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23 June 2018

A Secret told —

A Secret told —
Ceases to be a Secret — then —
A Secret — kept —
That — can appall but One —

Better of it — continual be afraid —
Than it —
And Whom you told it to — beside —

              Fr643 (1863)  J381

It feels good to get something off your chest, to share some heavy secret with a sympathetic and friendly listener. But, Reader – have you ever done this and then regretted it? I certainly have and can think of several reasons why I regret it.
1) It was a secret for a reason: either because of someone else's wishes or best interests or else because of my own personal reasons.
2) There is no honor in telling secrets
3) If I couldn't hold the secret, why should the confidant?
4) Worry: The confidant knows something she isn't supposed to know. How will that affect her? What will it mean?

WWII poster
Dickinson boils all this down. A kept secret may upset – even frighten –  and depress its keeper. But if the secret holder tries to get support or share some of that burden by revealing the secret, she makes her trouble worse. Now she has whatever fear she had to begin with in addition to worrying about the one she blabbed to.

It is very tempting to guess at the category of secret Dickinson is referring to here; tempting to assume she is talking about some secret of her own. Is it a love relationship? Is it something about her father or other family member? Is it her poetry? Her religious inclinations, her health?

Reader, we must, in addition to the delicious guesswork we might undertake, acknowledge that the poet may simply be writing a truism as a poem. Think of it as an advice poem rather than a Hint.

Dickinson, however, is a great one for secrets. There are the passionate Master letters – we don't even know who Master is. Dickinson's best friends and family either didn't know or didn't agree. Why does she stay home, wear white, and hide from even dear friends? We don't know.

Tolstoy once wrote in his Diary, "Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all." I think this is true. Dickinson's poetry reveals deep secrets but with such ambiguity that they must be interpreted 'in common' rather than in a specific way. 

19 June 2018

There is a flower that Bees prefer —

There is a flower that Bees prefer —
And Butterflies — desire —
To gain the Purple Democrat
The Humming Bird — aspire —

And Whatsoever Insect pass —
A Honey bear away
Proportioned to his several dearth
And her — capacity —

Her face be rounder than the Moon
And ruddier than the Gown
Of Orchis in the Pasture —
Or Rhododendron — worn —

She doth not wait for June —
Before the World be Green —
Her sturdy little Countenance
Against the Wind — be seen —

Contending with the Grass —
Near Kinsman to Herself —
For Privilege of Sod and Sun —
Sweet Litigants for Life —

And when the Hills be full —
And newer fashions blow —
Doth not retract a single spice
For pang of jealousy —

Her Public — be the Noon —
Her Providence — the Sun —
Her Progress — by the Bee — proclaimed —
In sovereign — Swerveless Tune —

The Bravest — of the Host —
Surrendering — the last —
Nor even of Defeat — aware —
When cancelled by the Frost —

                               Fr642 (1863)  J380

Judith Farr writes about this poem in her wonderfully written and helpful book The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (pp 130-32). In her discussion she notes that the poem was given the title "Purple Clover" in the 1890 Poems of Emily Dickinson. Once the identity of the flower is determined, the poem becomes a delightful homage to this very useful plant.

But a Purple Democrat? More like a Red Communist, for the clover operates according to the slogan popularized by Karl Marx in 1875, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Whether Bee or Butterfly or Humming Bird, each gets the nectar it needs to the extent of 'her – capacity'. In the background, however, is a competitive battleground with clover and grass vying for light and soil. Will the grass choke the clover out? Will clover strangle the grass? Dickinson anthropomorphises both grass and clover as 'litigants for life' – but takes the sting away with the qualifier 'sweet'.
        The poem is full of anthropomorphisms. The clover has a face, one redder than orchids or rhododendrons. Hers is a 'sturdy little Countenance' that ventures out before frailer flowers that wait for June's longer and warmer days, ready to face the spring winds. And unlike fashion-minded fine ladies, the clover doesn't mind at all that more glamorous flowers fill the hills with their colorful beauty. No, she plays to a higher audience – Noon. She takes all she needs from the sun and measures her worth by the chorus of attendant bees.
        Dickinson also genders the flower and the pollinator. As in poems past, it is the flower that is female, the visiting birds, bees, and hummingbirds who are male. They come for the sweet 'Honey' and bear it away. It is a lighter poem than the one where the bee, fainting with hunger or desire, finally reaches his flower and "Round her chamber hums – / Counts his nectars – / Enters – and is lost in Balms"  (Fr205). And yet, the tableau is the same. Then there is the sassy "The Flower must not blame the Bee" (Fr235)  where Dickinson counsels the Flower on how to say 'no'.

