If we didn’t know better we would think Emily spent most of her time going to funerals. And, in a way she did, at least in her mind since this poem isn’t about anyone who actually died, she’s only talking about how life is hard but in the end we’ll find a peace that no “schoolboy” can rob.
While I wouldn’t say this poem is a masterpiece my any stretch of the word, there is a sign of her genius mind at work buried in here. In the second stanza she utilizes the imagery of pray animals, the hare and the bird, who are hunted their entire lives and can only find peace in the next world. Then when we look at line three of the first stanza, she writes about a “faith that watched for star in vain” which alludes to someone who, while they pray everyday, do not find comfort in this life, just like the hare and the bird. What I think her instincts are focusing in on is the idea of the words pray and prey being connected and how “faith” is the only thing at work which keeps someone going in this life because as a prey / pray animal we will always be hunted and terrorized in this life and the star that we have faith in can only be seen after we’ve been hunted down by death. We are – to make a slight pun of it – pray animals and death is who hounds us, yet what death doesn’t know – like the petulant schoolboy – is that in death we are lead “gently” to the “star” (afterlife) . In other words, death is leading us to life, not actually killing us.
My footnote says she is making an allusion to Revelation 4:4 where the 24 elders sit around the throne clothed in white robes and golden crowns, “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and on the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.” My other notes say that the flower she is referring to is the Blue Gentian which blooms in the late summer / fall, thus after the rest of the garden has been “lost”. She connects these images with the faith of a life to come.
This poem is similar to “To lose – if One can find again” in that she is using the imagery of flowers which bloom at unusual and difficult times – in that poem it’s the Crocus who blooms when there is still snow on the ground – to talk about how nature gives us signs of hope and faith for the days / the life ahead. Yet unlike that poem, this poem revels in its fantastical imagery and creates an almost dreamlike state.
The first line of the poem is worth noting because of the unusual phrase “We should not mind”. At first it seems as if Emily is saying we should not pay attention to “so small a flower”, but since the whole poem is her minding the flower, then she must be up to something else. My guess is that she is talking about the act of tending the flowers and that she is saying we don’t have to mind them because they will take care of themselves: nature will care for itself and all things in the natural world will work themselves out for the best. There is also the connection to Revelation 4:4 which is a dreamlike (nightmare like) sequence in which the central character’s mind is guided by an external force to see what will come to pass. In other words he has set aside his own mind to allow a spirit to “behold” his visions. Thus she is suggesting that we put aside our own mind and our own plans and trust that things will work out according to a plan greater than we can manage or comprehend.
The biblical imagery runs deeper still with the line “Our little garden that we lost” which is a parallel to the Garden of Eden which we have lost. Thus she uses the very first imagery of the bible with the closing images of the bible to talk about endings and beginnings and how we should have “faith” in what will happen to us. In other words, though we have been kicked out of Eden, like the rainbow God sends Noah, the “flower” (the blue Gentian) is a reminder that all is not lost and that if we have faith we will return to the garden like the 24 kings in Revelation 4:4. She combines the imagery of faith and humanity with that of the natural garden which thus forms a complete circle in which all things are connected: we are as much a part of nature as we are spiritual.
The religious imagery continues with the word “Lawn” in that she isn’t just saying that the return of this “flower” will bring life back to the garden, but the word “Lawn” also refers to clothing, specifically linen and the name of the “fabric used for the sleeves of a bishop” (OED). Again, her use of Revelation 4:4 which describes the 24 kings robed in white is compared to the “Bobolinks” and the “Dandelions gold” which closes out the idea that if we keep the “faith” we will clothed in due time in heaven. Though the irony here is that in Eden we were naked, so perhaps there is a suggestion of the clothing not being literal but spiritual.
Formally, she has structured the poem rather purposefully in that the first stanza is quite literal: there is a flower blooming in her garden even though it is fall and the rest of the garden is asleep. The second stanza, however, is comparable to Revelation in that it is a dreamy, drunken image that reminds me of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in that it’s a fantasy image of nature. She is suggesting that when we gaze at the flower we too are provided with a revelation of things to come. And thus in the final stanza she gives us an image of heaven itself that is “clear behold”. Even the rhyme scheme with its slow building of ABCB then reaching up to DEFE and then finally getting to its goal with GHGH implies a hierarchy of images, each building on the last where the flower is a mortal reminder of the promise of life reborn, and in the second stanza we get a glimpse of that new life but only through a revelation while we are still alive, and finally an image of heaven itself in which we have all returned to nature.
The whole fete scene was really well done, but am I crazy for siding with Stepan Trofimovich’s speech about beauty being the most important thing in the world? I mean, yes, obviously people need food and shelter, I get that, but to not appreciate beauty, not appreciate art, to think only science and engineering is our fate, as if we are only worker bees seems – like the argument people would rather believe.
The standard reading of this is that she is writing about someone who has died. At the start she is crying (her eyes red with tears) and now this person is in heaven. However, there is another reading in that she is talking about the cycle of life and of memory and forgetting. In the first line she is born (“bore”), life fills her veins (“azure”), but in the end she’s forgotten.
Looking back at the previous poem, “They have not chosen me,” he said” Emily wrote about feelings of abandonment even though she has remained true. This poem expands on that emotion with its unusual ending question, “Of whom we’re whispering here?” Whom indeed are we “whispering” about? We know it’s a “she”, but we don’t know anything more about her and the poem has a ghost-like quality to it.
The first stanza can be read two ways. As I said above the standard way is to read this as an image of Emily crying over the death of someone. In this reading the “veins” on her hand stand out because she has the balled into fists and her “eyes” are “purple” from crying. Yet the word “bore” can mean more than her bearing the news of a friend’s death until she can’t hold it in anymore – in fact, why was she bearing something to begin with? Wouldn’t the news of someone you knowing dying cause you to be upset right away and not bear the news with no emotion?
This question of why she was bearing the emotion led me to think she might be talking about a cycle of life and that “bore” was really being born. Instead of her hands balled up in fists with grief, her “veins” are “traced Azure” as life enters her body (at birth). The first two words of the poem are “She bore” which can be read as she was born and life filled her body. Lines three and four then can be read not just as an image of her grief and crying, but of her maturity. This “pleading” is not just the “pleading” of someone begging someone to come back, but a “pleading” of being noticed, the way a young woman might wear makeup (“Crayons”) to be beautiful and plead that the person she lives will notice her. This ties back the being born not only in the way that she is being born into society as a woman who wants a lover, but there is a slight sexual connection with finding a mate and being born.
The second stanza deals with time passing. Since we were last left with an image of her “pleading” it would seem she was unsuccessful in matters of love and so her life was just a “sum” of “Daffodils” blooming and dying for years and years until she could no longer “bear it” (meaning the weight of life) and perhaps killed herself. The first lines of the poem allude to an unusual image of her giving birth to herself and here she can take her own life when she can no longer “bear it” because the pain of being forgotten by a lover is to great. Again, going back to the previous poem, “They have not chosen me,” he said” she has been dealing with people who are not as passionate towards her as she is to them, so if this is a continuation of that theme then it’s entirely possible she is alluding to suicide in this poem.
