Search This Blog

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.