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28 April 2024

Me from Myself — to banish —

Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —

But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating

And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?

   -F709, J642, Fascicle 33, 1863

There are a few ways you can read the first stanza of this poem. The first two lines are relatively easy. They say something to the effect of, “I’d like to banish me from myself, if I had the art to do it.” Most of us understand this desire. We often get in our own way, especially when we become self-conscious. But then the 3rd and 4th line come in and the syntactic trouble starts. The dash after "Art" could be a comma or a period, depending on how you read it. Is the art of banishing the self meant to protect All Heart from the self, or to protect the self from All Heart? The entire poem depends on how you choose to punctuate those lines. Another tricky formulation is the use of the word “unto” in the 4th line. What’s that word doing? Again, your reading of the poem depends on how you read that preposition. 

After giving the lines much consideration, my best guess would be to read the first stanza as saying, "I would like to banish me from myself, if I had the art, but, alas, my fortress (my self-defenses) keep me from becoming All Heart."* 

When the poet declares she would banish herself from herself if she had the Art to do it, is she being humble? Is she admitting that she doesn't have this Art? Maybe. But in this poem Dickinson shows us that, in a way, she DOES have the Art to do it. She has the perfect medium for such a thing: poetry. A medium is the thing in the middle between the writer and the reader. In poetry, it's instructive to remember that the "I" is never just a signifier for the person of the poet. It is the reader’s "I" too. Dickinson, though she wrote the most private poetry ever written, also wrote for a general public. Through her "Art" she does manage to banish herself from herself. But of course this means she is also doing the inverse too, which is allowing other IN.

There are many ways you could define the "me" and the "myself" that this poem wrestles with, and it's instructive to read other analyses of this poem out there, as each of them attempts to come to terms with what these two "Monarchs" might be.** David Preest, for instance, says, confusingly, "Emily is both a soul or conscience or consciousness and a person." Indeed it is hard to write about this poem without being equally confusing. I don't know if Preest's term "soul" is the right one to use, but I do keep thinking about Yeats’ poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in tandem with this one. A dialogue between self and soul might be one way to characterize what is going on in this poem. 

For me the most instructive take-away from this poem is in thinking about the difficult necessity of subjugating consciousness in order to have peace. "How have I peace/ Except by subjugating/ Consciousness?" There are a thousand ways one might subjugate consciousness. There are potentially harmful ways, like drinking alcohol for instance, or watching mindless TV or doom scrolling on social media, etc. I suppose any addiction might be seen as a way to subjugate consciousness. But there are also healthy ways to do it. Pouring yourself into work might be one way, which, for a poet like Dickinson, would mean focusing on the poetry itself. Another art of consciousness-subjugation might be meditation, which for me has been a powerful one. I would say that subjugating consciousness is, indeed, a very good description of what meditation is. Your conscious mind rules you, willy nilly, but through meditation you can learn to get out from under the "assault" of your consciousness. When the mind stops ruling, then the heart is revealed. In other words you become "All Heart" when you make yourself impregnable to the constant assault of consciousness.  "Unto All Heart" -what a large phrase that is. All, meaning full, pure, everyone's. 

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*Correction: Even though I really like this take on the poem, some new information has caused me to doubt it. Larry B, in the comments below, has pointed out the alternative line to "Unto All Heart" provided by Dickinson is "To foreign Heart." This means, to me, that Dickinson was indeed wishing she could shut heart OUT of the fortress of her mind, not shut her mind away from her heart. This makes sense, especially if we look at the dozens of poems preceding this one. She was heart-sore and wishing she could shut herself off from her beloved. This is a good example of how easy it is to bend a Dickinson poem to say what you want it to say instead of paying close attention to what it actually says. Part of the reason I was mislead was because it was hard for me to imagine that the same poet who could write, "When all Space has been beheld/ And all Dominion shown/ The smallest Human Heart’s extent/ Reduces it to none" would wish to protect herself from All Heart, but that iteration of Dickinson wouldn't arrive for a few more years. This one wished for peace. 

