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18 December 2013

We'll pass without the parting

We'll pass without the parting
So to spare
Certificate of Absence —
Deeming where

I left Her I could find Her
If I tried —
This way, I keep from missing
Those that died.

                                                                           F503 (1863)  J996

This good-by poem ends a little oddly, I think. The poem was written to a friend; Johnson's anthology of Dickinson's poems includes the following preface:

"On the occasion of Mrs. Maria Avery Howard’s departure from Amherst after a visit, Emily’s good-by was embodied in the following lines, accompanied by an oleander blossom tied with black ribbon."

I do not know who Mrs. Howard is, but perhaps a scholar out there can inform us.

At any rate, the poem has a droll, tongue-in-cheek quality to it at least up until those final lines. Dickinson achieves this through the lawyerly "Certificate of Absence" that the she seeks to avoid. A formal goodby is just too conclusive and sad. In lieu of this 'certificate' the poet prefers her friend to simply slip away. That way, she can convince herself Mrs. Howard is still right where she was when last they were together.
    The second stanza completes the thought of the first, but changes voice from first person plural (the "we" of Dickinson and Mrs. Howard) to a first-person voice that refers to the departing friend in the third person. The poem began with a "We" and abruptly switches to "I" and "Her." That's a real break – and Dickinson gives a stanza break right there to emphasize it. The droll tone is maintained: The poet likes to think that her friend, like a good book, can always be picked up from where it was laid down. But that's only half of the second stanza! In the last two lines Dickinson pulls back even further from her focus on Mrs. Howard and makes the rather alarming claim (alarming if you were the recipient) that this is a technique she finds helpful when people die.
The lines seem offhand, almost deadpan, as the light irony takes a sudden nosedive. The idea of friends embalmed in a memory place so that it doesn't matter if they die seems a bit dark and delusional to me.

My first response to the poem was one of shock. Maria Avery Howard was certainly alive when she read those lines. And why the black ribbon? Judith Farr, in The Gardens of Emily
Oleander: lovely and poisonous
Dickinson, says that "By sending the blossom from an oleander (known to be a tough plant) tied with black ribbon to a departing friend, Emily Dickinson may have been suggesting the endurance of their affection." Somehow this doesn't seem convincing to me. The gesture and the final line seem bitter and dismissive. All parts of the oleander are poisonous, something Dickinson, a knowledgeable and widely admired gardener, would surely know – as no doubt Maria Avery Howard would know.
    There is certainly no glossing over the black ribbon. In "The Color of the Grave is Green" (F424, J411, 1862), Dickinson writes that although the outside of the grave is grassy green, and the grave itself is white, "The Color of the Grave within" is black. "You've seen the Color – maybe – / Upon a Bonnet bound…." What binds the bonnet of a grieving Victorian woman would be a black ribbon, bringing us back to the ribbon tying the oleander. Is it possible that this poem is saying "You are dead to me now?"

Readers, I suspect I'm misreading this poem. What do you think?

10 December 2013

Life is death we're lengthy at

Life is death we're lengthy at,
Death the hinge to life.
                            F502 (1863)

Dickinson included this aphorism in a letter to her cousins (L281) in May 1863. Franklin, and no doubt others, have classified it as a poem. It's a juicy couple of lines and bears scrutiny. In the letter's preceding passage, Dickinson informs her beloved young cousins, Fanny and Louisa, that Mrs. Edward Hitchcock, has died.

Jennie Hitchcock's mother was buried yesterday, so there is one orphan more, and her father is very sick besides. My father and mother went to the service, and mother said while the minister prayed, a hen with her chickens came up, and tried to fly into the window. I suppose the dead lady used to feed them, and they wanted to bid her good-by.
    Life is death we're lengthy at, death the hinge to life.
Love from all, Emily

The purpose of the remarks is clearly consolatory. The message is conventional enough: The dead woman is now in a better place. Dickinson's aphorism conveys this by blurring the boundaries between life and death. Life is a process of dying – one that begins at birth. A more true life, she suggests, begins once death is complete. It is then that the door to eternal life opens. It would not open if not for the "hinge" of death.

Dickinson had written many poems by this time that include references to eternity. Some of them describe or allude to a Christian heaven complete with saints and angels. Others, though, are less sanguine. The dead seem to wait forever in their tombs, as in F124, "Safe in their alabaster chambers," where "Firmaments – row –" and "Worlds scoop their Arcs" while "the meek members of the Resurrection" sleep away in their tombs.
         But that is not the comforting note she strikes with her younger cousins. She wrote them a year earlier after their father's death and included a longer poem with another reference to death as a door to life.
It is not dying hurts us so, –
'Tis living hurts us more;
But dying is a different way,
A kind, behind the door, –
        F528, J335

The idea of death opening the door to heaven is common enough. But Dickinson expresses it powerfully in her concise aphorism. She does not say "heaven," it should be noted; only "life." Such life is to be joyfully anticipated, she implies, but she stops short of calling forth the image of Christian heaven.

Emily Dickinson's Birthday Today!

I found this lovely tribute to Dickinson in my inbox this morning, courtesy of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. You can find it here.

