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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.