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29 November 2015

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —
Widths out of the Sun —
And look — and shudder, and block your breath —
And deem to be alone

In such a place, what horror,
How Goblin it would be —
And fly, as 'twere pursuing you?
Then Loneliness — looks so —

Did you ever look in a Cannon's face —
Between whose Yellow eye —
And yours — the Judgment intervened —
The Question of "To die" —

Extemporizing in your ear
As cool as Satyr's Drums —
If you remember, and were saved —
It's liker so — it seems —
                            F619 (1863)  J590

I can say quite a bit about this poem: its Gothic qualities, the pivot from Cavern to Cannon, the dark and frightful imagery for Loneliness, the extemporizing moment when facing death; I can discuss the ballad meter and how it works with the gothic, the spondees of "Widths out" – and all sorts of things. But, Reader, what I cannot discuss with any confidence at all are the last two lines.
        If I read carefully, tracing back the sentence structures, it would seem Dickinson is saying that if you remember looking at death in a 'Cannon's face' than it is likely that it happened. But I am not convinced that is what Dickinson is getting at. So let's take a closer look – and maybe you can help out.

The poem begins with asking the reader if they were ever terrified by something deep within a cavern and then advising that if they have, they know what Loneliness looks like. It isn't entirely clear whether Loneliness is like the horror that one flees or the whole terrifying experience. I think the latter.
        Dickinson then pivots to facing death. Once again she asks the reader if they have had a dread experience that, the poet implies, she herself has had. The third stanza with its "Did you ever" parallels the first. The fourth, on the face of it, parallels the second: if you did such a thing (ran away, remembered and were saved), then … something. In the second stanza it is gaining the knowledge of Loneliness. In the fourth, well, I'm not sure. 
I read the third stanza as saying, "Did you ever face a cannon as it went off, aimed at you, and heard the voice of Judgment intervene as you pondered your own death?" 
And then I'm guessing. 
Speculation one: If you remember the cannon firing and the voice of judgment intervening, then you have been saved by God. (Is this Salvation or just fortunate divine intervention?)
Speculation two: If you remember the cannon going off at you and how you were coolly and distinctly pondering whether you would live or die – or even were ready to die – then your judgment saved you (perhaps by having you duck).

I'd love to hear readers' interpretations. Understand, though, that I really don't need a clear and logical explanation for Dickinson. She likes to 'tell it slant'. But often there is some deeper meaning that can be expressed or at least hinted at. 

I am wondering, having tossed this poem around while I wrote, if Dickinson isn't talking about Salvation. The moment of Salvation is like the moment of death; it is like looking down a live cannon. And one meaning of salvation is being saved from the terrifying loneliness that is this cavern, life.

25 November 2015

To love thee Year by Year —

To love thee Year by Year —
May less appear
Than sacrifice, and cease —
However, dear,
Forever might be short, I thought to show —
And so I pieced it, with a flower, now.
                                      F618 (1863)  J434

Dickinson borrows from the sonnet form here, and perhaps from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most quoted poem, "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43). One Dickinson scholar I read, Judith Farr, believes this is a poem for Sue, a response to Sue's rejection of or inability to return Emily's love on Emily's terms. The diction is so abbreviated that it could be read in various ways, but this is how I (finally) came to paraphrase it: "After years, my love seems less like love than sacrifice, and so I may give up. But, dear, if  "Forever"  is to be cut short, I want to show the love I still have now – and so I send this flower to prolong it even if just for a bit."   
Piecework: adding and extending

        The flower is a symbol of the ephemeral, serving as a reminder of how people and love change over time. It can also be a symbol or even a memorial of true and eternal love. Dickinson's flower can be seen in both ways.       

