Beauty — be not caused — It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides –
Overtake the Creases
In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro' it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it –
J516, Fr 654 (1863)
Dickinson begins by presenting Beauty as an essence, something drawn from Plato's Forms, timeless and unchangeable. Our mortal senses, part of the physical world, recognize and respond to it, but we cannot create it, neither can we grab hold of it or otherwise own it. As Dickinson puts it, Beauty Is. The capitalization in 'Is' matters.
In Plato's Symposium, Socrates links love to our response to beauty and traces its evolution: at first, love is a response to the beauty of a particular body; it then becomes more generalized, seeing and loving beauty in all bodies. As we mature and become more wise we recognize the beauty in more abstracted things: Souls, laws and institutions, knowledge, and finally we recognize and love Beauty itself in its ideal form.
Some have also seen the first stanza as hearkening back to Keats' "Ode on a Grcian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." But I don't think Dickinson is making that point. If she is channeling anyone besides Plato (whose writing and philosophy would have been familiar to her, if not from her academic studies then from lectures and discussions), I think it would be Emerson.
It is Emerson the transcendentalist who seeks the still center where beauty abides, who writes, " within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related …" ("The Oversoul", 1841). Even more to Dickinson's point, he says that Beauty "cannot be handled. … It instantly deserts possession and flies to an object in the horizon" (The Conduct of Life, 1860).
But perhaps most in tune with Dickinson here is his depiction of Beauty as "hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky" (The Conduct of Life).
Having pretty much condensed the notion of ideal Beauty into three lines, Dickinson writes a pivot line, isolating it between the first three lines, preventing an initial quatrain, and the following quatrain to which it is linked by both grammar and sense.
However, cleave ultimately as it may to the second quatrain, "Overtake the Creases" is initially grasped as linked to the opening lines by means of the perfect rhyme of "Creases"with "ceases" and also because "Overtake" seems a continuation of chasing. But then we read on and find ourselves on a gusty day in a meadow creased by the fingers of the Wind. We might, for the sheer joy of it, for the beauty of it, try to overtake the Wind, but a "Deity" will make sure it never happens.
In isolation, "Overtake the Creases" is a wondrously ambiguous and mysterious phrase. What are the Creases, one wonders. I immediately thought of seams, of liminal space between one thing and another – between the physical and the ideal, the chasing and the not chasing. But then I meet the meadow and meaning wobbles. I've been pivoted from the third to the second person. I've moved from the abstract to the Real. I've come from the Ideal world into one with a Deity who might be the Christian God or who might be a casual symbol of the laws of nature.
If I look
at the poem on the page, my attention is drawn to that isolated imperative: Overtake the Creases. What I read
are two reasons not to: first, because Beauty disappears when pursued; second, because it is impossible to ever catch it. What is Dickinson really suggesting we do? Try to overtake? Or let it be? I think she is saying 'both' – or somehow just implanting the notion that sometimes, some critical time, we should go for the creases.