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04 September 2021

When Night is almost done –

When Night is almost done – 
And Sunrise grows so near 
That We can touch the Spaces – 
It’s time to smooth the Hair – 

And get the Dimples ready – 
And wonder We could care 
For that Old – faded Midnight – 
That frightened – but an Hour – 
                                     FR 679 (1863) J347 
 
This is a delightful poem no matter how many times and in how many ways you read it. The meter and diction are simple and common. This is not a flashy, hair-on-the-neck-rising Dickinson poem, but one presenting a disarming metaphor of Night and Sunrise. It’s imagery is feminine and fresh. Probably all the great poets devote lines to the welcome transformation of Night into Day at Sunrise, but have any of them ever advised the reader to prepare for the event by primping? 

There are several ways one might read the poem and its symbolism. 

 In the first and simplest, the poem is a rather literal sketch of morning ritual. During the dark of night we sleep and dream and sometimes those dreams are frightening or disturbing. When the sun comes up, the dreams and fears fade and it’s time to do the hair, warm up the smile, and wind up that positive attitude. We gain daylight confidence as the world becomes tangible. We can now see what is around us, recognize things and the space between things. We can reach and grasp, unlike in the dark where we grope and fumble. 

A second reading speaks to the human condition and mythos. Two realms, light and dark, comprise our lives. Every day involves a journey towards night with its dark dreamings. Each night brings us back to where Sunrise illuminates the world. Light is consciousness – we recognize and can ‘touch the Spaces’, whereas night’s darkness is the realm of the subconscious. We cannot touch anything in its dark mysteries. This cycle between dark and light continues throughout our lives. Its rhythms and imagery pervade our myths and stories. The Underworld is sketched as dark while Heaven is filled with light. No wonder we fix our hair and make a smile: these small gestures are transitional acts of faith that light follows dark as surely as spring follows winter. 

A third reading is a teaching metaphor on how to face death. We fear the dimming of the light of life and we particularly fear our final Midnight. But Dickinson reminds us that Sunrise comes, that we had nothing to be afraid of, that night/death is but a doorway into Sunrise – life beyond death. We experience a different existence, one palpable and real; even Space is real. As this transitional moment approaches, it’s time to fix ourselves up and be ready. 

I like this third reading and note that Dickinson does not have us praying or repenting or calling out to God. Instead, she keeps the light touch. We ready ourselves to meet our Maker by patting the hair and going full-dimple smile. 

Dickinson could have written this in iambic pentameter rather than iambic trimeter for a more stately effect. But the hair and dimple instructions are just too playful and the short lines underscore that. They also create a clever irony in the gravity of the topic (if readings two or three are taken) and its poetic treatment.

18 August 2021

Not probable — The barest Chance —

Not probable — The barest Chance —
A smile too few — a word too much
And far from Heaven as the Rest —
The Soul so close on Paradise —

What if the Bird from journey far —
Confused by Sweets — as Mortals — are —
Forget the secret of His wing
And perish — but a Bough between —
Oh, Groping feet —
Oh Phantom Queen!
                                                    Fr678 (1863) J346

The poem begins as if expostulated or even hissed through clenched teeth: ‘Not probable’. That opening trochee (poetic foot of two stressed syllables) signals the speaker’s emotion. She feels shut out by her loved one for the thinnest of reasons. It is a poem of frustration and provides no hope that love will triumph in the end. 

What is improbable to the speaker is being cast back with the rest of the infatuates simply because of a missed smile or an extra word. The speaker downplays these small missteps, fairly or not. She had been ahead of the ‘Rest’, closer to ‘Heaven’ and now she is not. I find ‘Heaven’ coupled with the phrase ‘The Soul so close on Paradise’ almost predatory as if the speaker were circling the object of her desire, closer and closer until, right on the heel, she is rebuffed. Her response is not contrition, self examination, or renewed fervor, but a blaming of the beloved. 

To be fair, I can also, even more easily, read the first stanza as reminiscent of Dickinson’s poems about bees and the nectar they seek. In “Come slowly – Eden!” Dickinson’s circling Bee is ‘Bashful’, ‘fainting’ – and finally rewarded by entrance into the flower’s ‘chamber’ to be ‘lost in balms’ (F205). In “The Flower must not blame the Bee –” the bee is annoying, rather than bashful, seeking ‘his felicity / Too often at her door” (F235). It is is politely sent away – no balms for it! But then again, no other bees are to be admitted either. In a third bee/flower poem (F133), the speaker wonders whether the ‘lover Bee’ would really care so much for the Harebell flower once she yielded ‘her moat of pearl’. 

The lover in this poem is most like the annoying bee, I think; the beloved is likely beset with suitors. 

The second stanza is an abrupt change. While in the first stanza the speaker is seething to herself, the second stanza is a gentle analogy given directly to the beloved. It reminds me of Puck’s lines and role in A Midsummer’s Night Dream right646176000with the AA/BB/CC rhymes, the misleading romantic confusions, and the beloved not loving the right person. 

