Search This Blog

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.

13 February 2024

Only God—detect the Sorrow—

Only God—detect the Sorrow—
Only God—
The Jehovahs—are no Babblers—
Unto God—

God the Son—Confide it—
Still secure—
God the Spirit's Honor—
Just as sure—

—J626, F692, Fascicle 32, 1863

I can’t even begin to guess what prompted this poem. It appears to be a pretty straightforward poem about faith in the Trinity, but since Dickinson was rarely straightforward, especially not about religious matters, this one stands out. It tells us that only God can detect our sorrow. (Detect, according to the Dickinson Lexicon, can mean “know” as well as “discover”) Dickinson repeats for emphasis, “Only God”.

There is just one line here that is characteristically Dickinsonian. “The Jehovahs—are no Babblers—” To put God into a plural form by saying “The Jehovahs” is surprising. Wait, you think, why is there more than one Jehovah? But then you read the rest of the poem, which refers to God the Son and God the Spirit, and you realize that the Jehovahs are the three parts of the Trinity. “Jehovahs” sounds like a family name. There is something humorous sounding about the line. The tone changes from a straightforward hymn about the secret depths of sorrow to something that sounds a bit funny. (I hear it in a SitCom voice. “Come on, George! You can trust The Jehovahs, they’re not babblers!”) It’s also worth thinking about that word “babble”, since it etymologically derives from the Tower of Babel myth. I’m not sure what to do with that, except perhaps to say that the three Jehovahs speak in one unified tongue, which, in this poem, is rooted in compassionate listening.


“Unto God—/God the Son—Confide it—” This line I believe is a reference to Christ praying at Gethsemene. From Matthew 26: 38-39, "Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will."

This poem has an unusual scansion. The lines are trochaic rather than the usual iambic, which gives it a singsong effect. In fact it is poems such as this that make me wonder if Dickinsonn didn't sometimes compose her poems to a melody which was going through her head. The tetrameter of the 1st and 3rd lines is followed up by dimeter of the 2nd and 4th, which gives the dimeters emphasis. Add to this that the dimeter in this poem is really one and a half feet, which leaves a little pause at the end of the line where the dimeter ends and allows the trochees to end on the the down beat. BUM ba BUM. The second stanza is nearly the same structure except lines 5 and 7 are trimeter instead of tetrameter. There is a uniquely trochaic 4242 3232 structure to this poem. The effect is a very strong emphasis on every other line. The dimeters in this poem are: Only God/ Unto God/ Still secure/ Just as sure. The strength of this trochaic rhythm and the perfect end rhymes underscore the “sure” and “secure” feeling.

I have a suspicion something else is going on with this poem that I’m not seeing, but perhaps it is what it appears to be, a reminder to confide in God rather than man. If this is so, why is the Trinity invoked? Are there other poems of Dickinson's that mention it? I remember one other poem, a very early one, in which Dickinson also invoked the Trinity,

In the name of the Bee –
And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!

(See Susan Kornfeld's take on this poem.) 

The Trinity in this later poem though (which names the Father, Son and Spirit) seems to be of a different order. If you have any ideas, please comment. I'd love to hear it.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

11 February 2024

'Twas a long Parting — but the time

'Twas a long Parting — but the time
For Interview — had Come —
Before the Judgment Seat of God —
The last — and second time

These Fleshless Lovers met —
A Heaven in a Gaze —
A Heaven of Heavens — the Privilege
Of one another's Eyes —

No Lifetime — on Them —
Appareled as the new
Unborn — except They had beheld —
Born infiniter — now —

Was Bridal — e'er like This?
A Paradise — the Host —
And Cherubim — and Seraphim —
The unobtrusive Guest —

F691, J625, Fascicle 32, 1863

Before saying anything else about this poem, I want to focus on the line “Born infiniter — now —". This line, following on the heels of the previous poem, “Forever is composed of Nows”, has the potential to usher you into the eternal moment of which all of the mystics speak. Both lines move from the infinite to the present. In this one, you are born MORE infinite in the present as you gaze into the eyes of another. To be infiniter is a kind of joke, since it is impossible to have more infinity. But, you can, perhaps, become more aligned with the infinite, become infiniter, when you fully enter into the moment, because in that moment you are letting go of the past and future, and therefore of time. You are parting from time. This might be especially true while gazing into a lover's eyes. 

