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30 May 2024

Upon Concluded Lives

Upon Concluded Lives
There's nothing cooler falls—
Than Life's sweet Calculations—
The mixing Bells and Palls—

Make Lacerating Tune—
To Ears the Dying Side—
'Tis Coronal—and Funeral—
Saluting—in the Road—

    -F722, J735, Fascicle 35, 1863

This is a poem with intense feelings about life and death inextricably mixed together. Let's start with the first three lines:

    Upon Concluded Lives/ There's nothing cooler falls—/Than Life's sweet Calculations—”

You can read these first three lines a few different ways. At first I thought these lines might mean that the sweet calculations you’ve taken in your life, the risks you've taken, the path you've chosen and all the love on that path, are refreshing you and keeping you cool in the heated struggle of dying. But then I looked at the alternative word Dickinson supplied for "sweet," which is "new." The calculations aren't ones you've taken in the past. They are the ones you are adding up now that you are dying. 

    The mixing Bells and Palls—

The sweet calculations are the addition of bells and palls. Why would this be sweet? Maybe because the contrast is so achingly beautiful. This duality between life and death runs through the rest of the poem. Bells here are surely funeral bells, but I think they are also meant to invoke wedding bells and music in general. “The mixing Bells and Palls” expands on the idea of "sweet calculations" falling cool on concluding lives. Sweet calculations might well be symbolized by bells, which is “mixing” with "palls" or funeral shrouds. 

From the Dickinson Lexicon:


A. Burial cloth; covering placed over the body of the deceased at a funeral; [word play] pale color of a corpse; bloodless appearance of the body after death.

B. Royal robe; coronation vestment; ceremonial cloak of rich purple cloth; majestic mantle signifying high honor or status.

A pall can mean both the pale color of death and coronation robe. Nice one, Emily. They both fit beautifully here, as does the ringing rhyme of “palls” with “bells” and “falls”

Love gained at the cusp of Love lost, that is the crossroads upon which this poem is situated.

    Make Lacerating Tune—

The sense of impending loss may be "sweet", but it is also violent in its intensity. It is a “lacerating tune.” Lacerating is a sharp word. It sounds like a snapping whip. Those sweet sounding bells paradoxically make a song that wounds deep.

    To Ears the Dying Side—

If the mix of bells and palls makes a lacerating tune to ears on the dying side, this beg a question. What lies on the OTHER side of dying?  No music at all? Which begs another question. Which is worse, heartbreaking music, or none at all?

    Tis Coronal—and Funeral—

The sense of pleasure mixing with pain continues. Now we are mixing "coronal," connoting a royally lived life, with "funeral," connoting death. "Coronal" and "funeral" rhyme, suggesting that the more royal the life, the greater the loss at death. Conversely, the greater the loss at death, the more royal the life.

    Saluting—in the Road—

The two, royal life and death, salute each other on the road of life, one coming as the other is going. Brrr.

      -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

P.S. Poems like this one that clearly function as a song prefer to be sung. Try singing this one out loud. Each poem suggests its own melody. This one for instance works best melodically as two tercets followed by a couplet. 

29 May 2024

“Nature” is what We see—

“Nature” is what We see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—

“Nature” is what We hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—

“Nature” is what We know—
But have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To Her Sincerity—

    -F721, J668, Fascicle 35, 1863

Here is a poem that contends with what we think “nature” is. It begins with “Nature” in quotes and lists some examples of things we “see.” But then the last line of the stanza negates this idea, “Nay,” and tells us it is something else altogether. We may think nature is what we see, but the reality of it is beyond what we see. It’s actually Heaven.

A list of what it is we "see" in this poem is given: Hill, Afternoon, Squirrel, Eclipse, Bumble Bee. “Eclipse” inserted among this list makes us question everything else on it. During an eclipse we think we are seeing the sun disappear, but it is only a trick on the eyes. The poem suggests that if the sun is actually there beyond our seeing, then what else is it that we are we missing when we look?

If the eclipse is hiding the sun, then what is the hill, afternoon, squirrel and Bumblebee hiding? The final line, where Nature comes out from behind its quotation marks, tells us what we are missing with our eyes: Heaven.

It’s probably worth getting into the symbolism of the other things listed here. Dickinson’s oeuvre is deep enough that one could make a whole study of any of these symbols. She used the word Eclipse in nine poems for instance. Each usage furthers our understanding of what Dickinson meant by this word. Or take the bumble bee for another example. The bumble bee, in one of Dickinson’s earliest extant poems, F21, is a substitute for God the Father. In other poems, it appears to be a lover. The Bee was very important to Dickinson. The same could be said for the rest of the nouns in this poem. They all mean more than what we at first take them for, and not just symbolically. They, which is to say We, have divinity within, just as the Eclipse has the Sun behind it.

The second stanza carries a similar idea, but this time we focus on the sense of hearing. Another poem in this same fascicle, F718, explored the sense of hearing, and here we take the ideas therein even further. This list of things we hear is interesting because we get sounds large and loud like the sea and thunder, juxtaposed with small and quieter sounds like the bobolink and the cricket. That’s what we hear in “nature,” in quotation marks. But Nature, beyond quotation marks, is beyond the singular sound; it is the way everything blends together, from small and soft to loud and grand. This harmony can only be experienced in the moment, and it goes deeper than mere hearing.

This sets us up for the third stanza. “Nature” is what we know. But again, that nature is in quotes. So what do we know? It is beyond even the great poet’s art to say. She may come closer than most at holding a mirror up to nature, but in the end she admits that she can’t match the “sincerity” of nature.

It’s worth taking a look at the term Sincere in the Dickinson Lexicon.

sincere (-er), adj. [Latin 'clean, pure, sound'.]

A. Honest; straightforward; undeceiving; serious; in earnest; speaking plainly; telling the truth.

B. Clear; pure; true; real; genuine.

There is another version of this poem which is nearly identical except it ends with the word “Simplicity” instead of “Sincerity.” Both words work well. Simplicity points toward the unified quality of nature. Any “art” merely complicates it. But I like "Sincere" best. I’ve never thought of nature as sincere before. By the way, this second version of the poem, the one with "Simplicity," was given to Sue Dickinson, and it is signed “Emily” in such a way that it appears as if the name echoes the last word in the poem, rhyming with Simplicity.

A note about the phrase “Nay, Nature.” We first see this formulation in F703, the negative “Nay” pausing and then elongating into ineffable “Nature.” In this slightly later poem we see it used twice. The sound play of it must have stuck with the poet. Here she uses it beautifully, and perhaps even crafts the poem around it. 

Nature is far more than what we think it is. 

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

28 May 2024

As if the Sea should part

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —

Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —

      -F720, J695, Fascicle 35, 1863

This poem is trippy, with its image of seas parting to reveal more seas parting to reveal more seas, on and on. It's an exhaustion of revelations, each showing the same thing as the last. The idea in the first line is already funny. The poem begins with the conjunction "as if," but the analogy presented is suspect, isn't it? Seas don’t part. Not unless you are an old testament God. We are already in the area of the impossible. So when we get to the sea being revealed beneath the parted sea, it is like the surreal nonsense of Lewis Carroll. Below everything is more of everything. To me this is like the child contemplating eternity, realizing there can never not be a beginning before the beginning, nor an end to the end, getting a headache from thinking about it and then it abandoning it altogether for some milk and cookies.

