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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?