Now onto the rest of the poem. The first line of the poem, “'Twas a long Parting — but the time” is full of potential meaning. In a poem about the infinite and the now, we already see the idea of time and the leaving of it. And in a poem about lovers, we have introduced the idea of parting. Before we even go on to the next line we are given much to think about. It would be something to try to map out and diagram every thought you had while reading a Dickinson poem. There have been, I would guess, at least a thousand thoughts engendered in my mind so far by this one poem. All of this thought adds up to a “take”, though the complexity of the individual nuances of that take involve each and every one of those thoughts. What I’m trying to say is that with a Dickinson poem, and especially one of this sort, you can try to map out the route, and you can try to include a “general” reading of the poem, but in the end it’s nigh impossible. This is part of the reason why I’m so taken with Susan Kornfeld’s essays on this blog. She’s able to come to a relatively general conclusion that doesn’t subsume or overpower the reader’s own intimate and unique take on it.

That said, I will try to give what I see as the surface reading of this poem: 

It was a slow death, but finally the time for the interview to get into heaven had come. Before the judgment seat of God stood two fleshless lovers. It was the second time these lovers had met. They gazed at each other and heaven itself was in that gaze, the heaven of heavens. Looking into one another’s eyes was a privilege. The bodies are newly unborn, or rather they are born more infinite each moment they look at one another. Was there ever a wedding in the flesh that could compare with this? In this moment, as the host becomes paradise, the lovers welcome the angels, as long they don’t bother them that is.

I'm doing a lot of damage to that third stanza in this summary. There is so much sliding syntax in that stanza that you could punctuate it in several ways. For instance, would a period go after "now" or does "now" modify the first word of the next line, "Unborn"? It's almost as if Dickinson has to break the logic of language in order to get through to something some ineffable truth.

Aside from just the slippery syntax, this poem is weird in other ways. First of all, why was it a slow parting? (Perhaps it felt slow because the lover wanted to get to heaven to meet again with the beloved?) Why was it the second time they met? Is it the second time they’ve met at all, or the second time they've met without flesh? Is this someone the narrator has only met once before? If it’s only the second time they've met as fleshless lovers, when was the first time? If the lovers are before the judgment seat of God, why are they looking at each other instead of God? The way the syntax of this poem is set up, it appears at first as if God could be the lover in question. (This idea is repeated and bolstered in the poem, since the lover’s eyes are heaven.) If God is the lover, then is God the beloved or is the beloved God? And either way, why is the beloved a judge? What is judgment even doing in this poem? Also, how would you have eyes if there was no "Lifetime" on them? (One way would be as a reader because when we read Dickinson’s poems it does feel a bit as if we are gazing deep into her fleshless eyes.) And maybe the most obvious question is: what's up with imagining life after death?

The questions abound, and I'd be curious to know if any of you have a good answer to any of them.  But if I put those questions aside, put my logical sensibility aside, what I’m left with is something beyond mere logic, an exhilarating impression of the True Wonder of staring into someone’s eyes, the absolute privilege of it, the intense nowness of it, the disembodied forever feeling in it, the wedded bliss inherent, like paradise, like heaven, like the heaven OF heavens. When we gaze into one another’s eyes it is as if we are the newly unborn, born infiniter. (What a way to say it!) This poem must be one of the most romantic poems ever written. I'll remember it the next time I stare into someone's eyes.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

Portrait of Emily as a child. The eyes have it.