In the first stanza you get one Sea leading to two and then three (each increasingly ludicrous, an expansion of expansiveness) until you arrive at what you presume to be a whole period of Seas. "But a presumption be —/ Of Periods of Seas —" A "presumption” is not the same as knowledge, since you can never really know how far those Periods of seas go. 

Period has a nice doubleness here. It’s a contranym, a word that means two opposite things. It means “stop,” as in a sentence ending, or it can also be an ongoing period of time, one that will end, perhaps, but is indefinite and ongoing for the foreseeable future. (Dickinson was fond of contranyms. See a further discussion of Dickinson’s use of contranyms here). 

We can’t ever see the seas beneath the seas beneath the seas though, because we are here on shore. Eternity is likened here to the verge of the seas we will never see. "Period" in this poem is a key word. It signals stop, it intimates staying on shore. The Eternal may be seductive, but why would we move off of the shore and into empty endlessness? But to what end? Sometimes Eternity is a positive word in Dickinson, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is as far removed from the present as can be. 

It is quite possible that I am adding a negative dimension to this vision of Eternity that the poem doesn't support. But I can't see anything on the other side of those parting seas luring me in, just more parting

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


The Sonnets To Orpheus: Book 2: Xiii

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were 
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by. 
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter 
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive. 

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise 
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song. 
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days, 
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang. 

 Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, 
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, 
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent. 

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb 
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
 joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count. 

    -Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

27 May 2024


In the commentary for F713, I took a close look at the handwritten word "Eternity" from the original MS.

In the commentary I noted the majesty of that E, the way the top of the t flows down the ages of the word to cross that second smaller t; the y at the end of the word bolstering it from behind and giving it that subtle underline and that strange break in the middle of the word between the r and the n where Dickinson seems to have picked up her pen there for a moment, as if to break eternity in two. I also pointed out how if you looked really close it looked like she dotted the i thrice, each dot making a visceral point.

This was a flight of fancy on my part. One couldn't know how purposeful any of these elements were in the original penning of the word by Dickinson. Imagine my surprise when I came to poem F719, where the word "Eternity" was written by Dickinson in a nearly identical way:

There it is, that same majestic E, that same downward slope of the top of the t to cross that second t, the same emphatic triple dotted i, the same underlining y, and most curiously, that same break in the word between the "r" and the "n". There really does appear to be a conscious design element to it. These are not just haphazard elements. It is a word which was clearly important to her and many of her poems center around the idea of it.

Seeing Dickinson's rendition of the word repeated again reminds me of the early graffiti artist, Arthur Stace. Stace was an illiterate criminal who converted to Catholicism. He was "called by God" to write "Eternity" in chalk on the streets of Sydney Australia, which he did every day, over a half million times, between the 1930s and 1960s.

The first stanza of the poem “Arthur Stace,” by Douglas Stewart, first published in 1969, runs thus:

    That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
    Whose work was just one single mighty word
    Walked in the utmost depths of time and space
    And there his word was spoken and he heard
    Eternity, Eternity, it banged him like a bell
    Dulcet from heaven sounding, sombre from hell.

Years later the graffiti artist Banksy would pay homage to this OG graffiti artist with a piece he put up in Queens NY in 2014:

"What we do in life echoes in Eternity" is a quote from the movie Gladiator, but it originates with Marcus Aurelius. Both Stace and Dickinson had their own singularly graceful renditions of the word. Both of them are still echoing.

On a personal note, the morning this Banksy piece went up in Queens I pushed my daughters in their stroller to see it. I was able to take a shot of the mural with them just minutes before the it was tagged and defaced by local graffiti artists. I've always loved this picture as a reminder of the echo of eternity.

This is all to say that when I saw Dickinson's artistic rendition of the word there was an aura to it that seemed to jump off the page. When I saw it again a few poems later written so beautifully, and remembered the like versions from Stace and Banksy, I heard the ringing reverberations deep in my conscious ear.

26 May 2024

If He were living—dare I ask—

If He were living—dare I ask—
And how if He be dead—
And so around the Words I went—
Of meeting them—afraid—

I hinted Changes—Lapse of Time—
The Surfaces of Years—
I touched with Caution—lest they crack—
And show me to my fears—

Reverted to adjoining Lives—
Adroitly turning out
Wherever I suspected Graves—
'Twas prudenter—I thought—

And He—I pushed—with sudden force—
In face of the Suspense—
"Was buried"—"Buried"! "He!"
My Life just holds the Trench—

   -F719, J734, Fascicle 35, 1863

This poem uses suspense to get across a depth of feeling and grief. We are suspended, with the speaker, for three stanzas, dancing around the fact of the matter, and then, with sudden force, we push and fall into the chasm, or, in this case, the trench. 

The poem presupposes a social situation. The speaker is visiting with friends she has not seen for awhile and inquiring about a mutual friend, to find out if he is still living. Though we have very condensed poetic language here, the poem still reads prosaically. It’s a short scene, a very brief one act play. Let’s play it out in prose:

    If He were living—dare I ask— 
    And how if He be dead— 
    And so around the Words I went— 
    Of meeting them—afraid—

"I dared to ask if he was still living. But how could I possibly ask whether or not he was dead? I was afraid to find out, so I danced around the words. I couldn't just directly ask."

    I hinted Changes—Lapse of Time—
    The Surfaces of Years—
    I touched with Caution—lest they crack—
    And show me to my fears—

"Instead I just hinted, asking my guests about what was new in their lives (hinted changes), and about how long its been since we last met (lapse of time). The actual events of the years (Surfaces), I didn’t bring up, just in case it revealed to me my fears." (The surface of the years would then crack and reveal a timeless abyss).

    Reverted to adjoining Lives—
    Adroitly turning out
    Wherever I suspected Graves—
    'Twas prudenter—I thought—

"Instead I reverted to talking about other friends we knew, and adroitly changed the direction of the conversation whenever I suspected the conversations might lead to talk of death." 

    And He—I pushed—with sudden force—
    In face of the Suspense—
    "Was buried"—"Buried"! "He!"
    My Life just holds the Trench—

"Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had to know, so I just pushed ahead with sudden force and asked, “And he…?” And my host finished the sentence with, “was buried.” What? Buried! Him! Now there is a hole in me, a trench. My life carries the place where He was buried. The hole in my heart is the hole he was buried in."

That’s it, a unique poem that is imagining, or recalling, the terrible moment of learning about the death of someone not seen for a long time. It is a poem that builds suspense, echoing the suspense that the speaker is feeling, and then lowers the boom. He’s dead. The very thing the speaker was frightened to find out has been revealed as true. This opens a hole of grief in the heart, a trench, which is a metaphor for the actual hole in the ground in which “He” is buried. 

