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28 March 2024

I am ashamed—I hide—

I am ashamed—I hide—
What right have I—to be a Bride—
So late a Dowerless Girl—
Nowhere to hide my dazzled Face—
No one to teach me that new Grace—
Nor introduce—my Soul—

Me to adorn—How—tell—
Trinket—to make Me beautiful—
Fabrics of Cashmere—
Never a Gown of Dun—more—
Raiment instead—of Pompadour—
For Me—My soul—to wear—

Fingers—to frame my Round Hair
Oval—as Feudal Ladies wore—
Far Fashions—Fair—
Skill to hold my Brow like an Earl—
Plead—like a Whippoorwill—
Prove—like a Pearl—
Then, for Character—

Fashion My Spirit quaint—white—
Quick—like a Liquor—
Gay—like Light—
Bring Me my best Pride—
No more ashamed—
No more to hide—
Meek—let it be—too proud—for Pride—
Baptized—this Day—a Bride—

    -F704, J473, fascicle 33, 1863 

One helpful way to read a poem is by shutting out sense, as much as possible, and just paying attention to rhythm and sound as you read it out loud. If you emphasize the iambic beat as you read, and keep it going in your head like a metronome, and listen to the way Dickinson plays off of the beat, the way she weaves words around it, you get a good foundation for the poem. Try giving voice to this one, making every dash a rest in the beat. Dickinson on percussion is like Buddy Rich. This one is a stellar example of Dickinson's musicality. In my opinion it is as good a composition of sound and sense as I have yet encountered.

In this poem, for starters, notice the emphatic beat on the hard D sound throughout. The poem begins and ends with it. How she works that D into the iambic meter is part of what makes the poem so satisfying to say. 

Rhyme is also turned up in this poem, even further than normal. Look at this wild run of triplet rhymes: “of Cashmere/ of Dun more/ Pompadour/ soul—to wear/ my Round Hair/ Ladies wore/ Fashions—Fair/ like an Earl/ Whippoorwill/ like a Pearl/ Character/ a Liquor." That’s just fun.

Amidst all of this sound, meaning sneaks in. The sense of the words, and the subsequent extrasensory sense of the words, begins to speak through this string of sounds. Through form comes content. That “D” sound comprises a feeling.  Before it has an assigned meaning the central word here, “bride”, has a sound. Dickinson makes the feeling of the word heard.

Whole words can give you a feeling. You can’t say the word pompadour, for instance, without feeling a little pompadour yourself, just as you can't say "whippoorwill" without intoning the song of the bird.

There was also, behind this poem, I suspect, a melody. I imagine this one was written to a tune going through Dickinson’s head, or maybe even while she was playing the piano. She reportedly played beautifully.

I tried playing a lilting Em/ G pattern on the guitar as I sang this poem, with a turn around at the end of each stanza, where I flipped the chords to G/ Em. It’s remarkable how much fun it is to sing. It sounds like a wedding jig.


It is a bit difficult to speak of ascribed meaning as it plays out in this poem because there are multiple ways of reading it. The first and foremost reading of this poem, for me, is as an innocent expression of the intense complex of feelings of a bride on her first night of being married; the crazy mix of fear, sadness, joy, excitement, embarrassment, self-admiration, happiness, inebriation and then finally, resolve.

One thing notable about a poem such as this one is how absolutely personal it is, and yet, at the same time, how universal. This poem could be spoken by ANY bride in love. Likewise the reader is transformed into a bride as he or she reads the poem out loud, and perhaps into a husband as well. It could hardly be a more intimate poem, nor a more public one.

Read this way, this is among Dickinson’s happiest poems. There is only the barest hint of sadness, and only a modicum of fear. Mostly there is deep character. That’s what this poem seems to be about, in the end. The poet chooses, by the close of the poem, to have too much pride to have pride, and covers up in bridal white. But, astonishingly, before she does, she let’s us see, in the intimate revelations of this poem, behind the bridal veil. We are, in this way, like the groom.

I swoon when I read this poem. It is so romantic. And yet, sometimes when I read it, it is the antithesis of romance. It is about autonomy. This is simultaneously a marriage poem and a poem about independence. This is yet another way this poem is both public and private. It reminds me of a line from the great Bill Callahan song "Pigeons": "When you get married, you marry the whole world."


There is much more to say about this poem. Each line could engender discussion. Just the idea of being too proud to be proud is thought-provoking enough to make this poem a keeper. Another line I find worth noting is "Prove—like a Pearl—", which could stand by itself as an epigram. It sums up Dickinson's entire oeuvre. Enclosed in her oyster shell of a life, Dickinson certainly did prove like a Pearl. 

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

"As you wish."

25 March 2024

My Portion is Defeat – today –

My Portion is Defeat – today –
A paler luck than Victory –
Less Paeans – fewer Bells –
The Drums dont follow Me –
with tunes –
Defeat – a +somewhat slower –
means –
More +Arduous than Balls –

Tis populous with Bone
and stain –
And Men too straight to
+ stoop again –
And Piles of solid Moan –
And Chips of Blank – in
Boyish Eyes –
And + scraps of Prayer –
And Death’s surprise,
Stamped visible – in stone –

There’s +somewhat prouder,
Over there –
The Trumpets tell it to
the Air –
How different Victory
To Him who has it – and
the One
Who to have had it,
would have been
Contenteder – to die –

+something dumber + difficult –

+bend +shreds + something

    -F704, J639, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem takes a surprising turn. Nearly every poem in the last few fascicles seems to be dealing with the aftermath of a lover’s absence, full of an anguished passion which is wrung out in metaphor after metaphor. So when this one starts out by claiming “My Portion is Defeat – today –”, you think it is one more poem bemoaning the absence of He who brings the fire, He who is full of grace, He with eyes like heaven. And perhaps it is.

In the next line the pivotal word “Victory” leads us to see war as the metaphor for whatever defeat is in question for the poet. This defeat feels, to the poet, as brutal and terrible as war: pure hell. Is this an exaggeration? Perhaps, but it makes its point. 

This is problematic. On one hand it elevates the emotional impact of whatever defeat the poet is feeling. On the other hand doesn't it belittle the fate of the soldiers by comparing it to a personal defeat?

But something strange happens. The problem works itself out. In the course of this poem, as Dickinson goes on to describe the horrors of war, like the “solid pile of moan” and “chips of blank in boyish eyes”, it swerves to become more about the poor soldiers than the poet. It’s as if the poet, who is admitting that she is so miserable she’d rather be dead, is now, because of her plight, able to truly sympathize with the soldiers. The poem starts out in self-pity, but as the metaphor gets extended there is a transition until finally the metaphor itself begins to become the subject. The poet moves from pitying herself to pitying the civil war soldiers who are dying en masse as this poem is being written, including some of Emily's own friends.

It reminds me in this way of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”, in which Plath is ostensibly expressing anger about her German father, but does this by comparing her father with a Nazi soldier. Plath's poem was controversial, as some saw it as sensational and opportunistic  (The gall of comparing your own privileged life to the horrors of the holocaust!) I can understand this, but I would argue that you can justify Plath’s move as a way of shedding light on domestic abuse, and, conversely, the parental abuse hinted at in poem sheds light on Nazi mentality too.

This poem has a bit of that same problem. In Dickinson’s poem though I feel as if she channels her suffering into empathy. Note that the poem never returns to its initial focus on “me.” In the end the pronoun “me” has been turned into “one.” It has been depersonalized. The soldier and the poet, through the alchemy of the poem, have become “one”.

Let's go through the poem.

First stanza: My portion is defeat today. I didn’t get as lucky as the victor did. For me there are less songs of triumph (paeans), less ringing of bells, and no marching drums at all. To be defeated is more difficult than death by bullets (balls).

Second stanza: Defeat is populated with the bones of soldiers and the stain of blood, with dead bodies so stiff they can no longer stoop, with piles of men moaning in pure agony, with dead boys who now have blank chips for eyes. (“chips” -what a word choice.) The dead boys are holding scraps of prayer, perhaps bible pages. (This is as biting a line about faith as Dickinson has yet written.) And then there is that final haunting image; the way the faces of the dead still show the surprise of death, as if the soldiers were statues carved in stone.

Third stanza: Those over there on the victorious side are “somewhat” prouder than the defeated are. Dickinson provides “something” as an alternative word for “somewhat” here, but I think “somewhat” is much stronger, because it implies that there is still SOME pride in defeat. There is still a minor victory. This is a subtle turning point in the poem and sets up the next lines. "Over there –/ The Trumpets tell it to the Air – " The trumpets of the winners tell their victory to the air. The trumpets are not being heard by anything but “air” though, implying that the victory is as empty as air. Still, empty as it may be, victory is still better, because it doesn’t make you wish you were dead. The defeated soldier would rather have died in battle than lost a cause he was willing to give his life for. And here we are reminded of the stakes for the poet too. She would rather be dead than to have lived without gaining the thing she would have given her entire being for.