In this stanza the lover likens her situation to that of a bird that having flown from great distance finally arrives at the tree that bears its sought-after fruit. But so much sweetness confuses and overwhelms the bird who perishes when only a branch away from fulfillment. Like the poor bird, the lover, when in near proximity to her beloved, speaks and acts in some confusion – hence the missing smile and extra word, and thus the Sweets become unobtainable. 

The poem, having erupted in frustration and softened into analogy, ends with a gentle sigh. “Oh, Groping feet” evokes the poor bird, feeling its way from branch to branch, having forgotten how to fly. “Oh Phantom Queen” is sad resignation – and recognition of the Beloved’s elusiveness. David Preest draws attention to a letter (L177) Dickinson wrote to Sue, her sister-in-law, and likely beloved: “If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in.”

 I wonder which other Phantoms are in that box.  


scene from Midsummers Night Dream movie, Jean Muir, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney (1935)
Scene from A Midsummer's Night Dream,
Encyl. Britannica


02 August 2021

Funny – to be a Century –

 Funny — to be a Century —
And see the People — going by —
I — should die of the Oddity —
But then — I'm not so staid — as He —

He keeps His Secrets safely — very —
Were He to tell — extremely sorry
This Bashful Globe of Ours would be —
So dainty of Publicity —

      Fr677 (1863)  J345


Dickinson has a bit of fun imagining what it would be like to be time itself, a hundred years’ worth, to be precise. She imagines how you’d see everyone and know everything they did. I think that when she says she’d ‘die of the Oddity’ she means die of laughter. Fortunately, Father Time is more ‘staid’ – he’s probably seen it all before. Plus, he has great propriety. He never tells – our secrets are safe with him. And that is a good thing; otherwise, we’d be very sorry.

The poet casts Time as male and the world as female: she is ‘Bashful’ and ‘dainty’. She would be mortified by any publicity. I wonder if Dickinson considered the reverse proposition but concluded that a Mother Time would be quite chatty – a real gossip! – and the masculine Globe would be far less averse about being in the news After all, any news is good news – the thing is to be in the news. Or at least that strategy seems to be adopted by some big-name US politicians … .

It’s really rather delicious to think about Dickinson claiming that the Bashful Globe would be dainty of Publicity. Is she being ironic? Is it a comment on Victorian repression? Or on how much we each want to hide?


This little poem is in itself an oddity in Dickinson’s oevre in that each of the lines rhyme. I don’t recall any other of her poems (at least so far) doing this. I welcome better info in the comments.  Plus, in the first stanza she alternates trochees (Fun-ny; I – should) and iambs (And see; But then) to begin the lines. 

The first two lines of the second stanza both end with feminine, trailing rhymes: very and sorry. To me there’s something just droll looking and sounding about the first line: He keeps His Secrets safely – very –“.  It might be the repeated ‘s’ sounds plus the two last words ending in ‘y’ – plus the way ‘very’ is emphasized by that along with being set off by dashes. 

It’s a cute poem and I imagine Dickinson had some fun imagining having Time’s omnipresence. But then again, that’s a gift our great writers have.



01 August 2021

You know that Portrait in the Moon —

You know that Portrait in the Moon —
So tell me who 'tis like —
The very Brow — the stooping eyes —
A fog for — Say — Whose Sake?

The very Pattern of the Cheek —
It varies — in the Chin —
But — Ishmael — since we met — 'tis long —
And fashions — intervene —

When Moon's at full — 'Tis Thou — I say —
My lips just hold the name —
When crescent — Thou art worn — I note —
But — there — the Golden Same —

And when — Some Night — Bold — slashing Clouds
Cut Thee away from Me —
That's easier — than the other film
That glazes Holiday —

                                                                               Fr676 (1863) J504


I like the casualness Dickinson affects in this poem. It begins as if in mid conversation between two friends and continues in a wistful, teasing tone until the twisty Dickinsonian ending that isn’t playful at all. The poem doesn’t provide much detail about the personal relationship involved, but from the moon gazer’s perspective, the absent person is dearly missed.


Judith Farr makes a good case (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) for Ishmael being Samuel Bowles who was, if not Dickinson’s Beloved, at least one her most treasured friends. The poem’s playful tone would be appropriate, and Bowles happened to be out and about in the world during the time this poem was probably written.


The poem begins with a teasing question about who the Man in the Moon looks like. The answer is meant to be ‘You’ – the person addressed in the poem. Both would have, then, a notable brow under which the eyes are stooping. Pictures of Bowles capture this very feature (images of the moon? Not so much). The eyes appear fogged -- misted over, perhaps for someone greatly missed – but who could she be? The question is asked quite coquettishly.

        In the second stanza the speaker continues musing on the likeness. As if tracing features with her finger she notes that while the Moon Man’s Cheek is just the same as that of the traveller, the Chin seems different. But that’s a factor of time: It’s been so long since she’s seen her ‘Ishmael’, that he’s no doubt changed the style of his beard.