 "My Life just holds the Trench—"  Because of the built up suspense we feel the crushing weight of this final line of the poem even more. It reminds me of Frank O’hara’s line from his great poem A Step Away from Them, “But is the/ earth as full as life was full, of them?" 

As per usual with Dickinson there is an interesting philosophical twist to this poem. It mirrors Dickinson's indirect approach in her own poetry; telling the truth, but "telling it slant." The speaker avoids direct confrontation with the truth, instead "hinting Changes" and "touching with Caution." This indirectness is a hallmark of Dickinson. Seen this way, this poem may be more about the imagined reader than the poet. In an earlier poem from this same fascicle, F715, just two poems prior to this one, we see a much braver and less reticent speaker facing death. There, the speaker says, "'Tis Dying—I am doing—but I'm not afraid to know—" Of course it is different to face your own death than that of a loved one, but going "around the Words," and "hinting Changes," can be seen as part of Dickinson's M.O.. Read this way, Dickinson is urging the readers, we who are "prudenter" when "suspecting graves," to lose our prudence and just face the music.

The wonder of Dickinson is that you can read a poem such as this one as both fully inhabiting the pain of its revelation, from the first person perspective, and, if you but change the perspective, becoming detached enough in the third person to accept the news with equanimity.

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

Mark Rothko, Orange, Navy Blue, No. 14

22 May 2024

The Spirit is the Conscious Ear.

The Spirit is the Conscious Ear.
We actually Hear
When We inspect—that's audible—
That is admitted—Here—

For other Services—as Sound—
There hangs a smaller Ear
Outside the Castle—that Contain—
The other—only—Hear—

     -F718, J733, Fascicle 35, 1863

Let us inspect this poem.

In the first line Dickinson gives us a definition of the word “Spirit.” What is Spirit? “The Spirit is the Conscious ear.” Spirit, then, is conscious listening, listening with awareness. You might say it is awareness itself.

I suspect Dickinson chose the Ear over the Eye as the sense analogous to awareness in this poem because hearing is, essentially, about communication. The eyes are easily deceived, but the ears, when they “actually hear” can pick up all kinds of clues the eyes might miss. Think of “tone” in a conversation. What’s “actually” said is often quite different from the words being said. The ear is the best sense organ to stand in as a metaphor for “understanding.”

In the next line we get a further delineation of Spirit: “We actually Hear/ When We inspect.” Awareness hinges on that word “inspect.” From the Dickinson Lexicon we find this helpful set of definitions:

inspect (-ed), v. [Fr. < L. inspicere, look into] Study; read; scrutinize; consider; examine; go over; scan carefully.

So then, the way our consciousness listens is through studying, reading, scrutinizing, considering, examining and scanning carefully. The more we do these things, the more in tune our Spirit becomes. When we read Dickinson we are studying the poems of a woman who was, in turn, studying the world. Since the stakes are high, every nuance counts.

In the definitions of “Inspect” given to us by the Lexicon I’m not seeing words that connote “judgment." Today we are more apt to hear a connotation of judgment in inspection. Compare it to the modern dictionary definition, which does imply judgment, “To look at (someone or something) closely, typically to assess their condition or to discover any shortcomings.” This is a nuance worthy of consideration. We are inspecting even the word inspection here. The difference is “audible.”

The 4th line of the first stanza is nuanced too. “That is admitted—Here— “ The word “admit” has a couple of possible meanings. A contemporary ear hears “confess” in the word "admit." But I think a more fitting meaning for this poem might be “allowed;” what has been carefully inspected is allowed in, is admitted in. I’m reminded of poem F409, “The Soul selects her own society.” The Soul selects... the Spirit admits.

The second stanza of this poem compares this larger kind of hearing to the smaller one that merely takes in sound. The word that this stanza seems to hinge on is “Contain.” Unlike the smaller ear, the Castle (the seat of the Conscious ear) Contains. From the Dickinson Lexicon we get:

contain (-ed, -s), v. [ME < L. contin─ôre, hold together, keep together, comprehend.]

A. Confine; limit; circumscribe; restrain; hold back; restrict to boundaries.
B. Hold; encompass; surround; enclose; have capacity for.

In our modern sense of the word "contain" we think of the second definition here, but the first definition also makes sense in this poem. A castle is something that PROTECTS the monarch. It “holds back” invaders. Once again I am reminded of F409, "The Soul selects her own Society —/ Then — shuts the Door —" 

Dickinson provides an alternative line in the original MS to “Outside the Castle—that Contain”, which is “Outside the City—that Present.”

Using "City" instead of "Castle" is interesting. City suggests a more complex realm of consciousness than a castle. A city is larger and more inclusive than a castle, which would imply that the inner understanding is part of a more intricate and expansive inner world. The phrase "that Present" shifts the focus to the act of manifesting understanding. It's more generous than containment. Within this "City" (consciousness), there is a presentation of insights, i.e. this poem.

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

Girl Listening at Door by Meyer Von Bremen

P.S. For fun, I asked Chat GPT to give me a practical application for this poem. Here is what it said:

"Mindful Listening: Practice active and mindful listening in conversations. Instead of merely hearing words, engage with the speaker on a deeper level, trying to understand their emotions, intentions, and underlying messages. This approach fosters better communication and stronger relationships.

Self-Reflection: Incorporate regular periods of introspection into your routine. Set aside time to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, listening to your inner self. This can enhance self-awareness, personal growth, and emotional intelligence.

Critical Thinking: In learning and problem-solving, move beyond accepting information at face value. Inspect and analyze information critically, seeking a deeper understanding of the concepts and their implications. This method leads to more profound knowledge and better decision-making.

By applying these principles, one can cultivate a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the world, moving beyond mere sensory experiences to true understanding and awareness."

Well said, Chat GPT. 

18 May 2024

The Heaven vests for Each

The Heaven vests for Each
In that small Deity
It craved the grace to worship
Some bashful Summer’s Day –

Half shrinking from the Glory
It importuned to see
Till these faint Tabernacles drop
In full Eternity –

How imminent the Venture –
As One should sue a Star –
For His mean sake to leave the Row
And entertain Despair –

A Clemency so common –
We almost cease to fear –
Enabling the minutest –
And furthest – to adore –

    -F717, J694, fascicle 35, 1863

This is a poem about the sun. The word sun does not appear in this poem, so you can classify it among Dickinson's riddle poems. (Though nearly all of Dickinson’s poems function like riddles. That’s one of the reasons they are so addictive. Trying to figure them out is a bit like doing a crossword puzzle, if the answers pointed toward your own soul.) 

Let's start with a literal take on this poem. 

Heaven gives (vests) us each the thing we desire. It's a small Deity. Its brightness makes us bashful on a summer day. We shrink from its intensity, during the day, even though we asked for (importuned) it, on a winter night. And meanwhile, as we are shrinking back, the very thing we craved begins to drop away as the sun begins to set. And yet, though it goes away and we are left in darkness, the next sunrise is imminent. During the darkness of the night we are in despair, and from that place of desperation we have the temerity to ask the sun to leave its place among the stars in the sky and come down to relieve little (mean) us. And of course, it does, every day. The sun rises again in the morning. This mercy ("Clemency," which also means good weather) is actually so common, coming as it does every day, that we almost stop fearing it will go away for good. This good fortune allows us to see even the smallest things far away and to adore them.