06 February 2024

Forever – is composed of Nows –

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –

F690, J624, Fascicle 32, 1863

I love it any time Emily Dickinson takes on “eternity” as a subject. I find her spin on it dizzingly powerful. That first line is a good example. It simultaneously zooms out to Forever and zooms in to Now, and by conflating the two shows us both that there can be nothing more than the moment, and, conversely, that the moment is worth extra consideration because it is our actions in the moment that “compose” forever. That verb "compose" brings to mind writing...or music. 

The second line is a good example too. “Tis no different time” is a sliding modifier. When taken after the first line it modifies "now". It says: there is no different time than now. BUT it could ALSO modify the “infiniteness” of the third line. Taken that way it says: there is no other time than infiniteness. That sliding clause further conflates now with forever. In this nifty way the poet weaves the concepts together. There is no other time than now, and there is no other time than the infinite. See? It's dizzying.

Lines 3 and 4 move over to the realm of space instead of time. Just like you have now and forever in the realm of time, you have home and infinity in the realm of space. Forever:now::Infinity:home. It’s almost as if she is intuitively anticipating the "Space-time" of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. (Math nerd alert! I imagine she and her sister-in-law Sue, a mathematician, had some mind-bending conversations about infinity.)

The choice to use the word infiniteness instead of the usual noun, infinity, seems fitting, as the “ness” gives the word "infinite" a quality of spaciousness.

“Latitude of home” would be a paradox in the realm of infinity, because how can you have any latitude in an infinity? You can only have a "latitude" in the same way we can have a “now”, from the vantage point of your own seat of perception. We can only measure where we are by where we commonly (and individually) perceive ourselves to be. What the word “latitude” seems to point to, here, is your internal home.

Latitude has a second definition which bolsters this idea. Latitude can mean “scope for freedom of action or thought” So I think home here could also be the place where you are free to think in the way you want to. And perhaps that is what it means to find your way home internally. Dickinson never ceases to amaze me with her word choices.

The next line of the poem, the beginning of stanza 2, is yet another sliding modifier. (There are at least 3 in this poem). The line, "From this – experienced Here –", can either qualify the line above it or below. When I tried toggling back and forth between the two, above and below, the line began to hover, suspended between the past and the future:

And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –

See how it just floats there in the middle? After going back and forth the mind settles down on that capitalized "Here". It would be a terrific mantra, wouldn't it? 

Lines 7 & 8 are so relaxing. Let months dissolve into months and years exhale in years. The language here is the language of letting go. Exhale and dissolve. You let go of time here and just flow. 

Can you argue with letting go? You could try. But the 3rd stanza anticipates your argument and answers it flat out with: "No debate." Then it goes further, "No debate...or pause." Why is there no debate? Because there is no pause. You can't pause time. It's going. No debate, so you might as well go with it.

There are three negations in a row in the first two lines of the third stanza and they are all making different, but interrelated points. There's a very condensed logic packed into this stanza.  There is no debate, no pause, and no celebrated days. Notice that these two lines are a third sliding modifier in this poem. They can either qualify the lines above them or below them. 

The last negation, "no celebrated days" is a very Buddhist thought. If every moment makes up forever, then either we celebrate every moment or none. It's Christmas every day is what I think Dickinson slyly implies when she writes  "No different Our Years would be/ From Anno Dominies"* 

Though I had never read this poem before, I did know the first line, which pops up as a quote here and there. I start my HS classes out with a 3 breath meditation and sometimes I'll say this line during the meditation. "Take a slow deep breath in. Stay with the breath in the present. Remember that Forever is composed of Nows." Next time I'll add, "Exhale and dissolve." 

_-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*Anno Domini (A.D.) implicitly refers to Christ's birth, so the use of the plural here, "Anno Dominies" may be implying that Christ is born anew every year. There is a fascinating theological idea in Dickinson's poetry of Christ being born and crucified continually, in each of us. Cf. F372 "The stiff Heart questions 'was it He that bore (the cross) and 'Yesterday, or Centuries before?" And in F670, Dickinson writes that there is only one Crucifixion recorded, but there are as many as there are persons.)