This poem, which is, at the onset, about the poet, turns out to be one of the great anti-war poems through sheer force of Dickinson’s imagery.

There is also a unique and effective rhyme scheme and rhythmic structure. Read the poem and listen to it as if there were marching drums underlining it, with a pause in the beat of the snare at every dash. 

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

23 March 2024

To my small Hearth His fire came—

To my small Hearth His fire came—
And all my House aglow
Did fan and rock, with sudden light—
'Twas Sunrise—'twas the Sky—

Impanelled from no Summer brief—
With limit of Decay—
'Twas Noon—without the News of Night—
Nay, Nature, it was Day—

   -F703, J638, Fascicle 33, 1863

We start small here with a “small hearth.” A hearth is a fireplace, which stands here, I think, for the heart, or the life force, of the poet. Once again, as in several of Dickinson’s poems from this time period, the pronoun “His” is ambiguous. It could refer to God or to a lover. To Dickinson I believe it referred to a lover, though to the reader it might stand for any kind of inflamed love.

From “Him” the fire comes, and then the whole house (the whole being) is aglow, suddenly. This sudden fire isn’t the violent kind. Rather it is glowing, and it gently rocks. The verb pair “fan and rock” is an intriguing one. When you think of fire and fan together you might first think of fanning a fire, but here it is the fire that is fanning, so it must mean the fire fans out as it spreads. Rock is something that you gently do to a baby in a cradle to help put it to sleep. So how does a fire “rock”? When a fire is in your hearth the light of the flames seems to sway on the walls, and that’s what I imagine Dickinson is talking about here. “His” fire spreads and gently sways as it enlarges to quickly become the sunrise filling the entire sky.  The effect of this is that the fire that Dickinson felt so intensely has now spread through time and space to light a fire in the reader’s hearth too. Don’t you feel a warm glow from these lines? Don’t the words fan your spirit like a sunrise?

Candlewood Lake CT - 2/19/24

Oddly Dickinson switches to legalese in the next stanza. “Impanelled from no Summer brief—” In a legal context "impanelled" refers to the process of selecting a jury for a trial. It involves choosing jurors who will serve as impartial judges of the facts presented in the case. If we interpret "brief" in a legal sense, it could refer to a written legal argument, typically outlining the legal argument involved in a case. Putting these together, "Impanelled from no Summer brief" might imply that whatever experience is being described hasn't been brought about through the typical legal proceedings or arguments of “summer”. It suggests that the experience of this “fire” is not bound by the usual legal frameworks or seasonal circumstances. The phenomenon being described transcends conventional boundaries. Dickinson’s father and brother were both lawyers, so this type of language would come natural to her.

But “brief” has a double meaning here of having a short duration, as is made clear in the next line, “with no limit of decay.” Summer is brief, the poet is saying, but not the love from Him, which transcends the temporary and is not limited by decay. There is something eternal about this fire/sunrise/summer/noon/day.

The last couplet “'Twas Noon—without the News of Night—/ Nay, Nature, it was Day—” simply means it stays noon, that the “nature” of this love is like an eternal day. The sound play in these last two lines is fabulous, created largely from the run of six “N” sounds, and by the assonance too, the “ooo” sound of Noon and news, and the way nay elongates into Nature. But there are other little things too, like the way “Twas” echoes the earlier use of that word, twice, in the first stanza, and the way it is echoed in the half-rhyme of the word “News” later in the same line. Then there is the strong rhyme of Day with Nay and Decay, which makes the final point feel emphatic. The poetry, if it is to echo and reinforce its subject, must be made so lyrically beautiful that it stays alive forever, capturing in its sound a fiery sunrise brightening to become an endless summer noon. 

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

My first time through a poem I will sometimes grab a guitar and find a chord pattern and rhythm that seems to fit the poem's tone and then drape Dickinson’s words over the chord structure. It’s such a pleasure to hear Emily Dickinson’s words sung. Along these lines I found a beautiful version of this poem online in which a composer named Juan Ramos has written a sweet melody. The video is great because it just gives you the notes of music scrolling along with the words, and the singing is left up to you. It’s like poetry karaoke.

20 March 2024

Except the Heaven had come so near —

Except the Heaven had come so near —
So seemed to choose My Door —
The Distance would not haunt me so —
I had not hoped — before —

But just to hear the Grace depart —
I never thought to see —
Afflicts me with a Double loss —
'Tis lost — and lost to me —

     -Fr702, J472, Fascicle 33, 1863

Sometimes a cry of the heart is best put into simple terms. This is just such a poem. It mourns a double loss. It seems to also hint at regret, the suggestion that it might have been better, perhaps, to never have gotten that glimpse of “heaven” in the first place.

We can be pretty sure that by “heaven” Dickinson is referring to her love life here. Just a few poems earlier, the first poem in fascicle 33, Dickinson makes this clear when she writes that she “sigh(s) for lack of Heaven – but not The Heaven God bestow –”. This is a good example of what is gained by reading these poems in context. It’s fine if you read the “heaven” in this as a Christian heaven, or any other kind; a religious feeling and a romantic feeling can seem one in the same. Both kinds of heaven, the romantic and the spiritual, point us toward a relationship in which the singular self is transcended. But this poem, I believe, is written for, or about, an absent lover, one which the poet holds to be “grace” itself.

Even though this is a fairly straight forward cri de coeur, there is still, perhaps, a wrinkle in it. The clue is in that word “Double”. Note that the word is capitalized. Double is not the kind of word that normally gets capitalized. Our attention is drawn to it. Sometimes the smallest detail, such as a capital letter, can unlock a deeper meaning in a Dickinson poem. The word double is often a rhyme for some kind of trouble. Think of Macbeth: “Double Double toil and trouble.” Or “doublethink” in George Orwell’s “1984”. Doubleness is a sign of a divided mind. In this poem there has been a splitting of the self in two.

What does Emily mean by this “Double loss”? It’s a kind of riddle. “Tis lost — and lost to me.” The reader has to suss out the difference between what is meant by lost and what is meant by lost to me. I’d love to hear your take on this riddle. To me the first loss is an absence, but the second one signals a division of self. It’s as if the self has been taken away with the loss of the lover. “Lost to me” might be a way of saying that the poet feels lost to herself.

It’s the loss of the personal relationship, that unique chemistry in which a me and a thee becomes a we, a whole greater than the parts, that this poem is grieving. That’s what makes the loss doubly painful. It’s not just a loss of a person, it’s a loss of an us. Thus, the significance of the self is lost too.

-/)dam Wade I)eGraff

15 March 2024

The Child's faith is new—

The Child's faith is new—
Whole—like His Principle—
Wide—like the Sunrise
On fresh Eyes—
Never had a Doubt—
Laughs—at a Scruple—
Believes all sham
But Paradise—

Credits the World—
Deems His Dominion
Broadest of Sovereignties—
And Caesar—mean—
In the Comparison—
Baseless Emperor—
Ruler of Nought—
Yet swaying all—

Grown bye and bye
To hold mistaken
His pretty estimates
Of Prickly Things
He gains the skill
Sorrowful—as certain—
Men—to anticipate
Instead of Kings—

   -Fr 701, J637, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem calls into question the idea of a childlike faith. 

The first stanza might be paraphrased like this: The child’s faith is new. The child has absolute belief, and, just as absolutely, bases his principles off of this faith. This faith is widely held and is blinding like sunlight on freshly opened eyes. (You might have to squint when facing it!) This child has no doubt at all. He laughs at any uncertainty or hesitation. He believes only in the promised paradise. Everything else is a sham.

Second stanza: The child credits the world for all that is false. He considers God's dominion the largest of all kingdoms. Caesar is small in comparison to this greater kingdom. Thus far into the poem a general reader might see this poem as a celebration of a child's faith, but after the first five lines the second stanza switches gears in a tricky way. The last lines of the stanza “Baseless Emperor—/ Ruler of Nought—/ Yet swaying all—” complicates the poem because it functions as a sliding modifier. (This sliding modifier thing that Dickinson does is very confusing to the unpracticed reader, but I believe it is essential to understanding certain poems.) If you read the above lines as modifying the lines before them, then the baseless emperor is what the child thinks of Caesar;  powerful (“swaying all”), but ruling nothing real (baseless). But these lines may also syntactically modify the last stanza. Read this way, the baseless emperor is the child of faith. He rules nothing that is real, even if his faith might sway others. By conflating the two Emperors this way (Caesar and the child of faith) we see them as essentially the same. They are both baseless. Caesar might ultimately be an empty emperor, but so is the one who thinks his “faith” represents an even bigger kingdom.*

In the last stanza of this poem the child of faith “grows up”. He has grown, gradually over time, ("bye and bye"), to see that his absolute conviction about paradise was really just an estimate, and not an accurate one. It was pretty to believe so, but it doesn't resemble the hard truth, which is much more prickly than pretty. (I'm reminded of Hemingway's line here, "Isn't it pretty to think so?”)

