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22 September 2020

New Blogger format problem

Well, readers, Google has switched its Blogger over to a new format. I can't find anything about it that is improved, but that might be codgerism. Most all the changes are on the back end and not visible to readers. 

However, there is one thing and that is sad for me and the blog: I cannot place the pictures so that the text wraps around them. I love placing the pictures amid the text. Nonetheless, until something changes or I learn the trick (hoping there is a trick), I'll just put the pictures at the end. 

If any of you know a work-around (hack?) or a bonafide procedure, please let me know!

Thank you for your patience and any help -



21 September 2020

I could not prove the Years had feet –

I could not prove the Years had feet – 
Yet confident they run
Am I, from symptoms that are past
And Series that are done –

I find my feet have further Goals –
I smile opon the Aims
That felt so ample – Yesterday –
Today's – have vaster claims –

I do not doubt the self I was
Was competent to me –
But something awkward in the fit –
Proves that – outgrown – I see –
                                   Fr674 (1863)  J563

This reflection on time and personal growth is written in hymn form. You could sing it to the tune of 'Amazing Grace' (or 'The Yellow Rose of Texas', for that matter). The end rhymes are regular and unremarkable. In fact the 'me' and 'I see' rhymes in the last stanza feel a bit forced. The sentiment is unremarkable. Nevertheless, I like this poem. It is comfortable 

and warm, delivering a truth in an easy, contemplative tone. It lacks the twists and startlements that Dickinson is known and loved for, and the conceit of the years running by on feet is somewhat problematic, but I still like the poem.

The problem with the feet is that in the first stanza it is the Years that have the feet, and in the second stanza the feet belong to the speaker. But I shan't quibble. I like that it is the feet that have ambitious goals. And perhaps she is comparing the Years' feet to her own: the former marches on leaving symptoms and Series (events and chains of events) in its wake, knowable things that can be identified and discussed in past, present, and future vantages. Her own feet, however, look strictly to the future, heading out with Goals more vast than those that came before.

The poem ends with an inward turn: Yesterday's self was worthy and sufficient in its time, but it no longer fits. There's something 'awkward' about it, and although the speaker could not prove that the Years had feet, she finds that awkwardness proof that she has outgrown the former self with the simpler Goals.

17 September 2020

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!

 A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
Its fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – 'twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me. Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

                         Fr 673 (1863)  J400

This love poem tumbles out in a rush, mirroring the speaker's urgency in sending a message to her beloved. The first line reminds me of a town crier in the market square calling for a trusty boy for an important mission. It also reminds me of the hyperbole of Shakespeare's desperate King Richard III who famously shouted, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" The kingdom-for-horse trade is something like the goldmine-for message. The breathless speaker is willing to  squander not only gold, but diamonds and rubies to let her lover know that she will be faithful forever.

She seemingly cannot tell him herself, for the road to him is an 'Interdicted Way': strictly forbidden. Perhaps this is a secret affair and the speaker and lover cannot be seen together. And then there is the timing. Something happened, or at least began, at Midnight. And now, seemingly quite soon after, perhaps even the same day, the speaker is swearing eternal love –not delivered personally nor by a letter, but told by a private messenger.  
Dickinson might have had
Oliver Twist in mind

        The midnight mystery reminds me of  "A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be –"  where the speaker says, "At Midnight – I am but a Maid – / How short it takes to make a Bride" (Fr185). The rest of that poem hints at Death as the bridegroom, or perhaps Jesus come to escort the Soul, but although the sense of wonder and anticipation is similar, I read nothing in the current poem of seductive Death, or some joyful union with a Deity. In fact, part of the speaker's pledge to the beloved is that she will still be waiting for him after heaven disbands and the Deity is ended. Wow.
        The poem begins in excitement and then builds steam. She pauses for a moment in the fourth stanza in an aside to the anticipated Boy. She thinks of and asks Pardon for the Magnitude of what she is trying to say. She thinks it might be too much for one person, so lets him know he can get another Lad to help out. Now the first Boy gets diamonds and his helper 'solid gold' (but 'Rubies – if He hesitate').
And what is the message? In the second stanza she charges the messenger to 'speak it plain', but it seems anything but plain: 'so far – Truth is True?' The question mark probably results from the sentence construction beginning with 'Had Nature'. At any rate, the speaker is true and, at least so far, Truth is True. It's rather gnomic. 
        Next, in answer to a supposed question about what the speaker has been doing since that fateful midnight, the Ragged Child messenger is to begin with what she has done since 'That Night – begun', specifically at Midnight. 

But after all that about being true and Truth, and the supporting detail, the speaker instructs the messenger(s) to give her pledge of faithfulness. It is quite beautiful: when over geologic time the hills have eroded to plains, her commitment will just be beginning. When cosmic time itself runs out, if he looks for her he will see her, the 'Least Figure – on the Road.'  This last bit is in keeping with Dickinson's fondness for portraying herself as little, in poems and in letters (e.g., her self description to her Preceptor Thomas Higginson, "I am small, like the wren").

The poem is written in common hymn meter, using the short meter variant: instead of alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter, only the third line of each stanza is in tetrameter. Think of the hymn, 'Blessed be the tie that binds'. The third stanza breaks up the tetrameter line into two lines I think for dramatic purposes: 'Nay – Midnight – 'twas –' gets its own line and, indeed, it is a  dramatic line. You can picture the speaker stopping, thinking, and then giving the declaration.
The first stanza is an exception in that it is not in the short meter variant. The first line,  "A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!", needs all those syllables to kick the poem off – and it gets some extra energy from the 't' alliterations: Tongue, to tell, true. All those 't's and one syllable words – plus the exclamation point – just shout, 'Big News'!