And it’s the third stanza which makes me think of ghosts and the Gothic with this almost supernatural image of a woman who is “No more” yet still seems to haunt the “village street” at “twilight”. Though Emily writes that she is no longer there, creates a hole in the environment where she used to be, an emptiness in that “village street” where a young woman once walked but now is only a memory. This is a clever way to write a ghost by describing what isn’t there to imply something that still haunts that place. Yet even if this poem is about someone else whom has died and Emily is describing the places her “patient” and “timid” friend used to be, there is still the sense of a haunting here because this is the memory Emily chooses to recall and is thus haunted by it.
The final stanza suggests she has gone to the afterlife – perhaps heaven, but it’s her use of the word “midst” which, again, is unusual. Whomever has died is not necessarily wearing a crown, rather she stands in their “midst so fair”, she is somehow both part of the scene and yet separate from everyone around her too, like being alone at a lively party – perhaps a gathering when someone you love is there but they don’t notice you, which recalls the first stanza.
And it’s the final line with its question asking “Of whom we’re whispering here” that is most intriguing because it suggests that the person who has died as been forgotten, or at least has gone unnoticed, even in a busy room full of “courtiers” (which could also be read as suitors which enforces the idea of a lover and an unrequited love). Yet in the end we have no idea who this person is and so she is like a ghost. She was born, life “traced” itself into her veins, but time passed and she died, and now nobody remembers her. She is a ghostly figure who passed through life unnoticed by those she loved and now live in an afterlife where she stands in the “midst” / mist but is forgotten there too. In fact, the final line could be the question asked by the object of the woman’s affection at the gathering when they are told someone is interested in them but their reply is “who?” (meaning, I don’t know them and I don’t really care).
I know this is an unusual reading of this poem, but her word choices of “bore” and “midst” and the ghost-like quality of the third stanza, as well as its relation to “They have not chosen me,” he said” seems to add up to much more than a simple story of some unnamed person that the poet describes as her grieving over. I think Emily sees herself as the object of this poem due to her feelings of abandonment in the previous poem.
This poem could also be called “The Prayer of the Fifth-Wheel”. Anyone who has been part of a group of friends consisting of couples while you are single has experienced the frustration of being left behind so that the couples can go off together. Emotions can range from jealousy to anger to depression and can leave a person feeling abandoned. I think Emily is expressing this here.
At the heart of the poem is a desire to be “chosen”, yet like Jesus who had “chosen” his apostles, they abandoned him at the darkest hour. In John 15: 16 Jesus says, ” You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” Emily seems to be saying that what she has is what will last and that if the person she feels abandoned by would just call upon her then all would be well.
It’s interesting that she is comparing the words Jesus spoke with her own feelings, though she admits that she hasn’t “dared” the way Jesus did in calling anyone out for their (supposed) failings. Emily suffers alone and can only share in the solace of her “Sovereign”, but she is able to speak through her poem.
And why is it that she is only speaking through her poetry? The previous poem, “For every Bird a Nest“, deals (perhaps) with her conflicted feelings about aspiring to greatness and fame through her poetry, or remaining humble and “modest” by staying true to the art and working without the temptations of vanity and personal glory. Emily seems to be constantly weighing the pros and cons of her actions and, because she has such a brilliant mind, she can see both sides of the issue and she seems to always err on the side of not making a fuss and remaining “modest”.
Yet a poem like this I believe expresses the desire in her for more, a desire to be seen and included and not allow people to abandon her. And while the results of her turmoil have been the fruits of genius poetry, it’s hard not empathize with her and her longing for something more personnel.
I also wonder if perhaps because she was someone with an intensity of feelings, that she might have been frustrated that others didn’t share the same feelings as her. Emily seems like she could hardly walk past the meekest flower without her heart reaching out to it, and maybe she expected others to feel the same way? Of course most people do not feel this intensely – at least not most of the time – and so she can make a comparison to Jesus who loved everyone intensely but whom wasn’t shown the same intensity of feeling at all times, especially when it mattered the most. Perhaps Emily just loved too much and was unable to understand why regular people are able to manage their emotions better.
I suppose this is the curse of the poet in that they can’t help but feel.
David Preest suggests this poem may be about Emily’s ambitions as a poet. She often writes about writing and as these poems were often private for her she was free to dream of the pleasures wrapped up in “Ah aristocracy!” Yet the poem has two poles: one where the “Wren” builds it nest perhaps “too high”, and the “modest” “Lark” who builds their nest on the ground. Thus perhaps Emily is trying to reconcile desire with humility.
Formally this poem is rather interesting, especially the rhyme scheme and her use of slant rhymes. The poem follows an AAB CCB structure through every stanza, yet the final 2 stanzas about the “modest” “Lark” who is “not ashamed” to build its nest “upon the ground” relies on slant rhymes to make it work, as if she were the Lark who was satisfied with the utility of the words to build her nest / poem and was not too choosy enough to make the fit perfectly as they do in the first four stanzas where the rhymes are perfect, except for “high” and “aristocracy” which might suggest the “Wren” reaching beyond its means.
The final stanza leaves the reader wondering which bird she is talking about: does she mean to suggest the Wren “Does so rejoice” the most, or is it the “Lark”? The use of the word “Yet” to begin the final stanza seems to imply that she is speaking about the “Wren” – the “yet” sets up a distinction from the Lark’s “modest” behavior and recalls us back to the “Wren”. Yet I think she is talking about both birds and what both birds seem to represent for her. While the “Wren” has airs for “aristocracy”, and the “Lark” is fine living on the ground, Emily ends the poem with an implied question of who does “rejoice” more as if she is unsure which bird she should model her own behavior after. Both have made their home and are comfortable to lay their eggs in their respective nests so they must both be good enough for each bird, but is one actually better?
Thus Emily may be struggling with her own ambitions as a writer in that while she writes modestly in her home and without (hardly ever) publishing, she also dreams of greater fame and recognition. Is it enough to work in secret without seeking vanity through fame, or should an artist share their work with the world and, as a consequence, have praise heaped upon them. Emily certainly knows she is talented enough as a poet – just consider the final stanza’s imagery of the birds (or the poet) “Dancing around the sun” which not only suggests the birds in the sky, but also our time on earth as we dance “around the sun” every year. She is suggesting we only have a brief amount of time, but that we should enjoy it, but there is even embedded in the poem the allusion to Icarus (through the aspirations of the “Wren” in stanza 3) who flew “too high” to the sun.
I wonder how much pain it caused her as she was wrestling with knowing that she was aware of her talents as a poet but not wanting to seem vain or, like the “Wren” aspiring “too close” to the sun.