Let's look at the symbolic possibilities of this poem. The Sun functions as a kind of double metaphor here. First it is a metaphor for the Deity, but note that this is a "smaller Deity," so the second level metaphor is that of the Beloved (though there might be other possibilities here too). This conflation of religious and romantic love adds a couple layers of complexity. It's very common in Dickinson’s poems, but if you aren't familiar with it, it can be difficult to follow. This idea of a smaller deity, a heaven of a smaller size, fit just for one, is prevalent in the fascicles that precede this one. The idea in this poem is that the sun is a small star, one fashioned for each of us, a glimpse of Heaven. But the second idea here is that the small deity is the beloved, whomever that may be. It helps to keep all three readings in mind as we read this poem; literal, figurative and transfigurative.

I think a good candidate for the beloved in this poem is Sue Dickinson, Emily's sister-in-law. I’m basing this off of two clues. The first is that the poem employs the word “sue,” which, owing to the fact that Dickinson deeply loved Sue (and was probably in love with her too) is probably more than just a coincidence. Secondly, Sue lived with Emily’s brother in the next house door. Emily would’ve likely seen her nearly every day. At night it might have felt like Despair to be without her. But in the daytime there she would be again, just like the sun. This is all conjecture, and it's fun to speculate, but I think it is worth pointing out the word “Each” in this poem. “The Heaven vests for Each/ in that small Deity.” Dickinson could easily have written, “The Heaven vests for ME,” instead of "Each." Furthermore “Each” is capitalized. These poems, though they may not have had many, or even any, readers besides Dickinson in her own lifetime, were still written, somehow, for the benefit of “Each” of us, like road maps, or like “the Light House Spark” for “Some Sailor rowing in the Dark” (F322). The miracle is that they survived at all to reach us Each.

You might surmise that Dickinson turned her lovers into suns and moons and bees and flowers in her poems in order to disguise their identity, and there is probably some truth in that, as there were some good reasons to keep her affairs secret, but I think the more paramount reason is so that anybody might be able to make them their own. The Sun, or small Deity, or Beloved, in this poem, has its shining significance in our own lives, even if it just refers to the literal sun itself.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

Sunset by Albert Bierstadt


* That “it” in the third line gives us a little inkling of the trouble of parsing Dickinson. Does that “it” refer back to “each” or to “The Heaven”? It would make the most sense grammatically to connect it to The Heaven, since that is the subject of the sentence. But it would be strange for Heaven to crave the grace to worship, so it makes the most logical sense to connect “It” back to “Each.” This becomes more apparent in the second stanza as “it” (each) is shrinking from the Sun. There are many such decisions as this to be made in trying to come to terms with a Dickinson poem. It's exciting. When you are limning a poem, you are climbing a decision tree which consists of hundreds of interpretive decisions based on logic and intuition. In Dickinson, they are all important, down to the tiniest detail. It’s part of what makes her so uncannily good. One miscalculation can throw the poem’s intent far off course. The trick is to stay open minded, as there is always a detail that can derail your entire premise. 

* To crave the grace to worship is an ironic phrase. Grace is meant to be something freely given, something we don’t deserve. In the poem preceding this one in fascicle 35 we find out that the pearl only comes when we have stopped craving the pearl. Grace would seem to be something like this. However, in this poem, the thing we so brazenly asks for comes every day, if only we had the patience to wait through the night.

*I think the tabernacles dropping away in full eternity means that the place where the deity (sun) resides (the tabernacle) is dropping away in “full eternity.” The Sun is setting. (Or metaphorically the beloved is dying, or going away). I love the idea that the sun is dropping in “full eternity.” Just using the adjective "full" to qualify eternity gives one pause. If we look at this poem as a description of a literal Summer’s Day, I’m imagining that those tabernacles that are dropping to be large tabernacle-shaped clouds lit up by the sunset. This is the second "sunset" poem we have seen so far in this fascicle. 

16 May 2024

Shells from the Coast mistaking—

Shells from the Coast mistaking—
I cherished them for All—
Happening in After Ages
To entertain a Pearl—

Wherefore so late—I murmured—
My need of Thee—be done—
Therefore—the Pearl responded—
My Period begin

    -F716, J693, fascicle 35, 1863

The syntax of this poem is a bit tricky, but perhaps if it were easier to follow, we’d miss the pearl. There's something about the process of working to understand a poem that makes it more clear.

The sense of the poem, as I read it, goes like this:

I mistook the shells from the coast.
I cherished them as if they were everything.

It so happened that ages later
I was entertaining a pearl.

Why are you so late, I murmured,
My need for thee is over.

Since your need for me is over, the Pearl responded,
My time can begin.

The shells on the coast are not the same as the pearl. They are just the shells that once protected the pearl. The pearl would not be found on the coast, anyway, but in the ocean. They are hidden at certain depths. You must dive for them. 

The shells on the shore might symbolically represent any means of protection that is no longer needed. At first you might mistake the means of protection as the thing itself. Aren’t we all a little like walking shells sometimes? All we can see, it seems, are each other’s defense mechanisms. We so rarely dive deep for the pearl. 

In the second stanza we find out that it’s not until we no longer need the pearl that it begins to form, or already has. Where is it found then? Deep within. 

The pearl might represent many things. Perhaps to Dickinson it referred to Sue Dickinson, the pearl of F451. Or perhaps the pearl is a reference to poetry, as it is in F282. (That might help account for that word "period," which is a word tied to art, as in her "late period.") Or maybe it is a spiritual reference, like the “pearl of a great price” in Matthew 13:46. It could have any number of referents. But suffice to say that whatever the thing of “great price” is for you, it cannot be found in the shells littering the shore, and, furthermore, Dickinson intimates, it is only when we have no more desire for the pearl that it truly becomes apparent to us. 

    -/)dam Wade I)eGraff

14 May 2024

The Sun kept setting—setting—still

The Sun kept setting—setting—still
No Hue of Afternoon—
Upon the Village I perceived
From House to House 'twas Noon—

The Dusk kept dropping—dropping—still
No Dew upon the Grass—
But only on my Forehead stopped—
And wandered in my Face—

My Feet kept drowsing—drowsing—still
My fingers were awake—
Yet why so little sound—Myself
Unto my Seeming—make?

How well I knew the Light before—
I could see it now—
'Tis Dying—I am doing—but
I'm not afraid to know—

     -F715, J692, fascicle 35, 1863

I find this poem both brave and uplifting. It’s transcendental in the truest sense of the word.

The poem is encapsulated in the first line, “The Sun kept setting—setting—still”. This is a poem about dying, and the setting of the sun foreshadows the dying of the self. The poem announces that the sun kept setting (past tense) but also that it is still setting (present tense). We might deduce from this that it always will set, that it will “still” continue after we die. But that “still” is doing double duty here. The sun sets until it stops, until it becomes still. The word “still” here is a contranym. It carries the quality of both continuance AND its opposite, ending.