The tone and subject remind me very much of 'Going to Him! Happy Letter!' written in 1862. It's also a 'Tell Him' message, but without the Ragged Boy. 

08 September 2020

Take your Heaven further on —

Take your Heaven further on —
This — to Heaven divine Has gone —
Had You earlier blundered in
Possibly, e'en You had seen
An Eternity — put on —
Now — to ring a Door beyond
Is the utmost of Your Hand —
To the Skies — apologize —
Nearer to Your Courtesies
Than this Sufferer polite —
Dressed to meet You —
See — in White!

Fr672 (1863)  J388

Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p.34-35) glosses that "the speaker regards herself as a sufferer who has put on Eternity and whose 'white' signifies renunciation and retirement from society." Along comes a caller looking for love's heaven and the speaker, 'like some modern Beatrice', informs him that he is too late; she is already there and unavailable for his 'profane purpose'.
Dickinson scholar David Preest takes this interpretation a bit farther and more specifically, suggesting that the poem is directed to Samuel Bowles. When the speaker scornfully tells him to 'ring a door beyond', she means him to go next door to the Evergreens where Austin and Sue Dickinson lived. Samuel Bowles was the distinguished owner/editor of the Springfield Republican and a lifelong friend of Austin (Emily's brother) and his wife, Sue (who shared a lifelong up-and-down often passionate friendship with Emily). Bowles was one of Dickinson's most significant friends; he is thought by many to have been a love interest despite his marriage.
Preest links this poem, as does Farr, to an 1863 letter from Bowles to Austin where Bowles snarks, "To the Queen Recluse my especial sympathy – that she has 'overcome the world' (a reference to I John 5:4-5). With such a comment in mind, it is satisfying to imagine Emily thumping out this poem to him.

Yet, plausible as these readings are, I see a corpse rather than a renunciate in the poem. I picture some poor fool blundering in too late at a death watch for a woman who clearly expected him to be present when she put on Eternity.
Having missed the critical moment, however, there is nothing left for him but to beat at the doors of heaven, the 'utmost' his tardy, mortal hand can reach. While he's at it, he should apologize to the Skies since they are closer to him and his 'Courtesies' than the dear departed.

The first line sets the scornful tone. The speaker dismissively tells the subject to move along, take his heaven later: the one he hoped for has died. That 'Take' is significant. The subject is not one to search or spend countless hours in prayer and supplication. He's a taker. Having missed this chance for heaven, he will have to grasp at another. Dickinson pointedly distinguishes between his heaven, a sort of prize, and that of the 'Sufferer polite' who has gone to 'Heaven divine'.
Her scorn deepens. Even with a timely arrival, he would have 'blundered in' like some boorish and uncouth swain. The following 'Possibly, e'en You had seen' the Sufferer don the heavenly mantle of Eternity implies the subject lacks the spiritual discernment expected at such a moment. Her comments about ringing 'a Door beyond' and apologizing to the skies are mocking.

To Farr and Preest the last lines suggest the speaker to be Dickinson herself – the poet, the Sufferer polite, dressed to meet him. The 'White!' emphasizes she is meeting him in purity and renunciation. He is too late for the more of-this-world Emily or even the Emily in transition. And now he should gather up his uncouth yearnings and leave.

I read the ending as the conclusion of the speaker's chastisement of the tardy boor. The dead woman had been waiting for him, maybe for weeks or even months. But now he shows up and the speaker tells him, "See, she's dressed to meet you. In White." That's an accusation. At best he failed to honor the solemnity of the death bed by taking his place amid the witness and company of friends and family. At worst, he himself contributed to the Sufferer's pain, perhaps even her death.

Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858
Although Dickinson was adopting white dress by the time of this poem, that in itself doesn't make a strong case that she is the Sufferer. White was a common if not traditional color for deathbed and burial gowns.

Dickinson uses trochaic tetrameter meter throughout the poem giving it an emphatic almost theatrical quality. The unstressed syllable at the end of the lines is dropped, emphasizing the end rhymes. This is particularly noticeable in the first two lines with 'on' and 'gone'. You can almost see the speaker standing over the dead woman's bed, gesturing. The last line has been divided for emphasis – and again I see the theatrics. It's a big reveal – and a major guilt trip.

30 August 2020

The sweetest Heresy received

 The sweetest Heresy received
That Man and Woman know –
Each Other's Convert –
Though the Faith accommodate but Two –

The Churches are so frequent –
The Ritual – so small –
The Grace so unavoidable –
To fail – is Infidel –
                                                            Fr671 (1863)  J387

I've read a few takes on this poem and really there are but two. The first is that Dickinson is playfully portraying a good marriage. Two people convert to each other and are so in love that nothing seems left for Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Heresy, maybe, but sweet.
        Their services and rituals together are so simple and easy that Grace between them in unavoidable. It would be a real act of denial to fail in the simple gestures of marriage. With 'Infidel', Dickinson cleverly implies that failing in such accommodations is not only another bit of heresy but one akin to infidelity.
Probably an illustration form an Austen book

Ah, but reading number two is much more fun. We're talking about marital bliss. The poem becomes clever rather than anodyne. The frequent 'Churches' suggest an alternative form of worship; the 'Ritual' is 'small' – nothing difficult or disagreeable here. Best of all, the resulting 'Grace' is 'unavoidable'. Marital bliss indeed. Only an 'infidel', a denier, would fail to achieve this Grace when the churches are so frequent and the ritual so small.