The admirable clover is not only sturdy and modest, Dickinson claims, but the bravest of all the flowers. Not only the first to bloom, she is the last to surrender. In fact, when she is at last undone by the frosts of fall, she does not acknowledge it as 'Defeat' – instead, we are left to assume she retires for a quiet winter slumber before once more awakening by the kiss of spring.

As a gardener, I appreciate this charming plant. It not only attracts pollinators and adds interest to a grassy meadow (or lawn), but it helps all the plants around it by the small nodules on its roots where nitrogen is accumulated. When the roots die, the nitrogen is released into the soil for other plants to use. It is a lovely, living fertilizer.

The poem itself is as delightful as clover. Its meter is fairly regular, but with enough variety to keep it from being sing-song. The quatrains are either alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter or, in the later quatrains, iambic trimeter with the third line in iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme, but while some rhymes are 'perfect', most are slant. Thus while we have 'desire' paired with 'aspire' and 'Green' with 'seen', we have the more interesting slant rhymes of 'glow' with 'jealousy' and 'last' with 'Frost'. The effect is that the poem trips lightly off the tongue but is not cloying.
        Dickinson also makes use of alliteration: in the first stanza, for example, she gives us her frequently employed trinity of Bees, Butterflies, and Birds; in the penultimate stanza we have 'Public', 'Providence', and 'Progress' and 'proclaimed'.

All in all a most satisfying Dickinson nature poem!

16 June 2018

What I can do – I will –

What I can do – I will –
Though it be little as a Daffodil –
That I cannot – must be
Unknown to possibility –

            Fr641 (1863)  J361

At first reading, Dickinson seems to be saying that she will do what she can, even if it's very little. It would be impossible for her to do nothing. This is the sort of thing a go-to person modestly says after agreeing to help out at the sixth fundraising event in a month. It's not, however, the sort of response one would expect from Dickinson n similar contexts. While thoughtful and helpful to friends and especially to family, she kept distant from most people and generally did not participate in community or social activities.

It seems more likely that Dickinson is making an assertion about herself as Poet. Poetry is what she can do and she will write even if what she does is as 'little as a Daffodil'. She has no choice. To not put her utmost into poetry is such a far-fetched idea as to be 'Unknown to possibility'.  This may sound like hyperbole, but Dickinson seems to have a taste for it. Her mentor, Thomas Higginson, after the first of only two visits to Dickinson, recounted to his wife that, after asking "if she never felt want of employment, never going off the place & never seeing any visitor," she replied, 'I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time' (& added) 'I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough'" (Johnson, L342a).
        The two claims might be related: totally committed to poetry, Dickinson cannot conceive of feeling the want of other activities. She was in fact producing poetry at a prodigous rate. She wrote nearly three hundred poems in 1863, the year she wrote this one.

All that being said, I think she is being a wee bit coy here. In my blog's eponymous poem 'the prowling Bee', Dickinson wrote that "To be a Flower, is profound / Responsibility–" (Fr1038). In that poem Dickinson describes all the 'minor Circumstance(s)' necessary for a flower to bloom. The flower's blooming is a profound event for a plant, for otherwise it would disappoint 'Great Nature'. The poem in entirety is included below.
        And so her slighting reference to a Daffodil is sort of a private joke between her and herself. To be as little as a blossom is merely to be 'offered as a Butterfly / To the Meridian'. I take 'Meridian' here to not only  mean the apex of day but as the Creator who has put much care into the creation of flowers.
        She might also be making a slight reference to Wordsworth's famous mass of daffodils ("I wandered lonely as a cloud") that "In vacant or in pensive mood, / …flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils." Surely people of such discernment –true poets! – would see immediately behind the façade of insignificance and recognize the real power of Dickinson's work.