Eventually the child "gains the skill/ Sorrowful—as certain— " to see more clearly. Learning to be skeptical and to doubt is presented to us as a skill. By going through sorrow the child “gains the skill” and a new kind of certainty; that man is flawed, and is not divinely right like a king is meant to be. We learn to accept reality for what it is.

There is a doubleness to the phrase "bye and bye" in this poem. The child learns by and by, but also learns "goodbye after goodbye". Loss is part of the deal.   

Experience leads us to a more humble kind of faith. I think this is what is meant here by "sorrowful—as certain—". Love doesn't point us toward future glory, and isn't based on comparison, but is a belief in the embrace of another in the here and now. One can have a kind of faith which is accepting of the whole person, as they are, flaws and all, rather than a faith which has more to do with self-regard and trying to be "good" for some future judge. 

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

* To reiterate, the sliding modifier means it can be seen as two poems. The first one, seeming to praise the child of faith, ends after the second stanza. The second poem, criticizing the child of faith, begins in the second stanza with the line "Baseless emperor." It's worth taking a moment and reading it both ways, to get a feel for how Dickinson pulls this off. Compare the two below.


The Child's faith is new—
Whole—like His Principle—
Wide—like the Sunrise
On fresh Eyes—
Never had a Doubt—
Laughs—at a Scruple—
Believes all sham
But Paradise—

Credits the World—
Deems His Dominion
Broadest of Sovereignties—
And Caesar—mean—
In the Comparison—
Baseless Emperor—
Ruler of Nought—
Yet swaying all—


Baseless Emperor—
Ruler of Nought—
Yet swaying all—

Grown bye and bye
To hold mistaken
His pretty estimates
Of Prickly Things
He gains the skill
Sorrowful—as certain—
Men—to anticipate
Instead of Kings—

10 March 2024

The Way I read a Letter’s – this –

The Way I read a Letter’s – this –
‘Tis first – I lock the Door –
And push it with my fingers – next –
For transport it be sure –

And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock –
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock –         (+slily, softly)

Then – glancing narrow, at the Wall –
And narrow at the floor
For firm Conviction of a Mouse
Not exorcised before –

Peruse how infinite I am
To no one that You – know –
And sigh for lack of Heaven – but not
The Heaven God bestow –

   -Fr700, J636, Fascicle 33, 1863

Imagine reading this poem the way Emily tells us in the poem that she reads a letter. First you take it into your bedroom and lock the door. Then you push on the door just to make sure it’s locked (because you know how sometimes you lock the door but it’s not all the way closed like you thought, so it’s still possible for someone to barge in?) The idea here is that you will need the most private space to get the full transport from the poem. Also, make sure you go as far away from the door as you can get, just to counteract any knock, should you receive one. Even one decibel less can make a difference! Then after you have locked yourself away, take the poem, and slowly unlock IT, with an emphasis on slooowly. Slowly (slily and softly) unlock the poem. But wait, before you read it, look along the floor to make sure not even a mouse can interrupt you. All clear? Okay, NOW you can read the poem with full transport.

What does the poem say?

It says how infinite you are.

Girl Reading Letter by Johannes Vermeer 

I think this gets at something essential about Dickinson’s poetry. It’s only in the small private space that the largess of the soul can be discovered, not in “public, like a frog”.

There is something curiouser and curiouser happening in this poem, like what happens to Alice in Wonderland. There is a reducing down in size, an effect Dickinson accomplishes here with word choice. The word “narrow” is used twice and there’s the word “little”. A mouse is mentioned. But it is, paradoxically, in that small, locked away space that the vastness of infinite self is discovered. The contrast helps you feel the effect of this sudden opening at the beginning of the last stanza. That infinity seems so much larger after locking away and narrowing down.

Peruse how infinite I am
To no one that You – know –
And sigh for lack of Heaven – but not
The Heaven God bestow –

Look at what Dickinson does in the last stanza. First that singular line, “Peruse how infinite I am”. Though the narrative of the poem is about looking over a letter from a lover, there is a doubleness here, because you are ALSO perusing a poem. You are perusing the lasting words of the poet, who becomes, herein, the infinite “I am”. This has a resonance with the biblical “I am”, except the end of this poem let’s you know that the biblical is not exactly what we are talking about here. “Peruse how infinite I am” If, in a thousand years, you had JUST this one line surviving from this poem, in the way that we only have one line fragments of certain Sappho poems, then “Peruse how infinite I am” would still resonate in the aura of the eternal.

But the sentence doesn’t stop at the line break. The line enjambs and carries over into the next one. “Peruse how infinite I am/ To no one that You – know–”. The reader is infinite TO the one who writes her the letter, but, lest you, like the little mouse, try to pry and see who it is from, save your questions. It is no one YOU know. The way Dickinson sets off the “know” in dashes makes that word hover importantly there, makes knowing itself hover there. It’s not someone YOU know, it is private. Love is, by necessity, between two people, and therefore private. But also, on the meta mystical level, when one is infinite, and, in turn, is seen by one who is infinite, how can there be any knowing? It is beyond the knowable.

Though it’s hard to imagine Emily was thinking about future biographers here, it's funny the way a line like this seems to be purposely teasing us readers who would love to know who that letter is from. This is not the right question it seems to be telling us. Emily Dickinson tells us HOW she reads, but not WHO the letter is from, since the letter writer is, like the poet, infinite and unknowable.

The last two lines of this poem continue the theme we saw in the previous fascicle, the idea of earthly love -and the momentarily infinite gaze between lovers- versus a heavenly love, which lacks the only thing we can truly know in this moment.

She keeps driving that point home, poem after poem.

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

07 March 2024

The power to be true to You,

The power to be true to You,
Until upon my face
The Judgment push his Picture —
Presumptuous of Your Place —

Of This — Could Man deprive Me —
Himself — the Heaven excel —
Whose invitation — Yours reduced
Until it showed too small —

       -F699, J464, Fascicle 32, 1863

This is the last poem of fascicle 32. “Fascicle" is the name that Emily Dickinson's early editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, gave to the homemade manuscript books into which Dickinson copied her poems. Dickinson constructed the fascicles by writing poems onto sheets of standard stationery already folded in two to create two leaves (four pages). She then stacked several such sheets on top of each other, made two holes in the left margin through the stack, and threaded string through the holes and tied the sheets together. 

Ah, I would love to hold one of Emily's fascicles in hand.

It is fascinating to look at how each fascicle hangs together, how the poems within each one appear to be in conversation with one another. Fascicle 32 is a prime example.

For instance, the poem that begins and the poem that ends this fascicle are both thematically about death and judgment. In fact the word or idea of “Judgment” appears in at least 7 of the 21 poems in fascicle 32. This gives some credence to the idea that Dickinson wasn’t just collecting her poems randomly in these fascicles, but making unified discrete collections of poems.

Several of the poems in the fascicle form a kind of polemic about renouncing an unknowable, and possibly non-existent, heavenly love for an earthly love here and now.

There are a few poems that don't fit this theme, at least not in an obvious way. For instance, stitched into this narrative there is another narrative about sewing and patchwork. Seeing as how these fascicles are stitched together, and that sewing may be seen as a metaphor for poetry, you might say that the fascicle itself forms a kind of patchwork of sorts.

Some of the poems, when re-read within the context of the entire fascicle, change tone, and therefore meaning. The 13th poem in this fascicle, for example, the one about the holy trinity ("The Jehovahs") being the only ones that are able to detect sorrow, and, further, not blab about it, reads as sincere on its own, but appears closer to sarcasm to me, or maybe defeat, when read in the context of the rest of the fascicle. 

In a similar manner, the line “We perish, though we reign” from F693 is ironic if you read the poem in context. Though I still WANT to read it as, instead, transcendent. 

The 20th and penultimate poem in the fascicle, the one before this one, says, "I live with him here in the eternal now, be Judgment what it may." (Judgment be damned! Haha.) The 4th time the word "Judgment" is invoked in this fascicle.

This poem, the fifth one to use the word "Judgment" and the final poem of the fascicle, says something like, no man has the power to shake my fidelity to my love. Only Judgment (death) can reduce it. "The Judgment push his Picture — Presumptuous of Your Place —" Note the small "h" used here for "his", a very small detail that speaks volumes.

