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01 December 2019

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—
But then—Themselves were warm
And could not know the feeling 'twas—                    [And] did
Forget it—Lord—of Them—                                         [it – ] Christ

Let not my Witness hinder Them                                [Witness] Them impair
In Heavenly esteem—
No Paradise could be—Conferred
Through Their beloved Blame—

The Harm They did—was short—And since               [was] brief
Myself—who bore it—do—
Forgive Them—Even as Myself—
Or else—forgive not me—                                                Else – Savior – banish Me –

                                                            Fr658 (1863)  J538

The poem is framed as a prayer where the speaker asks that the Lord forget and forgive how the beloveds, the 'They', shut the speaker out in the Cold. By this prayer the speaker becomes, ironically, the informant.

She makes the case that the shutting out was an understandable rather than a cruel act: the perpetrators' happiness made them unable to recognize or even understand sadness.

I'm not buying it. The beloveds were cads and the speaker doesn't really mind if you think so.
Arthur Rackham, The Lady
Enters the Forest
Judith Farr believes, as I do, that this poem is directed at Sue and Austin Dickinson, both of them beloved by Emily Dickinson. After their marriage, though, amid a growing family and growing social prominence, neither Sue nor Austin held Emily Dickinson quite so central to their lives as they had previously (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, pp. 155-6). So the shutting out might refer to a specific episode or to something that occurred over a period of time. At any rate, the speaker claims that the Harm was 'short' – but this might be another ironical deflection. It might have felt like an eternity to her.

About being an informer: It is quite possible to read the first line of the poem as suggesting that someone else or some cosmic awareness led the Almighty to know about the shutting out situation. The second stanza, however, makes it clear that the speaker knows she herself is the source. It is her 'Witness' that might complicate the beloveds' afterlife.

The speaker prays that it does not hinder them, for, in a continuation of the ironical mode, if it's her fault they don't make Paradise, they could blame her for it. And Paradise won't be "Conferred" on her if she is being blamed. Farr reads this as "I myself won't find Paradise by blaming them." I can't agree with that reading because the speaker indicates Paradise must be conferred rather than found.

The third stanza argues for forgiveness. This is quite a pivot from the forgetting prayed for earlier. It is one thing to tattle and then pray that the information is forgotten or ignored and quite another to ask that the informed-on behavior be forgiven. And should it be forgiven because the sinners are contrite or otherwise blameless or that the victim was at least partly to blame? No. the speaker argues that the beloveds should be forgiven because, besides the Harm being 'short', it was the speaker not the Lord who was shut out.  Further, she has forgiven them, so the Lord should, too. 
        The last line of the poem is more in the way of a demand than a prayer. 'If You, God, don't forgive Them, then don't forgive Me'.  The sentiment doesn't seem sincere. The prayer has included blame and then blame qualified. There is no sense of her own guilt about having given negative 'Witness'; no admission of even general sin for which she might wan to be forgiven. To reject forgiveness when there is not a felt need of it, is empty bravado.

I recognize that the poem can be read as heartfelt, its pathos a reflection of the sensibilities of the time. But I can't help thinking of Shakespeare's use of verbal irony – Antony, for example, proclaiming the nobility of Brutus in a way that conveyed the opposite opinion. I like the idea that Dickinson was able to sit down with her sense of grievance and put a twist on it.

As a proponent of the heartfelt pathos reading, Jane Donahue Eberwein includes this poem with those written in a 'childlike voice' and those where a little child might slip 'quiet from it's chair' into the grave, or meekly take the smallest room; where an adult is but a 'Drop that wrestles in the Sea', or is a Nobody (Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation By Jane Donahue Eberwein).

That makes sense, but I still feel the poem's scorn.

03 November 2019

Endow the Living — with the Tears —

Endow the Living — with the Tears —
You squander on the Dead,
And They were Men and Women — now,
Around Your Fireside —

Instead of Passive Creatures,
Denied the Cherishing
Till They — the Cherishing deny —
With Death's Ethereal Scorn —
                                                            Fr657 (1863)  J521

There's a sad yet understandable irony in how we often shower the dead with more concentrated attention and affection than we showed while they were alive. In this short poem, Dickinson tersely instructs us  to instead 'Endow the Living'.

That's a reversal, as normally endowment flows from the dead to the living. But Dickinson neatly leaves the dead completely out of it. Instead, the living should cherish the living and 'squander' no sentiment on the Dead who are nothing but 'Passive Creatures, neither wanting nor needing attention.

Yet despite their passivity, the dead retain some pride. They react to the post-mortem Cherishing with 'Ethereal Scorn'. It's phony. It's too-little-too-late. It is irrelevant.

