Denominated morn.
F586 (1863)  J1739

On first read it seems that Dickinson must have had her favorite people in mind when she wrote these stanzas. Surely there were those whose presence she wouldn't equate with "dawn". But maybe not. Her family was protective, indulgent, and comfortably well off, so Dickinson was under no pressure to entertain. She had a group of friends she was devoted to, but even those friendships were conducted largely through letters. Consequently, the presence of a friend was probably much more significant to Dickinson than to those of us who meet and mingle on a regular basis.
        Her circle of visitors became even more narrowed as time went on. Six years after writing this poem she wrote to her friend and "Preceptor" Thomas Higginson that she "should be very glad" to see him if he came to Amherst, but that she did not "cross my Father's ground to any House or town" (L330, 1869). She often did not even visit with dear friends who came to see her.
        Her aversion to saying "Good-bye" or perhaps to parting in general might be explained by the intensity of her feelings. When one of her dearest friends, Samuel Bowles, returned from a seven-month trip to Europe in 1862, Dickinson stayed upstairs during his visit, sending only a note: "I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird" (Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson, p. 399). In the late 1870s when beloved friend and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson returned from a two-week vacation, the poet wrote, 'I cannot see you for a few days. You are too momentous. But remember it is idolatry and not indifference" (Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p.220).

One reason Dickinson felt the presence of friends and family so powerfully is her dread of their death. 
I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because – because if he should die
While I was gone – and I – too late – 
 …My Heart would wish it broke before – 

She writes this concern more explicitly in a letter written in 1852: "I look at my father and mother and Vinnie, and all my friends, and I say – no, cant leave them, what if they die when I’m gone” (L86 to Jane Humphrey).

With all this in mind, is it any wonder that Dickinson equates parting with night – itself symbolic with death? And so she chooses to always say "Good night" when parting with company, even during the day. It's almost comical, and she seems to recognize this. The first stanza makes light of this quirk with the repetitions of "Good", "Good night", and "night". She hammers the "g" alliterations with a "Going". We can just imagine the departing friend shaking his or her head in a sort of "that's Emily for you" way.
Dawn sky, vgamenut 

        The second stanza ends the poem with a positive affirmation of what the "presence" of her company means. It is "simply dawn" and dawn is the purple crowning of morning. This almost rapturous response to the presence of a friend or dear one must have taken a toll.
Some scholars have suggested that one reason for the period of estrangement between Emily and Susan Dickinson was Susan's exhaustion with Emily's intensity. Further, Dickinson's friend and poetry "Preceptor" Thomas Higginson wrote his wife 1870, that “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” (Brenda Wineapple, White Heat, p.180). 

What a remarkable friend she must have been!

05 February 2015

If ever the lid gets off my head

If ever the lid gets off my head
And lets the brain away
The fellow will go where he belonged —
Without a hint from me,

And the world — if the world be looking on —
Will see how far from home
It is possible for sense to live
The soul there — all the time.
                                                                F585 (1863)  J1727

This poem reminds me of Dickinson's reply to Thomas Higginson when he asked her to define poetry: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," she wrote, "I know that is poetry." She expands on that notion here in this lightly whimsical poem. The brain here is portrayed as her consciousness and thinking self locked tight inside her head. Just as a prisoner might flee for home if the jail doors opened, so might the brain rush away if the lid of the poet's head ever "gets off" her head. 

        There are several aspects of the self that make an appearance in this poem making it a bit ambiguous. There is the "me" whose head it is, the brain who is confined under the lid of that head, the "sense" – which is probably synonymous with the brain, and the soul. That soul seems to exist on a different plane than that in which Emily Dickinson baked bread and tended her father's house. It belongs to some higher realm than that of daily chores. If it could, her sense/brain would fly away to join the Soul leaving the daily Dickinson at home to cope as best she could.

The saying "head in the clouds" gets at something of the same idea, but I think Dickinson is getting at the nature of being a poet. We've seen her soul explore the expanses of the cosmos looking for God or struggling for freedom from the existential threats of a death-haunted world. We've seen her mind searching and processing both inner and outer depths, reporting her findings in poetry in language and imagery so powerful and fresh that her readers' heads are in danger of being taken off. 

The last stanza is a prescient depiction of how the world has come to see Emily Dickinson and her remarkable poetry, for the world has indeed been "looking on". Individually and collectively, readers marvel at just how far from her cultural and familial environment Dickinson's sense and soul resided. 

02 February 2015

We dream — it is good we are dreaming —

We dream — it is good we are dreaming —
It would hurt us — were we awake —
But since it is playing — kill us,
And we are playing — shriek —

What harm? Men die — externally —
It is a truth — of Blood —
But we — are dying in Drama —
And Drama — is never dead —

Cautious — We jar each other —
And either — open the eyes —
Lest the Phantasm — prove the mistake —
And the livid Surprise

Cool us to Shafts of Granite —
With just an age — and name —
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian —
It's prudenter — to dream —
                              F584 (1863)  J531

This rather haunting poem begins and ends with the claim that it is "good" and more prudent to spend life dreaming rather than with eyes open. There is a "truth – of Blood" that kills people "externally" but there is a type of "dying in Drama" where some other "it" plays the game of "kill us". As long as the "we" play along, shrieking as children do at play in some dark scary room, the drama will continue. 

There are numerous instances of "it" in the poem. Something, some malevolent force or being, is playing, and that "it" may be the same "it" as the one that "would hurt us – were we awake". The other its seem to stand for a condition: "it is good we are dreaming"; "It is a truth". The muzzy effects of the its give the poem itself a dreamlike quality. The players themselves don't seem to know what 'it' is. 
        They suspect enough, though, to stay in a dream state. In this drama of kill and shriek, the players are "Cautious" in their fight, not wanting to open their eyes, for they have a premonition that the phantom monster is real and not some dream figure at all. The resulting "livid Surprise" of seeing it would freeze their blood, turn them into their own gravestones reduced to just their ages and names. 
Obelisk at Alexandria

        The "phrase in Egyptian" is an interesting touch. Dickinson originally wrote "a latin inscription" but that isn't spooky at all. Dickinson would have known about the ancient Egyptian obelisks, carved out of granite and inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of which had been removed to Paris about the time she was born. Turning into "Shafts of Granite" with Egyptian writing is an exotic bit of mythology in keeping with some supernatural hunter. 

It is also interesting to think of this poem against its backdrop of the Civil War. Is it better to live in an eye-closed state of denial than to wake to the bloody reality? Dickinson is not an eyes-shut sort of poet, so this reading doesn't have traction with me. Instead, I think she is thinking existentially. There is something here of the Gothic horror of "The Soul has Bandaged moments" (F360) where the soul is stalked and molested by "some ghastly Fright". It doesn't kill but it puts "shackles on the plumed feet" and "staples, in the Song". Another Gothic nightmare is depicted in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted" (F407) where the "External Ghost" is less to be feared than "one's a'self encounter". That would indeed be a Drama "that is never dead". And perhaps the only moment you encounter that "superior spectre" that lurks within is at death. Until then you can maintain the charade that the fearsome haunting is just some ghastly dream.