This is a wonderful and charming poem where she walks about the “little beds” where the flowers will eventually grow in spring, but for the time are all tucked in into their winter beds and they all call out to her like children as she walks among them at bedtime. But she is also personifying herself as a natural maternal figure who is responsible for nature’s blooming.
My footnote claims Emily may have been inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, The Rhodora:
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods, Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook, To please the desert and the sluggish brook. The purple petals fallen in the pool Made the black water with their beauty gay; Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool, And court the flower that cheapens his array. Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why This charm is wasted on the earth and sky, Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing, Then beauty is its own excuse for Being; Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose! I never thought to ask; I never knew; But in my simple ignorance suppose The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
The lines “Then beauty is its own excuse for Being” and “the same-self power” are of specific relation to Emily’s poem in that we have a narrator who has come to the “little beds” to make sure everything is coming along OK during winter the way a mother would check on her children on a late and cold winter’s evening. Yet these are just wildflowers that are hidden away in some far away valley, so why is it important that anyone should care about these flowers?
Emily’s point is the same as Emerson’s in that “beauty is its own excuse for Being”, and not just “being” in the sense of living or just “being” somewhere, but with a capitol “B” which implies something far more spiritual, even cosmic. Emily uses the word “reverent” which is not only a show of deepest respect, but also implies that she is their “reverend” as in an authority of the church – the two words are closely related in that their early use in English meant that “they were not clearly distinguished ” (OED). Thus the flowers not only turn from their act of showing respect to their mother, but they literally turn their heads away from their reverend back towards their metaphorical pillows. In fact, Emily’s relationship to all of these flowers could be seen as her being like reverend, but more like mother nature. Emily is no mere wanderer who happens upon the “little beds”, she is responsible for them year round and her responsibilities not only include them, but even the “Bumble bees” who will arrive “When April woods are red”.
The most charming aspect of this poem, however is how she personifies the flowers as small children. In the first stanza she as “Whose are the little beds”, but, as children who are having a little fun would do they don’t answer her, but she can see them responding to her as they shake “their heads” while “others smiled”. I can clearly see the children tucked into bed with only their heads visible as they smile and nod. It’s an adorable image.
The second stanza continues this scene, but this time mother / Emily is more insistent in the way a parent is who requires an answer from her children but is also being playful . I almost imagine her being responsible for a sleepover and she is taking a roll-call to make sure nobody has been forgotten.
This leads into the third and fourth stanzas where we get a description of all the flowers / children’s names, many of which are used as a child’s name such as “Daisy”, “Iris”, and “Aster”. I especially like “chubby Daffodil” and though I’m not sure why, I get the feeling this one is Emily’s favorite – maybe it’s because it’s the only one that gets a highly descriptive adjective.
The fifth stanza reinforces the image of a gardener / mother / reverend tending to her flock of flowers / the sleeping children and her presence and actions has a soothing effect on all everyone. Since this poem would take place during winter before the flowers have bloomed, perhaps Emily thought to write this while being reminded of a particularly bad winter storm. Perhaps she imagined watching over a group of children who awoke when the storm was at its worse and it was her job to make sure everyone was reassured everything would be OK and that they were able to go back to sleep. “Epigea” may even have been particularly worried about the storm, as was the “Crocus” so Emily rocks them gently back to dreamland, the place Rhodora has gone where she’s “dreaming of the woods”.
The final stanza connects morning with the spring by saying that the “Bumble bee” will “wake them” when the sun is up and the storms have passed. What is interesting it that it’s not Emily however who will wake them, but rather the “bee”. Where does Emily go at the end of the poem? Is she watching over other children who need her soothing touch and “quaintest lullaby”? Perhaps she is saying that nature will look out for them and that all things will be as they should come morning and that everyone will be alright and their lives will go on as normal when the sun comes out and there is no more need to be afraid of the storm and the dark.
Emily wanted this poem to follow “An altered look about the hills” which dealt with rebirth and the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, yet this poem seems nearly devoid of God and Jesus and here there is no rebirth awaiting us, only the comforts of the grave. Perhaps the only faith she had was in nature?
I’m reminded of the poem she wrote about the little schoolgirl who died, “Taken from men – this morning“. In that poem she describes how far away that little girl is now, a “quaint” courtier in a “kingdom” which we can see as only a “dim” “border star” and the poem seems to be dealing with the grief Emily feels at never being able to see her again. In this poem, I image Emily is visiting the grave of that child and she is contemplating exactly what that “kingdom” really is: is it heaven, or is it only the “thoughtful grave”?
Matthew 10:29-31 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. Emily uses this image of the little sparrow and relates it to the child who was “too fragile for winter winds” but unlike Matthew, she seems to be saying that this creature has gone “unnoticed by the Father” and that Jesus has not been a shepherd to take her into his “fold”. In other words, she is writing from that place of grief where a person wonders if there even is a God and, if there is, has God forgotten their loved one. I wonder if Emily is having a crisis of faith in her grief, is she angry with God, or is she describing her unique philosophy of nature being the one true kingdom from which we come and which we shall return to?
The first stanza contains the remarkable line “The thoughtful grave” which can be read a couple of ways. At first read it seems as if she is saying that it is the grave which cares for us the way a mother cares for a child when she tucks them into a crib. The grave holds the body for all eternity and keeps it safe “from frost”. Yet another way to think of this line is that it is we who are the thoughtful in that as we stand at the grave we must consider the “treasures in her nest” and we must contemplate what will happen when we die.
The second stanza’s use of gender is worth noting because Emily describes the grave as a “she” (who does the tucking in), yet describes the “schoolboy” and the “sportsman” as not “bold” enough go into the grave and “expose” death. It’s unusual that she equates death and the grave with a woman, but it’s a wonderful contrast to the adventurous men who are not so brave as to uncover death’s mysteries. Even the bravest among us are not brave enough to “look” where death is.
The final stanza’s use of the word “covert” is another wonderful example of Emily using one word to do multiple things. “Covert” at first glance implies a secret, as in the secret of the grave, and it also means a shelter, as where a sportsman might go to flush out animals who are hiding, but the 5th OED definition of “covert” means the “feathers that cover the bases of the larger feathers on some particular part of the body”. These hidden feathers which can’t be easily seen (hidden / “covert”) is related to the “thoughtful grave” which protects from the “cold” the way a mother does when she is “tenderly tucking” in her child. These feathers also relates back to the sparrow which she is using as the central metaphor, but also in how she equates spirituality with nature and not necessarily a Christian God.
As I read through each of Emily’s poems everyday I learn something new about her, and this poem took me by surprise when I read the line “Sparrows, unnoticed by the Father” because it felt to me as if she was saying that God does not notice everyone and that all that is waiting for us is the “treasures” of the grave. And this stood out for me because it’s such a human poem, a poem filled with doubt and mystery, but also the desire to be comforted and a philosophy about life and death that is not morbid, but quite beautiful in that we are all part of a natural world, and death is a part of that world and though death is scary to think about (as we stand at someone else’s grave being”thoughtful”), there is a treasure there, not just in the fact that whom is buried there is a treasure to us, but that death is a treasure just as life is, it’s just that it’s a mystery that nobody alive is “bold” enough to truly investigate, to truly spend the time being “thoughtful” about because it is a terrifying prospect and one we will all face when death is ready for us too.