The poem is generally unremarkable. There is an odd line break in the first stanza: the third line is truncated, meter-wise, in favor of giving the last line a couple of extra feet. It makes poetic sense, however, delivering a sort of punch line.

I have to admit to enjoying "The Churches are so frequent" – as a bit of delicious naughtiness. And I like the way "To fail– is Infidel –" sounds.

22 August 2020

One Crucifixion is recorded – only –

One Crucifixion is recorded – only –
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics –
Or History –

One Calvary – exhibited to Stranger –
As many be
As persons – or Peninsulas –
Gethsemane –

Is but a Province – in the Being's Centre – 

Judea –
For Journey – or Crusade's Achieving –
Too near –

Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness –      
And yet —
There's newer — nearer Crucifixion
Than That —

                                                            Fr 670 (1863)  J553

The emotionally gripping New Testament accounts of Jesus' hours of anguished prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, his interrogation and torture, and finally his crucifixion on Mount Calvary are foundational to Christianity which holds that it was his sacrifice that enables Christian salvation. In this poem Dickinson universalizes that suffering as central to the human condition.  

It's a bold claim – she isn't limning the banality of 'everyone suffers' but that of feeling forsaken by God, being betrayed by a friend, and experiencing excruciating pain. While her legalistic language distances and creates irony, Dickinson plants "Gethsemane" firmly and visibly in the center and heart of the poem, plunging the reader into that garden where Jesus is described as agonizing in prayer and where his disciple Judas betrayed him for a small purse of silver coins. The New Testament story is worth including here: (Matthew 26: 36-50; NRSV;

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus went with [three of his disciples] to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[e] the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve [disciples], arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Let's go back to Dickinson's poem where she begins by setting a legalistic tone. Only 'One Crucifixion is recorded', she claims, then notes that there might be more that are 'not affirmed' by historians' reckonings. Likewise, there is only 'One Calvary' (the site outside the walls of Jerusalem where the crucifixion took place) that is 'exhibited' to Strangers such as tourists or pilgrims although there may be as many such sites as there are 'persons' or, oddly, 'Peninsulas'.

I find the line 'As persons – or Peninsulas –" pleasing with its alliteration, iambic tetrameter, and oddness. It certainly stands out from the dryer legal-ish language. But what does it mean? Perhaps Dickinson is establishing a range. Every person might have their Calvary – or maybe only as many as there are peninsulas (which could be hundreds of thousands if the smallest are counted, or only dozens if only the largest).
            Following 'Peninsulas', the second stanza ends a one-word line: 'Gethsemane' (like 'Peninsulas', a word with two iambic feet). 'Gethsemane' continues the aurally pleasing rhythm and graceful sound, but its dark evocations take us viscerally back to that one garden and that one night. The deep irony in the poem springs from Dickinson's use of legal diction in reference to what has become known as the Passion of Christ ('passion' here refers back to its Latin origen of 'suffering').
            Readers then cross one of the most significant white-space gulfs in Dickinson's oevre. 'Gethsemane' isn't merely finishing off stanza two as a restatement of 'Calvary', but is also, indeed primarily, the subject of the sentence that begins the third stanza. It is that white space between stanzas, 'Gethsemane' perched on its edge, that induces a hesitation. The lovely syllables roll out, enhanced by the preceding 'Peninsulas', conjuring the Passion as it hangs for a moment in our thoughts and imaginings and memories. But as we continue on into the third stanza, we find that Gethsamane is 'but a Province – in the Being's Centre –'.

Here is a rather breathtaking thought: supplication to a Deity is central to our being, as the realization that we may be betrayed by those closest to us. In our personal Gethsemanes we are naked of power except for the power of acceptance, to be able to say, "Your will be done." But that isn't the whole of our Being's Centre. Dickinson specifies that Gethsemane is 'but a Province'. It is not the entirety of the Centre. Further, Judea (the province in the Holy Land where events transpired) is not even worth a pilgrimage let alone a Crusade. It lies within. It is 'Too near'. A 'newer – nearer Crucifixion / Than That –  ' can be found.

While the sacrifice and suffering of the human Jesus is central to Christianity, Dickinson argues that crucifixions abound, that existential anguish is central to the human experience. We do not need to project everything onto Jesus or to visit the sites of his sufferings. While Jesus, 'Our Lord', gave abundant 'Witness' to the truths contained in suffering and transcending suffering, we may discover them for ourselves by looking within.

I'm very moved by this poem. It lingers in me. I am not confident that I have given the 'right' interpretation of this poem. In fact, I surely have not. But what I have written is how the poem opens for me at this time. I welcome reader comments (as always) and discussion.

21 July 2020

An ignorance a Sunset

An ignorance a Sunset
Confer upon the Eye –
Of Territory – Color –
Circumference – Decay

Its Amber Revelation
Exhilarate – Debase –
Omnipotence’ inspection
Of Our inferior face –

And when the solemn features
Confirm – in Victory –
We start – as if detected
In Immortality –
Fr669 (1863)  J552

In many poems Dickinson describes sunset colors and clouds in dazzling precision; in others she creates evocative and sometimes playful metaphors out of sunset scenes. They inspire her almost rapturous delight as well as her musings. This poem's sunset is different, however, for in addition to the dimming of the landscape, its shapes and colors, it also reveals, inspects, and confirms. It's clearly not an ordinary setting of the sun.