**Compare this poem to F693, a poem which seems to be about looking in a mirror, but could also be about looking into a lover's eyes. The “mutual Monarch” in this poem echoes the line “Neither would be a Queen” in that poem. In both poems there is a possible reading in which the other “me” is a lover, the way we sometimes see ourselves reflected in the eyes of another. Both selves (lovers) are Monarchs and reign. 

23 April 2024

They put Us far apart—

They put Us far apart—
As separate as Sea
And Her unsown Peninsula—
We signified “These see”—

They took away our Eyes—
They thwarted Us with Guns—
“I see Thee” each responded straight
Through Telegraphic Signs—

With Dungeons—They devised—
But through their thickest skill—
And their opaquest Adamant—
Our Souls saw—just as well—

They summoned Us to die—
With sweet alacrity
We stood upon our stapled feet—
Condemned—but just—to see—

Permission to recant—
Permission to forget—
We turned our backs upon the Sun
For perjury of that—

Not Either—noticed Death—
Of Paradise—aware—
Each other’s Face—was all the Disc
Each other’s setting—saw—

     -F708, J474, Fascicle 33, 1863

This is one of those poems where you just have to throw your hands up and try to “see without seeing.” Seeing with your eyes closed (your eyes, in fact, taken) is what this poem seems to be about. So it’s appropriate that the poem, itself, is difficult to “see.” More on that idea later.

Let’s start with that opening stanza. “They put Us far apart—” Who are They? Immediately you are put in mind of lovers kept apart for a reason. For the past few dozen poems or so I’ve been inclined to think that the beloved “You” that these poems are addressed to was the reverend Charles Wadsworth. But there are a few clues in this poem that make me think this poem might be for Susan Gilbert. And, if it is, then maybe all the poems I was becoming convinced were addressed to Wadsworth were really addressed to Sue. I took those poems’ religious imagery as a clue leading to reverend Wadsworth, but maybe Sue was religious too? When Dickinson says in F707, “You served heaven/ or sought to,” I thought for sure it must be the good reverend Wadsworth that Dickinson was speaking to. But it could have also been Sue, right? Maybe Sue, who was married to Dickinson’s brother Austin, was attempting to keep her sacred wedding vows and therefore seeking to serve Heaven?

So while “They put us far apart” could refer to Wadsworth, since it would certainly have been socially inappropriate for Dickinson to be with a married Minister, I think it might more likely to refer to a lesbian relationship. The next lines give us another possible clue pointing toward Sue.

“They put Us far apart—/ as separate as Sea
And Her unsown Peninsula—/ We signified “These see”—”

I wondered what “unsown peninsula”might mean and so I reached out to Susan Kornfeld for her thoughts. I love her response: “Another look at 'unsown' and I find it interesting to note that Dickinson casts the Sea as feminine - which is traditional and typical for her; yet the peninsula is 'unsown' -- which would suggest a female, in fact a virgin -- or at least a woman who would not be pregnant -- which suggests a relationship with someone like ... Sue!”

Yes, this was my thought too, though Susan Kornfeld put it better than I could have. Susan also pointed out  that “it's hard to think about Sea and Her Peninsula being 'separate'. One envelops the other.” That’s insightful. The poem at first seems to be saying that the two were separated, but it's purposefully misleading. The poem is saying, rather, that in the poet’s reality “They” didn’t separate the two at all. Saying "As separate as Sea/ And Her unsown Peninsula—" is like saying "as separate as a hand in a glove." It's not separate at all. This tracks with the end of the poem too, in which even dungeons and death can’t keep the lovers apart, let alone "They". It also calls to mind poem F706 when the poet writes of the distance from her lover: “With just the Door ajar/ That Oceans are – “

“We signified “These see”—. What does "These" signify here? Does this line refer back to the sea and the peninsula? What Dickinson might be signifying is that what sees is not so much the eye as the sea and the peninsula. The peninsula is jutting into Her sea while the sea is enveloping Her peninsula. They are “seeing” each other in a deeper way. The sea sees.

