Search This Blog

01 June 2024

Have any like Myself


Have any like Myself
Investigating March,
New Houses on the Hill descried—
And possibly a Church—

That were not, We are sure—
As lately as the Snow—
And are Today—if We exist—
Though how may this be so?

Have any like Myself
Conjectured Who may be
The Occupants of the Adobes—
So easy to the Sky—

'Twould seem that God should be
The nearest Neighbor to—
And Heaven—a convenient Grace
For Show, or Company—

Have any like Myself
Preserved the Charm secure
By shunning carefully the Place
All Seasons of the Year,

Excepting March—'Tis then
My Villages be seen—
And possibly a Steeple—
Not afterward—by Men—

   -F723, J736, Fascicle 35, 1863



This poem is a riddle. 

This poem seems to be, on the surface, about the month of March. David Preest gives us some helpful information in his analysis of the poem: “This is the first of five poems about Emily’s favorite month of March. The others are J1213, 1320, 1404 and 1669. March was important to Emily as it was the month of rebirth and new beginnings in nature, symbolising our rebirth into eternal life. Poem J1404 begins, ‘March is the Month of Expectation,’ and in a letter (L976) of March d1885 to her friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, she asks, ‘Who could be ill in March, that Month of proclamation?’”

The first thing I noticed about the poem is that it repeats the line "Have any like myself" three times. The triple repetition of this line points strongly toward the relationship between the poet and the reader. Is Dickinson just talking to herself here? "Have any like myself..." No, I don’t think so. A poem reaches out toward the reader. “Have any like Myself” functions as a kind of invitation to the reader.

    Have any like Myself
    Investigating March,
    New Houses on the Hill descried—
    And possibly a Church—


The first invitation to the reader asks, “Have you investigated March?” It’s odd, but very Dickinsonian, to investigate a month. What happens in March is well worth investigating. It’s a kind of magic trick. It’s that time of year when winter finally lets up and spring starts to peek its head out. That’s what’s being investigated, new growth, and by extension, birth itself. 

And what does Dickinson discover as she investigates the month when this new birth of the natural world takes place? She discovers "New Houses and possibly a Church." Houses are lived in and connote life. And she also finds, “possibly,” a church. I love that “possibly” there. There’s so much to it. Dickinson, who famously stayed out of churches most of her life, seems to allow for the possibility of God, but just during this one month of the year. It’s like she is 1/12th of a believer, and even then, just “possibly.”

    That were not, We are sure—
    As lately as the Snow—
    And are Today—if We exist—
    Though how may this be so?


In Winter, the winter of the heart we might say, there is only despair. Dickinson faces the chill of the void bravely in poem after poem. See the poem just before this one for a good example of this. But “Today,” in March, the beginning of the beginning of spring, we see new life, and we ARE that life, that existence. I love that qualifier, “if We exist.” If we exist, then the houses and church, born seemingly from nothing, exist too. And how is it we exist? How can this be so? How is there life from nothing? This question also may be asked on an emotional level. How can you go from feeling despair, or worse, being frozen numb, to feeling joyful like spring?

    Have any like Myself
    Conjectured Who may be
    The Occupants of the Adobes—
    So easy to the Sky—


Have you conjectured who the occupants are in these new houses? A conjecture is a guess. The poem is asking, has anyone guessed the riddle? In this stanza we get some clues. New houses in spring, especially ones with entrances “easy to the sky” made me think of nests. The word “adobe” had me looking up what kinds of birds build their nests in mud in march. It turns out that ovenbirds, which are native to the region where Dickinson lived, build dome-shaped nests that look like mud ovens. They construct their nests in two stages, first building an oversized adobe cup and then adding mud pellets in a pattern to create a sphere with a circular opening.