Bloom – is Result – to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian –
To pack the Bud – oppose the Worm –
Obtain its right of Dew –
Adjust the Heat – elude the Wind –
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day –
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility –
Fr1038 (1865)  J1058

09 June 2018

Death sets a Thing significant

Death sets a Thing significant
The Eye had hurried by
Except a perished Creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In Crayon – or in wool – 
With "This was last Her fingers did" —
Industrious until —

The Thimble weighed too heavy —
The stitches stopped —themselves —
And then 'twas put among the Dust
Upon the Closet shelves —

A Book I have — a friend gave —
Whose Pencil — here and there —
Had notched the place that pleased Him —
At Rest — His fingers are —

Now — when I read — I read not —
For interrupting Tears —
Obliterate the Etchings
Too Costly for Repairs.

Fr640 (1863)  J360

There is a fond sentimentality about this poem and a lack of consistency that undermine it.  It does, however, speak to the common impulse to treasure the last works, however insignificant, of someone we cared for after their death. first stanza declares that impulse: Death puts a value on things that we overlook while their makers live. But rather than having this impulse arise from within the mourner, Dickinson has the 'perished Creature' entreating us to 'ponder' the 'little workmanships' they might have left behind as if pleading not to be forgotten. We see a child's drawing or a housewife's woolen handiwork and, the poet suggests, we think about the circumstances of the creation. 
        The inconsistancy I mentioned comes from the third stanza where, despite the entreaties of the perished housewife, the woolen work was put away on some dusty closet shelf. This follows hard upon the ponderings about whether or not the work in question was the last thing she had made. Contrast this with the final stanza where the poet cannot read a book given to her by a friend before he died because of her copious tears. This example, I think, is more illustrative of the claim that Death gives things significance that otherwise they wouldn't have.

As for the fond sentimentality, it was part and parcel of Victorian women's poetry. Dickinson is known for her many poems on death, but her best works go deep while this one simply elaborates the simple notion that we cherish mementos of those we loved.

I gained it so —

I gained it so —
By Climbing slow —
By Catching at the Twigs that grow
Between the Bliss — and me —
It hung so high
As well the Sky
Attempt by Strategy —

I said I gained it —
This — was all —
Look, how I clutch it
Lest it fall —
And I a Pauper go —
Unfitted by an instant's Grace
For the Contented — Beggar's face
I wore — an hour ago —
        Fr639 (1863)  J359

In this mystery poem, Dickinson describes how she has achieved some transcendent state but, although she clutches her gain, she has become empaupered – no longer at home in the earthly world.

Dickinson refers to what she has gained as 'Bliss'. Reading the poem I am reminded of Hinduism – specifically the concept of Brahma-nirvana: a state (according to Wikipedia 'Nirvana') of "release or liberation; the union with the Brahman. According to [Eknath] Easwaran, it is an experience of blissful egolessness."  Certainly such an experience or other state of Grace or spiritual transcendence would produce profound change in an instant.
        And yet …. The  liberation, awareness – or bliss – of such an experience should, one expects, not need to be clutched at, no should it result in discontent. So perhaps this 'instant's Grace' was something more wordly – a moment of love, a deep insight, a brief spiritual union, or a revelation. Dickinson employs the unspecified and transendent 'It', as she does in various other poems which allows a lot of room for interpretation.

Hildegard von Bingen's Cosmic Egg
But back to the poem. She begins in a matter-of-fact tone: she gained the 'It', the Bliss, by slowly climbing towards it, up through the trees, although it seemed so high up that she might as well have attempted to gain the sky through 'Strategy' rather than, say, a ladder.
        But although the first stanza ends with what seems a great achievement, the second stanza has a rather bitter sadness to it. "I said I gained it", she writes, but that was all there was to it. She does not admit to any betterment or lasting gain. Rather, she draws our attention to how she clutches it. Like the merchant in Jesus' parable in "Matthew", she has found a pearl of great price and given everything she has for it.  She feels herself a Pauper. As a beggar she was content; as someone with a great Pearl, she has nothing.
        In the parable, the pearl of great price stands for the kingdom of heaven. Is this what Dickinson was getting at? After all the reading and walking and thinking and soul searching and venturing out onto the Circumference, did she grab a fistful of Heaven's tent and find it an empty prize? Even the rhymes in the last stanza are rather sad: all / fall; instant's Grace / Beggar's face.

This is a very visual poem, and its frequent rhymes and simple diction make it a pleasure to read aloud.