“We signified “These see”—” sets up the next line, after the dramatic pause of the stanza break, “They took away our Eyes—” Because we signified that our bodies see one another, they are going to take away our ability to see one another in this way. And, just in case you don’t think this is serious, watch out. They are going to use guns to thwart us. Why are “They” going to use guns? Is Dickinson being metaphorical here, or is there a real threat of being shot and killed? And if so, for what? What would be a firing squad offense? Being lesbian might be one possibility, though I don’t think in Dickinson’s time it was against to the law to be so. 

Another possibility; those guns could be a reference to war. We saw something like this in F704, when Dickinson compared her defeat in love to losing a battle in war. Maybe the sea is meant here to signify the breadth of the U.S. That would make sense of the telegraph wires used for communication in the next lines. If this is the case, then Wadsworth comes back into the picture, as he was in San Francisco at the time. Questions abound. But let's get back to the point:

“I see Thee” each responded straight/ Through Telegraphic Signs—” This is a beautiful idea. Somehow, through electricity, through the air, through this very poem which Dickinson is telegraphing to us through time, we feel seen. The poet “Sees Thee.” Sees Thou.

And how about the fierce rebellion in the next lines?

With Dungeons—They devised—
But through their thickest skill—
And their opaquest Adamant—
Our Souls saw—just as well—

Our souls, even from dungeons on separate shores, using their thickest skill, and their opaquest adamant (determined will) will find a way to see, to be with, their beloved. What kind of telegraph message is that then, if not the one expressed by this poem?

Let’s look at those words “thickest” and “opaquest” for a moment. How “thick” is this poem? It’s the thickest. It shows Dickinson’s “skill” at its thickest. It’s dense, thick with meaning. And how opaque is it? Can you see through this poem? Hardly. Normally you see through things that are transparent. But here we are seeing, paradoxically, through the opaque. It reminds me of what William Blake must've meant when he wrote: “This life's dim windows of the soul/ Distorts the heavens from pole to pole/ And leads you to believe a lie/ When you see with, not through, the eye.”

Dickinson's poetry, her telegraph signal, is skillfully thick and willfully opaque, and this...allows us to see. The finer (most refined) sense gets through the tightest mesh.

They summoned Us to die—
With sweet alacrity
We stood upon our stapled feet—
Condemned—but just—to see—

Bearing witness to Dickinson’s declaration of a love so true that it would grant one happiness, “sweet alacrity”, even when being thwarted with guns, or left to die in a dungeon, or stapled to a cross, is such strong encouragement. Speaking of stapled to a cross, this poem isn’t the first time Dickinson has referred to herself in Christ-like terms. It’s well worth taking a look at F670 for one great example (out of dozens) pertaining to this idea. (F670 also mentions the peninsula motif too.)

Following this comes a whopper of a line. “Condemned—but just—to see—” Here you have a “thickening” of the plot, in which being condemned is somehow a part of the “seeing”. I don’t know if that’s right. I don’t know why being condemned would at all be necessary for seeing. But it’s an intriguing idea, and one worth thinking about. When you are condemned (damned), wouldn't you start to see more clearly?

And to go further with that idea, in the next stanza the plot thickens again as there seems to be a kind of willful self-condemnation happening:

Permission to recant—
Permission to forget—
We turned our backs upon the Sun
For perjury of that—

Maybe "They" isn't referring to the church condemning sexuality, or the congregation condemning love with a minister after all, but rather, "They" are Dickinson and the lover themselves, turning their own backs willfully against the Sun/Son. “We turned our backs upon the Sun” the poem says, for “perjury” of recanting. They would not recant their faith. This is invoking the martyr, one whom, at the point of torture and the threat of death, will not perjure his/herself and lie about his/her love for Jesus. Dickinson though, as she is wont to do, takes this Christian idea and brings it toward the Romantic realm.