The first stanza starts out with everyday sense: our eyes have more trouble making things out at sundown. But then Dickinson ends the stanza with '—Decay'. It's an unexpected and jarring word – and also ambiguous. Why and how Decay? What decays? 
        One way of reading this first stanza is that while Territory and Color become difficult to make out, Circumference decays. 'Circumference' is a key word in many Dickinson poems and Dickinson uses it to mean various things, from the globe of the planet to "the all-encompassing circle of existence" (ED Lexicon). In this poem, I think it takes the latter meaning but in a personal sense and with it Dickinson pivots from sunset to thoughts of death.
photo by AnnaWaraksa (
        In the second stanza we find the sun standing for God's ("Omnipotence') face inspecting us as we submit, as we must, to our approaching death. What the inspection yields is an 'Amber Revelation'. Both words of the term resonate: 'Amber' as both the twilight color of the sun as well as the fossilized tree resin in which small insects might be trapped and preserved. 'Revelation' serves both as an unveiling, a discovery – and also as a reminder of the Christian Biblical book of Revelations that depicts Judgment Day.
        And it is in fact the day of our judgment. The Amber Revelation is not so much that we find we are dying, our circumference beginning its decay, but what is revealed when Omnipotence – God – inspects us. What the sun's mighty and divine face finds will either Exhilarate or Debase us. 
        Dickinson ends the poem on the Exhilaration side. When the divine Sun, far from conferring ignorance, confirms salvation, we are not only exhilarated but startled to discover our immortality.

That 'as if detected' adds a bit of ambiguity to the poem. It casts us back to the beginning again. Has the poet been caught in a reverie? As she watches the sun set does she imagine it is watching her, too? With divine intent? I imagine her shiver with a start – that she has had a brush, an encounter, with the Divine.

04 July 2020

There is a Shame of Nobleness –

There is a Shame of Nobleness –
Confronting Sudden Pelf –
A finer Shame of Exstasy –
Convicted of Itself –

A best Disgrace – a Brave Man feels –
Acknowledged – of the Brave —
One More – "Ye Blessed" – to be told –
But that's – Behind the Grave –
                                                            Fr668 (1863)  J551

In this nice and clever poem, Dickinson ironically depicts a progression of Shames – and 'shame' here is a feeling of embarrassment, shyness, or modesty (per ED Lexicon)

First up is the "Shame of Nobleness – / Confronting Sudden Pelf." An old-fashioned word, 'pelf' represents wealth and riches, or even praise and recognition (ED Lexicon again), with the understanding that they are ill-gotten or undeserved. The shame a noble nature would feel upon reception of riches and praise would be a modest conviction that such blessings are undeserved.
            Next is the "Shame of Exstasy – / Convicted of itself." This would be the 'finer' perhaps more intense embarrassment or shyness experienced after transcendent or transporting experiences. I picture a poet, mystic, or music lover lost in some higher realm and then shaking their heads when returning to the quotidian self as if wondering how such ecstasy could be afforded such a one as themselves.
Civil War Medal of Honor recipient
William Harvey Carney
            In a nod, perhaps, to the soldiers battling the Confederacy during the Civil War, Dickinson labels as 'best' the 'Disgrace' (Shame) that a Brave Man might feel being acknowledged as such by others he considers brave. While some might feel pride and a swelling ego at receiving something like the Medal of Honor, Dickinson implies that modesty is far more to be admired. The contrast between courage and bravery on the battlefield or elsewhere and shy modesty is profound and that might be why it is the best of the shames.

There is one final opportunity for admirable Shame or Disgrace but that comes only after death. The "Ye Blessed" is Dickinson's shorthand for a passage from the New Testament's Matthew 25: 34-36, where in end times, those who tended the poor and lowly are separated from those who did not and invited to the kingdom of heaven:

"34 Then shall the King [Jesus] say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Dickinson's reference to this passage culminates the poem's celebration of modesty. It is not, typically, those puffed up by wealth and fame, those who flaunt their spiritual or artistic transports, or those who swagger and boast of their exploits who take in strangers and visit prisoners. Neither do they find themselves, ultimately, on the right hand side of the Judgment throne.

Dickinson writes here in straightforward hymn or ballad form with the second and fourth lines ending in perfect rhymes. This is rather exceptional for Dickinson, but this is a short poem and expresses rather straightforward and accepted opinions.

28 June 2020

Answer July —

Answer July —
Where is the Bee —
Where is the Blush —
Where is the Hay?

Ah, said July —
Where is the Seed —
Where is the Bud —
Where is the May —
Answer Thee — Me —

Nay — said the May —
Show me the Snow —
Show me the Bells —
Show me the Jay!

Quibbled the Jay —
Where be the Maize —
Where be the Haze —
Where be the Bur?
Here — said the Year —
                                                              Fr667 (1863)  J386

In this playful wisdom poem Dickinson puts on her Gardener's gloves and her Philosopher's hat. Blending a Buddhist-like Cause and Conditions theme with her preferred vantage of Circumference, Dickinson depicts a year from the vantage of field and garden. Each season depends on conditions in the previous and all are encompassed in the circuit of a Year.
What gives this poem a fresh and sprightly virility are its meter and repetitions. The dimeter lines comprise a trochee and an iamb but the effect is dactylic with a stressed word at the end. Add strings of imperatives to this strongly rhythmic structure and the poem practically hurtles to its end when the gentle and parental Year shushes the quibblers with reassurance.