It also turns out that ovenbirds do indeed begin to build their nests as early as March. 


a village of ovenbirds

If the houses in this poem that weren’t there “as lately as the snow” are meant to be ovenbird nests, then I wonder what Dickinson might have meant by a possible church and steeple? Is it purely metaphoric, or is there something in nature analogous to steeples? Perhaps to the poet the occasional stick sticking out of the mud nest of an ovenbird looks like a steeple?

    Twould seem that God should be
    The nearest Neighbor to—
    And Heaven—a convenient Grace
    For Show, or Company—


In March the ovenbirds (and, by extension, we) have easier access to the skies, to our nearest neighbor, God. That’s the spring feeling. Grace becomes convenient in March. If you are an ovenbird, you can watch the show of the sky right from the front door of your mud nest. Heaven is right there, keeping you company. Charming!

And speaking of charming...

    Have any like Myself
    Preserved the Charm secure
    By shunning carefully the Place
    All Seasons of the Year,

    Excepting March…


Dickinson “shuns” the area in the forest where she normally finds ovenbirds and by so doing she gets to rediscover the charm every year. (Alternate words Dickinson provides for “Charm secure” are “vision sure”). In a metaphorical sense I think this is the most profound part of the poem. During the rest of the year Dickinson shuns this “Place,”  shuns the grace of heaven, and thus preserves its charm. It is only in spring, at the time of greatest transformation, that she allows it. There is deep wisdom in this. Dickinson creates a ritual of going to see the ovenbirds. In this way you might say that she is practicing moderation in order to enhance appreciation. “Have any like Myself” done likewise?

    Excepting March—'Tis then
    My Villages be seen—
    And possibly a Steeple—
    Not afterward—by Men—


I love that Dickinson claims these Villages of ovenbirds (and the awakening nature of spring in general) as her own. “My Villages,” she writes. And then we get that terrific qualifier, “possibly,” again. "possibly a Steeple." Maybe God is here, she admits, maybe. Spring makes her, for a moment, a believer. Possibly.

There is something so wonderfully exclusive about those final lines. My villages, and possibly a steeple, may be seen only March. Certainly “not afterward—by Men—” 


  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


P.S. I looked at the original MS for this poem and it looks to me like it says “Abodes" not "Adobes." I want the word to be “Adobes” here, because the ovenbird idea makes so much sense in this poem. But I'm not so sure. Decide for yourself. 


P.P.S. In the comments Larry B points out that in the newest edition of the poems (Christanne Miller's) the word "Adobe" has been changed to "Abode." This puts to the rest the ovenbird theory. Larry also points out in the comments that American ovenbirds don't make their nests out of mud which, in my opinion, closes the case. Thanks for the legwork, Larry. 


9 comments:

  1. Rereading this poem followed by Adam's explication reminds me of sitting on a jury. Twelve people must hammer out some form of unanimous decision. It's a good thing ED's poems don't require the same of 12 readers. It's more fun that way. There is no true there there and that doesn't matter.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In New England March, bright blue skies and puffy white clouds occasionally break the dreariness of winter. It’s hard to resist a walk on such a day, and if a poet feels her imagination stirring, she could easily see houses and a steeple in the clouds behind a hill’s horizon. Return tomorrow, it’s likely gone, “Not [seen] afterward - by Men –”.

    Perhaps it was a day like this in March 1860 when Charles Wadsworth first visited ED in Amherst, and now, three years later, she’s remembering how close to heaven she felt that day (F267, F349). Stanzas 1-3 describe this mystical village and conjecture who lives there. Her first two lines of Stanza 4 (L9-10) guess that God should live there because the village lies between Earth and Heaven.

