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28 December 2015

The Wind — tapped like a tired Man —

The Wind — tapped like a tired Man —
And like a Host — "Come in"
I boldly answered — entered then
My Residence within

A Rapid — footless Guest —
To offer whom a Chair
Were as impossible as hand
A Sofa to the Air —

No Bone had He to bind Him —
His Speech was like the Push
Of numerous Humming Birds at once
From a superior Bush —

His Countenance — a Billow —
His Fingers, as He passed
Let go a music — as of tunes
Blown tremulous in Glass —

He visited — still flitting —
Then like a timid Man
Again, He tapped — 'twas flurriedly —
And I became alone —
                                              F621 (1863)  J436

This poem always delights me. We see the poet open the door to the wind. No doubt she had been listening to the hums and knocks and tappings outside her door. Once she'd opened it, however, the "footless Guest" came in for a brief visit. And what a guest! Of course he couldn't sit in the company chair any more than air could enjoy settling into the sofa. What was he like, then?
        Well, first he was rapid in a "footless" way – exactly as you would imagine wind swirling around the drawing room. After all, he had no bones to bind him to the ground. As for small talk, he had none, for he had no real speech. Dickinson describes his noise as like the "Push" of hummingbirds in a beautiful flowering bush. Lovely. He also made a breathy, musical sound like that we get when blowing lightly in a bottle.
        After flitting about for a while he tapped again at the door, all in a flutter, and left.

I don't think the poem can be mined for deeper significance. It captures an experience common to many in a way meant to delight.

Just for your delight, here are some more wind poems:
  "The Wind didn't come from the Orchard — today —" (F494)
  "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad" (F334)
  "Of Brussels – it was not –" (F510)
  "An awful Tempest mashed the air –" (F224)

13 December 2015

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

Much Madness is divinest Sense – 
To a discerning Eye – 
Much Sense – the starkest Madness – 
'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail – 
Assent, and you are sane  – 
Demur – you're straightway dangerous – 
And handled with a Chain.
                                        F620 (1863)  J435

This popular poem is a gem, from word choice to line placement and to meter and rhyme. Dickinson's transition from the abstract to the political/sociological on a personal level leads to a surprisingly dystopic ending.

The poem can be read as two enjambed quatrains. The first makes the often-quoted claim that discerning people find great sense in what seems like madness to most people. As a logical corollary, they find what the majority finds sensible to be Madness.

State Lunatic Hospital, Worcester, MA 1847
The setting and landscaping were designed for
peacefulness and wholesomeness. 
        What saves this reversal from being platitudinous is not only the intervening line with its multisyllabic 'discerning' but the adjectives. The Sense is 'divinest'; the Madness, 'starkest'. The contrast is as extreme as possible. Dickinson isn't saying how someone might be crazy like a fox, or how there is sometimes truth in folly. No, 'Much' of Madness is divinest sense; 'Much' of Sense is starkest madness. That is a strong indictment of the majority who get it all wrong but nonetheless 'prevail'.
        It takes a 'discerning Eye' to recognize this madness/sense paradox. Poets are among our most discerning eyes, and Dickinson certainly put herself to the task. But there is real risk involved. In the second quatrain Dickinson says that if you oppose majority views, even by a simple demurral, you will end up in chains. These could easily be the prisoner's or the madman's chains, but could also be the invisible restraints on the madwoman in the attic – the dotty relative who is never allowed out.
        Dickinson builds up to this dystopic vision through a variety of poetic techniques. Two sets of parallel constructions set up oppositions. In the first, 'Much Madness' is echoed and opposed by 'Much Sense'. Both are spondees, providing extra emphasis. 'Madness' and 'Sense' are presented in opposite order: the first line has Madness then Sense; the third, Sense, then Madness. The tightness of this construction is at odds with the wide disparity between the two – divinest Sense and starkest Madness. This tension and disparity contribute to the chilling outcome for to avoid being deemed a danger to society you must go along with what seems unmitigated folly.
"Reasons for Admission" to West
Virginia's Trans-Allegheny Lunatic
Asylum, 1864 - 1889
        This leads to the second set of parallel construction. While the parallel oppositions, Assent and Demur, seem much less drastic than the first stanza formulation, Dickinson's switch from the third person to the second makes the stakes personal. It is your ethics and courage she's talking about here. To be considered 'sane' by the majority you have to assent, or as the Dickinson Lexicon would have it, 'concede' or 'conform in practice'. If, one the other hand, you feel compelled to demur, you will pay a very stiff price.

Dickinson would have probably read many accounts of the horrors of Bedlam and other institutions where people were treated brutally. Sometimes their only offence was to have been inconvenient to family. A perfectly sane person could be forcibly restrained and hauled off to a lifetime commitment. Fortunately, by Dickinson's time there was a strong prison reform movement in the United States. Unfortunately, it was still very easy for someone to be forcibly commited for such reasons as 'Imaginary female trouble', 'Over action of the mind', 'Grief', and 'Hard study' (see illustration).

Some other nice poetic touches include Dickinson's use of alliteration and assonance. For 'D' alliteration there are divinest, discerning, Demur, dangerous, and handled. For 'M': Much Madness, Much, Madness, and Majority. There are plenty of smooth-sounding 'S' sounds, too: Madness, divinest, Sense, discerning, Sense, starkest, Madness, this, Assent, sane, and straightway. The last half of the poem is sprinkled with long 'A' sounds: prevail, sane, straightway, dangerous, and chain. All these repeated sounds help knit the poem together in one very cohesive – and damning – piece.

10 December 2015

Happy birthday Emily Dickinson!

Or at least, happy Emily Dickinson's birthday to you, Readers! Go ponder the universe, send a flower to someone with a cryptic note, or gaze out the window to see what wonders might be found.

The Writer's Almanac has a special tribute to her today.