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30 May 2014

Delight — becomes pictorial —

Delight — becomes pictorial —
When viewed through Pain —
More fair — because impossible
That any gain —

The Mountain — at a given distance —
In Amber — lies —
Approached — the Amber flits — a little —
And That's — the Skies —
                                   F539 (1863)  J572

This poem continues the dialectic between pleasure ("Delight") and pain that she explored in the previous one.
        Each of the two stanzas examines perceptions from a distance. Through the lens of pain, delight becomes something beautifully rendered as if it were a painting. It is "More fair" because it seems unattainable. Distant mountains bask in an amber glow (and Dickinson is partial to amber, using it to suggest beauty in twenty-four poems. Viewed more closely, however, the glow is seen to be not some radiant quality of the mountain itself but simply a trick of the skies. Up close the amber "flits", revealing its ephemeral quality. It is illusory rather than real.

Dickinson employs an interesting variation on the ballad meter, alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic dimeter: four feet alternating with two feet (rather than four alternating with three). The effect is to give more punch to the dimeter lines. "And That's – the Skies –" can almost be read as a punch line.
William Louis Sonntag,
"VIew in the White Mountains" 1888

Typically mountains seem blue-ish in the distance unless it is sunset or sunrise. Dickinson didn't travel much but she was well read, was interested in art, and listened to travelers. White Mountain art was extremely popular throughout her lifetime and, like artists from the Hudson River school, the artists often clad the hills and mountains of New Hampshire in an amber glow.
          Among the notable artists painting the White Mountains at the time were Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Winslow Homer, George Inness, John Frederick Kensett, and Benjamin Champney. No doubt Dickinson would have seen some of their work. 

27 May 2014

Must be a Woe —

Must be a Woe —
A loss or so —
To bend the eye
Best Beauty's way —

But — once aslant
It notes Delight
As difficult
As Stalactite

A Common Bliss
Were had for less —
The price — is
Even as the Grace —

Our lord — thought no
To pay — a Cross —
                                                    F538 (1863)  J571

This poem comes to a screeching halt for me at the word "Stalactite". Words such as slow, tenacious, subterranean, or accretive are what I think of when describing the thing – none of which add much to the second stanza. Dickinson uses eclipsis (leaving out words) throughout the poem to generally good effect, particularly in the last stanza, but it doesn't help the Stalactite Problem. So, good readers, give me your thoughts. Please tell me it isn't just that it rhymes with "Delight."   

        Meanwhile I'll start by saying that Dickinson treats the issue of pleasure and gain from pain and vice versa in several poems but none so powerfully (as far as I know so far) as in F772:
Essential Oils—are wrung—The Attar from the RoseBe not expressed by Suns—alone—It is the gift of Screws—  

Here, the first and third stanzas are anodyne claims that pain enables the recognition of beauty, but the enjoyment of common happiness requires much less grief. She introduces, however, the idea of "Grace" in the third stanza after suggesting that once woe has enabled the perception of beauty it, perception becomes "aslant" and delight more difficult. The introduction of "Grace" takes the poem to the theme of sacrifice with which she ends the poem.
      Once again Dickinson employs a metaphor from the marketplace. The price of bliss – which is pivoted to Grace – reflects the degree of suffering or Woe. The greater the suffering the greater the Bliss/Grace. It's a dollar-for-dollar deal. The thought is carried into the final stanza which might be paraphrased as "Jesus didn't think the price he paid (being crucified) for the salvation of humanity was extravagant." 

I think the success of this poem lies in the shorthand Dickinson employs. It makes the poem choppy. It seems simple, even childlike. The Stalactite reference underscores this for me. But all that makes the ending more powerful. We are reading and nodding our heads: yes, pain digs the well that happiness can fill – and of course Kahil Gibran's lovely "On Joy and Sorrow" from The Prophet (written a few years after Dickinson died) elaborates on the same theme. But then in trying to fill in the eclipsis we realize that in Christian theology our salvation requires the torture death of the God/Man Jesus. Again, this is hardly an original idea but Dickinson lends it power through her stripped-bare verbiage. The reader, forced to fill in the blanks, comes to the realization anew.