The poem unfolds as a small, interrogative drama. Autumn begins by demanding that July (standing for Summer) account for her Bees, the Blushes on ripened fruit, and the harvest-ready grass. For what would Autumn be without the harvest and the honey?  July punts the question back to Spring by demanding May account for her seeds and buds. After all, they produce the grass and flowers that attract the bees.
May doesn't answer except to now demand answers about winter from the Jay, a common overwintering bird in Massachusetts. Her bulbs and fruit trees, along with many early flowers and crops, require an extended period of cold to bloom and set fruit. 
The blue jay turns querulously to autumn about her corn maize, misty haze, and "Bur" --  the stubble and remains of harvest (ED Lexicon). Blue jays depend on bur and corn for food, and winter can hardly be expected to deliver Spring's material without the gifts of Autumn. At this point the "Year," steps in. It is all here, she soothes the quibblers. I encompass it all. 

This ripening of parts into a cyclical whole is an agrarian model and one into which Dickinson would have been deeply steeped. The Dickinsons had a small working farm with animals, fruit trees, grains, and vegetable gardens. Emily was well known as a skilled gardener. She was a knowledgeable gardener by the age of eleven, she studied botany at college, had her own glass conservatory, and tended the flower gardens and shrubs. 

Restored garden at Dickinson homestead
Many of Dickinson's poems are about plants and seasons; their mood and tone range from solemn to ecstatic to riddling. This poem stands alone in its bold and cheeky tone. Dickinson ends each short line with a stressed one-syllable word and this emphasizes the interrogative voice. "Where is the Bee" is much more emphatic a question than, say, "Where is the Iris". It's not just the line-ending words: the entire poem is almost entirely written with one-syllable words. I count only five that have more, and they only have two. 
The short, driving meter; the rhymes and repetitions all reinforce the rhythms of the year. Long-'a' rhymes are sprinkled throughout the poem: Hay, May, Nay, May, Jay, Jay; along with Maize and Haze. Long-'e' rhymes include Bee, Seed, Thee, Me, me (3), and be (3). There's also Snow and Show (3) and the beautiful end rhyme of Here and Year. As for repetitions, 'Where' is repeated nine times and 'Show me' three. 

The poem is direct and fun. I picture Dickinson reading it – acting it out – to young children. The seasons themselves are presented as children, each pointing the finger at another. The parental Year is given only one word to say, but ends the poem with gentle authority.


31 May 2020

I cross till I am weary

I cross till I am weary
A Mountain — in my mind —
More Mountains — then a Sea —
More Seas — And then
A Desert — find —

And My Horizon blocks
With steady — drifting — Grains
Of unconjectured quantity —
As Asiatic Rains —

Nor this — defeat my Pace —
It hinder from the West
But as an Enemy's Salute
One hurrying to Rest —

What merit had the Goal —
Except there intervene
Faint Doubt — and far Competitor —
To jeopardize the Gain?

At last — the Grace in sight —
I shout unto my feet —
I offer them the Whole of Heaven
The instant that we meet —

They strive — and yet delay —
They perish — Do we die —                                     [They] stagger
Or is this Death's Experiment —
Reversed — in Victory?
                                                          Fr666 (1863)  J 550

In this existential quest poem, the speaker explores the daunting landscape of her mind as if it presented innumerable obstacles to Heaven. At the end, she wonders if her death is final or if she will be saved by "the Grace" she never quite embraced.

I find it helpful to consider the poem in a Calvinist context. Of another Dickinson poem that depicts a similar struggle (Fr634), I write, " The concept of Grace in Dickinson's time and place was rooted in Calvinist covenant theology, and the Covenant of Grace stipulates that Christians are saved by faith and that grace is necessary for faith." This belief was fundamental to a religious revival sweeping New England about the time Dickinson was twenty. The movement inspired participants, including Emily Dickinson's family and friends, to join the church—and to do that required a public declaration of belief in Christ. Emily never did so although faith, God, and salvation were themes she explored – from various angles – throughout her life.
        Considered this way, I see the poem as a pilgrim's progress through doubts, confusions and other obstacles to find saving Grace. But with a typical Dickinsonian twist, her own feet betray her, fatally delaying her encounter with Grace. The poem ends with the trenchant question: will this failure result in a final Death; or, rather cynically (as the Lexicon suggests), has it all been some sort of test? Rather than failure, will the pilgrim will attain Heaven / Victory, after all? That eloquent, universal question mark is a fitting ending.

Dickinson biographer Richard Sewell suggests this poem was inspired by a sermon given by Charles Wadsworth – a Philadelphia clergyman highly respected and renowned for his oratory. Dickinson would have heard Wadsworth when she visited Philadelphia in 1855. They met and established a bond that endured for years, even after he relocated to San Francisco.
        The following passage from a sermon Wadsworth gave in 1869, employs the same imagery and theme of Dickinson's 1863 poem. He may well have used this material in earlier sermons that Dickinson heard about or read, for Wadsworth was well attended and his sermons widely reported. It is also likely that both he and Dickinson were influenced in imagery from reports of intrepid Victorian explorers such as David Livingstone and Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Do you think that God, who brought prophets and apostles to heaven through struggles and conflicts, and a great fight of afflictions, will lower down the standard in our behalf, and award us a crown of glory if we strain not toward the goal? Why look ye! Far away over the desert, up where the mountains are piercing the skies, shine the palaces of immortality7! And if we attain to them in triumph at all, these deserts must be traversed, these stormy waters crossed, these mountains ascended!" (Sewell p.458.  and Sermons, Charles Wadsworth, "The One Idea," 1869, p.32).

