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20 February 2017

Me prove it now — Whoever doubt

Me prove it now — Whoever doubt
Me stop to prove it — now —
Make haste — the Scruple! Death be scant
For Opportunity —

The River reaches to my feet —
As yet — My Heart be dry —
Oh Lover — Life could not convince —
Might Death — enable Thee —

The River reaches to My Breast —
Still — still — My Hands above
Proclaim with their remaining might —
Dost recognize the Love?

The River reaches to my Mouth —
Remember — when the Sea
Swept by my searching eyes — the last —
Themselves were quick — with Thee!

                                                          Fr631 (1863)  J537


Although word choices and ambiguities – as well as potential metaphorical constructions –  allow various readings of this poem, I read it as the chronicle of an unhappy lover's suicide. She rushes to the river, speaking madly to herself in choppy, clumsy phrases. Once she steps into the river, however, she addresses her beloved in plaintive, lovely lines.
        The poem reminds me of nothing as much as John Everett Millais' 1852 painting, "Ophelia". This work received quite a bit of attention in several exhibitions in its first years. Dickinson may well have read about it or even seen representations. Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson) mentions a Boston exhibition of English Pre-Raphaelites in 1857 that Massachusetts newspapers 'enthusiastically' reviewed. Although "Ophelia" wasn't shown, it may well have been included in discussions of the painters.

The poem opens breathlessly, the speaker intent on killing herself to prove what is revealed in subsequent stanzas to be her love. She bucks herself up by repeating her need to 'prove it' now. She repeats the 'now' twice, the second time separated by dashes for emphasis. She has to hurry lest the 'Scruple!', her sense of guilt, perhaps, undermine her intent. Death, she reminds herself, isn't usually available upon demand.
        It's an odd statement in general, but in particular it makes sense. A well-bred New England woman wouldn't be left to wander into dangerous situations. Nor would she affront her household with deadly self harm. But there would be rivers and seas – and what death could offer more poetic pathos than drowning? The body would hardly be marred and, as the speaker surely keeps in mind, the beloved may soon be standing remorsefully by the poor dead body.
        The second stanza brings a noticeable change of diction. The speaker details her death in a calm reflective tone as if the very act of entering the water has brought a sort of yearning peace. As yet she is only ankle deep in the water. Her heart is 'dry' –  both literally and figuratively. It needs quenching love; failing that, the river's balm. She calls out to her lover: I could not convince you of my love while I lived, she says, but perhaps my death will help you to understand. This is a heavy load of guilt.
        By the third stanza, the water has reached her heart. "Still – still –", she says, and this might refer to still waters or to her own accepting stillness. It likely also refers to her hands which are still raised above the water. She asks her beloved imploringly if he or she recognizes this as a signal of her love.
        It is this stanza that put me in mind of the painting. Maddened by her father's murder and Prince Hamlet's rejection and harsh accusations of duplicity, Ophelia finds her way to a 'babbling brook' and drowns. While Queen Gertrude describes the event as an accident, others suspect Ophelia committed suicide. Millais' Ophelia has an almost exalted expression; her hands are lifted, and the water has reached her breast. If there were a thought bubble escaping her lips I would expect to see this stanza.
        The final stanza is spoken from beyond death. The river has filled the speaker's mouth – drowning would soon follow. But she still addresses the beloved: "Remember," she says, that when I died, that when the water came pouring over my eyes it was you I saw at the very end. Dickinson uses the word 'quick' as if at the moment of death life quickened in her as she envisioned her beloved.

The peace and almost ecstatic tranquility of the end present a dramatic contrast to the first stanza which is pointedly poetically ugly. Beside the scrambled grammar and choppiness, the single-syllable words have no grace. The repeated "me's", "nows", and "proves" clash in their eeee, owww, and ooohs. "Scruple",  another oooh sound, is an ugly-sounding word (although it might be comical in other contexts). All together there is, if not a vindictive, a sort of pettiness to the desperation.
        The following stanzas with their longer lines, the much more graceful repetition of "The River reaches to my….", and the final line where the speaker dies filled with the vision of the one she loves all suggest that this death was better than the life left behind.

One alternate reading of this poem that others might prefer was expressed by Sharon Cameron (The Emily Dickinson Handbook, p.149). She describes the poem as the story of "the first frantic impulse to imminence of final submergence in the river, seemingly a response to her lover's earlier death by drowning n the Sea." In this reading the speaker would be reaching out yearningly to a dead lover and recalling witnessing his or her death. I also saw religious interpretations, from the speaker imploring a divine savior to a submergence into some Immanence.

12 comments:

  1. I hope you don't mind that I have linked to your beautiful site:
    http://rtcommonplace.blogspot.com/2017/02/reading-emily-dickinson.html
    Thank you.
    Tim

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    1. Thanks, Tim. Your own blog looks very engaging!

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  2. I like your reading best. Thank you for the Ophelia reference.

    ED gets a little maudlin at times -- she was a Victorian after all. This poem seems to be one of those times.

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  3. Excellent overview. Perhaps in the end she reaches out to embrace a new lover...death.

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  4. Can you comment further on her choice to use "me" instead of the subjective pronoun "I" in the first two lines. It bothers me so much that I cannot get past the first two lines to like this poem.
    Was it the poet's intent to sound like a fretful child stamping his foot? I don't think so because of the stanzas the follow. It's so out of place that I just don't get it.
    Lee Silverwood

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    1. I have the same problem, Lee. I decided to read it as an ellipsis -- as one must in many Dickinson poems: "Let me prove it now", for example. I think, then, that she intended the ellipsis to establish that initial tone of mad urgency.

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  5. I love this poem, you can really feel the anxiety in the frantic rhythm.

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  6. Have you seen the movie, A Quiet Passion? I am wondering what you and others think about the characterization of ED and her family.
    Speaking for myself, I was disappointed by historical inaccuracies that would have been revealed by any research at all on the part of the director and screenwriter. (At least the basic family relationships were laid out.) But, I thought Susan Gilbert was especially mischaracterized, although I need to add that I left the movie 45 minutes before it ended.
    On a positive note the film was visually remarkable.
    Lee Silverwood

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    1. I've heard from casual ED fans that they loved it. I've read various comments from scholars and academics that are rather miffed -- at best. Meanwhile, it hasn't come to the SF Bay Area yet! I don't think I'll see it -- unless you think the good outweighs the bad. I don't want a 'bad' image of ED stuck in my head. I remember how that really wonderful BBC 10-part series of Pride and Prejudice stuck a completely different Mr. Darcy in my head than what I'd conjured up myself. But I did find Lizzy better than my imaginings.

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    2. Maybe wait for Ken Burns to do it ...
      I really cannot recommend it, but these things are so subjective. I don't recall thinking that the characterization of Emily Dickinson herself is way off base. However, Susan Gilbert was reputed to be vivacious, intelligent, and an engaging conversationalist from what I have read and she was not portrayed that way.

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  7. After thinking this over for a while, I would say the portrayal of ED is not bad, but something is missing. I think her independent thought is there, and her unflinching convictions, but not the wit. Also, I think she was softer, more vague, more surprising, thank the actress captured. I would like to see Rooney Mara play ED.
    Lee

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  8. Oops. Correction: "...than the actress captured."
    Lee

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