You could say “still” carries another sense too, which is that of “calm.” When marked off by a dash, it seems to say to us, “Be still.” All three meanings that are instilled in the word “still” here will play out in this poem.

    The Sun kept setting—setting—still
    No Hue of Afternoon—
    Upon the Village I perceived
    From House to House 'twas Noon—

The first line enjambs into the second, “still/ No Hue of Afternoon.” You might say the sun, in its eternal recurrence, is always pitched at noon, even as the speaker is dying. If it stays noon, then there will be no “hue of afternoon,“ a phrase which brings the idea of the sunset into the poem. This metaphor, in a poem about dying, evokes old age. The latter part of our lives takes on a “hue,” and may eventually become as colorful as a sunset.

Dickinson’s sunsets are famous. Someone should really publish a book of all of her sunset poems next to famous paintings of sunsets. It would be instructive to read them all. One of the great things about studying Dickinson is that her metaphors take on enormous meaning over the course of her oeuvre, and sunsets are no exception.

The word “hue” also evokes its near homophone, “You,” especially when the poem is spoken or sung out loud as it is meant to be. In a continual noon there is no afternoon hue, but also, perhaps, no “You”, no Beloved. This idea is of a noon without “hue” or “You” is continued in the last line: “From house to house it is noon.” We note that it is still a house at noon. It is not yet a home.

Second stanza:

    The Dusk kept dropping—dropping—still
    No Dew upon the Grass—
    But only on my Forehead stopped—
    And wandered in my Face—

The first line of the second stanza echoes the first line of the first stanza in its rhythm and meaning, with a slight twist. The sun sets, but the dusk drops. The weight gets a little heavier here. The first line of the first stanza is a susurration of ess sounds. The first line of the second stanza alliterates too, but this time the D drops in. The dusk becomes percussive, as if there were drums in the distance.

Dew upon the grass, like the hue of the sunset, is something to be hoped for. This dew “stops” on the dying speaker, a sweat on the forehead born of the struggle of dying, and then finally the dew becomes tears. It wasn’t until I sang this poem that I got that the dew “wandering in my face” was meant to evoke tears wandering over the singular beauty of the dying speaker’s face. “And wandered in my face” is a strange phrase and I wonder if Dickinson isn’t playing off the idea of wandering the face of the earth. The poet’s face becomes the earth’s, and the tears are all those who are restlessly wandering.

The speaker is crying. Why? Physical pain? Emotional pain? Release? Joy? All of that seems to be happening at once here.

Third stanza:

    My Feet kept drowsing—drowsing still
    My fingers were awake—
    Yet why so little sound—Myself
    Unto my Seeming—make?

The Feet drowsing drowsing echoes the sun setting setting and the dusk dropping dropping. Feet is another powerful symbol that paces through the course of Dickinson’s poems. A foot is both literal feet in Dickinson AND a symbol for poetic meter. (A poetic foot is a unit of meter composed of two or more accented or unaccented syllables.) Anytime you see the word foot or feet in Dickinson, look out for a metaphor about poetic verse. (F372 is a great example of this.) Dickinson, in saying her feet kept drowsing, is talking about literal feet, but she also is speaking of her poetry becoming more and more difficult to write. If you concede that her feet are also her poetry, then the following lines make more sense; “Yet why so little sound—Myself/ Unto my Seeming—make?”

“Sound” here, if we are speaking of poetry, may refer to music, but also depth. This is what the poet is doing with her hands and her “feet”, writing poetry, and the sounding of the poetry is winding down. For Dickinson writing is the way the self is expressed.

If you think about these lines in a literal way though, it’s a little creepy that the fingers are still writing even as the feet are dying, but it’s vintage Dickinson to envision herself, and us, in such an immediate situation.

I think there must be a dozen ways to take the last line of this stanza. For every reader it will sound unto their seeming a bit differently. But the general gist is that the “seeming” of self is becoming less and less as we die.

This philosophical thinking of Dickinson is often difficult to fathom. Take that word “seeming” for instance. It strikes me as Shakespearean here, “...Myself/ Unto my Seeming—make.” Self is made of seeming. I’m reminded here of the Wallace Stevens’ line about death, “Let finale be the finale of seem.”

Stanza 4

This poem could end after stanza one and it would be great. Stanza two adds an emotional starkness and makes it even better. Stanza three brings philosophic introspection to the table. But it's the fourth stanza that really brings the poem home.

    How well I knew the Light before—
    I could see it now—
    'Tis Dying—I am doing—but
    I'm not afraid to know—

The repetitions in this poem make it uncommonly musical. It almost asks to be sung. So when you get to the first line of the 4th stanza, you expect the same repetition of words that is in the first line of the first three stanzas. But you don’t get it. Instead you get the echo delayed until the third line, and even then, it’s a half rhyme. 'Tis dying I am doing.” Setting setting > dropping dropping > drowsing drowsing >> dying doing.

Note that dying is not passive here. Dying is doing. You do death. And, if you are doing it well, you do it without fear, because you have transcended the personal. You KNEW the light. And you knew it WELL. But look at what Dickinson does in that second line. She combines the past tense and the present. What a move. It seems to make perfect sense as we read it, but it’s actually odd. She’s imagining herself from beyond death, but she’s imagining this while she’s still ALIVE. She can still see the light. The sun is still setting.

That last line, “I’m not afraid to know,” is loaded. She’s not afraid to know she is dying, but also, she’s not afraid to know the light. The “know” in the last line is following on the heels of the “knew” in “the light I knew before” in the first line of the stanza. She’s not afraid to know death is coming is the initial reading of the last line, but the deeper second insight here is in knowing the continual light of the present moment. To know the light is more than merely “seeing” it.

The last line is courageous and assertive. It’s one thing to be able to calmly say you aren’t afraid to know you are dying, but the power in this poem is that the true object of that knowing is in not being afraid to know the light.

That’s a lot of analysis. But I think this poem works on a subconscious level that precedes analysis. You read it with the innate knowing of a deeper Self that lies beyond analysis. It’s a poem I hope to have on my bedside to read, or have read to me, before I close my eyes for the last time.

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

sunset by Monet

"Dickinson had a habit of standing in rapt attention as if she were listening to something very faint and far off. We children often saw her at sunset, standing at the kitchen window, peering through a vista in the trees to the western sky, – her proud little head thrown back, but her eyes raised and one hand held characteristically before her.” -Barton Levi St. Armand

10 May 2024

No Man can compass a Despair—

No Man can compass a Despair—
As round a Goalless Road
No faster than a Mile at once
The Traveller proceed—

Unconscious of the Width—
Unconscious that the Sun
Be setting on His progress—
So accurate the One

At estimating Pain—
Whose own—has just begun—
His ignorance—the Angel
That pilot Him along—

     -F714, J477, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem, which ends Fascicle 33, starts with an aphorism, “No man can compass a Despair.” This line seems to derive from the poem that proceeds it in the fascicle, with its line about the “Boundaries of pain.” As Dickinson is wont to do, she takes this aphorism and extends it in increasingly complex ways. It's a common move for her. See F686 for another good example. 

