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25 December 2017

Had I presumed to hope —

Had I presumed to hope —
The loss had been to Me
A Value — for the Greatness' Sake —
As Giants — gone+ away —                           claimed            

Had I presumed to gain

A Favor so remote —
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite —

'Tis failure — not of Hope —

But Confident+ Despair —                          diligent, resolute
Advancing on Celestial Lists —
With faint — Terrestrial power —

'Tis Honor — though I die —

For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death —
This — is the Second Gain —
                                                       Fr634 (1863)  J522

Although this poem might be read in different ways, I think that Dickinson is rejecting the Puritan-derived belief that salvation is obtained through Grace and that Grace is bestowed not earned. Consequently, the speaker avoids the comparatively passive religious path of hope and faith, opting instead to fight for salvation – or at least for Honor. 

The concept of Grace in Dickinson's time and place was rooted in Calvinist covenant theology, and the Covenant of Grace stipulates that Christians are saved by faith and that grace is necessary for faith. In a very strict form of Calvinism, only the predestined elect will receive God's irresistible grace. Whatever hope and faith the rest can muster up is futile; salvation is out of their grasp. 
        Something Dickinson scholar Cynthia Wolff writes about is relevant to this. She has famously referred to Dickinson as a 'pugilist poet' combating God. The phrase comes from the closing lines of Dickinson's last letter to her mentor T.W. Higgison, 1886: "'Audacity of Bliss,' said Jacob to the Angel 'I will not let thee go except I bless thee' – Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct –"(Letter 1042). This rendering completely reverses the Bible story in which Jacob won't let the angel go until Jacob gets blessed. There is something poignant and proud in Dickinson's version where Jacob is not seeking favors but granting one.
        The important point that Wolff makes is that Jacob did not receive his covenant with God through obedience or  prayer or Grace, but through combat (Emily Dickinson, 142-47).  What is more, this point was explicitly taught to Dickinson: "As a girl at Mount Holyoke," Wolff writes, Dickinson herself had been "instructed to wrestle as Jacob and thus to enjoy the coveted goal of confident faith" (144). But neither Jacob nor Dickinson were fighting for faith but for the blessing – or salvation – itself. Dickinson, in this poem, sees faith (the presumption of obtaining the Favor – the saving Grace) as bound to fail.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,
Leon Bonnat, 1876

In the first two stanzas Dickinson writes with the subjunctive voice ("Had I presumed…"). But she hadn't. She had not presumed to hope, nor had she presumed to gain the remote Favor. If she had, she contends, then although she would have failed she still would have benefitted. The hope would necessarily have been so portentous that even its loss would have been elevating. As for the Favor referred to in the second stanza, her unsuccessful efforts to gain it would have illuminated her sense of ungraspable, infinite grace.
        There is a certain noble fatalism in the stanzas. The speaker has chosen against engaging in futile hope or faith. In earlier poems she rails against a god who does not care about prayers (Fr581) and who hides 'his rare life / From our gross eyes' (Fr365).  And so she has taken Jacob's Pugilist stance. Her failure is not to be of Hope, for she had not hoped, but that of hope's opposite: despair. The seemingly oxymoronic and paradoxical construction of "Confident Despair" is the adult Dickinson's mirror reflection of the Mount Holyoke goal of 'confident faith'. But where faith presumes Grace, Despair, with nothing to lose might indeed venture to wrestle with Heaven, to advance on the Celestial Lists armed with nothing but 'faint – Terrestrial power'.  
        Confident Despair recognizes that to come face to face with the divine is to battle and not give up no matter how undergunned. For as Jacob's brave endurance won blessing and honor, so, too, the speaker believes she will win Honor. This is her gain, and it is contrasted with the second stanza's doomed attempt to gain the Favor of Grace. In addition to the honor of battle, the speaker looks forward to the 'Second Gain' – that of sanctifying Death.

I admit that my reading of the last stanza – and consequently my understanding of the entire poem – is complicated by the troublesome 'That' and 'This'. Sometimes I feel as if Dickinson is the poet of the Ambiguous Antecedent. A reader suggested in an earlier poem that one read Dickinson sort of with eyes closed, letting the meaning marinate at its own pace. It's a sort of faith on its own.

