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08 September 2022

Sweet – safe – Houses –

 Sweet — safe — Houses —
Glad — gay — Houses —
Sealed so stately tight —
Lids of Steel — on Lids of Marble —
Locking Bare feet out —

Brooks of Plush — in Banks of Satin
Not so softly fall
As the laughter — and the whisper —
From their People Pearl —

No Bald Death — affront their Parlors —
No Bold Sickness come
To deface their Stately Treasures —
Anguish — and the Tomb —

Hum by — in Muffled Coaches —
Lest they — wonder Why —
Any — for the Press of Smiling —
Interrupt — to die —

Fr684 (1863)  J457

Dickinson’s family home might well be considered one of the houses described by this poem: ‘safe’ and ‘Sealed’; quiet and luxurious; and undisturbed by Death, Sickness, Anguish, and the barefoot poor. Ironically, the houses, a metonymy for the wealthy inhabitants, might be ‘safe’, but that includes being safe from the human condition. 

They might be Sweet and Glad and gay, but that requires being sealed off from all unpleasantness. Their laughter might be softer than “Brooks of Plush – in Banks of Satin”, but they live in an oyster’s world – as “People Pearl”. They really don’t know life at all. (‘Pearl’ should probably be read as ‘Purl’: According to the ED Lexicon and other sources, ‘Purl’ means ‘to flow with a murmuring sound’. I hate to lose the image, though, of the oyster shell which, for pearls, really is Plush and Satiny. I suspect Dickinson wanted both meanings: both Pearl and Purl.)

Of course, no house, and particularly one that housed Emily Dickinson is going to be entirely sealed or safe. Nor would it be free of anguish and death, but that’s not for want of trying

from Aftering website
Victorian metal grave covers
I like to read ‘Houses’ here as caskets. Fancier and much more expensive than the simple wooden coffin, steel caskets were introduced in the 1840s. Their ‘Lids of Steel’ were designed to permanently seal in the corpse – whose [eye]Lids of Marble” are equally sealed shut.

It’s easy to switch focus back and forth throughout the poem: rich houses, luxurious caskets, nice neighborhood, quiet necropolis. Both exclusive. No Shoes No Service. There is an important difference between the two milieus, however. While the rich are warding off exposure to and admittance of suffering and death, the dead are really dead. They couldn’t step outside their cushy oyster even if they wanted to. On the bright side, they no longer need to worry about Death entering their Parlors or even any ‘Bold Sickness’. 

The poem starts to get a bit difficult in the last line of the third stanza. I track the rest of the poem this way: ‘Anguish – and the Tomb –‘ begins a new sentence (although preceded by a dash and not a period) and is a compound subject for ‘Hum by – in Muffled Coaches’. So you have Muffled Coaches with their grim occupants humming by the houses or caskets of the well-to-do (the poor were buried in simple winding cloth or else in a simple wooden coffin). 

Why are the Coaches muffled? So that the Sweet, safe, Glad, gay Houses do not have to wonder at life being interrupted by death – or rather, why someone in a gay and smiling house party would interrupt the festivities to die. It is a bit difficult to parse this if the ‘they’ is the casket denizens rather than the wealthy in their Houses, but I take the muffling of noise as a courtesy to the dead who are softly whispering and laughing. They, too, ironically, would not appreciate the interruption.

Are ‘Houses’ meant to be seen as caskets? Would Emily Dickinson have pictured life in an important Victorian house as so restricted? I think she did, although, in another irony, she came to embrace the comfortable privacy of a stately but sealed house. And I picture her at the little desk in her room, listening to the ghostly Purl. 

Poetically, the poem has a lot of energy. The initial spondees (two accented syllables) followed by a third accented syllable (in ‘Houses’) and coupled with the alliterations in Sweet / Safe and Glad / Gay give a sprightly emphasis to the first stanza. There are then the tumble-forward trochaic feet (first syllable accented) that dominate the rest of the poem. Dickinson uses a quite a bit of alliteration and this provides a lightness to balance the rather serious social commentary. Even ‘Death’ is softened by ‘Bald’ and Sickness by ‘Bold’. No gruesome or pitying images here.