The “compass” in the first line sets us up for the “round” in that second line. Now we find ourselves in strange geometric territory. A road is normally long and narrow, but here the poet has it as “round.” The round road of Despair you are travelling on goes outward from the center-point cause of the pain in all directions, circumferentially. ("My business is Circumference," Dickinson wrote in a letter to Thomas Higginson.) Though you are attempting to travel away from the pain, you can only see a little ways ahead, maybe a mile at most. A mile is about as far as the eye can see in daylight. 

It’s fortunate that we aren’t conscious of the Despair we still have ahead of us. It's also lucky that we aren’t aware that we are running out of time. “Unconscious that the sun/ be setting on his progress.” These are rather terrifying lines. Also we note the word goalless. There is no goal because the self wants to go backward, but is forced to go forward. The self doesn't even want to lose the pain as it is what connects it back to the beloved. 

The entire poem, I think, could be considered one sentence that would go without line breaks like this, “No man can compass a despair, as round a goalless road, no faster than a mile at once, the traveler proceed, unconscious of the width, unconscious that the sun be setting on his progress (and) so (in)accurate (is such) a one at estimating pain, whose own has just begun, (that) his ignorance (is) the angel (that) pilot(s) him along.” If one could shoe horn that sentence into prose, it might sound something  like: No man can take the measure of the circumference of his despair, which he travels along without any goal, since his goal is behind him. He can see at most a mile ahead of him at a time, having no idea of the width of this circle, not even realizing that the sun is setting on his progress. He who is only at the beginning of his pain can’t be accurate at estimating its circumference, but at least he has the angel of his own ignorance to keep him in the dark. 

It’s a bleak poem.

These aphoristic poems beg a question. They seem to presume an audience, but who? The poet herself? It would be odd to write yourself a poem that begins, “No man can compass a Despair." Is it just a cold, hard look at her own fate, as if spoken by the muse? It is akin to Dante’s “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Is she just reminding herself that life is going to be miserable and then end? The angel here is not a promising one either. It's just our own ignorance of the depth of pain we will go through. Yeesh. But if Dickinson was writing these poems for an audience (us), then it is we who are being reminded of our dismal fate. We are like Saul in the book Samuel, and Dickinson is the witch of Endor telling us that we will die in battle. (Dickinson even calls herself the witch of Endor in a letter to her nieces. See the letter here.)

Is Dickinson telling us we should be grateful for our own ignorance? I don’t think so. If this poem exists, it’s because it is meant to prepare us, to gird us up, for the inevitable. Is this poem meant to inform us and thereby kill the angel of ignorance? I think so.

 -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


Putting these poems over chords structures and letting the rhyme scheme and word play dictate the melody is a terrific way to hear what’s happening in the poem. When you sing this one, for instance, you hear all of those ending “ess” sounds; compass, goalless, unconscious, and progress. You tend to emphasize them more. Also the rhyming run of once, sun, one, pain, begun and along rolls beautifully. I highly recommend this practice. I did this one starting in G>D>/D>G, alternating throughout the song.  It’s also a great way to memorize the poem. 

09 May 2024

You left me – Sire – two Legacies –

You left me – Sire – two Legacies –
A Legacy of Love
A Heavenly Father would suffice
Had He the offer of –

You left me Boundaries of Pain –
Capacious as the Sea –
Between Eternity and Time –
Your Consciousness – and me –

   -F713, J644, Fascicle 33, 1863


The "Eternity" from Dickinson's original MS of this poem is a work of art all its own. It is well worth reading Dickinson's poems in the original, as it can add so much to the experience. Look at the majesty of that E;  the curve of that t, the top of which flows down the ages of the word to cross that second smaller t; the y at the end of the word bolstering it from behind and giving it that subtle underline. There is also that strange break in the middle of the word between the r and the n. She seems to have picked up her pen there for a moment, as if to break eternity in two. And how about that blot of a dot for the i? It really marks the spot. If you look close it looks like she dotted it thrice, each dot making a visceral point. Dot dot dot.

Alright, onto the poem. I was dismissive with this one at first. More of the same I thought. You think I would've learned by now to never second guess Dickinson though. The more I dove into this poem, the more inspired I found it to be. 

These emotionally intense love poems are a lot, especially when you read one after another after another. How does Emily keep it up? I admire her stamina, but stamina to what end? How many weeks, months, years has Emily been feeling this level of intensity? 

But this poem seems too perfect to signal unbearable pain. I think this is why I was originally put off. There are two nearly perfectly symmetrical iambic pentameter quatrains with uncharacteristically perfect end rhyme. Each stanza begins neatly with “You left me.”

If you turned this poem on its side it would resemble a double flame, flame to flame, or better yet, a double crown, Sire to Sire. (Hmm. Dickinson talks about double-sided Monarchs elsewhere in this fascicle. See F709 for example.)

Though the feeling of "You left me" may be brutal in real life, in a highly formalized poem like this it can seem maudlin. “You left me. You left me. Woe is me.” This poem plays itself out in that space between the real and the idealized.

This poem is very pretty, to the ear and to the eye. A little too pretty. On purpose? 

Shakespeare’s sonnets were also ornately over the top. But as with Shakespeare, we begin to see the nuances flower from within the confines of the structure. Let's dive into the subtleties.

    A Legacy of Love
    A Heavenly Father would suffice
    Had He the offer of –

The first meaning I get from these lines is, “The love you left behind as a legacy for me would be enough for God, if that’s who was entertaining the offer. But He's not, I am!” This reads to me like a barb directed at the reverend Charles Wadsworth. 

But if you squint and look again you can see the a double meaning. The lines may also mean something like this, “You left me a legacy of love, Sire. A heavenly father would suffice (for me) if only He could offer me the same thing that you do.”

She’s lost her man to his faith, and it's not a faith she shares. The Heaven he’s aiming toward doesn't work for her. This is ironic because Heaven, in her opinion, isn't as good as the man. You can see other examples of these sentiments in F706:

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 –

The wonder is that here, just a few poems later, Dickinson has, through an act of extreme poetic compression, put these ideas into just a few lines.

The subtleties pick up in the second stanza. How about the plural in "Boundaries of pain"? If someone left you a boundary of pain, that would be okay. At least it's not without boundaries. It’s not boundless pain. But what if someone leaves you boundaries of pain? That plural leaves the idea of openness... open. You could have two boundaries or you could have a million. You don’t know where that boundary ends, what the boundary of the boundary is. It’s painfully open. Perhaps you are feeling a different boundary to that pain every day. But that is also promising. That means some days it is less. Is the pain lessening a bit overall? It seems to be.

Perhaps that’s why she is beginning to prettify the poems up? Poetry is winning. Form is overtaking the content. (Emily is a master of this. See F372, the famous poem beginning "After great pain a formal feeling comes,” a poem which is ABOUT form and the way form heals. That poem begins in perfect meter, then stumbles and breaks into chaotic meter and then reforms again in perfect lockstep.) The form is firmly in control in this poem. No slant rhymes indicating something is "off."

