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18 January 2016

Prayer is the little implement

Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them – 
They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God's Ear —
If then He hear —
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer —
                            F623 (1863)  J437

In this short poem Dickinson depicts prayer as the recourse of Men to communicate with a God who remains hidden from them.

The tone is breezily dismissive and ironic; the import sad. What is both incisive and sad about the poem is the word choice. Prayer is no powerful medium; only a "little implement". How can such a paltry device ever crack the heavens – particularly when God has "denied" his presence. Shut out from divine "Presence", Men desperately "fling" their prayers. Dickinson says "Speech" here, not only for the rhyme with "reach" but to make quotidian what might otherwise be considered sacred.
        Flinging speech into God's Ear is done on the chance that He hears it. "If then He hear" can be read, "In case He hears". It is as if we were to unceasingly throw messages in bottles into the sea hoping the intended recipient would receive and read them. To extend the analogy, suppose the intended recipient had purposefully removed himself from anywhere we could find him. We don't even know if the message would be read if the sea cast the bottle up at his feet.
W.Holman Hunt, 1859: Morning Prayer
        The poem doesn't offer much hope that prayers are either heard or acted upon. The "Apparatus" seems inadequate and God's denial of his Presence seems far from encouraging. The cool finality of the last two lines, written as drily as if for an equipment manual, finishes the dismissal of prayer.

This isn't the first Dickinson poem about prayer. Most recently in "Of Course – I prayed – "  (F581), she says that she had indeed prayed but that God cared about as much as if "A Bird – had stamped her foot". But while Dickinson dismisses prayer, she does not dismiss the divine. In "My period had come for Prayer —"  (F525the poet does her best to find and talk to God but finds instead "Infinitude" and "Creation" – an experience of such awe that she abandons the idea of prayer and instead simply "worshipped".
        In "At least – to pray – is left – is left –" (F377), Dickinson adopts a dismissive and rather flippant tone towards prayer. She is "knocking – everywhere –" and finally wondering why God can cause wars and storms but seems to take no interest in her.

10 January 2016

To interrupt His Yellow Plan

To interrupt His Yellow Plan
The Sun does not allow
Caprices of the Atmosphere —
And even when the Snow

Heaves Balls of Specks, like Vicious Boy
Directly in His Eye —
Does not so much as turn His Head
Busy with Majesty —

'Tis His to stimulate the Earth —
And magnetize the Sea —
And bind Astronomy, in place,
Yet Any passing by

Would deem Ourselves — the busier
As the minutest Bee
That rides — emits a Thunder —
A Bomb — to justify —
                             F622 (1863)  J591

Dickinson contrasts humans, by way of bees, with the serene majesty of the sun. She also takes aim, I think, at the saccharine platitudes of Isaac Watts' poem "How Doth the Little Busy Bee", published in 1715, and popular during Dickinson's time (and beyond).

The first two stanzas describe the sun's imperturbability. Like the U.S. Post Office motto, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail – nor any other "Caprices of the Atmosphere" –will interrupt his business. The stately third stanza describes this business as stimulating the earth to be fruitful, magnetizing the Sea (I'm not sure about what this might mean: the basaltic ocean floor is magnetized but that is geologic rather than astronomic), and binding Astronomy – probably meaning binding earth to the sun's progression through the galaxy.
        Those are big jobs! Nonetheless, to any passing extraterrestrial observer it would seem that humans have more to do. We are like the tiniest bees whose efforts to gather nectar involves an inordinate amount of buzzing – a "Thunder", Dickinson calls it, as if such a commotion will 'justify' its constant bustling about.
        The bees' Thunder allows an amazing segue to "Bomb" in the last line. But while bees' thunder indicates their passage among flowerbeds, human's thunder, their bombs, indicates their rush to destroy. And so it was in 1863 while Dickinson was writing this poem. Battles at Vicksburg, Gettsburg, Chickamauga, and Stones River – just to list a few that occurred that year – had nearly 130,000 casualties.
Bombardment of Fort Sumter by Currier & Ives 
        And what could Dickinson possibly mean, ending the poem with the word "justify"? Do we humans, or at least Americans at the time she was writing, believe that battles justify the victors? It's a sad and timely commentary, if so.

Now, as to Watts' poem about the "Little Busy Bee". The first two stanzas praise the bee who is industrious, skilful, and neat. Such attributes "Improve each shining hour". The last two stanzas find the poet wanting to emulate the bee for two reasons: to lead a good life and to stay busy so that the Devil can't make use of his 'idle hands'.
        I imagine Dickinson reading this poem and finding it deeply ironic. Most of her countrymen were exposed to this poem. Many of them spent their childhoods "In books, or work, or healthful play" and later strove to be busy in 'works of labor or of skill'. And yet rather than a society like the humming hive, they found no way out of their deep divisions except by busily building and employing the engines of war.

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
                                     Isaac Watts, 1715