While I don't think there are dazzling insights in this poem, I find the format of  its sensible meaning rather droll. The entire poem is written as a single sentence. The first word, 'Endow', lends a certain legalist cast. The chiasmic reversals of "Denied the Cherishing / Till They – the Cherishing deny –" are clever and build on the theme of logic rather than sentiment.
            I'm not sure, nonetheless, how to respond to the poem in general. It has an overall polished feel to it – a mood at odds with the extended deep grieving Queen Victoria had been practicing since Prince Albert died two years before Dickinson wrote this poem. It is also at odds with the national mood as tens of thousands of soldiers were dying in Civil War battles. 
            The poem's central assumption is that the dead were not cherished in their lifetimes. But is that what Dickinson is really getting at? Perhaps she was thinking more broadly and the endowing and the cherishing aren't so tightly linked. A queen, for example, might devote herself to her people rather than her dead prince. Governments might forgo ritualized grieving for the dead, choosing instead to serve the living.

I don't really believe the poem can be read this way, however. I think it more likely that Dickinson sharpened her poetic wit in response to particular funerals and grievings in her very own Amherst.

19 October 2019

I started Early – Took my Dog –

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
Fr656 (1853)  J520

The poem begins as a simple account of the speaker's walk to the beach with her dog. But then the world comes alive in a fantastical way: mermaids swim to the surface to look at her. Frigates in the harbour seem to extend their anchoring ropes should she, like a mouse, want to scurry on board. She is the center of attention, gazing at an ocean alive with feelings and intent towards her.

          She stays, charmed, perhaps, at the wonders, unmoved until the intent culminates in a tidal wave rushing up. "[N]o Man moved Me", she says, until this tide floods first her shoes, then her skirt, then belt, and finally up to and past her "Boddice" – that is to say, her blouse or bosom. Feeling now as if the Tide would "eat me up", the speaker makes for the safety of a nearby town on higher ground.
But the Tide follows 'close behind' drenching her shoes with the pearls of his 'Silver Heel' until the 'Solid Town' is reached. Against this solidity the fluid sea curls up into itself, 'bowing – with a Mighty look', and withdraws.

            There are several ways to read the forking of this poem from the speaker's imaginative musings on the beach to the sense of danger that makes her flee. The simplest and most innocent is to read it as a girl/woman staying too long in an incoming tide with no one (no Man) compelling her to move to safety. In this reading the engulfing, following, and finally withdrawing Tide is just an extension of the Mermaids and friendly Frigates. Yes, the tide came up too high and she had to hightail it, but that (as many sea-goers know) is part of the fun. The towering, bowing wave looking at her at the end, caps the close call. All in all, a marvellous adventure at the beach.

            Another reading is that of the sexual awakening of a young woman. The transition from child to woman is allegorically portrayed as the shift in focus from companion dog, legendary mermaids and romantic frigates, to immersion in a sexualized tide. This immersion seems dangerous to the young woman, and she flees to the safety of the town whose people, she thinks, are strangers to this powerful tide. Yet she is not entirely safe. As she runs she feels the ocean's 'Silver Heel' close behind. A silver toe would seem less ominous, certainly more polite; yet the heel is not without allure. In an image of fear mixed with desire, it fills her shoes to overflowing with foamy 'Pearl'.  The final image, that of the Sea drawing up into a bowing wave and bestowing a 'Mighty look' before withdrawing, assures that this is not a one-time experience. The maiden must expect that Tide to come again and probably again – and not just for her 'simple Shoe'.

          A third reading would be a deeper allegory: just as a maiden might be seduced "As wholly as a Dew", so a poet who writes of the "divine intoxication / of the first league out from Land", risks the abyssal depths. The mermaids who look can also draw her down. The frigate can only extend its arms when she stands on shore. The town is her refuge only when she dwells in its confines. But Dickinson is not a poet who seeks refuge. She is more pelagic than terrestrial

I believe she writes with the mighty sea at her heels, overflowing her with Pearl.