Emily will go to the darkest place, turn away from the sun, toward what she calls the “White Sustenance / Despair –” for her love. Her bravery astounds, and her love is adamantly realized. She will die on the cross, happily, for her lover. And since this poem was left for us to find, then at some level we can can count our self as the one she is dying for. But there’s a catch. In this poem the "You" is up on a cross too. This dying for another isn't a one way sacrifice, as in Christian theology, it's mutual. There are two dying on the cross together, for each other, in sweet alacrity.

The last stanza, after all that passionate build-up, is just stunning:

Not Either—noticed Death—
Of Paradise—aware—
Each other’s Face—was all the Disc
Each other’s setting—saw—

Love doesn't notice death. This bears repeating. Love doesn't notice death. (Here we remember, and make deeper sense of, the poem that preceded this one in the fascicle, with its Giant which ignores flies. The Giant of Love does not notice the Flies of death.)

When you behold the face of your lover in your mind, then there is no Sun needed. All the disc that is needed is the beloved's face, the one which, in a previous poem, put out Jesus’ face. The beloved’s face replaces the Sun/Son. And each of you are seeing the other in splendor, as you set for each other. You are each other’s setting suns, dying for love.

Deep sigh.

-/)dam Wade I)eGraff

18 April 2024

Size circumscribes—it has no room

Size circumscribes—it has no room
For petty furniture—
The Giant tolerates no Gnat
For Ease of Gianture—

Repudiates it, all the more—
Because intrinsic size
Ignores the possibility
Of Calumnies—or Flies.

   -F707, J641, Fascicle 33, 1863

"Size circumscribes." To circumscribe means to limit, or to define. So the size of something, say a room, defines what you can fit in that room. But Dickinson is getting at something more than just size here. "Size...has no room for petty furniture." Since there is only so much room in your room, you will want to maximize the space. You will want everything in that room to be worthy of being in that room. If you are an interior decorator, say, then you want every piece of furniture to be just right. Get rid of the petty furniture.

"Size circumscribes" is a very pithy and memorable way of saying that the form should fit content. If you have something to say, for instance, then say it in the best and most efficient way you can. Just as every piece of furniture should count in a room, so should every word count in a poem. And if possible, try to make each word count twice, or even thrice. Likewise, every note in a song or brush stroke in a painting should be perfectly placed.

But lest you think this about making the most of a small space, the next lines tell you that even within a giant space you still must be careful about keeping the gnats out. I take this as encouragement from Dickinson to go big if that's what your content requires.

And speaking of going big, it's ironic that Dickinson wrote this poem directly after F706, her longest poem ever. If you read the poems in order, as they are presented in the fascicle, this poem reads as an arch apologia for the previous poem. The poem I just wrote, she seems to be saying, is a behemoth, but I assure you every word is necessary. There is no wasted space.

"The Giant tolerates no Gnat/ For Ease of Gianture—" There are a couple alternatives for the latter line: "For simple Gianture" and "Because of Gianture". How about that word “Gianture." Did Dickinson make that up? Looks like it. And it’s a perfect word to describe her too. 

In the second stanza the idea of calumnies enter the poem. Calumnies are lies and slander. What should you do if your words evince slander? This poem is suggesting that you ignore it. And more than just ignore it, you should repudiate it!

That’s what I think this poem is saying. It's not warning you to beware of scandal so much as telling you to reject it out of hand. The first few times I read this poem I misread it. I took it as a warning not to get too big for your britches. I read it as saying keep to your own size. Don’t try to be such a giant, because if you get too big you won't be able to ignore the flies and lies. The bigger you get, the more you are susceptible. If you get too large, you lose track of your ability to keep track.

But eventually it clicked, as Dickinson poems eventually will, and I read it differently. I see it now as saying that INTRINSIC size, which is to say, the right size, a size which fits the content, is what you should be going for. You want a good fit, like Frank O’hara says in his great essay on Personism, "If you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you."

