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30 October 2016

I think I was enchanted

I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl —
I read that Foreign Lady —
The Dark — felt beautiful —

And whether it was noon at night —
Or only Heaven — at Noon —
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell —

The Bees — became as Butterflies —
The Butterflies — as Swans —
Approached — and spurned the narrow Grass —
And just the meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer —
I took for Giants — practising
Titanic Opera —

The Days — to Mighty Metres stept —
The Homeliest — adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
'Twere suddenly confirmed —

I could not have defined the change —
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul —
Is witnessed — not explained —

'Twas a Divine Insanity —
The Danger to be sane
Should I again experience —
'Tis Antidote to turn —

To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft —
Magicians be asleep —
But Magic — hath an element —
Like Deity — to keep —
Fr627 (1863)  J593

This beautiful ode to poetry includes all that makes poems so deeply powerful. In praising the transformative effect of 'that Foreign Lady' – English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (according to better scholars than I) – Dickinson makes plain her own ability to enchant, displace, and transform. For me, and no doubt countless others, "Foreign" could be replaced by "Amherst", for when I first truly dipped into Dickinson's poems, I, too, found that the "Dark – felt beautiful". 
I love that phrase about the Dark. A simple interpretation would be that Brownings' work introduced a tangible beauty into the dark room and that it shed an uncanny light of insight and recognition. But "The Dark"  encompasses more than an unlit room. Dickinson might be meaning the hidden places, even the abyss, that she herself came to frequent in many of her own poems and where she so often threads her way, like Ariadne negotiating the labyrinth to the Minotaur at its heart.

Dickinson begins this poem as if in intimate conversation with the reader. We see the "sombre Girl" first reading from the Foreign Lady in the dark of her room. There would only be the flickering flame of an oil lamp or candle to light the words. Perhaps she was gulping down "Aurora Leigh", a poem-novel whose eponymous heroine struggles, as Virginia Woolf wrote, with "her conflict as an artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom" – as well as with her desire for passion and truth. Such themes and struggles might well have made compelling reading for Dickinson.
Whichever ones they were, the poems shed such a "Lunacy of Light" that it might have been the noontime sun or else some interior sun at midnight; the girl couldn't tell. Mundane reality fell away as she read. What was known and simple became enlarged and glorious. Her mind shifted in the way one can suddenly see two profiles in place of a goblet except that her shift was deep in the mind, deep inside "Where the Meanings are" (Fr320).

Peter Birkhäuser's "Anima"
The poem is full of female power and this theme is introduced in these first two stanzas: Lunacy (as a certain divine madness), the Foreign Lady and sombre Girl, the enchantment, and the moon (so clearly suggested by 'noon at night' – the word 'noon' itself invoking 'moon'), are each traditionally associated with the Feminine. Dickinson later invokes witchcraft, too – and it would have only been 170 years since witches were hanged in Massachussetts. The transformations depicted in the middle of the poem not only do double duty in exemplifying Barrett Brownings' effect and Dickinson's poetic prowess, but remind us of the transformative aspect of the feminine: birth, seed to fruit, the creative and generative Muse. 

In the first of these transformations bees metamorphose first into butterflies and then into swans. The vision has sound effects: the ordinary "Tunes" of nature – bees buzzing, breezes whispering through the grass and shrubs, grasshoppers whirring, birds singing, etc. –  become a grand and giant opera. In the third transformation Dickinson leaves the birds and the bees behind, focusing on the days themselves. No longer creeping along in their petty pace they were now dressed to the nines and stepping grandly in time to the swelling orchestra. A Jubilee might be a big festivity, but the Dickinson Lexicon lists another meaning: the "fiftieth year in the Old Testament calendar, when slaves are granted liberty and debts forgiven [Leviticus 25]". This is transformation indeed.

When Dickinson writes that the result of her 'enchantment' was a "Conversion of the Mind" she may be crediting the Foreign Lady as her poetic progenitor. The change was indefinable and indelible; something like sanctification which is a holy consecration. Dickinson reinforces the sacredness of the conversion by referring to it as 'Divine Insanity', a topic she was examining only a few poems ago in "Much Madness is divinest Sense" (Fr620). It is, the sombre Girl realizes, what is considered sanity that poses the real danger. Should she find herself succumbing to it, however, she has the antidote right at hand:  "Tomes of Solid Witchcraft – that is to say, books of poetry. The poet/magician may be asleep in death, but her magic/poems live on in divine immortality.

05 October 2016

Undue Significance a starving man attaches

Undue Significance a starving man attaches
To Food —
Far off — He sighs — and therefore — Hopeless —
And therefore — Good —

Partaken — it relieves — indeed —
But proves us
That Spices fly
In the Receipt — It was the Distance —
Was Savory —
                             F626 (1863)  J439

 I have to admire Emily Dickinson who is an imagist and metaphorist of the very first rank, who knows how to start off a poem with a killer lead, but who can also begin the first stanza of a poem with 'Undue Significance' and the other stanza with 'Partaken'. Her father and brother were both lawyers and I imagine she acquired both an ear for legalese and a sound sense of formal logic. The phrases signal the rather dry, abstract tone of this poem about hunger and desire.
        Dickinson emphasizes the legal diction by reversing the grammatical order of the first line. It wouldn't sound too interesting as "A starving man attaches Undue Significance / To Food".  The "Undue" is trochaic, making the line even more weighty. Dickinson proceeds to include two 'therefore's, a 'proves' and a 'Receipt'.  It is an attempt at drollery, I believe, making the case that anticipation beats fulfillment.
        She wrote two similar poems within a year or two of this one, using quite different diction: In "Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (F310), Dickinson develops a series of vivid metaphors to illustrate how heaven is always unattainable. It is an apple hopelessly out of reach, a forbidden property, etc. Robert Browning wrote, and Dickinson might very well have read, "Ah, but a man's reach must extend his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for" ("Andrea del Sarto", publ. 1855). Browning, though, is getting at reaching for an unattainable level of artistic excellence. Dickinson, on the other hand, yearns for the ineffable.
        In 'I had been hungry, all the Years –' (F439), she uses, as she does in the present poem, the analogy of hunger for desire, but she does so with concrete details: crumbs and bread, tables with 'Curious Wine', berries and bushes, roads and windows. She concludes that poem with the aphorism that "Hunger – was a way / Of Persons outside Windows – / The Entering – takes away." Hunger here represents a yearning for completion, for the satisfaction of a gnawing desire; yet the object of that yearning and desire is misplaced. Having access to the Table and the 'Curious Wine', having touched and tasted the feast, having had the 'Plenty', the speaker finds herself feeling 'ill – and odd'; she ultimately realizes that it is not the food that takes away the hunger but the access to food. Once seen clearly, the feast loses its appeal. It does not satisfy.
Emilio Longoni, "Reflections of a Starving Man", 1894

Dickinson is clearly no gourmand. In this poem she portrays herself as no simple gourmet, either. She prefers the longing for the food in all its spicy savour to the tasting. Indeed, having tasted, she loses interest in the foods' flavor altogether. That opening "Undue Significance" is almost like a wagging finger. Satisfying your hunger is a bodily satisfaction and need. But the body is a simple thing, she reminds us, compared to imagination. That's where the real spice is. That's where the real satisfaction can be found.

I don't find that a particularly remarkable insight. Further, I find much of the poem plodding and bare. A starving man is introduced, but he is not a real entity but rather staked out in some culinary desert as an example. The only action word is "fly" and that is what spices theoretically do once we stick a fork in the longed-for food.