04 February 2024

It was too late for Man—

It was too late for Man—
But early, yet, for God—
Creation—impotent to help—
But Prayer—remained—Our Side—

How excellent the Heaven—
When Earth—cannot be had—
How hospitable—then—the face
Of our Old Neighbor—God—        +New

F689, J623, Fascicle 32, 1863

“It was too late for Man”. Now that’s what you call a cold open! This would imply mankind is doomed, and perhaps it seemed so to Emily in the midst of a civil war in which brother was fighting brother, and over such a terrible issue as slavery. But this line has only come to feel more apropos nowadays with climate change, nuclear weapons, the threat of AI, and so on. Emily saw the writing on the wall. Humanity, left up to its own devices, appears hellbent on self-destruction.

But then you get that big “But’ in the next line. “But (it’s) early, yet, for God.” That’s reassuring. We are a blip in the broader manifestation that is happening in the vast universe. I saw a t-shirt worn by the comedian Reggie Watts that said, “When in doubt, zoom out.” That’s what Emily seems to be doing here, taking the long view.

Not only is it too late for man, but we read in the next line that Creation is impotent to help. In the line following this one we get our second big but, "But Prayer—remained—Our Side—" One would think Creation being impotant to help might negate prayer. Creation is not taking care of us, so what makes us think prayer will help? You could read the line “Prayer remained our side” as hopeful, but you can also read derision there. Take the “our side” qualifier for starters. What does it imply? It reminds me of that deeply sarcastic Bob Dylan song, “With God on our side”. Any time you have sides, you have disparity. Still, I like the hopeful possibility, and if you think about the prayer as applied to ourselves, to "our side", where it must "remain", then the prayer is for us.

This poem can also be read as taking the short view too. The Man called out in the first line may be Man in general, but it may also refer to the singular man or woman. When it is too late for you, when you have exhausted your own human limitations, then that’s when God can get to work.

That's the premise. Let’s see how Dickinson will use the second stanza to comment upon and modify the first. When we read “How excellent the heaven” right after reading man is doomed and Creation is no help, then we are tipped off that the adjective "excellent" might signal sarcasm. But then we take in the next line, “How excellent the heaven/ When earth cannot be had.” This is a caustic aphorism. We idealize a future heaven, when life is hell, instead of focusing on the present. Dickinson comes back to this point often in her poems. I'm reminded here of Whitman's line too, “There will never be any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

The last couplet is tricky. But here’s where we may find a sharply pointed lesson. When we reach this “excellent heaven” our old neighbor God will be hospitable. What does Dickinson mean by our “old neighbor” God? Why is God an old neighbor we wonder? Then a possible meaning occurs; the reason earth can be hell is BECAUSE of our old neighbor, because of man’s inhospitality to man. In a heavenly place our old neighbor would be welcoming. God is not somewhere out there, but can be seen in the face of the neighbor. “As you do for the least of these, you do unto me.”

To extrapolate further, we might say that it is in BEING a good neighbor ourselves that we might “save mankind.” But it's not man saving man here, since man is past help. It is God, the Divine within us, which, as the second line of this poem reminds us, has only just begun.

It’s worth noting that the alternate word for “Old” in this poem is “New”. We saw something similar in the previous poem with "last" and "first", where Dickinson provides an opposite as an alternate word choice. “New” would have worked well here too, as it would still call to mind for us the “old” neighbor. But changing the word to “Old” complicates the poem, as we get a conflation of the neighbor that made earth hell with God, but it also enriches the poem because it leads us to see God in the old neighbor, and, perhaps, the old neighbor in God.