All that being said, let's just take a journey through the poem.

The first stanza has a rocking quality with its iambic meters, the repetitions of m's in Mountain, mind, Mountains, and More; the repetition of 'Sea – / More Seas – whose long e sounds rock back rhymingly to the 'weary' of the first line. We see the voyager traversing repeating land- and seascapes; it is wearying but lulling. The rocking quality ends, however, at the end of the stanza when a 'Desert' with its barren geology and harsher 'd' sound is encountered. Emphasizing this break, Dickinson breaks what should be a tetrameter line into two dimeters. After this jolt, the rest of the stanzas will regularize into iambic trimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, trimeter.
        With the Desert comes a sandstorm whose unimaginable quantities of blowing sand obscures the speaker's vision. Gone are the vistas from mountain peaks or the endless realm of blue seas with their domes of sky. While seas and mountains are obstacles of endurance, the blowing desert sands create confusion.
        She is not defeated in her progress, however. The hindering sandstorm is more Salute – recognition from an enemy for a worthy opponent – than severe impediment. She is headed West, the sunset direction of rest, death, and Heaven.

        Reflecting on her journey, the speaker wonders about the merit of achieving a Goal without any doubt or a 'far Competitor' to put it in jeopardy. Although the passage is not clear and has been interpreted in various ways, I read the far Competitor to be a force competing against Grace rather than the speaker. Perhaps it is attachment to Life rather than to some Afterlife. Dickinson wrote, in those revival days, “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die” (L13). The Competitor might, more obviously but to my thinking less likely, be temptations (including that of poetry) that displace more sanctified pursuits. It might simply be that old adversary Satan. It is a difficult passage and I am open to suggestions from readers!
        Finally Grace is in sight, but the speaker seems exhausted. She urges her tired feet onward, claiming salvation for them, eternal life, the "Whole of Heaven,"  as soon as Grace is met. The feet strive to respond, "and yet delay." While the speaker seems more than willing to encounter Grace and enter Heaven, at the end she holds back, unable to will herself to this Christian/Calvinist promise. There will be no deathbed conversion. And so the body, signified by the feet, perishes. But does the 'we' of self and soul die?  Or has this been just an experiment of Death, a test, that will be reversed by Grace into Victory?
        Victory in death in Christian theology is related to the paradox of the fortunate fall by which humanity has to fall before it can rise. Our ultimate inability to know whether death is "Reversed – in Victory" is what makes the quest matter. To simply adopt unquestioning faith is to trivialize it. And so the poem ends as it must with a question mark.

26 April 2020

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –
But wrought their Pang in syllable –
That when their mortal name be numb –
Their mortal fate – encourage Some –

The Martyr Painters  – never spoke –
Bequeathing – rather – to their Work –
That when their conscious fingers cease –
Some seek in Art – the Art of Peace –
                                                            Fr665 (1863)  J544

In this hymn-like poem Dickinson pairs "Martyr" Poets and Painters who, like religious martyrs who died rather than betray their beliefs, died to this world so that their works might live. She uses the past tense throughout the poem, so presumably is thinking of poets and painters past rather than present or future.

These artistic martyrs poured their souls into compositions rather than conversations: the Poets 'did not tell' and the Painters 'never spoke'. They also spent their health. We know from her letters that Dickinson admired John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – both poets associated with the Romantic Movement and both of whom kept writing through poverty and the illnesses that consumed them. Both wrote poems about truth and beauty.
Posthumous portrait of John Keats, William Hilton 
            In "On a Grecian Urn", Keats embodies that urge to 'seek in Art – the Art of Peace'. The poet describes the painting on the urn and how its depictions 'dost tease us out of thought', concluding with the famous lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
            In Browning's "A Vision of Poets" the foreheads of true poets were 'royal with the truth'. They gave their lives for their work; they did not compromise for fame or popularity even if they starved for it. 'These were poets true", she writes, "who died for Beauty, as martyrs do / for Truth – the ends being scarcely two."

It's hard to know just which poets and painters Dickinson might have had in mind. I couldn't find any Dickinson scholars who discussed it. Neither does the poem delve into or offer much in the way of artistic aesthetics or content that might engender martyrdom. It is likely enough that the self-sacrifice of health, popularity, and material comfort might be what she intends.

The poem is written in a different meter than Dickinson typically employs. Rather than the common hymn meter of much of her poems (four-line stanzas alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter and rhyming abcb), this one is all in iambic tetrameter with an aabb rhyme. Although I don't particularly like this poem I do very much enjoy the first two lines with the tell / syllable rhyme.

22 April 2020

Rehearsal to Ourselves

Rehearsal to Ourselves
Of a Withdrawn Delight —
Affords a Bliss like Murder —
Omnipotent — Acute —

We will not drop the Dirk —
Because We love the Wound
The Dirk Commemorate — Itself
Remind Us that we died –
                                                            FR664 (1863)  J379

In this short and powerful poem Dickinson addresses readers directly using the first-person plural. We are all, she implies, familiar with the behavior pattern of rehashing / rehearsing a deep grief or pain resulting from a 'Withdrawn Delight'.
            One ambiguity at the heart of the poem is whether someone else did or caused the withdrawing or whether it was the 'we' who self sacrificed. Neither do we know the least bit about the Delight – what category of pleasure it might belong to, for example; or whether it was something frequently savored or a unique delight interrupted. I don't think any of these questions, however, are germane: Dickinson is more interested in what it feels like and why we do it.

