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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.

1 comment:

  1. So many surprises from ED. Who woulda thunk graffiti would remind us of her?

    She just blew my mind with this sneak-preview enjambed definition of Heaven (F725): “The House of Supposition, the glimmering that skirts the Acres of Perhaps.”

    What universe did this rural recluse come from?