This is a poem which tells us to go big if we are feeling big, but just make sure all the details count. Then ignore all the little annoyances and repudiate the inevitable malice and lies that come with the territory.

   -  /)dam Wade l)eGraff

                          This is Emily's handwritten "possibility" from the
                          MS of this poem. That "ty" is a thing of beauty.
                          Where is the missing dot on that second "i"?


I’m really enjoying the diversity of this fascicle so far. We've had a poem about the joy of receiving a letter and reading it in private. Another taking on the persona of a bride anticipating her wedding night. We’ve had the tragic horrors of war writ large. We’ve had a long excuse to a lover for why they may not live together. And now we have this little brain teaser. After fascicle 32, with its intense focus on heaven and judgment, it feels like Dickinson is getting loose and experimenting with subject matter more in this one. Let's see where she goes from here! It's always an adventure with Emily. 

16 April 2024

I cannot live with You –

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –

And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death's privilege?

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –

And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –       (White) Exercise, Privilege
Despair –

      -F706, J640, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem is unusually long for Dickinson and it got me curious as to what her longest poem might be. I looked it up and it turns out this IS her longest poem. Since Dickinson is a master of brevity, the length of this poem is, itself, worth considering.

The dozens of poems before this one, all seemingly addressed to one person, make it seem as if the absence of her beloved was something that was thrust upon her. But the first three stanzas of this poem leads one to reconsider and see that this despair was more likely, rather, chosen by Dickinson.

Why would someone choose despair? The poem goes to some -length- to explain why. The revelation for me though, the main takeaway, is that it is something chosen. Dickinson appears to choose despair, and, moreover, she takes sustenance from it.

What does Dickinson mean by her cryptic statement “I cannot live with You –/ It would be Life – " Why doesn’t the poet choose “Life”? One way to think about this question is to ask what she is choosing INSTEAD of life? She says that she rejects “life” because it is what the sexton keeps locked in the shelf like a cracked porcelain cup discarded by a housewife. There is a lot to unpack in that idea. A sexton is someone that looks after a church, and, often, a graveyard. Life is, paradoxically, like something dead, something precious like porcelain perhaps, but also something that gets old and cracks. Dickinson is looking for something that doesn’t get old, that won’t crack, something that can’t be replaced by a newer and more beautiful model. She conceives that this can be found in a kind of eternal love that is beyond life. (“Fleshless lovers” is the way she puts it in F691). It can also be found, you might say, in poetry itself. One may take the “You” in this poem for one’s self, and read it as an invitation to join the poet in this mystic place beyond decay.


It is worth noting the housewife in the analogy here. It is the housewife that is discarding the cup/life, but the implication is, conversely, that Dickinson is discarding the life of being a housewife. Also worth noting is the metaphor of the Sexton, because if “Life” is put away by the Sexton, it reminds us that living life is inextricable from death. You can’t have life without death. Dickinson is aiming for something more.

But the poet also says “I could not die – with You –”, for one must wait to shut the other’s eyes, and, for one thing, the “You” this poem is addressed to apparently couldn’t wait around to do this. “I could not die – with You – / For One must wait/ To shut the Other’s Gaze down – / You – could not – “. This speaks to the fact that no one can really die with someone else. Death, as Dickinson has pointed out in other poems, is a solitary thing. In F698 Dickinson calls this “Death’s single privacy”. 

In the lines that follow you see the depth of the poet’s love, “And I – could I stand by/ And see You – freeze – /Without my Right of Frost – /Death's privilege?” She is saying here, I believe, that she couldn’t watch her beloved freeze into rigamortis without doing so herself. It would be a “privilege” to freeze into death for the poet if she had to watch her beloved die. The stuttering beginning of this stanza (“And I – could I stand by”) is rare for Dickinson and brings the poem closer to spoken language than usual. In that moment’s pause you feel the anguish at the mere thought of the beloved’s death.