30 July 2017

I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —

I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —
I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —

And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —
                                    Fr633 (1863)  J378

This abstract and provocative poem is difficult. At first I was tempted to read it, as Sharon Cameron suggests ("Dickinson's Fascicles", The Emily Dickinson Handbook), as the rather apocalyptic consequence of the previous poem – To lose One's faith – surpass' –  where the loss of Faith results in 'Being's  Beggary –'.  Both Cameron and Helen Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) interpret this poem as a spiritual crisis where the speaker has somehow ventured beyond Christian salvation.

Yet the more I read it the more I hear an epiphany told with wonder and awe.

In the first two lines we see the Heavens 'stitched', reminiscent of the vanishing circus tent in 'I've known a Heaven, like a Tent –' (Fr 257). The very columns of the sky have closed. The speaker feels them close – a more visceral sense of denial than had she merely watched. In addition to this utter barrior to heaven, Earth itself reverses her hemispheres. What was north becomes disorientingly south; east becomes west.
        The speaker reaches out, then, to touch the Universe. It is almost a whispered moment in the poem: The stanza break after 'I touched the Universe –', along with the dash, gives a visual and reading pause before the majestic, even magical, 'And back it slid –'. Unlike the closing of the heavens and the shifting of the earth, the Universe slides open as if it were a door and she had triggered a secret latch.

In the epiphany that follows, the speaker finds herself a 'Speck upon a Ball', alone in unfathomable space. This perspective may seem familiar to us, conversant as we are with a cosmology that emphasizes the smallness of our blue-marble earth against the great emptiness of space, but to experience such vast, displacing loneliness in a feeling way, not an intellectual way, would be compelling, if not profoundly terrifying, to anyone.
        The speaker, though, is fearless or enthralled or perhaps both. She doesn't quail, but ventures out on Circumference – the liminal edge between the familiar and the transcendent, far beyond the call of church bells. This may be what it takes to be a great poet or philosopher or mystic: the willingness to see, to go beyond limits and the bonds of church and home, and then to tell – using parable, equation, or poetry when quotidian language fails.

25 June 2017

To lose One's faith — surpass

To lose One's faith — surpass
The loss of an Estate —
Because Estates can be
Replenished — faith cannot —

Inherited with Life —
Belief — but once — can be —
Annihilate a single clause —
And Being's — Beggary —
                     Fr632 (1863)  J377

Dickinson wrote quite a few poems that reveal her struggles with the Calvinist Christianity she grew up with. This poem makes it clear that the stakes of such struggles are high – in fact, the 'Beggary' of one's Being. Dickinson makes her argument by comparing faith to an estate. Both are inherited, but while someone can sell off part or all of an estate and potentially get it back, any diminution of faith's estate forfeits the entirety of it. Dickinson's remarkable claim is that faith is indivisible and can never be restored.
        The poem has a legal tone. Faith is 'Inherited with Life', knitted together with clauses that if independently annihilated unravel its entire fabric. This legalistic tone reflects both the lawyerly speech Emily Dickinson, daughter of a lawyer, would have grown up on, as well as the covenant theology underpinning not only Calvinism itself but also its influence on civic and civil structures.
Dickinson Homestead -- lost but regained
 Dickinson's family history provided her with a case study for her analogy: her paternal grandfather lost the family estate because of poor business decisions*. His son, Emily Dickinson's father, regained it. He had to work long and hard to do so, but he did.

But how believable is it, really, when Dickinson says that faith can not be replenished, that even the loss of 'a single clause' can cause impoverishment? Can't our faith grow in a larger sense even while shrinking from some aspects of our original familial faith? In fact Dickinson herself struggles with aspects of belief from poem to poem**. And in the end, can't people come back to faith – embrace the religion they grew up with?
        It may be that the poet is aiming at something larger than the constricting Calvinism of Victorian New England. Her underlying concern may be that life, that physical reality, has a purpose, that it springs from an underlying intent. Or that death does not terminate existence, that there is some sort of continuation other than the coldness of the grave. Once belief in such  is lost, what possibly can be left to faith other than it behooves us to live each moment to the best of our abilities? I can't imagine that thought comforting Dickinson in her religion-drenched environs and who thought deeply about a god who is (sometimes) everywhere and (sometimes) nowhere – and how one knows the difference.