The story of Nicodemus is about rebirth and being reborn and Emily describes in detail how beautiful the world is when seen anew and at springtime. Yet there is also an interesting aspect to this conversation at work in this poem that is buried in the subtext and it deals with her use of the word “furtive” as well as “Chanticleer” (as from Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale).
The first line of the poem can be read quite literally that there is “an altered look about the hills” in that the “hills” look different, but because she is alluding to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, this can also be read that one should look at the “hills” in a new way – in other words, there is an element at work here of one being instructed to something in a new way. Perhaps because it’s her use of “look about” which not only means there is something “about” the “hills” that is “altered”, but also one should “look about” the “altered hills”. Finally, this line also works really well as a title since what she’s giving us is “an altered look about the hills”.
The second line mentions the city of “Tyre” a prosperous city (that God will one day destroy), but here Emily is alluding to how one can profit by being reborn. I suppose you could say she making a subtle economic pun, but her use of the word “light” also creates an image of a golden city shining with golden morning sunlight (the next line deals with a “sunrise” after all) and so light – as in the golden “light” of God – is mixed with the profit of gold. Thus one can become rich by being born again.
Lines three and four not only convey the passage of time, but also move the image from the scale of a city – Tyre – to the more personal of one’s “lawn” in their yard when families gather in the warm evening to gather and play.
Lines five and six deal with the vibrant colors of spring and rebirth, yet she personifies this image with the use of “foot” and “finger”. Perhaps she is alluding to the feminine quality of nature as personified by mother nature, or perhaps she is implying the image of a person walking through a field of “vermilion” and then plucking a “purple” flower with their “finger”. Either way, the image of flowers as “purple” fingers is quite beautiful, but also playful since there is embedded in this image the idea of being beckoned towards this beauty the way Jesus gently beckons Nicodemus towards his teachings.
Lines seven and eight are related in that the “fly” and the “spider” are always related, but the “fly” is described as “flippant” which could be related to her later use of “furtive” in that Nicodemus is asking a question he should know the answer to. In John 3:4, Nicodemus asks Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” but he would know that Jesus wasn’t being literal so either he’s asking because he’s wondering if this Jesus fellow is a bit daft, or he making Jesus clarify exactly what a spiritual rebirth is. The “spider” and “fly” association is important here because though there is a somewhat sinister aspect to that relationship, it could also be read as the “spider” keeping the “flippant” “fly” from getting too far away. It could be read as Jesus being the “spider” and Nicodemus being the “flippant fly”.
Of most interest to me in this poem, however, is her use of the word “Chanticleer”. In Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, she tells the story of Chanticleer who had a dream about a fox but was told by his wife not to worry about it, then later encounters the fox who tries to eat him, but is able to escape by playing on the fox’s pride. Chanticleer is literally in the jaws of death – as the “flippant fly” is when trapped in spider’s web – but is born again when he uses his intelligence to save himself. This is what Jesus is telling Nicodemus to do in order to be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven.
But if we continue with Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, he describes the fox in that poem as “A col-fox, ful of sly iniquitee” (inequity). Emily in her poem uses the word “furtive” to describe a “look you know so well”. What is this “look”? Is it death? The first line of the poem speaks about an “altered look”, so is this “furtive look” related to the way we used to look at the world before we were saved? Embedded in the poem are some subtle reminders of death, such as the “spider” weaving its web for the “fly”, the “axe” swings not only for the tree but also for “Chanticleer’s” neck, and Tyre which will one day be razed by God’s wrath, so perhaps she offering a warning about the person who does not alter their way of looking at the world before it is too late?
The poem ends with her describing how salvation can be seen in nature each spring: “its annual reply” to the question of will winter ever end, but she combined the images of nature with that of the spiritual realm and of being reborn to be saved. A lesser poet would have left it just at that, a simple poem about nature’s rebirth, yet here she mixes in passages from the Bible, a possible allusion to Chaucer, and the unusual concept of accepting the kingdom of heaven thought the appreciation of nature which will one day be destroyed by God.
What I find interesting here is that she is addressing her soul as if it is a separate entity with which she is struggling with. I imagine she was investigating why her soul sometimes does the right thing but then sometimes allows the “caucus” of “Imps” to have their way and lead her astray. She’s asking why can’t we be good all the time and why is it so hard to resist evil.
As is often the case with her poems, the key is usually in the first line, especially with a single word. In this case she uses the word “Wilt” to pull double-duty. At first glance “Wilt” is a contraction of ‘will it’, as in ‘will it [my soul] toss again’, but “Wilt” is also what happens to a flower as it withers. Imagine our souls as a single flower in a vase that if not well tended eventually starts to droop away from the sun. Emily compares her soul (and herself) to flowers in many poems, so it seems reasonable she is playing on this theme.
The next word that stands out is “toss”, and here we can think of it in a couple of ways. If we recall the poem “We lose – because we win” she talks about gamblers tossing their “dice” but coming up short. I compared this to the Roman soldier casting lots for Jesus’ garments, which is to say that though eternal salvation was right there on the cross before them, they chose instead to play a game of chance. In other words, the soldiers made a poor choice and that leads to another reading of the word “toss” to mean that she is exploring why her “Soul” isn’t always constant and tends to “Wilt” like an untended flower.
The second stanza reminds me of the old cartoon trope where an angel sits on one shoulder and a devil sits on the other as they try to convince the protagonist what the best course of action is. Here she compares this to politics in which the “Angels” and “Imps” are having an election for her “Soul”. And the adjectives she chooses to use are worth noting because the “Angles” in this poem are “breathless” as if they are silent and silently hoping she will do the right thing but the “Imps” are more active because they are “eager” as they “Raffle”. There is a sense that evil is far more industrious than good and that it is always working against the “Soul” like how nature works against the lone flower in a vase as it slumps towards the ground. The angels here “[linger]”, but the “Imps” are gathered in a “caucus” which recalls the noisy and messy process of electing a politician.
So something is on Emily’s mind and she seems to feel like she is caught in the middle of either making a good decision or making a poor one. Perhaps this is why she was in a bad mood in her previous poem, “Heart not so heavy as mine“?
Hearing someone whistling as they pass under her window she is soothed by their joy and she hopes they will pass by again tomorrow night to once again lift her “heavy” heart. Of course the passerby would have no idea that their little happy ballad was bringing someone joy – such are the unintended consequences of our actions making others happy.
Emily does not explain why her “Heart” is “so heavy”, we only get the experience of her describing how the stranger has lightened her day. This is worth noting because she is not dwelling on herself or her problems, she is instead open to others and to the possibility that she will be made happy. Emily is not dwelling on sadness here, she wants joy and she finds it in even the smallest of moments that would otherwise pass by without anyone noticing, like the “minutes” on a clock. This theme of valuing even the smallest beauty is something she loves to explore, such as in “By Chivalries as tiny“.