    Then, suddenly, Lines L11-L12 slam a question in our face. Is “Heaven - a convenient Grace / For Show, or Company?” What happened to the village in the sky with new houses and a steepled church? That question sure seems skeptical and sarcastic to me. In May 1862, Wadsworth abandoned ED, at least in her opinion, for San Francisco, driving her into deep depression and defensive sarcasm. The last two stanzas express hope he will return to New England, if only in the clouds, :

    “Have any like Myself
    Preserved the Charm secure
    By shunning carefully the Place
    All Seasons of the Year,

    Excepting March - 'Tis then
    My Villages be seen -
    And possibly a Steeple -
    Not afterward - by Men –”

    A village that appears once a century is an old German motif, most recently revisited in Brigadoon (1947 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe). Brigadoon’s precursor, ‘Germelshausen’ is an 1860 story by Friedrich Gerst├Ącker about a young artist being forever separated from his love, but the motif predates 1860.

    “A cursed village that sank into the earth long ago is permitted to appear for only one day every century. The protagonist happens to be traversing the area as Germelshausen appears. He encounters, and becomes smitten with, a young woman from the village. The romantic tale ends with him leaving the vicinity just in time to avoid becoming entombed with the village and its denizens, but thereby he loses the love of his life.”

    ED’s village appears once a year, but the result is the same, gender reversed.

    PS. Lerner denied “borrowing” from Gerst├Ącker.

    • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigadoon
    • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germelshausen
    • Lerner, Alan Jay (March 30, 1947). "Drama Mailbag". The New York Times. p. X3

    ReplyDelete
  3. The American Ovenbird has a white chest with bold black vertical stripes. The nest is built on the ground where ground cover is sparse, especially near trails or roads. Female chooses site, builds domed nest from dead leaves, grass, bark, twigs; lines it with animal hair.

    There may be many old-world birds called ovenbirds because of their clay nests,

    https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/ovenbird

    ReplyDelete
  4. I, too, along with Larry, see clouds in this lovely poem. But Iike visualizing Dickinson strolling about in March to see the ovenbird 'villages'.
    Thanks for the Abodes vs. Adobes -- I see, and like better, 'Abodes'.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interchanging the "b" and "d" in the word "abodes" would fit the above photo of "a village of Ovenbird" "adobes", but note that the Ovenbird in the upper right "oven", is not an American Ovenbird, which builds solitary grass/hair "ovens" on the ground in New England forests.

    The March 1885 letter to Helen Hunt Jackson is L1231 (Paragraph 1 above).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Stanza 3 of this poem in Miller's 2016 edition of 'Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them' reads:

    "Have any like Myself
    Conjectured Who may be
    The Occupants of these Abodes -
    So easy to the Sky -"

    (not "Adobes").

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great detective work. Funny that at some point someone (Franklin? Johnson?) misread Abode as Adobe and the poem was then disseminated that way. It's a good example of how the smallest detail can derail an interpretation. I thought for sure she was referring to ovenbirds with the adobe, but then when I saw that "abode" in the original MS I knew adobe was probably wrong. Not to mention that adobe doesn't scan with the meter. And the info about American ovenbirds seals the deal for me.

    I thought about rewriting the commentary in light of this information, but I'm leaving the record here as a positive example of communal interpretation. It takes a village.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Adam, a perspicacious comment, worth a ton of adobe bricks, especially your last paragraph. Kudos to you for rejuvenating the best blog ever, TPB.

      Delete
  8. Sleuthing is fun, especially in Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which identifies “adobe” as Spanish for a molded clay-straw brick about 24 X 12 inches.

    Apparently, its first use in English was 1762, but it’s doubtful “New Englandly” ED (F1551.1881) had ever heard the word “adobe”:

    • 1762 “The materials made use of in building at Quito, are adobes, or unburnt bricks, and clay.” American Gazetteer vol. III. at Quito

    • 1841 “The houses in Costa Rica are..built of adobes, or undried bricks, two feet long and one broad, made of clay mixed with straw to give adhesion.” J. L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America vol. I. xviii. 383

    • 1872 “In place of the grand mud-colored brown fronts of San Francisco, I saw dwellings built of straw, adobies, and cream-colored pebble- and-shell conglomerate coral.” ‘M. Twain’, Roughing It lxiii. 454

    ReplyDelete