21 poems in fascicle 32, all hovering around heaven’s absence of presence and earth’s presence of absence.

Although it feels reductive to read these poems as directed toward Charles Wadsworth, it’s hard not to see them in this light when reading them as a whole. (And Larry B's commentary throughout the posts on this fascicle are persuasive here). It certainly seems as if there is an argument being made for an earthly present love to a man who seems to be more worried about Judgment in heaven. Moreover, these arguments use biblical language, the language that Wadsworth, a Presbyterian Minister, was steeped in, against itself. 

On one hand I don't want to get too caught up in this biographical take. If too much is made of it, then it takes away from the poems' ability, as Susan Kornfeld beautifully puts it, to bloom within the reader. But, on the other hand, it’s a juicy story! It’s a very similar narrative in that way to the stellar second season of the TV series “Fleabag”, in which Fleabag and a priest fall in love. If you haven't watched that show, I recommend watching it, and then come back and read these poems again. 

But maybe you don't have to choose between the biographical and the personal. The poems can be both. They make an endlessly fascinating and psychologically intricate love story when read biographically, but they also have the ability to take the reader into Emily's side of that story, an argument for the reader's sake too, to be enraptured in the the present, heartbreak and all. 

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

29 February 2024

I live with Him — I see His face —

I live with Him — I see His face —
I go no more away
For Visitor — or Sundown —
Death's single privacy

The Only One — forestalling Mine —
And that — by Right that He
Presents a Claim invisible —
No wedlock — granted Me —

I live with Him — I hear His Voice —
I stand alive — Today —
To witness to the Certainty
Of Immortality —

Taught Me — by Time — the lower Way —
Conviction — Every day —
That Life like This — is stopless —
Be Judgment — what it may —

  -F698, J463, Fascicle 32, 1863

I read one analysis of this poem that takes the “Him” here as a representative of death, like the “He” in the poem, “Because I could not stop for death/ He kindly stopped for me.” This seems like a stretch. David Preest writes that “this poem shows Dickinson’s complete dependence on her lover.” This seems more likely, though I wouldn’t use the word “dependence”. For a general reader, knowing nothing of Dickinson’s life, the capitalized Him would point toward the usual designation for Christ. All of these are possible. It is safe to presume the “Him” in this poem is the same as the “Master” of the previous poem. Dickinson’s blurring of the lines between God and lover is part of the mystique of her poetry.

As intrigued and fascinated as I am by all of this, I want to read the poem outside of this biographical/religious realm and show the ways in which these poems may be relevant to the reader, i.e. myself. 

The first thing I find noteworthy in this poem is the idea that the poet is done with visitors AND sundown. To be done with visitors is extreme, but sundown too? No more night time? Is this because He shines so brightly that there is no more darkness? Or is it because the poet can no longer sleep in her agitated state?

It would seem the only thing that could forestall the poet’s seeing "Him" is death. The syntax gets tricky here. “Death's single privacy/ The Only One — forestalling Mine —” What does “mine” refer to? Is it referring back to death? That’s what I thought at first, but it doesn’t make sense that death would forestall death, unless the second death is symbolic. Does “mine” refer back to “privacy”? This makes more sense. Death’s single privacy is the only thing that could get in the way of the poet’s (double) privacy with Him.

And what does the “And that…” beginning the next stanza refer back to? The forestalling? The privacy? Death? I think it is likely the privacy, which helps make sense of the "invisible claim" that “He” has on the poet. This is followed up by “No wedlock granted me”. It seems because there was no earthly marriage for the poet, then “He” has a claim. This might lead us to believe that Christ is the Groom. Though, to return to biography for a moment, there is one narrative that says Dickinson made a pact to marry Charles Wadsworth in heaven. I learned this idea from faithful Prowling Bee reader Larry B. See his comment on F686 for more on this. This reading certainly dovetails with the poem, although it is harder to reconcile with a non-biographical personal reading.

Non-biographically, I can make sense of the Christ reading, or, alternatively, the idea of an earthly love that shows you a taste of immortal love. These both fit well for the third stanza here.

I grew up with the hymn “In the Garden” and the lyrics “He walks with me and He talks with me”, so that’s what I hear in the first line of the stanza. “I live with Him — I hear His Voice —”. That hymn was written in 1912, so Dickinson wouldn’t have been thinking of it, but given the fact that Dickinson writes in standard hymn meter, it is hard not to hear some resonance. Also the idea of being a “witness” is Christian parlance too. But again, Dickinson often uses religious language to speak of earthly love, so who knows?

The part that does resonate with me though is when the poet says, “I stand alive — Today —/To witness to the Certainty/ Of Immortality”. This focus on immortality, which is felt in the NOW, or “— Today —”, is where I, as a reader, find myself included. Here is a poet, one I deeply admire, who stood witness “— Today —” to the CERTAINTY of immortality. 

This brings us to the idea of what exactly Dickinson means by immortality. I would posit that you could make a life study out of this question. Dickinson’s poems and letters are overflowing with the idea. The following quotes are all taken from her letters, and give us a feel for the range.

"No heart that break but further went than immortality."

"Emerson's intimacy with his "Bee" only immortalized him."

"The 'infinite beauty' of which you speak comes too near to seek."

"Show me eternity, and 
I will show you Memory-
Be you - While I am Emily -
Be next - what you have ever been -

"There is no first, or last, in Forever- It is Centre, there, all the time."

"The risks of immortality are perhaps its charm."

"A letter always seemed to me like Immortality, for is it not the Mind alone, without corporeal friend?"

"Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. Dear friend, I can fly- her immortal reply."

"An hour for books those enthralling friends the immortalities."

"The immortality of flowers must enrich our own."

"Amazing human heart-
a syllable can make
to quake like jostled tree-
what Infinite - for thee!"

Each of these quotes are worthy of contemplation and give us a new spin on the idea of immortality. And there are dozens more like this in the poems. In another letter Dickinson says of another writer (though it might as well be herself), "It may be she came to show you Immortality." This echoes the "I stand alive today to witness to the certainty of immortality" that we find in this poem. It may be Dickinson came to show us immortality.

The last stanza also resonates with me. Since the higher way, “immortality”, is timeless, we can only learn it the lower way, since we are creatures of time.

The Certainty of Immortality is...
"Taught Me — by Time — the lower Way —
Conviction — Every day —
That Life like This — is stopless —
Be Judgment — what it may —”

When you start reading Dickinson as a witness to immortality, then the biographical details are secondary (even if they are endlessly fascinating). What I find meaningful is that there is a certainty of Immortality that was taught to Emily by Time (by Time!), and that therefore it can be taught to us too; that life like “This” is stopless. Be judgment what it may. I take that "This" to include all that can be found in the above quotes, something tied into to the heart, to heart break, to flowers, bees, memory, books, something that is risky, something that is there all the time, and so on. Or to quote my favorite Dickinson lines about eternity, also from a letter, “The Life we have is very great. The Life that we shall see Surpasses it, we know, because It is Infinity, But when all Space has been beheld And all Dominion shown The smallest Human Heart's extent Reduces it to none.”

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

My daughters Sofia and Lucia in front of
Banksy's mural in Queens, moments 
before it was defaced. 

27 February 2024

Why make it doubt—it hurts it so—

Why make it doubt—it hurts it so—
So sick—to guess—
So strong—to know—
So brave—upon its little Bed
To tell the very last They said
Unto Itself—and smile—And shake—
For that dear—distant—dangerous—Sake—
But—the Instead—the Pinching fear
That Something—it did do—or dare—
Offend the Vision—and it flee—
And They no more remember me—
Nor ever turn to tell me why—
Oh, Master, This is Misery—

   -F697, J462, Fascicle 32, 1863

What is missing from this poem?

1. Perhaps the most conspicuous thing about this poem is what is not there. The first thing I notice is how bare it is. There is no beautiful imagery. It is devoid of the kind of sensory splendor Dickinson can do so breathtakingly well. If we look at the last few poems in Fascicle 32 we can see plenty of gorgeous imagery, like an “impalpable Array that swaggers on the eye like Cleopatra’s Company Repeated in the sky” (F696). This array is missing here.

2. There are no names, and nary a gendered pronoun. There is only “me” and “master, “they” and “it”. Significantly, “it” is presented to us 3 times in the very line of this poem. There are 7 in total.

We’ve met this kind of Dickinson poem before, notably a few poems back in “Like Eyes that looked on Wastes…Just infinites of Nought as far as it could see” (F693). The “it” there refers to a face. A face is just a thing when there is no soul to animate it. I’ve noticed that Emily often uses the “it” this way, to call attention to a part of the body which is dead in itself and needs the spirit to animate it. That’s what I think is going on here, with the dead thing being the heart.