       Addressing the traveller as ‘Ishmael’ evokes one – or both – of two different men. The first can be found in Genesis 16 where when Sarah, wife of the great patriarch Abraham, cannot have children, she arranges for her Egyptian slave Hagar to bear him a child in her stead. But when Hagar does get pregnant, Sarah cannot cope and drives her away. An angel, however, tells Hagar to return. You will have a son, she tells her, father of nations, and “You shall name him Ishmael.” Today he is honored as patriarch and prophet of the Meccan and Arabian people.

       The second Ishmael is found in the famous first echoing line of Herman Melville’s great classic Moby Dick (1851): “Call me Ishmael.” Both Ishmaels were travelers, the biblical Ishmael wandering the wilderness and deserts of the Sinai and surrounding areas. Melville’s Ishmael is likewise a wanderer but he takes to the sea: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” He is not only an inveterate traveler but an observer and a writer – a fitting reference for Bowles who chronicled his extensive travels.


By calling her missing dear one ‘Ishmael’, the speaker is not only alluding to how long the traveller has been gone, but that something drives him beyond the attractions of tourism. It strikes me as fond rather than critical. She is sharing that she misses him but that at least to some degree she understands his wanderings.


The third stanza introduces a slightly different, more wistful tone. During a full moon the speaker sees the full image of the traveler’s face, while she interprets the crescent moon as representing a worn down Ishmael. Despite this fragment of the man she still finds him the ‘Golden Same.”


The last stanza turns serious. It is painful when clouds obscure her view of the moon – the Clouds are ‘slashing’ – they ‘Cut’ Ishmael away from her. Still, knowing he is behind the clouds is easier to bear than it would be if his eyes were filmed, not with misty sentiment, but with ‘the other film’ – that of death. Her use of ‘Holiday’ here reminds me of poem Fr341, which refers to the rampages of Fright and Terror as a ‘Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!’


I like this simple and affecting poem. It maintains a light touch until the last two lines and those remind us that travel is never quite safe. There is always that ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” There are always those who wait and worry.


The poem trips along in common meter: quatrains of iambic tetrameter lines alternating with iambic trimeter and a rhyme scheme of ABAB (think of ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ or ‘Auld Lang syne’). Trips along, that is until the first line of the last quatrain. While it can be read as iambic, to do so would be to do the line – and the poem – a disservice. I read, and the dashes support, three adjacent accented syllables: Night, Bold, slash. It is a startling violence, but then it is action performed merely by Clouds.



There you have it: artist-clarified man-in-the-moon and Samuel Bowles in 1862, about the time of this poem. What do you think?







24 July 2021

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush –
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions –
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature –
Of Deity – ashamed –

It's such a common – Glory –
A Fisherman's – Degree –
Redemption – Brittle Lady –
Be so – ashamed of Thee –
                                                            Fr657 (1863)  J401

Gentlewomen take a hit in this oft-quoted poem. But, um, Dickinson herself would be considered among the gentlewomen of Amherst. But I think the poet’s aim is directed at a certain kind of overly fastidious gentlewoman. She presents herself as ‘Soft’, Cherubic’, and pure as a star, someone to be protected and indulged. Yet beneath and perhaps explaining her carefully maintained fa├žade of gentile respectability lies her ‘Horror’ of ‘freckled Human Nature’ and her repugnance toward any lower socioeconomic class.    

This explains her being ‘ashamed’ of Deity, of Jesus who was born in a manger and, along with his ragtag fishermen disciples, performed his ministry among the poor, the diseased, and the sinners. His gruesome execution was a blood sacrifice for human redemption. Yet, to snobbish ladies, Dickinson claims, this is but a ‘common’ Glory, something regrettably low-class. 

Dickinson takes another jab by calling the Christian beliefs of these gentlewomen ‘Dimity Convictions’.Dimity is a soft, light-weight cotton fabric popular for summer dresses. Floral and other designs are typically printed upon the surface of the cloth – not woven into it. Likewise, the religious convictions of the Gentlewomen are superficial. Beneath a veneer of Christian love and mercy, is the base weave of superiority. The ‘Glory’ of Redemption is ‘common’, is only Fisherman class.

In the last stanza we have the infantilized and selfish creatures addressed as a singular ‘Brittle Lady.’ Propped up by corsets and status during life, she cannot stand alone when her time comes for judgment. Dickinson takes a righteous tone, almost calling for her doom: Just as you were ashamed of the Fisherman, so may he be ashamed of you. 

Poetically, Dickinson underscores the ultimate weakness of these ladies by using quite a few of what are called feminine or falling endings – that is to say, a line of poetry, typically iambic, that ends in an unaccented syllable. In this poem, Dickinson ends five of the twelve lines in this way: Creatures, Convictions, Nature, Glory, Lady.


Dimity fabric with flowers printed