The first stanza is quite beautiful because she does not describe two people, rather she describes two hearts. She does not refer to the whistler as a he or a she, but rather “itself”, as if the hart was like Gogol’s Nose walking about free of any constraints. By not grounding the poem in literal imagery but instead by implying that hearts and spirits are freely “Wending” their way about town, the image is dreamy and purely emotional. Even her use of the word “Wending” contributes to this dreaminess because instead of using the word ‘winding’, the sound of the word ‘when’ can be hear, rather than ‘whine’, and so there is a longing quality to her happiness that she gives this heart as it passes by her “window”.
The second stanza recreates the whistling she is able to catch in short bursts as it passes by and the stanza resolves itself with the softness of the word “anodyne” which juxtaposes to the earlier harshness of the word “snatch” and the staccato quality of “Ditty of the street”. The first two lines recreate who she feels – her heart is heavy and she is “irritated” – and so at first everything she hears irritates her “ear”, but by the end of the stanza she has been soothed and the gentleness of the word “anodyne” has the soothing sonic quality of the pleasant whistling she hears outside.
She connects this beautiful and joyful sound into the song of the “Bobolink” who, along with the passerby, is “Sauntering”. Yet the Bobolink’s song is quite hectic and she describes it as “bubbled”, as if it were a fast moving “brook” of sound travelling past her and so we have some competing images that at first don’t seem to fit together. First she connects the “anodyne so sweet” to that of the bubbling “Bobolink”. This image connects her troubled heart with the joyful sound of the whistler. Emily is still in a mad mood, but she is being cured as the poem goes on.
Yet she isn’t immediately cured of her heavy heart the moment she hears the whistling, rather the poem describes the process of her being cured and so joyful sounds are combined with the hectic yet joyful sound of the “Bobolink”. She next connects the song of the bird with that of a brook that “bubbled” as if her troubles (her “bleeding feet”) were being soothed and the pain carried away downstream. In each instance she uses a line break to connect these images as if she were taking a moment to listen to the whistler and allow the sound to slowly work on her. Thus the magic is working in the blank spaces of the poem where time passes. She enforces this image of time passing not only with the image of a “brook”, but the use of the word “minutes” which not only is a measurement of time, but also can just mean “something small” (OED). Thus her troubles are made less burdensome as she listens to the passerby pass by her window and the sound of the whistling enters her window then slowly fades away into the night.
Once again she uses the line break to convey the passage of time and by the last stanza the “Wending” “heart” has passed and she is left to “pray” that it will pass by again “Tomorrow”. Just as quickly as the sound entered her window it is gone again, and we are once again in her silent room hoping along with her that the traveler will return: which they do when we reread the poem.
Emily would rather be clothed with the fashion of nature than put on the best that Paris, Venice, or the “Duke of Exeter” has to offer. For her the natural world is enough and to attract a “Bumblebee” is honorable enough work as opposed to putting on airs. She even goes as far as to say that such fashion is “an ambuscade”: a trap that just wastes your time, money, and well being.
Emily begins the poem with the verb “astray” which informs us of her philosophy towards this subject of worldly fashion vs nature. At first this seems a little confusing because it implies that she is saying the “seraphs” (the little / “Pigmy” flowers) have gone astray and are somehow in error, but this isn’t what she means. She’s setting up a complicated image of fallen angels who clothe themselves against their natural nakedness with worldly fashion against the image of these “Pigmy seraphs” who are angels on earth that live as flowers under the roof and shelter of heaven.
She reinforces this duality by going on to describe select societies in the first stanza, the “Velvet people from Vevay” (Switzerland on Lake Geneva which is still a very, very nice neighborhood), “Belles” as in belles of the ball but also another way to describe a flower), and the “Bees” who are part of a “Coterie” or an exclusive society which not only describes actual bees, but can also stand in for people who work and labor. Thus she uses each image to pull double duty: one that represents the good and natural world and one that represents the worldly and mortal world of unnatural fashion.
The first four lines of the second stanza describe the fashion industry of “Paris” and (I assume) some fine makeup products on one’s “cheek” from “Venice”. Yet she says these are false things and are “an ambuscade” and if we recall the image of the “seraphs” who have “gone astray” she recalls the image of the fallen angel (Satan) who, because of the sin of pride, is trapped in his own evil thinking into believing he is worthy enough to be heaven’s heir, not Jesus. Thus she is alluding to all this false fashion as being akin to the sin which caused Satan and his crew to be kicked out of heaven.
In the final stanza she describes what she would “rather wear” as opposed to that of what the rich and royal own. For her, attracting the honest “Bumblebee” wearing only a “briar and leaf” is plenty enough for her than “an Earl” or the “Duke of Exeter” attracting all his little attendants and servants and serfs the way Satan attracted one-third of the host of heaven (according to Milton, anyway).
Yet it is her combining of images to both describe the natural and the worldly that implies that within each of us there is a duality pulling at our souls: we can either live naturally and be like “Pigmy seraphs” who have “gone astray” in that we are like the angles who live like “Roaylty enough” here on earth, or we can really go “astray” and be like the worst of the fallen angels and cover our bodies with false pretenses and false authority in order to reign in hell.
While she’s writing mostly about looking at the flowers and being filled with “contra” feelings: joy (“transport”) and perhaps grief (“trouble”), these flowers could stand in for people too, especially the soldiers who were still heading off to fight in the (US Civil) war. The image of the “Daisies” that “blow” upon the hillside reminds me of a bugle and a cemetery for the fallen boys.
The word “Well” in the first line is an unusual word choice. At first glance it has the affect of her being unsure about what she wants to say or what she is actually feeling. This is supported by the third line where she describes how the flowers can “transport” her but also “trouble” her and she’s having a difficult time reconciling these “contra” emotions.
But the word “Well” alludes to so much more than indecision. In the previous poem, “Have you got a Brook in your little heart“, she might be talking about the act of writing (creating art) and her “Brook” is the ink which flows from her pen. Thus the “Well” here might be the inkwell which holds the potential for her with which to draw upon and write a poem. When combined with the possibility that she is uncertain about her feelings, this usage of the word could be her calling out to her “Well” for some inspiration. The word is separated by two dashes as if she needs to address this “Well” individually and specifically from the rest of the line.
To continue down the well (pun very much intended), she is plumbing the depths of her feelings about these flowers (or her own poems if we take flowers to mean her poems) and what she sees in the well is not only the water one needs to survive (previously she wrote of her “little brook of life“) but that the well from which one draws upon is also an uncertain place, a literal hole deep in the ground, a portal to the afterlife of which the dead travel. The idea of the earth giving and taking life is common in her poetry and in this poem she connects the image of water to ink (‘fountain”), her emotions to a well, and thus is confused by how her emotions compete within her for what these flowers / poems mean: are they beautiful, are the troubling?