But maybe to call “it” merely a heart would be to de-infinitize it. On one hand the word “it” refers to “thingness”, but on the other hand “it” is vague enough to take on many possibilities.

The reason I think the it refers to a heart is because there appears to be a romantic situation here. In boring prose, this scenario reads, “Why make me doubt. It hurts my heart so. It makes me so sick to have to guess your feelings. But it would make me so strong to know them (whether they say yes or no). My heart is so brave though. I’m in bed, telling myself the last thing you said to me and smiling, and then shaking with emotion for the sake of you, dear, so distant from me. It’s dangerous to my well being. My heart feels a pinching fear that something I dared to say offended you, causing you to leave. And I’m afraid that you’ll forget me and I’ll never know why. Master (of my heart), this is miserable.”

This is a lover who has put everything, her very being, on the line, who has dared to bare her soul. And you just know that Emily was like this. We love her for this. And yet, what if you were the object of this love? If you read through Emily’s love letters to Sue, you can just imagine how intense it must have been to be on the other side of them. It must have been a LOT. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to his wife shortly after meeting Emily for the first time: “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching me, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” I can easily imagine Emily’s daring being overbearing. And yet, a love letter from Emily? Who could resist such overbearingness? Wadsworth perhaps, Higginson too, but not Sue, not in the long run, as she was still around at the end to help Bury her friend.

I think one of the things that we love about Emily so much is her fierce all-consuming ability to love. But it IS intense. Sometimes it feels like I’m looking directly into the sun when I read Dickinson. Lucky Sue though. And lucky us. The poems, somehow, love us too. I wish I had the ability and courage to love that deeply.

3. A third thing noticeably missing in this poem is stanzas. It is one long stanza. There isn’t the breathing room of line breaks. It’s one long breathless plea.

This poem, given a contemporary title, might be called “The Plea of the Ghosted”. It so well sums up the horrible feeling so many of us have felt when ghosted by someone we love.

If you happen to be the Master in a relationship, then this poem is for you too. It’s telling you that it is far kinder to be clear, so the one you are leaving can be “ strong to know” instead of “sick to guess”. Don’t be a ghoster!

4. The final thing missing from this poem is a perfect end rhyme. All the couplet rhymes leading up to the last one are perfect, or nearly perfect, but the final one upsets the harmony and turns that “I” sound of “why” into a pained “ee” sound of “misery”, which sonically hearkens back to “me”. It's also worth noting that there is another poem in this fascicle that ends in "misery", F686

5. The absences in this poem signal absence itself.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*Note Emily’s early use of the pronoun “they” for the singular “Master”. She was ahead of her time!

24 February 2024

The Tint I cannot take — is best —

The Tint I cannot take — is best — 
The Color too remote 
That I could show it in Bazaar — 
A Guinea at a sight — T

The fine — impalpable Array — 
That swaggers on the eye 
Like Cleopatra’s Company — 
Repeated — in the sky — 

 The Moments of Dominion 
That happen on the Soul 
And leave it with a Discontent 
Too exquisite — to tell — 

The eager look — on Landscapes — 
As if they just repressed 
Some Secret — that was pushing 
Like Chariots — in the Vest — 

 The Pleading of the Summer — 
That other Prank — of Snow — 
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle, 
For fear the Squirrels — know. 

 Their Graspless manners — mock us — 
Until the Cheated Eye 
Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — 
Another way — to see —

-F696, J627, Fascicle 32, 1863

For this poem I'm going to turn over the floor to Patrick Gillespie. I was introduced to Gillespie's blog when he commented on an earlier poem on Prowling Bee (F684). We corresponded a bit and I became a fan. I like his take on this poem and so, with his permission, I will include it here. The rest of his blog is well worth checking out too. Here's Patrick on "The Tint I cannot take — is best —":

"So this is a poem that has had me utterly puzzled for three days straight. And I have been irritably dissatisfied with every interpretation that I’ve read (of which there aren’t many, at least online) and mainly because all of them, Vendler’s included, fudge their interpretation of the last quatrain. As regards Vendler, her interpretation is so convoluted that she herself ends her explication with a question mark—a made-up question mark that is not reflected in Dickinson’s text (as if Vendler were imputing on Dickinson her own uncertainty).

The poet’s only remaining defense against a perpetual cycle of elation and discontent within Nature is deliberately to exclude herself from it, to return Nature’s arrogance with arrogance, and to shut her “Cheated Eye” in the grave. And after that? Is there “Another way — to see — “? Dickinson manifests only a skeptical prospect—she exhibits no certainty that there is “Another way — to see —.” [Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries]

Except that Dickinson does none of these things. It is entirely Helen Vendler who “exhibits no certainty”. Dickinson, in fact, is quite certain:Their Graspless manners — mock us — Until the Cheated Eye Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — Another way — to see —

The only question is in regards to what she’s certain about. Vendler interprets the poem as Dickinson’s “attempt to grasp the “Graspless” import of Nature” and asserts that, with each quatrain, Dickinson becomes more disillusioned by nature’s ‘withholding of its secrets’. Arguing that Dickinson’s poem is one of increasing disillusionment is how Vendler explains the seeming contradiction/bitterness of the last quatrain, in which the poet appears to assert that she’s been cheated. It’s a contradiction because Dickinson begins the poem by stating what facets of nature she thinks ‘are best’ (presumably that she likes best). And so why would she spend the first five quatrains extolling these facets of nature only to end by resenting them? Vendler thinks its because nature never, ultimately, gives up its secrets. Contrariwise, my own reading is that this is precisely the quality Dickinson likes and steadfastly admires throughout the poem. I would also argue that Dickinson isn’t strictly describing what she likes about nature, but is also describing, by analogy, what she likes in poetry. And credit for that possibility goes to Vendler who, though she doesn’t seem to recognize the significance, suspects that Dickinson’s poem 778 and “The Tint I cannot take” are related:

Dickinson’s first statement is one of gratitude for poetic incapacity, rejoicing in Nature’s capacity to withold her best secrets: “The Tint I cannot take — is best —”, she alleges, wanting something to be saved from human exploitation. Just as she would find (in *788) that “Publication — is the Auction/Of the Mind of Man —”

And there’s another parallel with this poem that Vendler either missed or deemed insignificant. That other Prank — of Snow — That Cushions Mystery with Tulle, For fear the Squirrels — know.

Compare that to 778 in which she describes her sheets/pages of poetry as Snow: We — would rather From our Garret go White — unto the White Creator — Than invest [sell/auction] — Our Snow [Poetry]—

My reading is that Dickinson, in describing what she likes best about nature, is describing her own philosophy of poetry. The Tint I cannot take [is what is best], along with the impalpable array, the moments of dominion, the eager looks of landscapes, the pleading of the summer and that other prank — the Snow. Those are the first five quatrains. So:The Tint [way of understanding] I cannot take [to market to sell or auction] — is best — The Color [meaning] too remote [refined, intangible, ineffable] That I could show it in Bazaar — A Guinea at a sight —

This can be interpreted in a couple ways: She’s not going to dumb down her poetry for the sake of a guniea; or, She likes most that feeling in her poetry that is too refined, too personal a way of understanding, too ineffable and revealing, to be worth a guinea. Dickinson doesn’t want her intensely personal poems to be defined by any monetary value.The fine — impalpable Array [rainbow]— [is also best] That swaggers on the eye Like Cleopatra’s Company — [a reference to Shakespeare's verse] Repeated — in the sky — [rainbow compared to Cleopatra on the Nile]

Dickinson, here, is all but directly referencing the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.