26 May 2014

I could die — to know —

I could die — to know —
'Tis a trifling knowledge —
News-Boys salute the Door —
Carts — joggle by —
Morning's bold face — stares in the window —
Were but mine — the Charter of the least Fly —

Houses hunch the House
With their Brick Shoulders —
Coals — from a Rolling Load — rattle — how — near —
To the very Square — His foot is passing —
Possibly, this moment —
While I — dream — Here —
                                              F537 (1863)  J570

Mornings are busy at the Dickinson Homestead. The paper boys "salute" the door (is this a droll way of saying they throw the paper against the door just as they do today?) with the morning news, carts "joggle" by with their loads, coals rattle on and off their conveyance. Meanwhile the morning sun stares in the poet's window and neighboring houses hunch against hers as if hemming her in. 
Coal carts being loaded for delivery

      Amid all this daily hustle and bustle our poet is dreaming of her beloved. She is dying to know where he is right now – trifling knowledge indeed since he is probably on his way to work. She is particularly frustrated because even the "least Fly" could buzz around and find him if it wanted. Alas, as a Victorian woman, she must content herself with dreams. Fortunately this quaint habit of female rectitude has long gone by the wayside. 
      But Dickinson often prefers to imagine and dream rather than dive into the real. She refused to see Samuel Bowles once when he came calling, despite her likely deep affection for him – and her copious output of letters and poems directed to him. She refused to marry Judge Lord despite a similar deep affection for him. In several previous poems she writes of deferring love and union until some afterlife. (Other times, she admits skepticism that such union would ever take place.) Perhaps most strikingly, she went for about thirteen years without visiting her childhood best friend, sister-in-law, and next door neighbor Sue –a dear beloved despite their fallings out and estrangements – all the while sending her notes and writing poems to and about her. 

This is a delightfully vivid poem and Dickinson writes with a light touch. We have the busy-ness of carts and paperboys contrasted with the staring sun and hunching houses with their marvelous "Brick Shoulders". Is the speaker going to go out in the world or hunker down with the hunching and staring? The last line, "While I – dream – Here ¬–" is a clear indication she is going to stay home. The line is drawn out with dashes and long vowels. It is a dreamy, staying-put line, wistful but not unhappy. 

25 May 2014

Some — Work for Immortality —

Some — Work for Immortality —
The Chiefer part, for Time —
He — Compensates — immediately —
The former — Checks — on Fame —

Slow Gold — but Everlasting —
The Bullion of Today —
Contrasted with the Currency
Of Immortality —

A Beggar — Here and There —
Is gifted to discern
Beyond the Broker's insight —
One's — Money — One's — the Mine -
                          F536 (1863)  J406

While some people aim for the "Slow" but "Everlasting" gold of immortality, most work for what can be earned today. Laborers toil for their hourly wage, and lawyers'  – noting that Dickinson's father and brother were both lawyers – time is billable. Those on the Immortality track (poets perhaps?) receive "Checks – on Fame", that is, promissory notes or vouchers payable byFame.
      Dickinson makes three comparisons between the Immortality folks and the work-for-pay set, one in each stanza. In the first those whose time is worth money are contrasted with those whose reward is intangible. The reliance on Fame seems a bit dicey: she is a fickle mistress after all. A poet might dedicate her life to immortal issues and never enjoy a shred of fame. 
      In the second stanza Dickinson makes a better case for Immortality. It offers gold, albeit a "Slow Gold". The phrase is a spondee: two accented syllables that emphasize both. But while the gold may not shower down, it is everlasting. Time workers, in contrast, get paid in the "Bullion of Today" and this seems like petty cash compared to the "Currency / Of Immortality". 
Gold bullion, photo by Antony Theobald

      Dickinson saves her most powerful comparison for the end. She compares the beggar's superior insight (or at least a beggar "Here and There") to that of the broker's. While brokers may understand a wide and complex variety of financial transactions, a beggar is sometimes "gifted" with the insight that it is the earth that creates the wealth, not the mint; it is the thinker, visionary, prophet or poet who taps into the deep and the immortal, hereby creating meaning that the rest of us draw on. The last line is marvelously clever and concise.
      I suspect Dickinson was indeed thinking of the poet (including herself) as well as her friends who were writers, philosophers, and social activists. Of them all, she was perhaps the beggar for those she knew – Higginson, Bowles, Wadsworth, even Emerson – all received fame and respect in addition to the bullion of the day.