*Sewell, The Life of Emily dickinson, p.28-29: "In his all but fanatical work in the founding of Amherst College, Dickinson ruined his health and his fortune, sold the Homestead, and left Amherst when Emily was two." More information is available at the ever-useful Emily Dickinson Museum.

** Just a very few examples include:
- "My period had come for Prayer" (Fr525)  where Dickinson depicts an impersonal, incorporeal, but perhaps omnipresent God
- "Faith is a fine invention" (Fr202)  where Dickinson seems to argue that faith alone is not sufficient
- "Of Course – I prayed –" (Fr581)  where God is depicted as unresponsive to prayer.
- "This World is not Conclusion" (Fr373) where "Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –"
"Safe in their alabaster chambers –" (Fr124) where the dead do not rise and seem very dead indeed
- "He strained my faith –" (FR366)  where it is God who tests the faith of believers

18 June 2017

Allen Tate's 1928 Emily Dickinson Article

I deeply enjoy Allen Tate's poetry. I've read very little of his criticism, but was just recently drawn to this essay he wrote in 1928. He places her both inside and outside historical context, specifically somewhere between Emerson and Hawthorne. But like Harold Bloom, he likens her mind to Shakespeare's. Anyway, it is a marvelous essay as much for the writing as the ideas and the insights on Dickinson. Remember, in 1928 he wouldn't have known about many of Dickinson's best poems!

Read and enjoy!

20 February 2017

Me prove it now — Whoever doubt

Me prove it now — Whoever doubt
Me stop to prove it — now —
Make haste — the Scruple! Death be scant
For Opportunity —

The River reaches to my feet —
As yet — My Heart be dry —
Oh Lover — Life could not convince —
Might Death — enable Thee —

The River reaches to My Breast —
Still — still — My Hands above
Proclaim with their remaining might —
Dost recognize the Love?

The River reaches to my Mouth —
Remember — when the Sea
Swept by my searching eyes — the last —
Themselves were quick — with Thee!

                                                          Fr631 (1863)  J537

Although word choices and ambiguities – as well as potential metaphorical constructions –  allow various readings of this poem, I read it as the chronicle of an unhappy lover's suicide. She rushes to the river, speaking madly to herself in choppy, clumsy phrases. Once she steps into the river, however, she addresses her beloved in plaintive, lovely lines.
        The poem reminds me of nothing as much as John Everett Millais' 1852 painting, "Ophelia". This work received quite a bit of attention in several exhibitions in its first years. Dickinson may well have read about it or even seen representations. Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) mentions a Boston exhibition of English Pre-Raphaelites in 1857 that Massachusetts newspapers 'enthusiastically' reviewed. Although "Ophelia" wasn't shown, it may well have been included in discussions of the painters.

The poem opens breathlessly, the speaker intent on killing herself to prove what is revealed in subsequent stanzas to be her love. She bucks herself up by repeating her need to 'prove it' now. She repeats the 'now' twice, the second time separated by dashes for emphasis. She has to hurry lest the 'Scruple!', her sense of guilt, perhaps, undermine her intent. Death, she reminds herself, isn't usually available upon demand.
        It's an odd statement in general, but in particular it makes sense. A well-bred New England woman wouldn't be left to wander into dangerous situations. Nor would she affront her household with deadly self harm. But there would be rivers and seas – and what death could offer more poetic pathos than drowning? The body would hardly be marred and, as the speaker surely keeps in mind, the beloved may soon be standing remorsefully by the poor dead body.
        The second stanza brings a noticeable change of diction. The speaker details her death in a calm reflective tone as if the very act of entering the water has brought a sort of yearning peace. As yet she is only ankle deep in the water. Her heart is 'dry' –  both literally and figuratively. It needs quenching love; failing that, the river's balm. She calls out to her lover: I could not convince you of my love while I lived, she says, but perhaps my death will help you to understand. This is a heavy load of guilt.
        By the third stanza, the water has reached her heart. "Still – still –", she says, and this might refer to still waters or to her own accepting stillness. It likely also refers to her hands which are still raised above the water. She asks her beloved imploringly if he or she recognizes this as a signal of her love.
        It is this stanza that put me in mind of the painting. Maddened by her father's murder and Prince Hamlet's rejection and harsh accusations of duplicity, Ophelia finds her way to a 'babbling brook' and drowns. While Queen Gertrude describes the event as an accident, others suspect Ophelia committed suicide. Millais' Ophelia has an almost exalted expression; her hands are lifted, and the water has reached her breast. If there were a thought bubble escaping her lips I would expect to see this stanza.
        The final stanza is spoken from beyond death. The river has filled the speaker's mouth – drowning would soon follow. But she still addresses the beloved: "Remember," she says, that when I died, that when the water came pouring over my eyes it was you I saw at the very end. Dickinson uses the word 'quick' as if at the moment of death life quickened in her as she envisioned her beloved.