What does rehearsing the Withdrawal of the Delight feel like? A "Bliss like Murder – / Omnipotent – Acute." Okay, so that's a line worth thinking about. 'Omnipotent' is a word associated with the Christian God: All-Powerful. It also might mean 'overpowering' in this context, the biblical deity association adding resonance. 'Acute' here would mean 'intense'. The ED Lexicon adds to that, 'penetrating' and 'sharp'. The 'Bliss', then, would be intense and powerful – sharp and overpowering. Could a murder feel like that? It might, and it might in the exact moment feel like that no matter which end of the knife is involved. It doesn't surprise me that Dickinson's imagination takes her to even this dark place.
            But even if Murder does feel like that, how does simply rehearsing it arouse the same sensations? Her explanation lies in the second stanza. We keep experiencing the Bliss because "We will not drop the Dirk." We keep probing with it because "We love the Wound." We don't want it to heal. If we have one great focus in life, one great love, then to lose it would mean the death of something central to us. With Dirk in hand we can remember the intense moment when what we most delighted in was no longer accessible to us. We can ache with what might have been, what should or could have been. We are truly alive. That is why the Dirk is kept. It keeps the Wound – and us, alive.

The Dirk is not only murderous but a commemoration of the murder. We are introduced to the idea of death by the word 'Murder' in the first stanza. We then meet the Dirk and, finally, in the last line, death. The Withdrawn Delight caused a type of death; reliving the deep pain is like pressing ourselves against the dagger. The pain is real and reminds us not only that we died – but that we live.

The bird that presses her breast
against the thorn to sing
This is the opposite of the 'formal feeling' that comes 'after the great pain' in poem Fr372. There the feeling is like a 'Quartz contentment, like a stone –." I don't know how Dickinson could travel from a 'formal feeling' to a 'Bliss like Murder' in the space of one year, but I am not surprised. She was surgical in exploration of human emotion and response and she didn't hesitate to operate on herself. She may have experienced both or neither of the responses to great pain but it didn't matter because one of her great poetic gifts is to truly see the unclothed self.

I also think that she was imaginatively engaged by material from her books on saints, her Bible, her Shakespeare, classics, and poets. I am very tempted to read this poem as a response to the legend of nightingales that lean into thorns to inspire their beautiful, plaintive songs. While one branch of this legend comes from Persia where the nightingale presses its breast against a rose thorn because of unrequited love for the flower, another comes from Ovid's Metamorphosis (Book 6) where king Tereus cuts off his sister-in-law Philomela's tongue after raping her. The gods ultimately turn her into a nightingale. In Sydney's poem "The Nightingale", which Dickinson might very well have been familiar with, he refers to the nightingale who "Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making."

Just so, the dagger and the Bliss – and the emotions strong as murder to remind us all that we are alive.

11 April 2020

I fear a Man of frugal Speech –

I fear a Man of frugal Speech —
I fear a Silent Man —
Haranguer — I can overtake —
Or Babbler — entertain —

But He who weigheth — While the Rest —
Expend their furthest pound —
Of this Man — I am wary —
I fear that He is Grand —
                                                                   Fr663 (1863)  J543

This poem asks to be read aloud. The hymn meter (alternating iambic tetrameter / iambic trimeter lines) is, for Dickinson, highly regular and the slant rhymes not too slant. The poem trips lightly on its poetic feet, contributing to the tone of its dry, ironic wit. The irony, of course, is in presenting the silent, thoughtful man as the man to fear.

I'm rather with Dickinson on this one. When I was a lass and even Dickinson's 33 years when she penned this, I too was a bit wary of the 'Man of frugal Speech' who weighed his words. It's much easier, even fun, to parlay with the ones who present themselves with an argument to confront or the ones who enjoy friendly banter. I would indeed be afraid I'd be deemed a haranguer or babbler to Dickinson's Silent Man. My own burbled-out thoughts – even if not babbling or haranguing –  might be found wanting.
The last line of the poem provides the rationale for the speaker's fear: The Silent Man might be frugal with speech because he may be 'Grand' – that is to say, per the essential Emily Dickinson Lexicon, 'noble' or 'lofty'. He thinks before he speaks; he weighs his words and the words of others. He, no doubt, is not the popular guest, although perhaps the most respected.
            Dickinson uses a metaphor of commerce in this last stanza. As one might weigh the goods before expending money on them, so one can weigh thoughts before expending words on them. The Haranguer and Babbler (and most of us) will squander words, spend them all at the drop of a hat ('Expend their furthest pound'), while the Man of frugal Speech ponders words: are they relevant? True? of Value?

Edward Dickinson: Emily's father, Amherst
College Treasurer, and US Congressman   
I wonder if this poem expresses some of Dickinson's feelings towards her father, Edward Dickinson. Perhaps the foremost citizen of Amherst and practically essential to its well-being, he was known for his rectitude, character, and  dignity. In a sermon that eulogized him after his death, Reverend Jonathan L. Jenkins said that "our friend and father was a silent man" (The Life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall, p.68).

            Having been raised by a serious and taciturn man, Dickinson would know about the depth; she would know about the contrast between such a person and the ones with clever prattle. But despite the many words written about how oppressive it must have been in the Dickinson household, it must always be remembered that Emily Dickinson adored her home, hated to be away from it, and in her letters frequently expressed her joy and appreciation for the entire family as a unit – including her father.