What is significant here is that Dickinson is explicitly referencing Shakespeare’s poetry and a particular passage. She is telling us what she admires in poetry. In this case the kind of swaggering and impalpable beauty in Shakespeare’s verse that defies explanation.The Moments of Dominion [when poetry overwhelms or conquers] That happen on the Soul [the reader] And leave it with a Discontent [an inability to dislodge the poetry] Too exquisite — to tell — [for reasons too moving/personal to explain]

In other words, she also likes best those moments when a given passage so overwhelms/dominates her that she can’t think of anything else [like me and this poem for example]. She’s left in a state of discontent/agitation for reasons too exquisite to explain. And it’s precisely because she can’t explain the reasons why she is agitated and exercised that she knows the value of the poetry. This is what great poetry should do.The eager look — on Landscapes — [at the terrain of other poems] As if they [the poets] just repressed [just narrowly hid] Some Secret [meaning] — that was pushing Like Chariots — in the Vest — [the thumping heartbeat in the breast]

What she also likes best: Eagerly looking—opening the pages—to visit the terrains of other poems, and especially by poets who, wishing to conceal the true meaning/inspiration of their poems, are also simultaneously driven to confess/reveal their “secrets” with the eagerness of the heart (hopefully beating in the chest) desiring to be understood. (The chariots are like the bringers of the news and the thudding hooves of the horses their heartbeat.) I personally read in this metaphor a description of poetry as a kind of coy flirtation. Dickinson reads and writes poems that are like flirtatious invitations—she both conceals her true intentions, to protect herself should she be rejected, but also wishes to be understood with all the flush of a beating heart. And that makes sense of, and leads directly to, the next quatrain:The Pleading [the flirtation] of the Summer — [of the poet herself] [And] That other Prank [feat and/or gaudy dress]— of Snow — [the flirtation of her poetry] That Cushions [covers] Mystery [the truth] with Tulle, [rhetoric/the words themselves] For fear the Squirrels [the too curious/invasive reader] — know. [will find her out]

If Dickinson considers the best poetry to be like flirtatious invitations (and that’s how I might characterize many of Dickinson’s poems) then the “Pleading of the Summer” might be understood as the flirtation of the poet herself, in the blossoming guise of summer. By referring to Snow/her poetry as that “other Prank”, she is playfully referring to herself, in the previous line, as a prank (that other gesture for attention). In other words, the heart of flirtation/poetry is jest, deception, truth and the desire for reciprocity (the desire for one’s joke/insight/meaning to be understood). Not to be overlooked, though, is an older meaning of prank. To prank also has the (now archaic) meaning to dress up showily (a meaning which the Dickinson Lexicon overlooks, by the way). This meaning would have been current in Dickinson’s time and is a meaning Dickinson would have encountered in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, for instance.PERDITA Sir, my gracious lord, To chide at your extremes it not becomes me: O, pardon, that I name them! Your high self, The gracious mark o' the land, you have obscured With a swain's wearing, and me, poor lowly maid, Most goddess-like prank'd up: but that our feasts In every mess have folly and the feeders Digest it with a custom, I should blush To see you so attired, sworn, I think, To show myself a glass.

This latter interpretation strikes me as the more likely. Summer’s Pleading, in other words, would be it’s ostentatious display/prank of flowers (for example), while the poet’s pleading is prank’d up in her poetry/Snow. It’s a great contrast and it makes better sense of the quatrain. The poet’s prank (gaudy dress) of Snow/Poetry cushions/’covers over’/conceals her true appearance with Tulle (a veil of words) to keep out the overly nosy/inquisitive/curious squirrels looking for pat explanations (or gossip).Their Graspless manners — mock us — Until the Cheated Eye Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — Another way — to see —

And now we get to the last quatrain, which at first glance seems to undercut all of this. Many interpreters, including Harold Bloom, seem to (want to) imply that this last quatrain is a rejection of everything written before and that, once in the grave, we’ll finally see with the eyes of the soul/spirit—a hopeful stab at profundity by many interpreters; but Dickinson gives us zero reason to read it that way. She writes quite plainly that ‘Another way to see’ is arrogantly shut in the grave by the Cheated Eye.’ Period. There’s no revelation in those lines. But, once again, I’m going to suggest that many, possibly most, readers have been misreading this final quatrain. All the puzzle resides in sorting out who “their” is, who “us” is, what (or who) the “Cheated Eye” refers to, what “arrogantly” means, and what is meant by “Another way — to see“. According to all the interpretations I’ve read so far, including Vendler, the “Cheated Eye” is Dickinson’s own eye, the same “eye” as in the second quatrain—”swaggers on the eye”. If read in this sense, then Dickinson is saying that everything in the previous five quatrains cheated/deceived her eye. But maybe not. Why is eye not capitalized in the second quatrain, but is capitalized in the final quatrain? That’s not the kind of detail to be overlooked in Dickinson. My suspicion is that they aren’t the same. They mean different things.

There’s a fascinating series of revisions in Dickinson’s poem I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being theirs, in which she writes:I've finished threading—too— Baptized, before, without the choice, But this time, consciously, of Grace— Unto supremest name— Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped— Existence's whole Arc, filled up, With one small Diadem.

For “whole Arc”, she also tried and rejected: whole eye, whole rim/surmise. What we have is a Dickinson Thesaurus provided by Dickinson herself. In other words, she considers eye to be, in a sense, a synechdoche or synonym for the span of life, existence’s arc, rim (circumference) or surmise. And what if that’s the sense in which Dickinson meant “Cheated Eye”? In that case, I would read “their” as not a reference to the examples of the previous five quatrains—the tint, the impalpable array, the moments of Dominion, the Landscapes, Summer or that other Prank of Snow (all of which she stated as being “best”)—but to squirrels. Yes. Squirrels. It’s the squirrels who are the villains. Squirrels digging rudely in the snow of Dickinson’s poetry, grasping for the next guinea. They’re not some vague “nature spirits”, as Vendler would have it. Dickinson is talking about readers (and editors) who want to reduce her poetry to something pat and banal (remember, she’s just spent the last five quatrains celebrating the ineffable—truth and beauty beyond words and explication). For Dickinson, it’s the ineffable and inexplicable that gives poetry its power, not anything made pat for the convenience of a sale. Poetry isn’t something that some damned squirrel can dig up like a Guinea and stash in its larder/bookshelf.Their [the squirrels] Graspless [failure to grasp] manners — mock us — [belittle the poet's efforts or more generally mock/resemble all of us] Until the Cheated [the deceived/wasted] Eye [arc of life/surmise] Shuts arrogantly [triumphantly] — in the Grave — Another way — to see — [our/their opportunity to see the world through Dickinson's eyes or more generally the ineffable]

So. in plain English: The borish readers/editors, only interested in a guinea’s worth of entertainment, mock and belittle the poet’s effort. Their manners are graspless, in the sense that they can’t grasp the truth and beauty of the ineffable. (And this plays against the first line in the sense that it’s what Dickinson can’t take that is the most valuable.) They cheat themselves of the ineffable by their pursuit of the easily comprehended (cheating themselves of the profundity Dickinson has described in the previous five quatrains) until the natural arc of their cheated lives shuts them in the grave, forever closing them off to that other way “to see”—that other way offered by Dickinson and the great poets before her.

If read and understood this way, the final quatrain reaffirms the first five quatrains, rather than negating them. And if read this way, Dickinson’s poem isn’t only a sharp rebuke of readers, but also of the poetry being produced by other poets, along with the whole monetization of poetry (and the demands made on poetry by that monetization). One might respond that this was self-defeating on Dickinson’s part but remember that Higginson made Dickinson change her poems so that they would more readily and easily appeal to readers (ergo: so that they would sell better). Dickinson, with reason, fundamentally saw publication and its readership as hostile to her and her poetry. As I read this poem, it’s Dickinson’s defense of herself, her decision not to publish her poetry, and her criticism of readers and the state of contemporary poetry in general."

Bravo Patrick, thanks for helping us see "Another way — to see —".

23 February 2024

I know where Wells grow — Droughtless Wells —

I know where Wells grow — Droughtless Wells —
Deep dug — for Summer days —
Where Mosses go no more away —
And Pebble — safely plays —

It's made of Fathoms — and a Belt —
A Belt of jagged Stone —
Inlaid with Emerald — half way down —
And Diamonds — jumbled on —

It has no Bucket — Were I rich
A Bucket I would buy —
I'm often thirsty — but my lips
Are so high up — You see —

I read in an Old fashioned Book
That People "thirst no more" —
The Wells have Buckets to them there —
It must mean that — I'm sure —

Shall We remember Parching — then?
Those Waters sound so grand —
I think a little Well — like Mine —
Dearer to understand —

   -J460, F695, fascicle 32

Okay, I’m typing this commentary as I read this poem for the first time, line by line, trying to capture the way we wrestle with the riddle of the poem as we go. It’s an experiment, and I’m hoping it will shed some light onto the process.

I know where Wells grow — Droughtless Wells —

Hmm, where do wells “grow”? How would they grow? We must be talking about something besides an actual well? Something living if it is growing, living water. And it is droughtless, eternally fresh. Eternal living water, sounds biblical. Like a soul? I imagine wells welling up, growing, like underground wombs. 

I hear an echo of Shakespeare here, from Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I know where the wild thyme blows.” Sounds like a possible inspiration for, "I know where wells grow."

Deep dug — for Summer days —

Deep dug. Ooh, I dig the sound of that. We already have delicious sound play with the quintuple Ws in the first line. The D of Droughtless in that first line sets up the percussive double D of Deep Dug in the second.