The sonnet form is traditionally a vehicle for love poetry, and although this is a short poem, the first four lines could be read as two iambic pentameter lines (sonnet meter). The last two lines make a rhymed couplet suitable for a love sonnet. By dividing the first lines, Dickinson is able to emphasize what would otherwise be internal rhymes: Year, appear, and dear. 
        The division also allows the important third line to stand alone. The sibilence of 'sacrifice' and 'cease' create a sense of melancholy and dwindling. 'Cease' is the only unrhymed line ending in the poem. Placed as it is in the center of the poem, it also provides a foreshadowed ending. We see the lover looking ahead to what seems a natural end to a rather one-sided relationship. Yet with the following 'However', we see the flower as a love gesture. Yes, things will change, but not right now. I'm pretty sure Dickinson used the word 'pieced' not only to suggest an extension added on but to hearken back to its slant rhyme 'cease'. While the year-after-year love might cease, it can still be pieced bit by bit.
        If Dickinson sent this poem with a flower to Sue, it must have been a poignant, almost bittersweet remembrance.

18 November 2015

The Night was wide, and furnished scant

The Night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single Star —
That often as a Cloud it met —
Blew out itself — for fear —

The Wind pursued the little Bush —
And drove away the Leaves
November left — then clambered up
And fretted in the Eaves —

No Squirrel went abroad —
A Dog's belated feet
Like intermittent Plush, be heard
Adown the empty street —

To feel if Blinds be fast —
And closer to the fire —
Her little Rocking Chair to draw —
And shiver for the Poor —

The Housewife's gentle Task —
How pleasanter — said she
Unto the Sofa opposite —
The Sleet — than May, no Thee —
                                             F617 (1863)  J589

I like this snug little winter poem with it simple message. One of life's pleasures is drawing up by the fire with a loved one while outside the winter's night is cold and windy.

The first two stanzas are in ballad form: alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter. They also read like a ballad, Dickinson establishing a very atmospheric scene. The few stars that can be seen disappear quickly under the clouds. Down below the wind shakes the bushes and scatters the leaves. It is so cold that the remnant warmth of November goes for shelter up under the eaves.
        Dickinson adjusts the meter in the following two stanzas to be iambic trimeter, the third line in iambic tetrameter. It gives the poem a more abrupt tone but also highlights the longer line – which in both stanzas is softer and gentler, the plush of the dog, the dip of the rocking chair.
  I am not one of those folks who dislikes anthropomorphism. I like it when Dickinson has the natural world acting out of emotion or described in human terms. It is a bracing opposite of the deep abstraction she can employ – sometimes in the same poem. In this one she has a timid little star, so timid it blows itself out when faced with a cloud. She has a fierce wind harrassing bushes and leaves and even driving November away.
        Another thing people cherish about Dickinson is her ability to drop a killer phrase into a line. Here we have the deserted street: no one is abroad, not even squirrels. But there is a 'belated' dog whose feet pad along like "intermittent Plush". Lovely! The tactile sense of 'plush' is transformed into an aural sense.

The last two stanzas bring us inside. The Housewife checks the window dressings then draws her rocking chair close to the fire, giving a sympathetic shiver for the Poor who might not have a warm and cozy room. All this is summarized as her "gentle Task", for in spring and summer she is no doubt doing much harder work. Or perhaps Dickinson is ironically suggesting that to shiver for the poor while next to the fire is an easy thing.
        The poem ends with the housewife talking to the sofa across from her. We must assume that the sofa has an occupant, probably the husband. "The Sleet is pleasanter," she tells him, "than May without Thee."  Dickinson may be projecting an alternate self into this poem, one where she had not chosen the 'Belt around [her] life' of the truth-saying poet's life. Either way, it is a lovely and loving poem.

15 November 2015

If any sink, assure that this, now standing —

If any sink, assure that this, now standing —
Failed like Themselves — and conscious that it rose —
Grew by the Fact, and not the Understanding
How Weakness passed — or Force — arose —

Tell that the Worst, is easy in a Moment —
Dread, but the Whizzing, before the Ball —
When the Ball enters, enters Silence —
Dying — annuls the power to kill.
                                                  F616 (1863)  J358

Dickinson, as one who "Failed like Themselves", offers encouragement to the despairing. The worst part is the dread, she says; once the whizzing is over and the bullet hits, things improve, or at least stabilize.
        She has covered this ground before, most particularly in "'Tis so appalling – it exhilarates"   (F341) where "To know the worst, leaves no dread more—", and "Looking at Death, is Dying".  In the current poem she adds rather gnomically that dying "annuls the power to kill". If you have, for example, been laid low dreading the death or departure (or abandonment) of a loved one, once the event happens there is a "Silence" in place of the incapacitating despair.
        Other poems explore aspects of the same process. In "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (F340), "Silence" joins the poet following an excruciating and mind-numbing experience. In "I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl" (F522she describes the "scrupulous exactness" that keeps her going even though "existence – some way back – / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through". This ability to endure reflects the "Force" that follows the "Weakness" Dickinson describes in this poem.