04 April 2020

I had no Cause to be awake—

I had no Cause to be awake—
My Best—was gone to sleep—
And Morn a new politeness took—
And failed to wake them up—
But called the others—clear—
And passed their Curtains by—
Sweet Morning—when I oversleep—
Knock—Recollect—to Me—

I looked at Sunrise—Once—
And then I looked at Them—
And wishfulness in me arose—
For Circumstance the same—

'Twas such an Ample Peace—
It could not hold a Sigh—
'Twas Sabbath—with the Bells divorced—                        [Bells] reversed
'Twas Sunset—all the Day—                                              ['Twas] Sundown

So choosing but a Gown—
And taking but a Prayer—
The Only Raiment I should need—
I struggled—and was There—
                                                            Fr662 (1863)  J542

Jine Wang, a Chinese scholar, writes that this poem is among those where Dickinson espouses suicide as a "possible solution to pain."  I've struggled against that reading but without complete success. The last stanza seems to suggest, at least superficially, that the speaker waged a successful struggle to join the dear departed in a peaceful, eternal Sabbath sunset.
            The poem boldly begins with the opposition of those who will not wake to those whom Morn awakens -- and the speaker wondering why she/he is awake. She feels no reason to rise when her 'Best' lay buried. The year this poem was written, 1863, saw some of the war's bloodiest battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga. So while the Best might be friends and family, they might instead be Civil War dead. We do not know.
            We also do not know who the speaker is. Dickinson makes it clear that when she writes in first person "it does not mean – me– but a supposed person" (L268). Except for the Gown at the end, the speaker might be a soldier thinking of his fallen comrades. She might be a grieving woman Dickinson read about or imagined, or someone who has lead a hard and difficult life. Or herself. But what is common to all is the yearning for peace.
Civil War ambulance: the roof unrolls into side 'curtains'
The first stanza, two stanzas compressed into one, looks from the present to both the past and the future. The speaker wakes in the present but then thinks of those whom Morn quietly passes by – a 'new politeness' towards the newly dead. The 'curtains' of the dead might be grave clothes or crypts or it might be the curtains on funeral and ambulance wagons. Then the speaker addresses Morn directly about a future time when she herself (or he) will 'oversleep'. Don't pass me by then, she asks; instead, Knock and remind me about how I once felt about death, or at least about a death-like state
            The next two stanzas are the story of those feelings. They start with another morning. The speaker looks at the Sunrise and then looks at 'Them' – the same 'them', presumably, who are the sleepers in the first stanza: the dead. When she regards the sleepers she wishes she were in their circumstances: the Peace is so pervasive, so full, that it 'could not hold a Sigh.' It was a Sunday but instead of church bells ringing in both morning and evening, they rang only at night – it was 'Sunset – all the Day'.

This introduces the poem's contrast between morning and evening – the beginning of life and ventures and actions versus the letting go into timeless sleep and death. In a transcendental sense, this isn't the sleep of the dead waiting in their silk-lined coffin for some distant Resurrection ("Safe in their alabaster chambers –" Fr124), but rather the cessation of striving and suffering. Nor is it a space of negation but rather of ampleness. It is into this eternal Ample Peace that the speaker, with only Gown and Prayer, has struggled to arrive. It is the making of this decision that she asks 'Sweet Morning' to remind her of.
One reading of this poem, and one that avoids the complications of past, present, and future in the reading I just described, is that the speaker struggled to enter the Amplitude not through death but through a meditative or trance state.

Frankly, Reader, none of my thinkings and jottings, and squintings and analyzings lead me confidently through the stories in this piece. Like so many of Dickinson's poems, it is enigmatic at the core, its meanings kaleidoscopic. I welcome your thoughts.

28 March 2020

Some such Butterfly be seen

Some such Butterfly be seen
On Brazilian Pampas —
Just at noon — no later — Sweet —
Then — the License closes —

Some such Spice — express – and pass —
Subject to Your Plucking —
As the Stars — You knew last Night —
Foreigners — This Morning —
                                                            F661 (1863)   J541

This poem buries a sharp edge within its lilting meter. It seems at first like a poetical and philosophical comment on life: what is once beautiful, fragrant, and mysterious becomes lost, diminished, or altered over time. We are attracted to what is rare and ephemeral and should not even try to capture or categorize it.
A real Brazilian Pampas butterfly: Stichelia pelotensis
            Yet the 'Sweet' and the 'Your' suggest the speaker is writing to someone specific about herself and their  relationship. The speaker is reclusive, like a shy and rare butterfly. To see it requires diligence and patience. She offers a gentle warning to her 'Sweet' that if she seeks this butterfly she must be present at a certain place by a certain time – before 'the License closes'.  
            She also reminds Sweet to not be greedy. While Sweet might enjoy the fragrance of a flower on its stem for as long as the flower lives, distilling it for perfume kills the flower. It might be best to take what fragrance the flower freely gives.

Dickinson depicts perfume-making more explicitly, even brutally, a few years later:
Essential oils are wrung:  
The attar from the rose  
Is not expressed by suns alone,  
It is the gift of screws.                  (F772)    

In the last lines of the poem, the speaker suggests that what seemed true and real and present by night might be quite different by morning – or not seen at all. Sweet should take what is true in the moment and not build expectations into it – especially if the moment involves the night sky with its mysterious and romantic stars.

I'm not sure if trying to fit these images into Dickinson's biography is useful. I don't think they really fit, for one thing, and it isn't necessary to fit them for another. The seeker and the elusive sought, the perfumer and the used up petals, the nighttime lover versus the daytime are all common literary tropes. Dickinson would have encountered them in Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Wordsworth.