So if Well here equals eternal living water, what does “Summer Days” equal? Normally Summer is something longed for. But here it means, perhaps, the opposite; heat, drought. Wells are for quenching thirst, which we might especially need on a very hot summer day. So if Wells equal, say, spiritual sustenance, then summer day would be those days….lost in doubt? I’m not sure. Let’s see where she goes with this.

Where Mosses go no more away —

Mosses go no more away? The riddle continues. This goes along with the “Droughtless” in line one. This is some kind of eternal water, like the kind found in the New Testament. Let’s look up the bible verse. Ok, after a quick internet search I find a verse concerning the promise Jesus made to the woman of Samaria, ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.’ (John 4:14)

There you have it. Okay, so far we have a spiritual well. Although there is a small, but possibly important difference, because the wells are multiple here. These "wells" are dug deep for summer, but also reach beyond summer, because the mosses don't go away. Oh, and they are growing. 

And Pebble — safely plays —

If the moss stays, so does the pebble. How would a pebble be playing? Is it playing in the water? I can imagine a pebble playing in a river, but in a well it's harder to imagine. Maybe it is meant to invoke a child dropping a pebble in the well. I like the introduction to play here. Playfulness is part of this Well-scape. The pebble also “safely” plays. That’s a solid adjective, safely. It makes you think of all that is not safe play, the kind of play that is dangerous. 

It's made of Fathoms — and a Belt —

This sounds like a great riddle. What is made of fathoms and has a belt? A well has two parts making it up, Fathoms and a Belt. So much resonance and depth in the word "Fathoms". We can't fathom the depth of this well. And there's plenty of symbolic possibility in the word Belt too. But what is the belt? Is a belt the rope pulley to haul up the water? Hmm.

A Belt of jagged Stone —

A Belt of jagged Stone? Nope, not a rope belt to pull up a bucket. Ohhh, I see, Dickinson meant “belt” as in the cylindrical ring of rocks that hold in the Fathoms of the well. The wall of the well is the belt around the water.

Inlaid with Emerald — half way down —

That's pretty. Jagged stone belt inlaid with emerald half way down. Is that emerald meant to be the color of the water which you can see half way down?

And Diamonds — jumbled on —

Are the "Diamonds jumbled on" a little bit of sunlight that has somehow penetrated half way down the well? (It must be close to noon on this summer day, the hottest time of day.) A jagged stone belt inlaid with emeralds with diamonds jumbled on? That’s very pretty, Emily.

It has no Bucket — Were I rich

Ah, no water for the poet though. These wells, though Emily knows where they grow, are not able to give sustenance for her spiritual thirst. She’s not “rich” enough. (Reminded here of F687, in which the poet did not have enough to give the Merchant for the one thing she truly desired.)  What does it mean to be rich enough to drink eternal living water? Is it meant sincerely, like in past poems when Dickinson wishes she could simply have faith? Or maybe the "rich" thing is meant to be ironic? Like, it’s only wealthy people who can afford to go to heaven?

A Bucket I would buy —

What does it mean to be rich enough to buy a bucket? A very good question. If it’s not money you possess, it might be faith? It's strange to think of faith as something you can buy though. This is worth pondering further.

I'm often thirsty — but my lips

Are so high up — You see —

The poet's lips are high up. What is she getting at there?  "My lips are so high up, you see" No, Emily, I don’t see. You are thirsty because you are so…elevated? You are closer to the sun? You are in the romance and drama of summer? You are so high up because you are a genius? Because your lips, your mouth, create elevated words? But what does that have to do with thirst? You are too high up, too arrogant, not humble enough, not down to earth enough? Hmm. I'm not sure. Let's see where the poem goes.

I read in an Old fashioned Book

That People "thirst no more" —

Okay, the old fashioned book is the Bible right, and the “thirst no more” is a reference to John 4:14. I also hear another echo of Shakespeare here, from Macbeth: “Sleep no more!” That might be a stretch, but it’s a pretty famous line from a famous play, so maybe.

The Wells have Buckets to them there —

Okay, the Wells in heaven have buckets. You can get sustenance from them. What are these buckets?

It must mean that — I'm sure —

“I’m sure.” You could punctuate this as: “It must mean THAT, I’m sure.” But you can also punctuate it: “It must mean that I’m SURE.” That way of punctuating makes this line about certainty. So to connect the dots, perhaps a bucket would be a symbol of faith? Emily doesn’t have that kind of bucket. She often bemoans her lack of certainty and faith in her poems. To have faith is to have a bucket, is to be sure. Is Emily playing with the idea of faith here?

Shall We remember Parching — then?

Those Waters sound so grand —

When we get to heaven, will we remember what it is like to be thirsty? The poem before this one speaks of Heaven relying on Hell, says that we need teeth defacing our peace to vitalize grace. So maybe Emily is saying we need thirst. “Those Waters sound so grand.” That sounds sarcastic to me. And notice that “grand” is not capitalized. Perhaps it is not so very grand. Perhaps it is better to be parched, so that we may appreciate water? And perhaps it is better for the mosses to go away, so we may appreciate the renewal of spring?

I think a little Well — like Mine —

Okay, a little Well like Emily’s. What is this Well? We can speculate. An ink well? That would be clever. Or if not her ink well, at least poetry? Perhaps she is speaking of a lover. Sue? Wadsworth? Or is the little Well herself? 

Dearer to understand —

Ooh, a twist. Dearer could be read a couple ways. "Dearer" in the 1800s would have commonly meant “more expensive”. In this case it would be saying that my own little well is more expensive to understand.  The idea of “dearer” hearkens back to “rich” earlier in the poem. If I were rich, a bucket I would buy. But here it might mean something beyond that kind of richness, something dearer. It is more difficult to understand this kind of Well, more expensive, perhaps better. 

To track back to the earlier question of why the poet's lips are so high up: Are they so high up because the air is dearer up there? Those lips after all, have to deal with parching, and winter. That gets expensive, but Dickinson doesn't mind the price. She's not rich enough to "buy" the bucket needed for heavenly sustenance, but she she's willing to pay the dearer price of her "little Well". This would appear to be a paradox, but you realize Dickinson is speaking of two different modes of economy. 

But “Dearer” can also, of course, mean beloved, as in “my dear”. My little Well is dearer to understand than God's, which is to say, I understand the dearness of it better. (Like in F688, when ED speaks of the dying man’s mind being more on “home” than on “heaven”, more on the known than the unknown.)

Brava, Emily. I’m exhausted, having riddled through another deep well-spring of your mind and eternal spirit, but also...quenched.

I think this poem is saying something like: my lover, or maybe my poetry, means more to me than the Wells of the eternal water offered by Christ, though it is more difficult (expensive) in the end. Emily trusts the here and now, the solid earth rather than the abstract heavens, even if it means extreme thirst, and maybe even BECAUSE it involves extreme thirst.

What I’m left with though, what I’ll take with me in my memory, is that beautiful image of fathoms held together by a jagged stone belt with emeralds inlaid half way down and diamonds jumbled on. 

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

20 February 2024

A Tooth upon Our Peace

A Tooth upon Our Peace
The Peace cannot deface—
Then Wherefore be the Tooth?
To vitalize the Grace—

The Heaven hath a Hell—
Itself to signalize—
And every sign before the Place
Is Gilt with Sacrifice—

    -F694, J459, Fascicle 32, 1863, 

This is one of those Dickinson poems with nary an online analysis. This one you are reading is, at the time it was written, the only one. It’s strange isn’t it? It may be a minor Dickinson poem, but it’s still a great one and well worth looking at closely. The first line alone has a memorable bite. 

Then we enter into some complicated, but insightful territory. At first I read the first two lines like this, “A tooth upon our Peace (that) the Peace cannot deface” as if Peace could not deface the tooth. But after puzzling on this for awhile I realized it might be the other way around, “A tooth upon our Peace (which) the Peace cannot deface”; the Peace cannot be defaced by the tooth. Which is the subject of these two lines, "Tooth" or "Peace"? These two possibilities lead to radically different readings, but both may be valid. No matter how deep our Peace, we are defaced by the bite of the teeth. But also, no matter how painful the bite, it can’t ultimately deface true Peace. Which is it?  Are both readings intended? Dickinson often leans into ambiguities of this sort. You really want it to mean one thing or another, but don't always get that satisfaction.

Perhaps we get a clue in the next line, “Then Wherefore be the Tooth? To vitalize the Grace.” Wherefore is an antiquated way of saying "why”, and vitalize means to give life. Why is the tooth there? To give life to grace. Here we have the thesis of the poem. Without the painful aspects of life, Grace would not be able to show itself.

The next two lines takes this idea further.