My footnote states that this is one of her published poems in the publication Drum Beat on 2 March 1864. Drum Beat raised money for the Union Army so parents and soldiers would have been aware of it and what was published inside would probably have been articles, stories, and poems that glorify the boys going off to war, celebrate the survivors of battles, remembrances of those who fell in battle, and otherwise content which would soothe and bring contentment to worried parents and soldiers. Yet Emily’s poem is one filled with uncertainty which is often the biggest enemy to a soldier in battle. Not knowing if the flowers are beautiful or not could mean the flowers will either adorn the victorious in battle, or adorn their graves after the battle. For a young person to read this before heading off to war might leave someone unsettled.
Her line “Too much pathos in their faces” might then not only refer to her looking at the blossoms of the flowers, but of the boys as they march off to what could be their doom and she is unable to look at them without feeling conflicted: she wants to celebrate these young men, but she also knows they might not be coming back and is saddened. Thus she wishes to be more simple like the “Butterflies from St Domingo” who don’t trouble themselves with such complex emotions and only see the good and the beautiful.
But I believe she is also, once again, writing about writing as she did in the previous poem, yet here she understands that her art is both beautiful but also troubling and that she might wish she could just write something nice to placate the readers of a publication like Drum Beat. But she can’t because her “breast” (her heart) is too simple because it feels too much (and is thus not simple, hence the contradictory feelings that live in it) and thus is a “Well” filled and almost overflowing with the waters (emotions) of uncertainty. In other words, she sees something so beautiful that it makes her cry.
Emily is talking about the danger of having either too much or too little in the place in your life where you draw upon for strength and hope – in other words, your well spring, or perhaps your well-being spring. She doesn’t say what exactly this place is – it’s not actually a brook – but for each of us we have that secret place inside all of us that is like our garden.
What is interesting about this poem is how she describes this “Brook” as “little” and follows it up with the adjectives “bashful”, “blushing”, and “tremble”. She creates the image of this “Brook” as being delicate, easily frightened, and something that requires great care and tenderness to maintain. When we look in the OED, we learn that “Brook” as a verb can mean “to enjoy the use of, make use of, profit by; to use, enjoy, possess, hold” and she relates this to the “heart”, not just physically if we imagine the blood flowing through the brook-like channels of the heart’s circulation, but also in relation to our spirit. Yet this well being must be carefully tended.
In the second stanza she describes how this place is a secret place from the outside world because “nobody knows”, yet this is somewhat ironic because she is saying we all have this place, but it’s a secret from everyone too. She continues this puzzling aspect of something everyone has as also being something “nobody knows” with the word “still” which can mean that it is “still” there regardless of it being a secret, but also in the sense of it being “still” as in it not moving, or at least not moving fast enough for anyone to notice.
Another way to think of this idea of a secret that everybody knows “nobody knows” and of it being “still” yet moving is to think of a poem, such as “Water, is taught by thirst“, which is one of my favorites (but any poem you love will work). This poem is common knowledge since anyone can read it, but it is a secret to you because of how much it means to you when it might not mean the same (or anything at all) to someone else. The poem is also “still”, not just in the sense that it is a “still” object but that it is always there on the page and yet it moves you whenever you read it.
And if we push the idea that the thing she is talking about is a poem (or art more generally), then in the third stanza she builds upon the metaphor of a “Brook” being a place of joy for our heart by transforming the poem into a poem about the importance of maintaining our “little brook”. Emily has many times talked about how we should value even the smallest things that mean something to us, such as in “By Chivalries as tiny“, and here she explains why this is important because they are delicate and require great care. In this sense she is also talking about the act of creation, such as creating a work of art, and this poem describes the process as she builds it up one line at a time, as if each line were a little brook and secret world unto itself, and she also describes the dangers of letting it overflow with a torrent of spring floods or an overabundance of energy in the “burning noon” of life’s “August” which, incidentally, is not just the month, but also means “to ripen” and bring to “fruition” (OED).
So one reading of this poem can be that she is writing about writing, and we can imagine the “little brook” as the ink running from the pen to the paper, but if there is too much energy then the ink will run too fast and the poem will overflow and destroy the image of a timid brook by becoming a flooded mess on the page which is unreadable, yet if we neglect our art and let the ink dry, then nothing will flow from our pen and we will be unable to express what is in our heart.
On the surface she is writing about how we appreciate something even more in its absence – we love water when thirsty, and we miss the ones we loved when we stand at their grave (“memorial”) – but the way each image is connected within the poem speaks to a unity that brings everything together and creates an image not of loss but of nothing ever truly being lost or left wanting.
The first line introduces a sense of wanting that is felt by the body: being thirsty. While water is necessary to all life, it is strictly a biological need that all living things require but is not a need that one would consider philosophical, it is strictly utilitarian. In this sense it is the most basic of needs and one that we can go the least amount of time in its absence and thus we are continually being “taught” by thirst since we are perpetually in a state of being thirsty. There is also some subtle wordplay here with “taught” which can be read as ‘taut’, being stretched by, thus giving us a physical description of being thirsty as if our tongues were taut with thirst.
The second line expands her metaphor from out of the individual’s body to encompass the whole physical world which contains every body. All people require a home (on dry “Land”) but on a deeper level we miss our “Land” when we are no longer in it: being homesick. She implies this sense of missing out “Land” with the image of “Oceans passed” as if we were on a train or travelling along the coast as the ocean rolls past as we make our way to a new, distant “Land” but all the while we think of the “Land” we are leaving behind.
She enforces this image of movement in the third line with “Transport” in which she connects the idea of being physically transported (as on a journey far from our “Land”) to the use of the word emotionally, as in being transported by joy or by pain, which she describes as a “throe”. She has moved the poem inward from describing those things which we physically can’t do without (“water”, “Land”) to the things we emotionally can’t do without and which causes us pain when we are separated from (as when we miss our loved one) but that we might not truly appreciate until we are separated from them.
The fourth line combines the previous images into the idea of conflict and war compared to peace. Perhaps the reason why someone might be on the road and far from home is because they are a refugee or have been conscripted into the Navy and are “Oceans passed” home on the other side of the world, surrounded by strangers, surrounded by undrinkable salt water, and desperately homesick.
The fifth line connects to the fourth, but is from the point of view of the person who missed them but, perhaps never came home and all that is left is the “memorial mold”. My footnotes tell me that “mold” is Emily’s way of describing a photograph – of which her father did not yet have one of her unlike the rest of the family – but the word implies more than a molded memorial, such as a cast bust of someone. Rather, it also implies ‘mould’ as in the topsoil or the ground where someone is buried which then also implies the image of a gravestone, but also “mold” as in decay and time past as well as the mold that gathers on our emotions when we for too long take for granted something we should have paid closer care to, such as the memory of a friend who left home long ago – perhaps to sail across the “Oceans” but never returned and only now, as we stand at their grave, do we understand how much we miss them and how much we loved them.