In the first line of the poem Dickinson refers to herself as "this", as if she is gesturing to her body rather than her Self.  The body, nonetheless, was conscious that after its failure it "rose" as its "Weakness passed" and "Force – arose". The body, now erect, doesn't understand the process; it only knows the "Fact" of weakness passing, strength increasing. Notice the word weaving and associations here. There is the pairing of "rose" and "arose", suggesting the Resurrection. The body is standing but without Understanding. The poem's speaker recounts this as if an observer – the aware Mind – were watching its own life.
        The second stanza provides a metaphor to help the failing (and the reader) understand the first. A life of dread or despair is like the subjective infinity of hearing a bullet speeding towards you. That "Whizzing" is the worst. Once "the Ball enters, enters Silence" – an effective use of chiasmus (reversal of grammatical structure) that provides a clue as to what allowed Force to arise. Without the foreboding sound that presages catastrophe, silence like a cocoon allows some measured healing to accur. The killing bullet, the catastrophe itself, both rips and anneals the wound at once. The nerves may be dead, but the body will stand again.

The somber nature of the poem is underscored by longer lines than Dickinson usually uses: pentameter and tetrameter rather than the ballad form of tetrameter and trimeter.

13 November 2015

God is a distant — stately Lover —

God is a distant — stately Lover —
Woos, as He states us — by His Son —
Verily, a Vicarious Courtship —
"Miles", and "Priscilla", were such an One —

But, lest the Soul — like fair "Priscilla"
Choose the Envoy — and spurn the Groom —
Vouches, with hyperbolic archness —
"Miles", and "John Alden" were Synonyme —
                                                                               F615 (1863)  J357

Although when this droll poem was published (in 1891, among the first) it was met with such outrage it was withdrawn. Impish as it is, however, I find the poem sweetly religious. God may be "distant" and "stately", but he loves humanity enough to woo. A less loving god would probably just drown the lot and start over. Oh, wait … Still, Dickinson's use of the Miles Standish legend to frame the Christian God's outreach to his fallen people is not only clever but apt.

Dickinson draws from Longfellow's The Courtship of Miles Standish, 1858. The Puritan captain loves Priscilla but feels he would botch the wooing, so instead he sends the young, handsome and silver-tongued John Alden to plead his case. What could go wrong? Here is Longfellow:

     Go to the damsel Priscilla, the loveliest maiden of Plymouth,
     Say that a blunt old Captain, a man not of words but of actions,
     Offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier.
     Not in these words, you know, but this in short is my meaning;
     I am a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases,
     You, who are bred as a scholar, can say it in elegant language,
     Such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers,
     Such as you think best adapted to win the heart of a maiden. (lines 148 – 155)

Unsurprisingly, the fair Priscilla chooses Alden and the two marry, leaving the poor Captain to his war making. 
Standish does look a bit

The Christian analog is the Old Testament God of the Jews who seeks the salvation of all people through the human incarnation of his son – who is the second part of the mystical Trinity of three beings (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) in one. No doubt he realizes the blunt old God of conquest and laws wouldn't appeal as much to the more settled, trade-based populations that emerged from tribal peoples. And so, Jesus.
        Dickinson makes no mention of redemption – the idea that Jesus is the ultimate blood sacrifice for human sins – but drolly suggests that the Son of God is simply a more appealing stand-in for the top of the Trinity ticket – the "stately Lover" himself. How clever: you think you spurned the Old Testament God of laws and retribution for the violence-abhorring Peace and Love Son – only to be informed later "with hyperbolic archness" that they are one and the same. Pwned.

That "hyperbolic archness" is one of many bits of word play and clever poetic devices. A hyperbola is itself an arch (or, technically, arc). Dickinson's depiction of God as a "stately Lover" who "states" conveys his distance and oldness – and lack of verbal facility (he is blunt, like Captain Standish). Dickinson's insertion of "Verily", a word the King James translators kept putting in Jesus' mouth to introduce the homely but effective parables, not only archly appropriates biblical language but merrily sets up the 'V' alliterations of Verily, Vicarious, and Vouches. Pure Dickinson fun!