O.A. Bullard, artist. The Dickinson children. 
(Emily on the left). 1840. Harvard Collection.
Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.
It's the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She was a bright, spirited girl who loved to be outside. She had a close-knit group of girl friends, and together they would explore the woods around Amherst, picking flowers, meeting people, helping with the final cooking down of maple syrup in the spring, and going for long walks. They read the Atlantic Monthly, admiring some of the poets and laughing at others, and they joined a Shakespeare club and then protested when their male tutors tried to cross out all the inappropriate parts from their books. This group of friends started a school newspaper, and Emily — considered the class wit — wrote the "comic column." At recess each day, a group gathered around Emily to listen to the funny stories she would invent on the spot. There were valentine parties, receptions, sleigh rides, and dances with cake and lemonade. A friend described Emily: "Her eyes were lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head [...] She had a demure manner which brightened easily into fun [...] She was exquisitely neat and careful in her dress, and always had flowers about her." Emily herself wrote to a friend: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I will have crowds of admirers at that age."

When she was 16, Dickinson left for boarding school at Mt. Holyoke Academy, which drew students from all over the country. She wrote about her new school: "On the whole, there is an ease and grace, a desire to make one another happy, which delights and at the same time, surprises me very much." She was enthusiastic about the curriculum, with its emphasis on experiential science. But the religious atmosphere of Mt. Holyoke was intense. New England was experiencing a Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening, and Mt. Holyoke encouraged students to publicly declare their commitment to Christ. The girls were separated into three groups: those who declared their faith, those who had hope of conversion, and those without hope. Girls cried when they were labeled "no hope." Of 234 students, Dickinson was one of 80 who started the year in the "no hope" category, and one of just 29 who ended the year that way. She wrote to a friend: "There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject." She left Mt. Holyoke after one year, and no one knows the reason for sure — she had been ill, or the religious demands were too intense, or her family didn't believe in educating her further. In any case, the religious pressure continued at home, and most of her friends and family converted. She wrote to a friend: "How lonely this world is growing, something so desolate creeps over the spirit and we don't know its name, and it won't go away, either Heaven is seeming greater, or Earth a great deal more small [...] Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless. Abby, Mary, Jane, and farthest of all my Vinnie have been seeking, and they all believe they have found; I can't tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?"

For a while, Dickinson remained actively engaged in Amherst's social life, going to parties and entertaining visitors. But she grew more depressed after the deaths of several close friends and family members, and she slowly withdrew from social gatherings. She wrote lots of letters, but she rarely left her home, and spoke with visitors through a closed door. She spent much of her time gardening, and during her life she was known in Amherst not for her writing, but for her fabulous gardens of flowers and trees. She published just 10 poems during her lifetime, and they were heavily edited. After her death, her sister Lavinia found almost 1,800 poems that she had left behind.

Dickinson wrote: 

There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself —

Finite infinity."

08 December 2013

The Robin is the One

The Robin is the One
That interrupt the Morn
With hurried—few—express Reports
When March is scarcely on—

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity—
An April but begun—

The Robin is the One
That speechless from her Nest
Submit that Home—and Certainty
And Sanctity, are best

                                                            F501 (1863)  J828

Dickinson uses one of her favorite birds to illustrate a good bit of a woman's life. The robin, a symbol of rejuvenation and harbinger of spring, goes from young and hurried to mature and nurturing. I suspect Dickinson might have watched a similar progression in some of her best girl friends. The poem uses three stanzas for three stages.
        We begin with the robin dashing into the scene of emerging spring – early March. Having probably just arrived at her breeding territory, she blurts out a bit of gossip or perhaps "express Reports" of the season. Mainly, she's announcing her arrival and availability. Her song "interrupt[s] the otherwise quiet Morn."
        The second stanza takes us to the noon of the day, the prime of life. The robin's songs fill the air, sweet and pure as the song of a cherub. Note that the robin's song "overflow[s]" Noon. One season into spring and her sweet joy fills the day. No doubt a mate is near. (Yes, we know now that it is the male who does most of the singing, but I think Dickinson is thinking of young women here at the peak of their ripe and innocent beauty. They are charming and beautiful, whereas the male of the human species must remain more drab and pragmatic.)
Finally, we see the robin settled in her nest, quietly assuming an ideal Victorian motherhood. Dickinson's choice of abstract nouns is interesting: Home is the best place for the mother robin, but why mention "Certainty" and "Sanctity"? From the usage of her day, "certainty" implies "faithfulness" and "fidelity." The young robin must settle down – no more singing and calling attention to herself. "Sanctity" implies a safe haven, a "home on high" like heaven, just as the nest is high in the tree, far away from the dangers of earth. The good mother is faithful, pure, spiritual.

The question Dickinson leaves us is whether or not the robin has made a good trade. She has lost her song, become "speechless" in her nest. While the bird may find this to be the best state, I suspect Dickinson has other ideas. She herself never became speechless, never erased herself for the sake of nest and babies. In her poetry she continues to sing, although a deeper and often darker song than many of the lighthearted poetry of her younger years. Dickinson does retreat to her own nest – her familial home and her private room – but she continues to sing.

The poem is tightly constructed, particularly through the repetition of "The Robin is the One" as the first line of each stanza. Slant rhymes of "One" complete numerous other lines: Morn, on, Noon, begun. The first, second and fourth lines of each stanza are in iambic trimeter, with the third line in tetrameter. The clear, strong meter and rhyme produce a sense of predictability that, in Dickinson's trademark manner, she overturns in the last few phrases. The reader is glad that the robin is a good nesting mother, but can't help but feel sad for the loss of her song, particularly for such ambiguous states as "Certainty" and "Sanctity."