A note about scansion here. This poem has a unique 3343 3353 meter. I think the elongated pentameter of the 7th line puts emphasis on the extra word in that line, "then". "How hospitable—then—the face." "Then" is also emphasized by the dash on either side of it. The word "then" can be read as the turning point of the poem, so the extra metrical and syntactic emphasis here helps push the meaning toward its conclusion. Here, now, love your neighbor as yourself.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

03 February 2024

To know just how He suffered – would be dear –

To know just how He suf –
fered – would be dear –
To know if any Human eyes
were near
To whom He could entrust
His wavering gaze –
Until it settled broad – on
Paradise –

To know if He was patient –
part content –
Was Dying as He thought –
or different –
Was it a pleasant Day
to die –
And did the Sunshine
face His way –

What was His furthest mind –
of Home – or God –
Or What the Distant say –
At News that He ceased
Human Nature
Such a Day –

And Wishes – Had He any –
Just His Sigh – accented –
Had been legible – to Me –
And was He Confident
Ill fluttered out – in Ever –
lasting Well –

And if He spoke – What
name was Best –
What last                               +first
What one broke off with
At the Drowsiest –

Was he afraid – or tranquil –
Might He know
How Conscious Consciousness – could grow –
Till Love that was – and
Love too best to be –
Meet – and the Junction
be Eternity                            +mean

            -F688, J622, Fascicle 32, 1863 

            -lineated as originally hand-written by Dickinson.*

This is a meditation on that liminal moment just before death. I read it as aspirational. Whose death the poet is considering isn't important. Ultimately, it is the reader’s own that is in question. The choices the poem implicitly presents are conditional. How much will you suffer at death? That first question, alone, might stop us in our tracks. Next question: who will be with you when you die, and will it be someone strong enough that they will be able to steady and stay your eye, to help you transition to paradise? Will you have the requisite patience? Will you be, at least in part, content? Will the sun be shining? And more importantly will you still be able to feel it, still be able to feel what is pleasant? The conditional starts to tip toward the imperative.

Then in the third stanza there’s a more explicit question. When you are on your death bed, will you be longing for Home or looking forward to Heaven? Will your mind at death be on Home or God?

“What was his furthest mind -- Love or God” has two possible meanings. It might mean “Is it Love or God that is furthest from the mind?” or it might mean, “Is it Love or God where the mind has gone the furthest?” Here we have a sliding modifier. Does “further” mean further away, or further towards?

But either way, the next lines suggest an answer, that it is most likely Love the dying one is thinking of, because God, and the future, are unknown. We see this in the question, “What (does) the Distant say –At News that He ceased/ Human Nature/ Such a Day”? Does the "Distant" even register that we are gone? Care, if we are fortunate, is near, here. It’s not in the distant heaven, but close at home where our heart is. “The Infinite power of Home” is the way Dickinson puts it elsewhere.

More questions. What about last wishes? Will you have any? And what will your last wishes be?

All of this great and weighty matter will be summed up in the pivotal moment, and made obvious, by the mere accent of your sigh. The poet is wondering what the dying person’s (your) sigh portended (will portend.) Something else comes through in these lines too. There's an intimacy. The poet can tell what the dying is feeling even by the accent of his sigh. This is an important element to the poem. What is the relationship between the one wondering and the dead? The familiarity intimates love. Our perspective of the dying here, even if, ultimately, the dying is ourselves, is shown to us from eyes of concern.

“Was He confident until Ill fluttered out into ever lasting well” is a great line. The interrogative “W”s have been building in this poem and come to a head in this stanza, so that there is a wallop to that “was” and “well” beginning and ending the sentence. Also, the “well” caps the internal rhyme in the line of “until” and ill”. Then there is the word choice of “fluttered”, a verb which suggests so much, the trembling of death throes as well as an angel’s wings.

All of that poetry put in service of asking: will you be able to hold onto the Good (& well) in the face of the Terrible (& ill)?