The poem maintains this balance between a happy meter adorned with charming alliteration until the last five lines. ‘Anguish’ is coupled with ‘the Tomb’, the harsh word signaling a change of mood. And although they ‘Hum’ by, Muffled, they bring the reader up short with the biggest interruption to a soiree possible: dying. It seems a bummer to both the living and the already dead.


02 September 2022

At leisure is the Soul

At leisure is the Soul
That gets a Staggering Blow—
The Width of Life—before it spreads
Without a thing to do—

It begs you give it Work—
But just the placing Pins—
Or humblest Patchwork—Children do—
To still it’s noisy Hands—                  [To] Help its Vacant Hands –

Fr683  (J618)

I find this poem sad and acutely observant.  Dickinson sketches a young person who, before their life has a chance to develop, suffers a ‘Staggering Blow’. It might have been a death, disaster, disease, or some other devastation. Dickinson limns its extent as ‘The Width of Life’. There is no getting around it, no getting past it. Instead of spreading out, gaining vantage and perspective, gathering experience and skill, the staggered Soul spreads out thinly ‘Without a thing to do –‘.  Life stretches out, barren in its reaches. Any work the person, the Soul, might have undertaken is lost. There is nothing it is called to do.

Simple patchwork quilt
Janet Wickell at The Spruce
Yet the sufferer wants something to fill the time, some sort of Work.  Nothing, however, that demands commitment, creativity, or even much effort. What is wanted is the sort of simple work and projects that a child can do. Dickinson gives two examples, both having to do with sewing: placing pins so hems and seams are held in place while sewing and making simple patchwork quilts. The goal is not the sewing but the quieting of the sufferer’s ‘noisy Hands’. 

It’s easy to picture the stunted soul picking at things, rubbing their hands, drumming mindlessly – actions that must soothe, somehow, the deep wounds. Dickinson wrote an alternate phrase: instead of ‘To still it’s noisy Hands –‘, there is ‘To Help its vacant Hands’ –‘.  Both phrases are poignant – and sad.  One seeks to quiet the busy hands, the other to stir the Vacant hands to some sort of activity.

The contrast in word/phrase structure between ‘a Staggering Blow’ and ‘The Width of Life’ is remarkable. The anapestic ‘Staggering’ sounds staggering, especially followed by the strong blow of ‘Blow’. ‘The Width of Life’ follows directly after, and the slow lilt of its iambic syllables grant a terrible spaciousness to the ‘leisure’ that lies ahead.

The first stanza is powerful and concise, containing the ravage of trauma to a spreading soul, with the resulting (and ironic) lifelong ‘leisure’.  The second stanza has the sketch: we see an adult working mindlessly, killing time, distracting their hands with the simplest of tasks. The Hands, however, are more here than work-doers – Dickinson’s poetic subject is ‘the Soul’ and the Hands are the Soul’s hands. It is the Soul begging for work, the Soul whose hands are noisy or, worse, vacant.

Dickinson writes here in a type of hymn meter styled ‘short’: each stanza has three lines with six syllables and one line, the third, with eight. That’s not a lot of syllables in which to pack so much meaning.

Rhyme and alliteration help achieve the poem’s tight weave where nothing should be added and nothing can be removed. Soul, Blow, and do (used twice) give us ‘o’ sounds that lengthen word and  meaning. The first stanza uses Soul, Staggering, and Spreads to use the soft ‘s’ sound to deliver the ‘Blow’. The ‘w’ sounds in Width, Without, and Work almost whisper their meaning, Irony is woven into the very sound of the poem.

05 August 2022

So well that I can live without –

 So well that I can live without –
I love thee – then How well is that?
As well as Jesus?
Prove it me
That He – loved Men –
As I – love thee –

                                            Fr682 (1863)  J456

This short love poem is intense – and pretty flippant. The speaker begins by declaring she loves her ‘thee’ so much that she can live without him. Her love stands on its own strength all on its own. Not for her the neediness of wanting to be by her beloved’s side, look into her eyes, stand together outside in the moonlight, exchange all the little signs and proofs that feed love. 