In the final line she again uses the image of the bird which she commonly uses in her poems to describe faith, such as in “Once more, my now bewildered Dove“. But this image of a bird also implies the emotional state of the person standing at the “memorial mold” as their longing flies out across the abyss of death (she commonly refers to death with winter imagery; here it’s “snow”) to connect to the person on a spiritual level, perhaps to ask for forgiveness for having forgotten them or not loving them enough when they were still alive and back home in their “Land”.
Thus she moves the poem from the purely physical level, as with “water”, to the spiritual sphere which transcends both life and death and consists chiefly of our emotional state. And by using images which connect to each other: “water” is to the “Oceans” and upon the oceans people are “transport” (both physically and emotionally) and the people are transported to “battles told” and this telling brings back news of the dead whom we build a “memorial mold” at which we stand as our prayers are like “Birds” who fly over frozen wastes of death (“snow”) towards heaven in hopes that the dearly departed will hear our prayers and be comforted by our grief and our remembrances. And it is in this contentedness which gives us hope that we are not truly lacking anything or anyone, we are all connected for all eternity, but sometimes that connection is physical, sometimes it is spiritual and emotional.
This is a spectacular poem and is in the running for my favorite.
The imagery of the poem is quite beautiful with how she moves from the “Daffodil” to the “yellow bonnet” and carries that into the yellow of the “bees” contrasted to the green of the “Clover” and even hints at the drunken color with “sherry” (cherry colored). But it’s her use of the implied mythology behind the “Daffodil” as being related to Narcissus and her exploration of borrowing a “flower” that I find the most interesting.
The poem begins with her assuming someone wants to “buy a flower” from her. Her use of “Perhaps” is not a definite statement, so we have the image of the narrator making an assumption as to the intentions of whom they are addressing. The second line plays coy with whomever is being addressed by saying she “could never sell”, yet it’s possible she hasn’t even been asked yet, rather is only assuming this transaction is what is wanted from her. What I’m getting at here is that if you think about a time you feel you’ve looked quite good and you want someone (or everyone) to notice you – perhaps you bought some new clothes or got a great new haircut and you want to show off – but you don’t want someone to actually take you up on the offer, you just want to be noticed and then have everyone move on with their day.
This all has to do with appearances, and this is why I think the image of the “Daffodil” is important to the poem in its relationship to the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus loved having people want him, but he did not want to actually be had, he just wanted the ego boost of people telling him how beautiful he was. Later he drowned when he feel in love with his reflection because he was basically drunk with his own self-love. This poem is operating along similar lines in that it is a facsimile of the real thing, in this case spring time. A “flower” will bloom in the spring when the “Daffodil / Unties her Bonnet” and when “the Bees” get drunk (“Hock” is wine) on pollen, but the narrator in this poem already has a flower before spring has come – it is, like the reflection Narcissus fell in love with, not the real thing, it’s a facsimile, a reflection of spring that someone can “borrow” in winter, but you better not fall in love with it because it’s an empty object just like the reflection in a pond.
The poem ends with her saying she will gladly lend this “flower” but come spring when the real flowers appear, she must have it back at the very “hour” before their arrival. She does not say what will happen if she does not get it back, but Narcissus wound up killing himself over his reflection, so it’s implied something terrible will happen is she does not get her flower back.
Another way to think of this poem is that she is saying her own poem is not a substitute for actual spring, it’s only words on a page and that the real beauty is in going out to the garden and watching the bees drunkenly buzz about the daffodils. Yet the riddle here is that without poetry, how would we be able to put words to the beauty we see? It is poetry which gives meaning to the flowers and the bees and springtime and without it our lives would not be as rich. Thus the reflection we see in the pool is important because it allows us to understand the beauty of reality, but we must be careful to not go too far otherwise we will miss the importance of reality and only value the reflection.
I imagine someone has given her a flower “or a book” and that kind gesture of gift giving brings a smile to her face when she is alone at night. This is a very sentimental poem, but it’s very personal since someone did something which meant a lot to her and that made her happy.
What’s interesting, however, is that she describes this happiness occurring “in the dark”, long after the gift was given. She does not write about the moment the gift was given to her and the joy it brought her when she was face to face with whomever gave it her (assuming it was given to her in person), rather she imbues the object with the memory of that event and with the sentiment of the thoughtfulness that went into giving her this “tiny” gift. And this might seem like a trivial point because of course people have memories attached to the gifts that have been given to them.
But I think this is worth exploring a little bit more because what Emily is writing about is how she creates her own reality. A book, or a flower, are just objects with no meaning in and of themselves. Most books and flowers spend their entire existence without any meaning given to them. Yet when someone comes along and picks a flower which they give to a lover or a friend, or when we go to a bookstore to buy a gift for someone special, the object becomes more than just a simple book or flower, a memory is attached to it and the two are linked forever. Our reality is altered because whenever we look at that book or flower, we don’t only think of the object, we also think of the person who gave it to us, the day we received it, possibly what the weather was like and what our feeling were about the gift giver. It is in these moments that we build our reality up one object and one memory at a time.
I know this might seem like a terribly obvious point to make because it’s something we all do all the time, but I do think it is important to consider how we see the world, especially when we find ourselves “in the dark” and can no longer see the objects which make up our life and can only rely on memory.
This theme of valuing something, even something simple, is one she has explored before in “I had a guinea golden” where she discusses how being careless about how we value something (or someone) can lead to a friend becoming a traitor.
At first glance, this is a very funny poem, and it reminds me of Tom Toro’s famous New Yorker cartoon (Jan 30, 2015) where a businessman in a suit is sitting around a campfire with some children after civilization has collapsed and he’s explaining that while it’s unfortunate the world was destroyed, for a brief moment he helped create a lot of value for shareholders.
The footnote in my edition of Emily’s poems explains she wrote this a year after the Panic of 1857, a financial crisis that effected her father when Amherst’s railroad company went bankrupt. The poem is filled with the language of finance, such as “option”, “enterprise”, “stocks”, “Commerce”, “Trades” and she compares the industry of the “Birds” and the “Bees” with the “sprightly / Conduct” of “gentlemen” who keep the financial institutions afloat.
My first reading of the poem picked up on a surface level of cynicism in which she is juxtaposing the industry of nature with the money chasing of human business which doesn’t actually produce anything. Emily ascribes to nature the value of a bird building, a bee bustling, and the sun beaming and burning, while she ascribes to “gentlemen” the act of “Trades” flying and “Commerce” continuing. At first glance it appears she is valuing nature over earthly affairs which will come to end once we “die”.
She also writes two unusual lines in the middle of the poem, “One might depart at option / From enterprise below” which separates the natural imagery above with the worldly business below. An option, in financial terms, is an agreement for the right (not the obligation) to buy (or sell) something at a future time for a set and predetermined price. For example, if Emily were writing today and a film producer wanted to turn her poems into a film, the producer could option her work for the right to do so. Yet in this poem she seems to be comparing the right to option stocks with our own souls.
