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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.

15 comments:

  1. I like your interpretation. It reminds me of a "Cosmic Consciousness" experience similar to those described by Burke in his book.

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  2. I think you have the right reading.

    The poet begins with rationality. "I saw no Way" -- looking for an explanation, how heaven, eternity, the ultimate, is stitched together. Then the poet moves to understanding through feeling what can't be comprehended through reason. "I felt the columns close", I touched the Universe". the rhymes in these lines are powerful -- "Earth", "reversed", "her", "hemisphere" Universe". The sense is of an upending of rational order -- the reversing of the earth's hemispheres. The poet sees with fresh eyes.

    In the last stanza, reason returns (back it slid), but the poet is changed by what she has seen and felt. All that reason can interpret from the experience is a sense of vastness, aloneness, and ineffability -- that something is beyond the limits of rational understanding (circumference) beyond hearing.

    The poem in this way reminds me of "I felt a funeral in my brain". Beginning with reason "Mourners to and fro kept treading, treading till it seemed that sense was breaking through" -- moving to being plunged into a sensory experience beyond reason "as all the heavens were a bell and being but an ear" that leaves one with an understanding of a profound, disoriented, aloneness in vast space ("and I and silence some strange race wrecked solitary here"), to a return to a rationality profoundly altered by an inexpressible experience. "And hit a world at every plunge, and finished knowing -- then."

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    1. I really like your commentary here. I agree with "Funeral" parallels. There is a finishing of 'knowing' and a vast aloneness. Your take on the Universe sliding back, that it is sliding back in place in a restorative manner is interesting. I see it as sliding back for the big Reveal.

      It makes a big difference. One way, she has had an epiphany or transcendental experience which leaves her at Circumference, altered and deeply aware of alone-ness. In the other (the one I present), her epiphany is the visceral sense of vastness and the ineffable.

      I like reading the poem both ways -- a good reverberation.

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  3. "Way" "Hemisphere" "Earth" all seem big and daunting. The only line not using capitalization to make something bigger: "And back it slid — and I alone —"

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  4. Reminds me of Anna Akhmatova who said the anecdote to despair is remembering every day the galaxies glitter with new stars. Both Anna and ED were without the advantage of the Hubble.

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  5. Thank you for starting this blog! This poem is beautiful and your descriptions are very informative. I just started reading Emily Dickinson. So far this one and "One need not be a Chamber--" are my favorites.

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    1. Welcome to Dickinson -- and the blog. Those two poems are both fascinating.

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  6. Thank you for your post. I was just reading about this poem and learned that it might be a critique of Emerson's denial of an "outside" beyond Earth. He wrote that "There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us." And he goes on to write that "The only sin is limitation." Dickinson seems to be speaking to this declaration. The speaker experiences an outside or "circumference" in this poem. She wrote to Higginson, "My Business is Circumference." So this idea of experiencing an outside (the Divine?) that encompases the self seemed important to her. But to complicate this idea, she also wrote, "The Bible dealt with the Centre, not with the Circumference--". Is she saying here that the Bible is about people, about us, and not about the Divine? It's a message from the Divine (Circumference?) about us (the Centre?)

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    1. That's interesting about Emerson. As for the Bible dealing with the Centre -- perhaps she was getting at the focus on salvation and on living life. Circumference might then be the vantage point of understanding the larger picture -- the whole earth and cosmos. From the Centre one cannot see space or the Divine except from the vantage of revealed knowledge. Maybe!

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  7. I love your interpretation as well as the comments here. Such a great poem! I go back and forth on reading "close" as something that is shut and something that is near. I might prefer the latter, but I'm not sure if she meant it that way. Maybe the ambiguity was intended. - Ellen

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    1. I hadn't even thought of 'close' that way. It makes an interesting reading. My objection to it is the contrast ED builds between the closing in and the sliding back. When the heavens are stitched, there is no escape from the columns closing in on you -- a sort of existential claustrophobia. But she dared to touch and venture out -- and the universe opened before her.

      But having written that, I can see that close columns are a further description of stitched heavens. To me, though, the closing columns are part of the rather apocalyptic reversal of the hemispheres.

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  9. Hi Susan Kornfeld, Can i ask you a easy question, which is a little hard to me a non-native chinese reader? what is the meaing of the "Dip" in the sentence "the Dip of Bell" ? Is the meaning of the "Dip" a lower place of Bell? Or is it just the downward movment of Bell?

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    1. Love your ID name! Dip is the tipping or swinging of the bell. One good resource for you is the Dickinson Lexicon: https://edl.byu.edu/lexicon/term/604839

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