Could this be a poem to ‘Master’? I don’t think so. The Master letters are full of longing; they have a beseeching tone:

Could you come to New England – Would you come to Amherst – Would you like to come – Master? Would it do harm – yet we both fear God – Would Daisy disappoint you – no – she wouldn’t – Sir – it were comfort forever – just to look in your face, while you looked in mine – then I could play in the woods – till Dark – till you take me where sundown cannot find us – and the true keep coming ….” Letter 3, 1861

The letter (as far as we know, never sent – and we don’t really know who Master is, either) does have a bit of playfulness  and a bit of boldness. But Daisy (a nickname Emily at times uses to refer to herself) pleads with Master to come. She needs the comfort of looking in his face.

In contrast, the poem’s speaker is confident and challenging. ‘How well do I love you,’ she asks. ‘As well as Jesus?’ Flippant, yes? And then the challenge: “Prove it me / That He – loved Men – / As I – love thee –“. It’s a good challenge. Her love needs no feeding – it exists ‘without’, and I take that to mean without presence, without letters, without rings and lockets and other tokens. 

And what about Jesus? Can a case be made that he loved (the past tense Dickinson employs here is interesting) Men as much? 

It's different. The Christian New Testament presents Jesus a divine sacrifice: He dies so that humanity might be saved . But there are strings attached to the salvation part. You must be a Christian; you might also have to have been predestined for salvation (this was the Calvinist position Dickinson’s community would be familiar with and generally accept). The point is, there is a heaven for the appropriate believers and there is a hell for the rest. 

Well, it’s a comparison impossible to make between the speaker’s love and the love of Jesus for humanity. After all, she has to only love one person. Plus, it is near to impossible to prove a negative. But the rhetoric is strong and that carries the day. 
Susan Dickinson (from Wikipedia

Could the poem have been written with Sue in mind? Dickinson was becoming used to being ‘without’ her although Sue and Austin – Sue’s husband, Emily’s brother – lived just a hundred yards away. The two women, once passionately inseparable, became much more distant. There was the marriage and Sue’s adjusted role as Mrs. Dickinson; and there was the birth of little Ned in 1861. Some of Dickinson’s other poems point to differences and estrangements, but this poem goes all out for love with no strings attached and no encouragement needed.

25 July 2022

Don't put up my Thread & Needle

Don't put up my Thread & Needle –
I'll begin to Sow
When the Birds begin to whistle –
Better stitches – so –

These were bent – my sight got crooked –
When my mind – is plain
I'll do seams – a Queen's endeavor
Would not blush to own –

Hems – too fine for Lady's tracing
To the sightless Knot –
Tucks – of dainty interspersion –
Like a dotted Dot –

Leave  my Needle in the furrow –
Where I put it down –
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight – when I am strong –

Till then – dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed –
Closer – so I – at my sleeping –
Still surmise I stitch –
                                                Fr681 (1863)  J617

One thing Emily Dickinson is not remembered for is her sewing. She had, however, at least a passing interest in sewing. Naturally she would. Sewing was considered a basic female household skill, a way for womenfolk to benefit the poor, and at the least, a harmless social activity.
    During her younger years Dickinson was a member of Amherst's Sewing Society, both a benevolent and a social group. She was, however, not an enthusiastic member. We know this from a letter she wrote a girlhood friend when Dickinson was twenty:
The sewing Society has commenced again – and held its first meeting last week – now all the poor will be helped – the cold warmed – the warm cooled – the hungry fed – the thirsty attended to – the ragged clothes – and this suffering – tumbled down world will be helped to it's feet again – which will be quite pleasant to all. I dont attend – notwithstanding my high approbation – which must puzzle the public exceedingly. I am already set down as one of those brands almost consumed – and my hardheartedness gets me many prayers.