14 May 2014

It might be lonelier

It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness —
I'm so accustomed to my Fate —
Perhaps the Other — Peace —

Would interrupt the Dark —
And crowd the little Room —
Too scant — by Cubits — to contain
The Sacrament — of Him —

I am not used to Hope —
It might intrude upon —
Its sweet parade — blaspheme the place —
Ordained to Suffering —

It might be easier
To fail — with Land in Sight —
Than gain — My Blue Peninsula —
To perish — of Delight —
                                      F535 (1863)  J405

Dickinson presents two contrasting states of being in this paradoxical poem. One is a difficult status quo and the other is an imagined state of union with the beloved.
The status quo doesn't seem very appealing: the speaker has a small room, dark and filled with loneliness; like a cell in a strict and austere convent, it has been "Ordained" by its occupant to be a place of suffering. In the last stanza we see her at sea in danger of drowning but within sight of land. 
        Each of these conditions has its possible opposite, and the speaker ponders these potentialities. Instead of "Loneliness" – her "Fate" – she might have "Peace". This peace, however, seems contingent upon the presence of "Him" – a beloved person, potential lover, or perhaps a godly lover. The paradox is that loneliness has become such a real presence that "It might be lonelier" without it. The peace radiated by the beloved's presence would disrupt the darkness of her "little Room"; additionally, his presence has a holy, sacramental quality that would crowd the space. Finally, "Hope" with its "sweet parade" might "intrude", even "blaspheme" the lonely suffering. 
        In the last stanza the beloved is seen as a sort of paradise, a "Blue Peninsula". To gain it would be death by "Delight". The beauty of this last image conjures up not only Paradise but the perfect lover. 
        The beauty of the poem as a whole is that it may be read as a struggle against the seductions of religion – Christianity with its heaven and the man/god Jesus, as well as the seductions of a human beloved. Ultimately, the poet would rather have the struggle than the fulfillment.

        Much of the language is Biblical and Christian: American readers of any era know "Cubits" only as the unit of measurement used by God when specifying the dimensions of the ark to Noah. The language of sacrament and blasphemy is also Christian. A nun is considered a bride of Christ, and the speaker presents herself as nun-like. And finally, in previous poems, Dickinson has used the imagery of the sea as the soul's journey to the distant shore of heaven (e.g., "On this wondrous sea – sailing silently" [F3]). Here, the speaker would rather go down with heaven in sight than surrender to its all-encompassing possession. That reminds me of F533 where Heaven entails "too difficult a Grace – / To justify the Dream".
        She has also used the sea as a metaphor for passion (e.g., "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!" [F269]). We might read, then, her "Blue Peninsula" as a beloved man whose very presence is paradisical. To be joined with him would be to deny everything she has come to be; it would be a death of sorts, although a blissful one. A poet might well prefer the dark canvas of loneliness, to press her breast against the thorn to sing (can't remember whose image this was – Shakespeare or Pope?) to a parade of hope and a room crowded with the profound love she considers would be like living with a sacrament.

The tone of the poem is as ambiguous as the imagery. It might be read as bitter irony or a haunting sadness; it might just as well be read as an honest and contemplative assessment of her choices and decisions. After all, Dickinson did indeed opt for the small room over either Christian salvation or marriage.
The tone is developed through the quiet statements that seemingly introduce an element of doubt: "It might be lonelier", "It might intrude upon", "It might be easier". These prosy constructions introduce and contrast with the imagistic states of being: a little dark room, lonely or crowded; a sacrament, a parade of hope that is "sweet" but also blasphemes, a blue peninsula.
I like the poem's harmonics. I like how it builds to that achingly beautiful last stanza.

03 May 2014

How many Flowers fail in Wood —

How many Flowers fail in Wood —
Or perish from the Hill —
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful —

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze —
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight —
It bear to other eyes —
                                F534 (1863)  J404

In this sentimental poem, Dickinson reflects on how unaware of their own worth people can be. Some like flowers bloom and perish in the quiet backwaters of Wood and Hill. Did they really not know whether or not they were "Beautiful"? Dickinson wonders if they had "the privilege to know", and in the usage of her day "privilege" here would probably mean the opportunity or chance to know. 
        I doubt that Dickinson is referring to physical beauty. That's one sort of self knowledge we gain early, unless we are raised in a hermitage. Inner beauty, however, almost by definition is only seen by discerning others. Perhaps Dickinson is imagining a small village with a beautiful soul or two but without anyone who might convince them of that – or perhaps would even notice.
        The second metaphor for unseen worth is that of a flower pod carried by a breeze to disseminate its seeds. This is clearly a reference to all the good things – the seeds –  planted by simple words and gestures, an act of kindness, years of careful devotion and attention – all the actions that are ultimately nurturing and generative. It is a very feminine image. A good soul casts such pods throughout life without even realizing the effect they have on others. 
        Because Dickinson specifies the effect of the pods on others as "Scarlet Freight" born to the eyes, it may be that she is (also) talking about poetry. Poems are visual, most times. That Dickinson considers they deliver some heavy freight has been discussed in earlier discussions here and quite extensively elsewhere. I think it likely that the brilliant red maple achene, the samara, is the pod she is visualizing. It's a lovely image: the graceful maple tree dispersing its winged seeds in the breeze. Granted the achenes are not pods, but "Pod" is just such a fine word, I would never quibble with it. (A commenter mentioned a couple of uses of "pod" in recent poems – and here is a third.)