Poems with the Ocean as love, the Beloved, and desire:
"Wild Nights – Wild Nights" where the poet, "Rowing in Eden", longs to moor in the sea of her beloved (Fr269)
"My river runs to thee –" where as a river, the speaker hopes the Sea will welcome and take her (Fr219)
In "He touched me, so I live to know",  the speaker writes of her beloved's arms as "a boundless place" that 'silenced' her "as the awful Sea / Puts minor streams to rest" (Fr349)
"The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea" depicts the subsuming nature of the lover's attraction to Beloved: "The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea – / Forgets her own localaity – / As I, in thee –" (Fr255)

Poems with the Ocean as poetic gifts and depths:
"'Tis little I – could care for Pearls –" where Dickinson declares, ''Tis little I – could care for Pearls – / Who own the Ample sea" (Fr597)
I'll clutch – and clutch –": the poet is diving for pearls, and although it is getting late, continues diving hoping that the next one "might be the golden touch" or maybe diamonds. The pearls maybe presents for a loved one – and also pearls and other treasures might be the poems brought up from the depths of the sea (Fr385)
"Exultation is the going" – where journeying out upon the ocean is to find 'divine intoxication' in its deep freedom and 'Eternity' (Fr143)
"Three times – we parted – Breath – and I –": Here the ocean is a great trial, almost drowning the speaker who emerges with sunrise stronger and alive (Fr514)
"Once more, my now bewildered Dove": In this poem the speaker 'flings 'Her troubled question' out over the ocean, the 'deep' for answers, one presumes, to deep questions (Fr65)

04 September 2019

He parts Himself — like Leaves —

He parts Himself — like Leaves —
And then — He closes up —
Then stands upon the Bonnet
Of Any Buttercup —

And then He runs against
And oversets a Rose —
And then does Nothing —
Then away upon a Jib — He goes —

And dangles like a Mote
Suspended in the Noon —
Uncertain — to return Below —
Or settle in the Moon —

What come of Him — at Night —
The privilege to say
Be limited by Ignorance —
What come of Him — That Day —

The Frost — possess the World —
In Cabinets — be shown —
A Sepulchre of quaintest Floss —
An Abbey — a Cocoon —
                                                                                            J 517 (1863)  Fr655

This riddle poem charms me. And I learned, well, relearned, something. By the final stanza of the poem I was visualizing butterflies – and why not? they are one of Dickinson's "B" triad along with Bees and Birds – but once I started thinking (and looking stuff up, let's face it) about that last line, I realized the creature had to be a moth. Butterfly caterpillars pupate as a chrysalis; it is the moth caterpillar that creates cocoons for its pupa. All that being said, however, since we usually see butterflies in the day, behaving just as Dickinson describes, and most moths come out at night, I don't think she was focusing on taxonomy here.  

I love the beginning of the poem: "He parts Himself – like Leaves –". It not only has a soft, lilting quality, but introduces a note of mystery. With "He," Dickinson plants the notion of a person parting himself. I lingered over the line before moving on. The idea of parting myself makes me think of body and soul, or two different personas. There's a fascination in the image, the leaf simile gentle and lovely.
            In the next line He is closing up. Still a mystery. But when the creature is revealed to be atop a buttercup, I knew it for a butterfly. We've all seen them among the flowers opening and closing their wings. It's a beautiful sight.

So begins a day in the life of a butterfly/Moth. It balances upon the buttercup to sip nectar. It must be fairly big, something in the order of the Cecropia silkmoth or an Eastern swallowtail, for when it flies to a rose it bowls it over. Undaunted, it heads for the sky, its triangular silhouette when it closes its wings reminiscent of a jib sail on a racing boat.

High in the air it pauses, "Suspended in the Noon" (such a wonderful phrase!) while contemplating whether to flutter back down to earth or fly up to the moon. Light as spirit, poised between two realms, the creature gives us a focal point to contemplate the same choice. Do we flit about the flowers, doing nothing if we choose – but oh so alive! Or do we follow the beckoning amber hands of the moon?


Photo by Srithern, on Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth stanza Dickinson waves away the bulk of lepidopteran life: moth laying eggs, eggs hatching, caterpillars pillaging the garden and, finally, weaving silken cocoons for shelter as they deconstruct and reconstruct themselves at the cellular level. She skips over all this, I think, because it's the last stanza's distilled image of the moth in its cocoon that is what she's after. The cocoon itself might be found either in the cabinets of collectors (and perhaps Dickinson was one) or in a protected cabinet-like nook outside.
             Moth-to-cocoon is a simple story, one of hibernation or even rebirth rather than transformation: the moth, it is implied, is ensconced in its silken swaddling, hopefully to emerge in spring.

It's the "hopefully" that Dickinson hints at in the last two lines. She uses two metaphors for the cocoon: "Sepulchre" and "Abbey". The first is an image of death and burial. The second, a church that typically has tombs, but also where resurrection and the afterlife are taught. Is the insect – are we – to be thought of as moldering in a grave or awaiting rebirth?

It's easy to skip over this rather somber reflection. Dickinson may have wanted to simply emphasize the cosiness of the cocoon and the pleasing image of the free-flying butterfly/moth tucked up for the night. But the poem ends with winter, its secret inside the cocoon inside a cabinet.