For all the fun, despite the lack of reference to sin, salvation, damnation, or crucifixion, Dickinson clearly conveys the idea that God loves humanity. He woos intently; people don't have to beg for divine clemency, let alone love. Her contemporary audience, and even most English-speaking peoples today, would be familiar with the other concepts.

In other poems Dickinson depicts her mixed feelings about God the Father:

  • A fiercesome opponent: "He fumbles at your Soul" (F477) where God "fumbles at your Soul" and then "Deals One – imperial Thunderbolt"
  • An unfair judge: "It always felt to me – a wrong" (F521) where Dickinson feels that God's refusal to allow Moses enter Canaan
  • An ambiguous presence who "grows above" but cannot be seen: "My period had come for Prayer" (F525)
  • An uncaring deity: "Of Course – I prayed" (F581) where God cares so little for prayer that the poet says she would have been better off if God had never created her
  • A dangerous ambusher: I know that He exists" (F365) where should God decide to show himself, it is likely in jest and likely to be deadly.
  • The maestro of the natural world: "Like Mighty Foot Lights – burned the Red" (F507) where a glorious sunset is a divine production
  • An all-consuming master: "He put the Belt around my Life" (F330) where God has taken up the poet's life as if it were a deed of property
  • A cruel miser: "Victory comes late" (F195) where God's table is set too high for humanity so that they cannot eat all the goodies

There are more – the list is just what I came up with in a search through this site for "God". In general, Dickinson treats Jesus more tenderly and with more love and longing (if not, at times, passion) This poem bridges the dichotomy of Envoy versus the Groom. Unlike Priscilla who could only get one husband, you might choose the son but that old fox of a father comes along with him. 

12 November 2015

'Twas warm — at first — like Us —

'Twas warm — at first — like Us —
Until there crept upon
A Chill — like frost upon a Glass —
Till all the scene — be gone.

The Forehead copied stone —
The Fingers grew too cold
To ache — and like a Skater's Brook —
The busy eyes — congealed —

It straightened — that was all —
It crowded Cold to Cold —
It multiplied indifference —
As Pride were all it could —

And even when with Cords —
'Twas lowered, like a Weight —
It made no Signal, nor demurred,
But dropped like Adamant.
                                        F614 (1863)  J519

In a series of frosty similes, Dickinson depicts the transformation of a living body into a corpse. At the end, however, disposed of like a block of stone, it achieves a certain cold pride.

The poem begins with "'Twas', and by this "it" we understand the speaker is referring to a corpse. That ultimate transition, from a he or she to an it, begins subtly. The body is still warm – "like Us", but a "Chill" begins to creep over it, as if cold were a living thing. Dickinson likens it to frost creeping over a window and erasing the scenery it once framed. Just so, the Chill erases the thoughts and memories and even the facial expressions that give each life its particular prospect. First, the forehead becomes rigid, then the hands, and finally the "busy eyes" which congeal into the opaqueness of ice on water.
        After death the body stiffens, the Chill becoming a pervading hard cold. But then it "multiplied indifference – / As Pride were all it could". The entire body, now in rigor mortis, exudes indifference to air, to people, to its lost life and to its impending fate. It cannot fend for itself and must be manhandled into grave clothes, into the coffin (if there was even a coffin), and finally into the earth. Its stiff, silent acquiescence in its own burial is, I think, what Dickinson suggests as pride. Having given an almost clinical depiction of the death process, she grants the corpse this dignity at the moment of its greatest indignity. It "made no Signal, nor demurred". It reminds me of the person about to be hanged or beheaded who stands straight and tall and silent, and about whom it is said, "He died well."