                        - Letter to Jane Humphrey, January, 1850 

Dickinson's tone in this letter is lighthearted, flippant, even. Her idea that she might be considered 'one of those brands almost consumed' reminds me of old folks shaking their heads at twenty-somethings and muttering, 'Live fast, die young.' While 'brand' can mean both a persona and a product identifier (and, at the time she wrote this, the mark inflicted on slaves – although I do not believe there is a shadow of that meaning in the poem), Dickinson uses its earliest meaning here: a piece of burning wood. She is amused that by avoiding the sewing society she is marked as a fast liver, a fire brand with not much stick left. But at least that assessment gets her many prayers.

Notwithstanding her expressed lack of interest, sewing is central to this poem. One can read it as the speaker's straightforward bit of instruction to a friend or family member to keep her sewing things handy until she has recovered enough from some unnamed ailment and can see better. This reading makes sense biographically. Within a year of writing the poem, Dickinson was spending months in Boston under an ophthalmologist's care. The doctor severely restricted her time outdoors, her reading, and her writing. Dickinson herself referred to this period as being in jail, or in Siberia. She was terrified of not being able to read again.
from Historical Sewing:
Example of pintucks:
from Historical Sewing

    But the terror isn't evident in this poem. The speaker begins optimistically: her sewing materials shouldn't be put away because she'll be using them again come spring – and with better results. In the second stanza she explains that her vision was 'crooked' but when her mind is 'plain', that is, clearer, she will be able to sew seams a Queen would be proud of. She goes on: her Hems will be so neatly done that they can't be seen, can't be traced back to their tiny and nearly invisible knots. The 'Tucks' she mentions are pintucks, which are narrow little folds sewn into place. Those stitches will be smaller than dots – 'Like a dotted Dot'.
    The speaker specifies that her sewing needle should be left in the seam where she put it down. Although her stitches had become 'zigzag', she claims she can make them straight again.
   The last stanza suggests a real passion for sewing in that the speaker wants a piece she was working on, one with a missed seam, placed near her while she sleeps so she can at least dream that she is sewing. This does not sound like Jane Humphrey's pen pal!

So let's read the poem a different way! But let's keep the vision crisis, the dim light, the restricted reading and writing.

It is hard to miss the 'Sow' in the first stanza that early editors 'corrected' to 'Sew'. But 'Sow' is important. The first stanza ends with 'so' as if to reinforce the word. Additionally, Dickinson makes reference to the agricultural 'Sow' in the fourth stanza where she specifies her needle should be left in the 'furrow' where she had put it down as if it were a hoe in between rows of radishes. Perhaps she wants her pencil left in the pages where she left off so she can work on any 'zigzag' lines when she once again has the vision and strength.
    How else might sewing and sowing be alike? Poetry is the link. Poetry stitches words, thoughts, and images together. A good poet, like Dickinson!, sews with straight sight, writes with strength, dreams of lines and images, longs to write. More literally, Dickinson physically stitched groupings of her poetry into little booklets we call 'fascicles'. Agriculturally, poetry sows and plants seeds; and tends and prunes words until the poem is shapely and bears fruit.
   The weaving together of sewing, sowing, and poetry seems almost effortless. The pain is there to be seen but it isn't powerfully felt. We wait for spring, we are confident, like the speaker, that she will pick up where she left off, that even while sleeping she is still dreaming. The poem itself is an answer to the question of return. We see ourselves that, yes, her hems are too fine for Lady's tracings.

The poem alternates trochaic tetrameter with trochaic trimeter – not the iambic meters Dickinson more typically uses. I'm also struck by all the important words that begin with 'S': Sow, stitches, so, seams, sightless, straight, strong, sleeping, surmise, stitch. In the last stanza there is an extra abundance of 's' sounds: sewing, seam, missed, closer, so, sleeping, still, surmise, stitch. I think it is the smoothness of the 's' sounds that help the poem glide over the difficult time Dickinson alludes to. There are only two harsh-sounding words in the poem: crooked and zigzag. Yet their harshness is in regards to the stitches rather than the hopes.