Dickinson touches on a similar theme in "Except to Heaven, she is nought" (F173). In that poem she writes of a small flower that is not valued by any except Heaven and the tiny creatures who benefit from it. I read that poem as a metaphor for a woman, perhaps Dickinson herself. Except to the bees, butterflies and breezes who recognize her beauty and importance, the little flower is "superfluous" and "provincial"; as a result, she is "lone" and "unnoticed".  
        I don't find the tone in either that poem or this one to be anything but sweetly, wistfully sentimental. There are quiet souls to be appreciated, perhaps in contrast to men like the poet's opinionated father and brother or the well-traveled and lionized men that were her favored correspondents. These men certainly were aware of their "beauty" and the impact of their pods. But doesn't it sound odd to phrase it like that? Our thoughts turn immediately to the housewives who die sad, quiet, early deaths in other Dickinson poems.

01 May 2014

I reckon — When I count at all —

I reckon — When I count at all —
First — Poets — Then the Sun —
Then Summer — Then the Heaven of God —
And then — the List is done —

But, looking back — the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole —
The Others look a needless Show —
So I write — Poets — All —

Their Summer — lasts a solid Year —
They can afford a Sun
The East — would deem extravagant —
And if the Further Heaven —

Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them —
It is too difficult a Grace —
To justify the Dream —
                                    F533 (1863)  J569

Dickinson reckons – counts or calculates – that what truly matters are Poets, the Sun, Summer, and Heaven. It's a short list, all of which, however, is encompassed in Poets, for in their vision and art is a type of deep Platonic truth, one springing from the imaginative world. The actual items (Sun, Summer, Heaven) are but a "needless Show", their glories subject to weather or the difficult demands and vagaries of a supposed deity. It is a powerful and confident paean to poetry and to the visionary poets whose truths endure – and one must conclude that Dickinson includes herself in that company. 
        Her own poetry distills the essence of Sun and Summer in numerous poems, and as she points out, a poet's summer can last "a solid Year". (Helen Vendler in Selected Poems and Commentaries claims that Dickinson is making droll reference to a couple of Shakespeare's sonnets in this stanza – e.g., "thy eternal summer…"). In many of her poems the other seasons represent some kind of pain, so it is no surprise that Dickinson singles out summer as an apex experience. For example, along with rebirth, Spring brings the aching realization of loss ("I dreaded that first Robin, so" [F347]). Autumn is a bittersweet season of beauty and sadness whose red leaves conjure up dresses and scarves – but also blood ("the name – of it – is 'Autumn'" [F465]). Winter, if not death, is a numb despair ("There's a certain Slant of light" [F320]). In contrast, Summer is fullness and creation: There is "A something in a summer's noon … / Transcending ecstasy" [F104]. The Sun precedes Summer in the list, as well it should, for Summer is the Sun's daughter.
        "The Heaven of God" trails along and is dismissed as something not worth the effort needed. The last stanza is a bit difficult and scholars don't agree on some key points (such as who the "they" and the "Them" refer to). I like Vendler's reading, so I loosely summarize her discussion of it here: Many poets have written of Heaven, creating something beautiful. This contributes to – if not creates – the dream of Heaven, but Dickinson warns that the "Grace" needed to get there is so difficult that the dream isn't justified. In previous poems, Dickinson finds Heaven so frustrating or ephemeral that it is no wonder she finds it fails to  "justify the Dream". 

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder
"I've known a Heaven, like a Tent" (F257)"
"'Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (F310)
"The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized—" (F304)

        If Vendler's reading is correct, and the last stanza has people worshipping poets, it is almost droll. We can see the sun, we can enjoy a summer's day, but Heaven? We take that on faith – and that springs from the poets. When we worship "the Heaven of God" aren't we really worshipping an image described by poets such as Dante and Blake, and thereby worshipping them? No wonder Poets come first!  
        If Heaven is a poetic concept and not an actual place, the Grace needed to attain and maintain "the Dream" of it is still going to be too "difficult". You think you've glimpsed it, but then it disappears, leaving "But just the miles of Stare – / That signalize a Show's Retreat –"  (F257). As Vendler claims, the last stanza is exceedingly heretical!