Unlike scenes in some of her earlier poems about death, no King appears; no one holds wine to the sufferer's mouth and whispers about the glorious kingdom to come. She has stripped the transition from life to death of all sentiment and religious comfort. Yet she takes the lifeless body's cold immobility and imaginatively grants its silence agency as it drops like "Adamant".
        Dickinson typically uses "Adamant" to mean something stony and hard (such as Samuel Bowles' heart in"Just Once! Oh least Request!" (F478where she calls him the "God of Flint"). 'Adamant' is a perfect word to end the poem. The cold weight of the word itself cuts the poem off as dramatically as if it, too dropped into the abyss.
        Still another meaning of "adamant" lingers in the shadow of the poem's end. To be adamant is to be inflexible, rigid, and unyielding, and this poem offers no hint of repentance – nor of grace. It is a proud, bleak, cold-eyed work.

You can see Dickinson's mastery of word sounds mirroring meaning throughout the poem. The first line, about warmth, has the warm sounds of 'w' and 'Us'. The cold, hard sounds (hard 'c', 'b', 'd') begin in the second stanza, culminating in "It crowded Cold to Cold". The following line, "It multiplied indifference" is not only a dramatic contrast in its multi-syllabic airiness, but introduces the 'd' sounds that ballast the last two lines.
        Looking at the word 'Adamant' yet again, not only does the hard 'd' mirror the proud, hard corpse, but the last two syllables are unaccented. The word hits hard and dwindles just as the corpse hits the bottom of the grave only to be muffled by sod.

02 November 2015

The Day that I was crowned

The Day that I was crowned
Was like the other Days —
Until the Coronation came —
And then — 'twas Otherwise —

As Carbon in the Coal
And Carbon in the Gem
Are One — and yet the former
Were dull for Diadem —

I rose, and all was plain —
But when the Day declined
Myself and It, in Majesty
Were equally — adorned —

The Grace that I — was chose —
To Me — surpassed the Crown
That was the Witness for the Grace —
'Twas even that 'twas Mine —
                            Fr613 (1863)  J356

While Scholar Barton Levi St. Armand thinks the poem is about the sun, I think it is about grace. Dickinson says as much in the final stanza. She was chosen by Grace, a concept rooted in Calvinism. In this branch of Christianity, very influential in Dickinson's time and place, only some people were elected for heaven. It was a heavenly favor, a grace rather than something earned. To suddenly be sure of your divine election would surely feel like a coronation; the knowledge would blaze like a glorious sunset.

Dickinson opens the poem in story-telling mode. The day that she was crowned began ordinarily enough. "All was plain". But somehow by day's end she was "adorned" in "Majesty", as transfigured as diamond from coal.

In regards to this, Sewall provides an illuminating excerpt (p.452-54) from one of Charles Wadsworth's sermons: "The value of a gem is not in its composition, but in its crystallization. Even the diamond is composed mainly of carbon, and differs from the black coal of our furnaces only in this transfiguration … But the spiritual man has through gracious crystallization become a gem, reflecting Divine light, and thus fitted for a diadem" (found in Richard Brandley's Emily Dickinson's Rich Conversation: Poetry, Phiulosophy, Science").
As Wadsworth points out, a "gracious crystallization" makes the redeemed soul fit for a crown. Dickinson was a great admirer of Wadsworth and read his sermons. And although this poem seems to emerge from the sermon, it is not entirely clear as to whether her crystallization was spiritual or imaginary, or whether she was using religious language to celebrate some other great transformation. Dickinson remains purposefully vague and ambiguous. There is no mention of heaven or God or Atman – or even the soul.

In the second two stanzas Dickinson leaves the carbon metaphor to end with a sunset analogy. The setting sun is adorned in majesty, its colors flaring across the heavens. The poem's speaker says that its glory was equal to her own. Ultimately, however, she deems the grace of being chosen as superior to the simpler adornment of the sun, the sky's crown. Dickinson even co-opts the sun, not only as a witness for her ascendency, but as dower. Sunset becomes hers: "'Twas even that 'twas Mine".
This vast claiming reminds me of Dickinson's proclamation in "I'm ceded – I've stopped being Theirs" (F353) where she says her childhood baptism was just something "They" did to her, but now she has "consciously, of Grace" been "Called to my Full", her "Existence's whole Arc, filled up". Both poems inhabit the liminal region where grace may be found or claimed or bestowed. Sometimes Dickinson claims the grace, as in "I'm Ceded"; sometimes she discovers it, as in this poem where she finds she is "chose".