The peace and almost ecstatic tranquility of the end present a dramatic contrast to the first stanza which is pointedly poetically ugly. Beside the scrambled grammar and choppiness, the single-syllable words have no grace. The repeated "me's", "nows", and "proves" clash in their eeee, owww, and ooohs. "Scruple",  another oooh sound, is an ugly-sounding word (although it might be comical in other contexts). All together there is, if not a vindictive, a sort of pettiness to the desperation.
        The following stanzas with their longer lines, the much more graceful repetition of "The River reaches to my….", and the final line where the speaker dies filled with the vision of the one she loves all suggest that this death was better than the life left behind.

One alternate reading of this poem that others might prefer was expressed by Sharon Cameron (The Emily Dickinson Handbook, p.149). She describes the poem as the story of "the first frantic impulse to imminence of final submergence in the river, seemingly a response to her lover's earlier death by drowning n the Sea." In this reading the speaker would be reaching out yearningly to a dead lover and recalling witnessing his or her death. I also saw religious interpretations, from the speaker imploring a divine savior to a submergence into some Immanence.

09 February 2017

The Soul's Superior instants

The Soul's Superior instants
Occur to Her — Alone —
When friend — and Earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn —

Or She — Herself — ascended
To too remote a Height
For lower Recognition
Than Her Omnipotent —

This mortal Abolition
Is seldom — but as fair
As Apparition — subject
To Autocratic Air —

Eternity's disclosure
To favorites — a few —
Of the Colossal substance
Of Immortality –
                        Fr630 (1863)  J306

This abstract and lofty poem, sent to Susan Dickinson, builds to an epiphany granted only to a few. Dickinson provides nothing concrete or physical;  no metaphors or similes. Perhaps that is appropriate for a poem about the Soul. In the previous poem the Soul engages in desperate battle. Here, as if a correllating compensation, we see it in transcendance.
        It is tempting to combine lines and read this poem as iambic pentameter rather than trimeter. The words and pace are stately, the ideas thoughtful and grand – qualities traditionally expressed in longer lines. Dickinson's choice of concise lines, however, not only accentuates the (sometimes subtle) rhymes, but encourages readers to lean into and inhale – if not quite comprehend– each phrase. There is much to contemplate here, negotiating such abstractions as 'infinite', 'Omnipotent', 'Eternity', and 'Immortality' with little to illuminate the esotericism

Dickinson begins the poem with a claim: the Soul's finest moments occur in the most rarefied solitude. Such solitude is achieved in two ways: either because everything mortal and physical withdraws into nothingness, or because the Soul ascends to some plane where nothing 'lower' than the Divine has meaningful existence. But whether it is the world that retracts or the soul that ascends, the Soul must some how shuffle off all its mortal coils.