Stanza 5 comes back to asking, who will be your dearest one? Who, in the end, will be the last person on your mind? There is a very interesting alternative word choice here for “last”, which is “first”. The first name on your mind in the presence of death is also your last.

The final stanza asks whether the one dying was (will be) afraid or tranquil? Death, for most of us, is scary, but we are attempting to prepare ourselves for a tranquil exit. We want to be like the first Thane of Cawdor, of whom Malcolm said, “Nothing in his life like became him like the leaving it.” I’ve heard it said that our whole life is but a preparation for our death. If so, the questions in this poem may lead the way.

I love the question, “How conscious will consciousness grow?” That question might be being asked here about the afterlife; will we still be conscious after we die, and will the consciousness then become more conscious? The question could also be asked of the dying, the not yet dead: How conscious has your consciousness grown? Are you conscious enough to be at peace? The question is speculative, and maybe even hopeful, if applied to the afterlife, but it is transformative when applied to the self before death.

As if all of that death meditation had not been enough, Dickinson hits us between the eyes with the final thought.

Will our conscious mind grow so conscious that it finds the crossroads between the love we felt in the past and a future perfect love, the love “too best to be” (the superlative love that may not even exist as anything but an ideal). The place where those two meet, says the poet, is “eternity”, which I take to mean the eternal present. This sets us up perfectly for a poem coming up, Fr 690, which begins with the line, “Forever is composed of Nows”.

One more detail worth noting about this poem. It's very minor, but it made me smile. After every stanza there is a dash, until the last one. This is fitting since the poem ends on the word Eternity

- /)dam Wade I)eGraff

  "Deathbed Scene" -Octave-Toussert, 1850

* This poem is a good example of how difficult it can be to lineate Dickinson's poems. This poem suggests pentameter, but the meter breaks down in the third stanza where the lines appear to be deliberately truncated and capitalized. So you either stick with the poem as hand-written, or you get creative with line breaks. After some deliberation I went with the former.

02 February 2024

I asked no other thing —

I asked no other thing —
No other — was denied —
I offered Being — for it —
The Mighty Merchant smiled —     +sneered

Brazil? He twirled a Button —
Without a glance my way —
“But — Madam — is there nothing else
That We can show — Today”?

               F687, J621 1863 (fascicle 32)

It’s always dangerous to reduce Dickinson’s poetry to a prose translation, but for the sake of a starting place, let’s try: “I only asked for one thing, but I didn’t get it. EVERYTHING else was available, everything except that ONE thing. I even offered myself, my own being, for this thing, but that Mighty Merchant, God, just sneered and smiled. How about if I give you Brazil instead, He asked. No, that’s not going to work for me, I said. The Merchant twirled a button, like a slick but bored businessman, and said, “Isn’t there anything else you might like, ma'am?”*

I read this ironically. Would you really expect a Mighty Merchant to give you what your soul truly desired? You’re probably not going to find THAT when you are dealing with a merchant. Merchants are generally out to get the best deal. What’s love got to do with it? Seeing God as a Mighty Merchant is sardonic. It’s like saying that everything from the top down is supply and demand economics. But, alas, in this world it does often seem that way. The powers-that-be are the very opposite of what true divinity should be; i.e. merciful and loving. God here isn’t the antithesis of the world, he IS the world. The Mighty Merchant (if, indeed, you take the Mighty Merchant to be God here) is a pseudonym for “Power”, for might makes right, for law of the jungle. It’s cynical, but hey, spurned love can spin you that way.

I love that button twirling detail. We might twirl a button if we are bored, and in that case it is a dismissive gesture. But we might also do it if we were considering the deal, in which case there's hope. The poem ends without an answer to the plea.

I asked Bing for an image of "God the Mighty Merchant, in striped suit and curled mustache, smiling and twirling a button on his sleeve. He is dealing with Emily Dickinson. Brazil is on the table.  Pre-Raphaelite style."