Those boundaries are still sea-sized though. Her pain is oscillating between Eternity (aching for it) and (Time) mortality. The stakes are high. And how does the poem end? The boundary, it turns out, is also between consciousness and me. To help us understand what Emily means by consciousness we turn to earlier poems. Especially helpful here is this stanza from F709.

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

These lines, from just a few poems back chronologically, suggest that if you subjugate consciousness, you are also stopping the assault from Me. "Me" is complicated because it signifies "Us," as in I am you, and you are me. So I think Emily is saying something like - there is a boundary between Me and Consciousness because I am only myself when I am with you. Otherwise I am a separate being, a fraction, a lone consciousness.

So although Dickinson wraps this poem up in an awfully pretty bow, when you unwrap it you get an endless proliferation of meaning. Because of the bottomless nature of eternity and Me-ness, we can endlessly contend with this poem, and with its intimations of the beloved, from the sharply separate point view of a consciousness stuck in time.

/)dam Wade l)eGraff 

07 May 2024

I could suffice for Him, I knew—

I could suffice for Him, I knew—
He—could suffice for Me—
Yet Hesitating Fractions—Both
Surveyed Infinity— (+delayed, +deferred)

"Would I be Whole" He sudden broached—
My syllable rebelled—
'Twas face to face with Nature—forced—
'Twas face to face with God—

Withdrew the Sun—to Other Wests—
Withdrew the furthest Star
Before Decision—stooped to speech—
And then—be audibler

The Answer of the Sea unto
The Motion of the Moon—
Herself adjust Her Tides—unto—
Could I—do else—with Mine?

This is a poem that wavers between going forward toward wholeness with a lover and withdrawing from wholeness into solitude. It hesitates between two possibilities. Because this liminal space is so difficult to navigate for the poet, the poem's expression is difficult to parse. The conclusion of this poem could be read two different ways. The poem ITSELF hesitates. Let's go through it line by line.

    I could suffice for Him, I knew—
    He—could suffice for Me—

The poet and her beloved would be enough for each other.

    Yet Hesitating Fractions—Both

But both of them, each only a fraction of the whole, hesitated while they…

    Surveyed Infinity—    (+delayed, +deferred)

This line cuts two ways. We hesitated BECAUSE we both surveyed Infinity, wondering if that is what we wanted, is one way to read it. But if you look at the alternate words Dickinson provided here (delayed, deferred) you see a different reading is also possible. We both hesitated, therefore delaying and deferring infinity. If we didn't hesitate then we could be whole together, infinite. There is a wavering on this phrase, which ripples through the poem. Surveying is quite different from delaying and deferring.

    "Would I be Whole" He sudden broached—

He asks, “Would I be whole with you?” He caught her by surprise with this question.

    My syllable rebelled—

The poet wanted to say yes, but that syllable rebelled against her.

    'Twas face to face with Nature—forced—
    ‘Twas face to face with God—

The syllable “yes” rebels, perhaps, because Dickinson is “forced” to face her own autonomous and withdrawing nature. I say perhaps because the syntax is tricky. In the end of the poem "nature" represents the tides responding to the moon. So the juxtaposition of these two lines could be saying that “natural” attraction, chemistry, or being “face to face with Nature” was “forced” against religious feeling, being “face to face with God—." I come to this conclusion after reading dozens of poems before this one in which there appears to be a conflict between Dickinson’s desire for a lover (probably the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, but possibly Sue Gilbert) and that lover’s duty to God and all that entails. Dickinson has been laying down argument after argument in the poems for choosing natural human love in the here and now over a religious love looking toward a future heaven. There is ALSO the poet's own reticence as hinted at in such poems such as F706, where she says "I cannot live with You –/ It would be Life –." 

As the two lovers hesitate,

    Withdrew the Sun—to Other Wests—
    Withdrew the furthest Star
    Before Decision—stooped to speech—

The Sun went to other Wests (a day or so passed), the stars withdrew (nights passed), before the poet could stoop to speak. It was a long hesitation! The double use of the word “Withdrew” here is significant and recalls the rebellion of the syllable. The stars and sun withdrew just like the syllable did, just like the poet herself does.

"Withdrew the furthest Star” is such a beautifully grand way to say this. Dickinson is the furthest star withdrawing. Stunning lines like this litter Dickinson’s poems like land mines.

It is notable that the poet has to STOOP to speech. In a way that’s what poetry is, the "inexpressible" stooping to words. The feeling for being whole with the lover OR withdrawing and staying a fraction, apart from the lover, is so overwhelming on both sides of the equation that a simple yes or no must, eventually, be stooped to.

But then once it is spoken?

    And then—be audibler

    The Answer of the Sea unto
    The Motion of the Moon—
    Herself adjust Her Tides—unto—
    Could I—do else—with Mine?

Whatever answer the poet gives, yes or no, the response of the tides of the Sea to the motion of Moon, that irresistable force, is even louder (audibler).

You could take this either way, depending on how you see “nature” in this poem. Either the natural attraction of the tides of the sea to the moon is like her irresistible attraction to the lover OR, if you read "nature" here as the poet's withdrawing nature, the tides of the poet must follow the moon of her vocation, and separate in solitude, feeding off "that White Sustenance – Despair –." Is the attraction that speaks louder than her syllable her natural attraction to the lover or to her own independent nature? Even in the ambiguity of this ending this poem “hesitates." 

It would be instructive to get a vote from you which way you believe this poem leans, toward a yes to the beloved, or a yes to withdrawal. Or would you agree that this poem is caught in limbo, leaning both ways at once? 

    -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


I think Emily would have appreciated this explanation 
of the moon's effect on the tides by Neil deGrasse Tyson. 
Perhaps it would have helped her make a decision? 

05 May 2024

I meant to have but modest needs —

I meant to have but modest needs —
Such as Content — and Heaven —
Within my income — these could lie
And Life and I — keep even —

But since the last — included both —
It would suffice my Prayer
But just for One — to stipulate —
And Grace would grant the Pair —

And so — upon this wise — I prayed —
Great Spirit — Give to me
A Heaven not so large as Yours,
But large enough — for me —

A Smile suffused Jehovah's face —
The Cherubim — withdrew —
Grave Saints stole out to look at me —
And showed their dimples — too —

I left the Place, with all my might —
I threw my Prayer away —
The Quiet Ages picked it up —
And Judgment — twinkled — too —
That one so honest — be extant —
It take the Tale for true —
That "Whatsoever Ye shall ask —
Itself be given You" —

But I, grown shrewder — scan the Skies
With a suspicious Air —
As Children — swindled for the first
All Swindlers — be — infer —

    -F711, J476, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem recalls for me F687 in which the poet asks the Mighty Merchant for the one thing she wants, one which she is willing to give her entire being for, but the Merchant only smiles (+"sneers") and denies her. These poems are about unanswered prayers and skepticism.

The poet starts off by claiming she meant to have “modest” needs, just to be content and to have Heaven. One might wonder how receiving heaven could be considered “modest,” and it does seem, at first, a bit cheeky. But she goes on to say that she just wanted what was within her “income." I take this to mean that she only asked for as much as she could afford. She’s not asking for a freebie. She wants to “keep even” with life.