1945 Pelvis Series

        The third stanza is something of a tour de force of difficult abstractions that start with 'A': Abolition, Apparition, Autocratic Air. I used the Dickinson Lexicon as my guide. The first 'A', 'Abolition', most obviously refers to the mystical loss of one's physical self in a transcendent state. In 1863, however, 'Abolition' would also have conjured the Emancipation of slaves. In fact, the Lexicon's first meaning of 'Abolition' is 'Emancipation'. The quotidian life of the Soul is one caged in flesh, enslaved to the body. Superior instants, then, can only occur when that soul is freed.
  In its freed, transcendent moments, the Soul becomes ethereal, as pure and pleasing – as fair – as a spirit being or angel, and subject only to the divinity permeating the heavens or, alternatively, to the Biblical God of whom Dickinson sometimes writes.
        In this transcendental realm, Eternity grants revelations to "favorites – a few –" (Christine Miller chooses the Franklin B alternate, "To a Revering – Eye"), which might mean those few souls who have achieved "mortal Abolition", or else a subset within those few. The revelation is of Immortality's "Colossal substance" – a rather paradoxical concept heightened by contrast with the ethereal Soul depicted in earlier stanzas. It is a surprising epiphany as Immortality is more typically considered as a state; a manner of existence with no heft of its own.

Perhaps this poem reflects Dickinson's sense of poetic exaltation, her quest to pierce the veil. Perhaps it is her echo of such poets as Horace who had a very real sense of poetic immortality, as in his Ode 3.30, 23 BCE:
I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze
and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids,
which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo
is able to destroy, nor the countless
series of years and flight of ages.

03 January 2017

The Battle fought between the Soul

The Battle fought between the Soul
And No Man — is the One
Of all the Battles prevalent —
By far the Greater One —

No News of it is had abroad —
Its Bodiless Campaign
Establishes, and terminates —
Invisible — Unknown —

Nor History — record it —
As Legions of a Night
The Sunrise scatters — These endure —
Enact — and terminate —
                    Fr629 (1863)  J594

In this rather cryptic poem, Dickinson contends that the interior battle waged between the Soul and the mysterious "No Man" is by far greater than the great battles fought between armies. That Dickinson wrote this during the height of the bloody Civil War underscores how seriously she takes this inner conflict.

The central question involves what Dickinson means by 'No Man'. Perhaps this is the Soul fighting with itself in some great existential conflict such as hope versus despair. More than a few of Dickinson's poems depict despair as a great foe of the Soul. While hope is "the thing with feathers" (Fr314), despair is an "imperial affliction" (Fr320). It is also, according to Christian doctrine that would have been familiar to Dickinson, the one unforgivable sin. No wonder it must be battled!
        But 'No Man' may well refer to God or some divine agent or sublime force. In "He fumbles at your Soul", God "Deals One  imperial Thunderbolt – / That scalps your naked soul –" (Fr477). In "I know that He exists" (Fr365), Dickinson depicts God's occasional "fond Ambush" as potentially lethal. For the Soul to hold its own against such a dangerous force would indeed entail a mighty battle.
        Dickinson's use of 'Campaign', though, expands our understanding of 'Battle': It is not a single contest, but an ongoing one. Unlike Civil War campaigns, however, no battle news is ever published. No analysts will ever puzzle over strategems. Even how it begins and ends is 'Invisible' and 'Unknown'.

One expects that the analogy Dickinson draws between the Soul's campaign and the routing of Night's legions by the ascendant Sun will shed some light on the meaning of "No Man"; instead, it introduces a fundamental ambiguity.
        First, the sun's victory over darkness is neither unknown nor invisible. Neither is there any doubt as to the outcome. More importantly, though, is whether the Soul is analogous to Night or to the Sun. If Night, then the soul is always scattered by the God-like Sun, its pieces enduring to fight again until some final termination. If, however, Dickinson identifies the Soul with dawn, then perhaps the battle is against the darkness of Despair, which even when routed regroups and attacks again, night after night.
        Finally, that last 'terminate' adds to the ambiguity of this reading. Who or what is terminated? Interestingly, Dickinson's manuscript includes the alternate word 'dissipates' for the final 'terminate'.

Regardless, the poem leaves me with a sense of relentless battle, the action recurring and ending, both sides enduring.

I am reminded of one of Dickinson's great Gothic poems: "The Soul has Bandaged moments"  (Fr360where various stanzas portray the soul in bandaged and constrained moments when subject to assault, in moments of Escape followed by retaken moments when she is shackled and led to where "The Horror welcomes her, again".  Here, too, the Soul wages desperate battle that it seems incapable of winning.