What is the one thing the Poet wants? One can only speculate, but here’s my best guess. I recently read “Open Me Carefully”, the collection of Emily’s letters and poems written and sent to Susan Huntington Gilbert over a thirty-year span. What a unique love story. Through the mediary of Emily’s brother Austin, who lived next door and was married to Susan, both women were allowed to see each other and continue their ever deepening relationship, from young school girls all the way to the end when Susan helped prepare Emily’s body for the grave. Perhaps Emily and Susan could have gone against societal mores and lived together, but seeing the difficulty that would have been involved in such a relationship in Victorian society, perhaps this nifty arrangement was the next best thing. Seen in that light, it’s a kind of miracle they were able to continue as they did. 

But if Sue was right next door, it must have felt, on some days, as if she was a million miles away. Susan was also, after all, a wife to Austin, a mother of three, a math teacher and a social butterfly.

So, while it could be a number of things, I think it might be Susan that Emily is asking the Mighty Merchant for, the one she’s willing to give her own being for. It’s the one thing she wants and can’t have. Why can’t she have it? It’s not for sale, for one. Even at the cost of one’s self. Everything else is, but not love. And none of those other things count. 

This is a funny poem, with a light touch, so it’s hard to take the pathos in it too seriously. I notice in the letters to Susan that Emily often uses an arch over-the-top tone to convey feelings that really ARE over the top for her, but are also, at the same time, held in check with humor. This poem seems of that kind. I think it is because at some deeper level she did have Sue that she COULD be so funny about not having her.

Also, from early on in the letters, Emily conflates Susan with God in a playful way. Consider this passage from a letter from 1852 when they were both 22. “How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel - how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice - so hard to ‘deny thyself, take up the cross, and follow me -’ give me strength , Susie, write me of hope and love, and of hearts that endured, and great was their reward of ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” There are many passages like this.

One more argument for Sue as the intended here is that Emily, for the sake of discretion, would have reason to leave her name out of a poem, especially one which is about desire. This move has a curious and serendipitous side effect on the poem. By leaving out the signified, this poem is freed up for the reader. X = deepest desire. What would X be for you?

Part of what makes Dickinson mysterious is that she was protective of her private life, but at the same time was writing for any possible reader. “I dwell in possibility” she wrote. The way in which Dickinson’s deepest desire can dovetail with ours is the result of the alchemical process of poetry. Few poets walk the line between the private and public sphere so adroitly as she does. It's fun to speculate about what the poems meant to her, but in the end I believe Emily left them behind to show us to ourselves.

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

* A note about ambiguity. The trouble with summarizing a poem is that it becomes difficult to account for ambiguity, and Dickinson, like a Mighty Merchant herself, trades in ambiguity. In this poem there are a few. One thing I’m unclear about here is whether or not God is offering Brazil to the speaker or if the speaker is offering Brazil to the Merchant. I initially took it the first way. “Look God, if my being is not enough for you, I’ll give you all of Brazil (paradise) for my love.” But other commentaries I looked at took it that it is the Merchant that is offering Brazil, saying “Look, I can give you Brazil, but not the thing you really want.”

I often wonder if Dickinson means for her poems to be so syntactically slippery. But since her poems are so often full of sliding modifiers, I suspect she does. In this case I’m not sure it matters. Though perhaps by making it ambiguous we understand that the poet and God are both dealing in entire countries here. Does it matter which one is offering Brazil? It could be both, but either way, it doesn't do.

Another ambiguity is caused by that dash in the second line. Dashes often aid ambiguity, which is one of many reasons Dickinson deploys them. Here are two ways to read the first two lines, depending on punctuation. "I asked no other thing, no other! Was denied!" Or, you could read it, as I chose to for my prose summary, as "I asked no other thing. No other was denied." It's tempting to read it the former way, because of the pause created by the dash, but it's richer to read it the latter way. Emily gets to keep both possibilities by trading out the punctuation marks for dashes.