So both Life and Death with the beloved is off limits, but, then, so is resurrection. "Nor could I rise – with You – /Because Your Face/ Would put out Jesus’ – /That New Grace/ Glow plain – and foreign/ On my homesick Eye – /Except that You than He/ Shone closer by – “  These lines speak for themselves. Dickinson’s love for her beloved outshines Jesus. This is yet another example of Dickinson choosing a felt earthly love over an unknown heavenly one. This new Grace would be foreign to her and only make her feel homesick. (But what home we might ask? She has already told us she can’t Live with the beloved either.)

These lines may be seen as blasphemous, and most especially would have been so to the intended, who, we find out in the following lines, “served heaven”. “For You – served Heaven – You know,/ Or sought to – “ These lines indicate to me that Charles Wadsworth is very likely the “You” to whom this poem is addressed. See the gloss by Larry B (AKA Lawrence Barden) on the post for F686 for more on this: “At age 24, in 1855, ED attended a sermon delivered by Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a superstar, charismatic minister at Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He was 16 years her senior and married with two children, but ED had found her soul mate. In the words of her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianci (1866-1943): 'Emily was overtaken – doomed once and forever by her own heart. It was instantaneous, overwhelming, impossible.'" 

Some conjecture this poem, indeed this series of poems, is addressed to Susan Gilbert, but I think Dickinson tips her hand when she says the addressee sought to serve heaven rather than be with her. And then she tips it again when she adds “Or sought to”. I take this pointed addition to indicate that either Wadsworth wasn’t convincing her in his service, or Dickinson wasn’t convinced there was such a thing as heaven to serve in the first place.

At any rate, the beloved chooses to serve heaven rather than be with Dickinson, and, as for Dickinson’s part, she says she would choose her beloved over a “sordid Paradise.” Sordid paradise is a very Dickinsonian oxymoron. As to why Dickinson might think paradise is “sordid,” see my comments on F695.

She opens this section with, “They’d judge Us – How – ." How could they judge Wadsworth? Afterall, he served heaven. And how could they judge Dickinson, for she values Wadsworth over heaven. It’s hard to judge someone who doesn't believe in the machinations of this sort of judgment. This fixation on judgment and heaven, though, is explored thoroughly in fascicle 32 and 33, as I point out in my comments on F699.

The next two stanzas go on to say that the poet would rather not be in heaven if her beloved was not there, even if she was the most famous citizen there. On the other hand, if he was in heaven and she was not, it would be as good as being in hell.

The poem ends with another oxymoron, the idea of the two lovers meeting apart. The door is open, but there might as well be an ocean between them. On the flip side, you might read this as saying that the breadth of the oceans between them is merely a door to walk through. This is how you "meet apart."

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

I’m not sure what Dickinson means by the sustenance being the color white here. I think it likely means white hot, the way she uses it in “Dare you see a Soul at the "White Heat"? It’s worth noting that the two alternative words Dickinson provides for “Sustenance” are “Exercise” and “Privilege.” Both words add something important to the meaning. To think of despair as an exercise is instructive, and to think of it as a privilege even more so.

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff  

I appreciate the poet Steven Cramer’s take on the last stanza of this poem. This is from an article on the poem in The Atlantic: “The final stanza seems to me one of the most overwhelmingly pained and resigned protests in verse. For Dickinson—the recluse who, paradoxically, valued personal attachments more highly than almost any other life experience—separation from a loved one amounts to Hell. The last six lines forsake the symmetry of the previous eleven quatrains, and desolation inheres in each syllable and juncture: in the choked finality of the heavy stresses and strong caesuras (“You there—I—here”); in the emotional abyss that opens with an enjambment (“With just the Door ajar/ That Oceans are”); in the oxymoronic precision of “meet apart” and “White Sustenance—/ Despair.” In this stanza and in hundreds of others, Dickinson resembles Shakespeare, one of the few other poets in English to achieve such a level of volcanic energy. To my mind and ear, no other American poet comes close.”