The Heaven hath a Hell—/ Itself to signalize—

Heaven has a hell to show us what heaven is. We wouldn't know "good" if we didn't have "bad". On one hand this might be an argument for the necessity of hell. On the other hand, it might be an argument for giving up the idea of heaven itself, to go beyond duality.

Look at the last couplet,

And every sign before the Place/ Is Gilt with Sacrifice—

These lines take some working out. Gilt means covering something with gold. Sacrifices are golden signs along the road to heaven. The idea of sacrifices circles back to Tooth. The painful things we endure, the pleasures we give up willingly, are pointing us to Heaven.

But there is a funny pun here with “guilt”, especially if this poem is read out loud. (This same pun can be seen in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth says, “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal (with blood) For it must seem their guilt (they're gilt)." If we see/hear the word guilt in this line, it takes on a different timbre. Is sacrifice a noble thing, or an action driven by “guilt”? If it is the latter, then perhaps this poem is pointing toward giving up the notion of heaven and hell altogether. If it is the former, it is showing us the flip side of sacrifice.

Which way do you read it? Contranym is a term for words that can have opposite meanings, like "bolt" or "cleave". Some entire Dickinson poems have the quality of being contranymic. 

I love the ways Dickinson undergirds her meaning with sound. This one pushes the sibilance of the cee sound. Peace, Deface, Grace, Place, Sacrifice. You hear it very strongly in the first two lines and it persists throughout the short poem. It is to my ear a sharp whiplash-like slicing sound, which is in keeping with the sharp “Tooth”. There is also the near rhyme of vitalize and signalize, which adds to the effect.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff


This poem reminds me of a routine by the comedian Jacqueline Novak, which I recently watched on Netflix. Here’s an excerpt:

“The teeth…they’re the seeds in the watermelon…they’re the sand that irritates the oyster that produces the pearl. They’re the sea salt in the caramel. Remember in 2012, when they felt they had to go wide with that? Some of the caramel people realized we’d all grown too accustomed to the taste. They said, “We need to put a reminder, something in every damn bite.” “Something that says, ‘No, sweetness is not guaranteed in this life.'” It’s like the little rubber guy in the cereal box, the little gummy guy you throw against the wall and he clings, but then he fails, but tries and fails, and tries and fails, and through his trying and failing and trying, he appears to crawl. And that’s why we love him. That’s what makes him a prize. That’s why we dig through the grains for him before we’ve earned him through the steady, daily eating of the cereal. At bare minimum, at bare, obvious minimum, the teeth in the are the details that bring the textures to this life. The kind the English teacher promised us would illuminate the universal through the particular. They’re the plums in the icebox, the popping of my “P” sounds in the microphone. The “measuring out of life in coffee spoons, fog curling in the windowpane,” Garbo’s salary, cellophane, Zuzu’s petals. They mean you’re… you’re alive and you’re in your life, and this time, you get it. This time you see it’s a wonderful life. This time you see that you’re the richest man in town. I mean, they… they send a Susan to her potential death. But for faith and desire alone. The teeth shall remain. The teeth bring the centuries to the thing.”

18 February 2024

Like Eyes that looked on Wastes –

Like Eyes that looked on Wastes –
Incredulous of Ought
But Blank – and steady Wilderness –
Diversified by Night –

Just Infinites of Nought –
As far as it could see –
So looked the face I looked opon –
So looked itself – on Me –

I offered it no Help –
Because the Cause was Mine –
The Misery a Compact
As hopeless – as divine –

Neither – would be absolved –
Neither would be a Queen
Without the Other – Therefore –
We perish – tho’ We reign –

-F693, J458, Fascicle 32, 1863

I think Emily is doing something radical with this poem. It can be read as either between two lovers OR as between the self and the self’s reflection. Is this on purpose? I think so, or at least I think it is likely she wrote it with both in mind.

Which of these two interpretations is the most useful to the reader? Love poems tend to exclude the reader. Perhaps one can live vicariously through them, or can more deeply appreciate one’s own love, or mourn one’s lack of love (as would be the case in this poem.) But a poem which may be read, instead, as a confrontation with one’s own self is going to have more potential impact for a reader, or at least it does for this one. This double nature is often true of Dickinson’s love poems, many of which may also be seen as a dialogue between self and soul, or self and God.

According to Judith Farr this poem is at “the crux of the Sue story.” This makes a lot of sense, and especially coming after F691, which is essentially about gazing into a lover’s eyes. In this interpretation the eyes that stare back, the other queen, is Sue. But, without dismissing that reading, I’m going to argue here that this poem is just as much about confronting oneself in a mirror. In the mirror is the image of another, whether that other is self or lover.

The poem starts off as a simile: “Like eyes that looked on wastes…” so looked these eyes. Why start off with comparison? Why not just get right to the point? Why are eyes being likened to eyes anyway? Perhaps it serves to set up the ambiguity between self and other. The eyes in a mirror aren’t actual eyes after all, they are “like eyes”.

Then there follows a full stanza and a half describing the wasteland these eyes see, the wilderness, the infinites of nothing and a blank so bleak that the blackness of night is the only relief (“diversified by night”). This is more repetitive than usual for Dickinson, but it makes sense here to go on and on about something that feels like it goes on and on, to wallow in the feeling of a barren landscape.

In the second half of the second stanza we read: “So looked the face I looked opon –/ So looked itself – on Me –” The term “itself”, used here to refer to the face, makes me think that it is a mirror that is being alluded to here. It would be strange to refer to a lover’s face as an “it”, but perfectly fitting to in referring to a face in a mirror.

                       My daughter Sofia took this shot yesterday
                       at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC.
                       It's "Self-portrait" by the artist Shary Boyle.
                       You can't see from this angle, but the head 
                       on the porcelain figure has no face. You can 
                       only see the face in the mirrored reflection.

The third stanza begins “I offered it no Help –/ Because the Cause was Mine –” Again we get that pronoun “it” in place of the other face, depersonalizing it. We also get a clue that the other face belongs to the poet because the cause of its helplessness is “mine.” I read a double meaning to “cause” here. You can read it as A. a person that gives rise to a condition or B. an aim that, because of a deep commitment, one is prepared to defend. So you can read this as saying. “I was the cause of the problem” or “I am the cause in need of support.” One way points outward and the other way points in. Both are true if, in reflection, the cause of the misery is also a miserable cause.

The cause might also be mankind’s. There is a bent in Dickinson’s poetry in 1863 toward poems that speak of renunciation. Cf. F665, “The Martyr poets – did not tell”. Looked at in this light, the following lines, about making a compact with misery makes more sense. Another common strain in Dickinson is seeing, paradoxically, the divine in the hopeless. There are several poems that lean in this direction, see F634 (“Had I presumed to hope-,”) for one such example. Another poem, F688 (“There is a shame of Nobleness,”) rejects God’s blessing even after death, or “Behind the Grave.”

"We perish – tho’ We reign –" we read. What does this mean? Judith Farr has an interesting biographical take on it*, but I think it makes sense to see this perishing as a spiritual victory gained through death. "It is in dying that we are born to eternal life” says the prayer of St. Francis. Or, if you prefer a Buddhist take, you can compare this idea to anatta, or “non-self.” You are not going to be Queen, perhaps, neither you NOR your reflection (or lover), but you will, paradoxically, reign in your perishing. One useful way of looking at it: in dissolving the ego, you are set free to simply be.

By tying the two interpretations of this poem together -lover and mirror- Dickinson creates a remarkably resonant space in which we begin to think of self as other and other as self. The membrane between the two begins to disappear, and in disappearing, the self transcends its circumference. In perishing, we reign. 

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*David Preest writes, “Judith Farr convincingly suggests that the two women in this poem are Emily and Sue. As they look into each other’s eyes, they are unable to believe that there is anything for them but ‘Infinites of Nought.’ Emily cannot help Sue because the cause of the Misery was the compact between them which Emily’s love for Sue had brought about. Their compact is ‘divine,’ as they truly love each other, but ‘hopeless,’ as their lesbian, adulterous love is doubly impermissible. Neither wishes to be ‘absolved’ from the love by giving it up or to be a ‘queen in love’ without the other. So they ‘reign’ in each other’s hearts, but ‘perish’ in the circumstances surrounding their love.”

** In keeping with the mirror reading of this poem I wondered if Dickinson was making a pun on a compact mirror when she used the word “compact”, but according to my limited internet research, I could not find any use of the word in print before the early 1900s. However, compact mirrors, by other names, have been around for a long time I discovered: The earliest Compacts were cherished possessions of the kings and queens of ancient Greece. The box mirrors of those days were polished bronze, lavishly adorned with images of Pan, Eros, and Aphrodite, gods of playful mischief, passionate desire, and a more true kind of love.