Though this poem seems to be about religious faith on the surface, and most people will read it this way, you can also read it as being about a relationship. In the first poem of this fascicle the poet sighs “for lack of Heaven - but not the Heaven God bestow.” In that poem, and several others by Dickinson, Heaven refers to the beloved. It is safe to assume that the Heaven in this poem may also be of the more secular kind.

Dickinson is the most economical of poets, so it’s notable that she takes up the entire second stanza just to say that she doesn’t need to ask for both contentment AND heaven, since Heaven includes them both. What is she really saying? I think it’s a subtle point, that though being in heaven (in the presence of the beloved) may not always be smooth and easy, she would still be content there anyway. It’s a way of saying that she would be content even it was difficult, as long as she was with her beloved.

I haven’t seen the term “Great Spirit” show up before in Dickinson. It feels like a very transcendentalist descriptor of God. It almost sounds Native American, though I doubt that’s what Dickinson was going for. This Great Spirit in this poem though doesn't seem so great. It seems a little mean-spirited actually. In the 4th stanza God “smiles” at the narrator's prayer for Grace. Then the cherubim withdraw (no Heaven for you!) and finally even the normally grave saints come out and show their dimples. Going from grave to smiling because someone asks to be content and have a small bit of Heaven makes one wonder what kind of God this is. This one seems to be making fun of a sincere supplicant.

The narrator doesn’t like it one bit. She says, “I left the Place, with all my might —/ I threw my Prayer away —”. That sounds awfully angry to me, leaving a place with ALL YOUR MIGHT and THROWING your prayer away.

What does Dickinson mean when she says “The quiet ages” picked the prayer up that she threw away? Does she mean it fell upon endless silence? Or does she mean the meek may continue to pray away, but not her, as she no longer means to be "quiet"? It’s an intriguing line. The quiet ages pick up the prayer and Judgment (Dickinson's shorthand for a judgy God) twinkles at these quiet "ages" who have taken up the same prayer. He seems to be laughing at the ones who are so honest that they expect God to be honest too when he says in the scriptures “"Whatsoever Ye shall ask —/ Itself be given You." The poet calls this promise a “tale.” The poet isn’t buying it. From now on she will be scanning the skies (looking at the heavens) with suspicion, because, she says, if you are swindled when you are young, then you expect all future promises to be part of a swindle. Once bitten, twice shy.

George Whicher suggests that this poem is humorous in tone and that in Emily’s account of the incident it is as though God is asking, ‘Could not the victim share in the cosmic joke?’ He reads the poem as Dickinson sharing in the twinkle. Maybe so, but I find the tone of the poem angry and sad, even if it is shrewd. For example, I think the way the fifth stanza is eight unbroken lines instead of two quatrains belies a climax that is full of real feeling. File this poem under Dickinson’s wiser but sadder poems.
  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

02 May 2024

Doom is the House without the Door—

Doom is the House without the Door—
'Tis entered from the Sun—
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape—is done—

'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside—
Where Squirrels play—and Berries dye—
And Hemlocks—bow—to God—

  -F710, J475, 1863, Fascicle 33

This poem begins with Doom, the most dismal place one can start, the place of damnation, of futility, of no escape, “the house without a door.”

How did we get here? The poet tells us. “‘Tis entered from the Sun.” Does the poet mean the literal sun? It’s helpful to start with the literal, as Dickinson generally does. The sun is necessary for life. It’s not something you would usually associate with death and doom. But you can’t have life without death. Just by being born you are doomed to die. So the sun works here on a literal level. Life is a ladder that leads to death and then you throw the ladder away, because there is no escaping death.

But since we are in a poem everything is also figurative. We are in the realm of metaphor and, therefore, interpretation. In a poem previous to this one in the same fascicle, F708, you get the line, “We turned our back upon the Sun.” The Sun (also, possibly, a pun on Son, see commentary for F708) is the source of light, so it is also, by the logic of opposites, the source of darkness. If you think of this in spiritual terms, then one way to interpret this poem, in keeping with the rest of the poems in fascicle 33, is that you only have doom if you have the expectation of Hope. Once you have tasted Paradise (which for Emily generally means the presence of the beloved), then all you can do is bemoan the absence of this Paradise when the beloved has gone away. The ladder that took you up to the beloved, up to the Sun, disappears because once you have tasted Paradise there is no going back. You can’t escape.

Meanwhile, from within the doom of hell (which we note is a “house”, not a “home”) you can only vary your misery by dreaming about what happens outside. “'Tis varied by the Dream/ Of what they do outside—” And what do “they” do “outside?” For starters, they PLAY. “Squirrels play.” Is there a better metaphor for the quicksilver joy of life than squirrels playing? It’s pure delight. But what of it? It’s no longer available to the doomed. The toys are put away.

What else happens outside? “Berries dye.” In some versions of this poem you will see this rendered as “Berries die.” This is because the first compiler of the complete poems, Thomas H. Johnson, interpreted Dickinson’s handwriting to read “die”. If you look at the original you can see why. 

I’m still not sure if Johnson wasn’t correct, but at any rate “Berries dye” is better, because it gives us a double sense. First we have the sense of the berries dying the ground with their juiciness, which follows naturally from the liveliness of the squirrels. But “Berries dye” also carries a double sense, through an obvious pun on dying, as in death. This adds a complication to the poem that deepens it considerably. Death is part of life. In death there is, paradoxically, life. In the first stanza you get the idea that life (the sun) leads to death (doom). In this stanza you get a similar idea. It’s a variation on the theme. Berries dye, then they die. The last line of the poem carries another variation on this same idea. Hemlock is a tree from which poison is extracted, the poison that famously killed Socrates. But it's also medicinal; it is used for breathing problems, swollen and painful joints, cramps and anxiety. It bends low, but towards the high.

      bowing hemlock

And perhaps you can even extend the idea of this dichotomy to squirrels playing too. Why do squirrels play? They play, chase each other around trees, in order to stay quick and nimble, which helps them in their attempt to escape being snatched up by birds of prey.

The poem begins with Doom, but ends with God. Doom, you might say, leads to God. Squirrels are eaten by birds of prey so they might play. Berries die so they might dye. Hemlock kills but also heals.  The shadow falls so that the sun can shine.

I like the way the D in this poem functions. Doom into Door into LaDDer into Done into Dream into Do into Dye into GoD. It is the doorway into the poem and the doorway out. The letter D, by the way, is in the shape of a door. The form of the letter originally derives from the early Egyptian pictograph indicating the folding door of a tent.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

I like the gloss David Preest has on this poem:

“This poem could be spoken by anyone beginning a completely new life, a nun entering her nunnery or a prisoner his prison, a woman entering upon marriage or any of us at death. If Emily applied the poem to herself, the ‘House without the Door’ was perhaps her seclusion from ordinary society and her commitment to a life of writing poetry. The second stanza recalls an incident in Rumer Godden’s novel In this House of Brede. An enclosed nun, having difficulties with her vocation, climbs the abbey tower from which ‘she could catch a glimpse of the town, of gardens, roofs, walls, windows....a shed, wheelbarrow, a hose, tools, sometimes a perambulator.’