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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.