Her line “enterprise below” alludes to what happens to us when we die: we go into the ground and, perhaps onto an afterlife, but it also directly points to the lines that are written literally “below” this one in the poem. And she uses the “option” in reference to when a person will “depart” this world, as if someone has bought the option to our souls and on a day of their choosing they come to collect.
Thus she is comparing life to a transaction in the stock market of life, and on my subsequent readings of the poem I felt she wasn’t being purely cynical about “gentlemen” wasting their time with ephemeral affairs that hold no real value (though that does exist here since she relates “below” to death as well as finance), but that she is also saying that the industry of humanity is that of finance and options just as much as the “Bees” and the “Birds” have their own work to do which, one day, will also be forgotten when they die. Yet life will go on after we no longer are alive. Our descendants will continue to busy themselves with earthly affairs while we, in our graves with our “Daisies” go on about the business of being dead. In other words, it’s all relative.
And I also don’t think Emily would have been as cynical as to think the financial opportunities her father was involved in were time wasted – she, and the rest of her family would depend on that money to live and thrive, and besides, these affairs wold have been important to her father so I doubt her relationship with economics would have been simply cynical or her attitude towards her father’s loss in the railroad company simply as her not caring about him or it.
What I think she is trying to say is that we should have some perspective on life. While alive we, like the “Bees” must get on with our affairs, even if it is as silly as buying and selling “options”, but that we should remember that these affairs will only be important to us for the brief time we are alive and that the “enterprise below” will then be important to us when we leave this mortal realm.
Not all of Emily’s poems have to be serious meditations on death, the afterlife, and the soul, they can also be how annoyed the poet is that their father raps on their door at 3am, long before the sun has come up, and seriously disturbs her sleeping. I love her sense of humor here, especially since this is addressed to her friend Susan whom she is sort of venting to.
But there is good poetry here, too.
The first stanza is a declaration of what Emily believes the purpose of sleeping is, and you can feel her slight annoyance with having to even bother to explain this to anyone – her father in this case. Though Emily was 28 when she wrote this, you can still sense the willful, almost teenage attitude here as she explains to her father how things ought to be.
The second stanza drops the attitude and she paints a rather beautiful image of the “hosts” (I assume she is describing the angels who watch over us) down on their hands (and knees) as they keep an eye on us while we sleep. This is a rather lovely image of being watched over when we are vulnerable, but it also carries the tiniest hint of a barb back at her father by implying that his job is to protect her while she sleeps, not wake her up at all hours of the night before the sun has come up.
The third stanza is similar to the first in that it’s a clear declaration of what the morning “Morn” is supposed to be. Again, you can almost image Emily standing before her father and explain in that way only a young woman who is annoyed can do about what things mean and how someone ought to be behaving.
The line “Morning has not occurred!” – here in my edition printed as an individual line separate from the other stanzas – could almost be the empathetic plea to her father to stop waking her up before the sun has risen. This very well could be a direct quote from her confrontation with her father.
The final stanza, as with the second, is another beautiful image which is full of color and light. She uses the word “Aurora” to describe the dawn, and she paints the sky with the “red” clouds in the morning sky (or perhaps this is a wordplay of “array” as in the red rays – ray / array / a ray of the sun). She even describes the morning breeze as the “banner gay” which gives the poem a sense of movement and vitality in the morning when the sun is rising and giving light to the world.
But she makes her point with the final line, much in the way a person stamping their foot on the ground when they try to explain something to someone who is exacerbating them with her use of italics on the word “That” and carries her annoyance further with the word “break” to describe not only the breaking of the dawn, but also the breaking of her peace and quiet of sleep, and the breaking of her patience with her father.
This is wonderful poem, full of Emily’s personality and a glimpse into the daily life of her household. I wonder what Susan must have thought when she read this?
I wonder if Emily had heard news of one of the local school children dying and this is the poem she wrote in remembrance of the little girl? What is unusual about this poem is she uses the word “Gods” and “kingdoms” (plural) rather than singular. I wonder if this is her way of expressing that our fate after death is not limited to just one possibility, but an eternity of possibilities?
The first stanza deals with the two sorts of taking that happens when someone dies. In the first line, Death is the one who has “taken” a life from “men” (humanity). The second line deals with the “men” who have “carried” the body to the grave to be buried. We don’t yet know whom has been taken, but we feel the sadness of the “men” when we read the line “in mourning” (mourning) enjambed into the next line “carried by men today” so that it can be read as the “men” carrying their mourning (“morning”). This simple enjambment creates the image of the funeral procession and the emotional quality of the people involved.
The third line is where the poem becomes more complicated because she uses the word “Gods”, not God, to describe who is the one that has “marshalled her away”. Though we now know the person how died is a “her”, it’s curious that we have two plural images: “Gods” and “banners”. The use of “marshalled” is also unusual in that it’s evokes military order as in the phrase marshaling the ranks into order.
While I do not know what Emily’s intent with the plural and militaristic language was, I get the (personal) impression that she is suggesting that this “one little maid” be ushered away from this mortal realm into the afterlife with as much honor as would be given a fallen and famous military hero. This “little [mind’s]” life is just as worthy as a soldier who served on the battlefield and so she should be given the same dignity and respect in death because all lives are precious and worthy of honor.
The other issue of the usage of plurals is that Emily might not be referring to multiple Gods, but that she is inside the minds of the “men” at the funeral and she is imagining how each of us has a different relationship and idea of what God might be. In Christianity there is only one God, but each person has a personal relationship with the God so for each person God is a unique and different being. Thus each person at the funeral is imagining a unique idea of what the afterlife will be like for this “little maid”.
The second stanza describes whom has died: “One little maid”, “One little mind” which describes the little girl, but as with lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza, lines 3 and 4 are unusual in their imagery. Here she describes not heaven, but rather Eden and she describes Eden as a sort of hotel or lodging that has no room left in it because “all the rooms are full”. Is she suggesting this is why humanity can’t go back to Eden because there is no room left? And if so, who then is occupying Eden in all these rooms? Yet she has combined this image with that of the “school” so she alludes to the afterlife as being like a school full of innocent children all sitting at their desks and there not being room for anyone else. Perhaps she is suggesting that humanity, when in Eden, is like a school full of children who are innocent of the reality of mortal life?
The final stanza begins with a play on ‘East of Eden’ (which is the Land of Nod where Cain was exiled to wander forever) and this relates to the image of Eden being full – full with perhaps the souls who deserve to remain in Eden / heaven, unlike Cain who is banished from God’s kingdom. Yet Emily is also describing a scene in which the “East” (morning) is far away from evening (“Even”) – a lot of time and space separates them – which perhaps she means as the gulf between life and death? And “Even” can also mean to make fair (make even) and death is the great leveler / evener of them all.
Finally, and once again, the final two lines of a stanza, shifts the image again, this time describing how when we (the “departed”) die we become “quaint” “Courtiers” in the kingdom of heaven, which she describes as the “Dim” “border star”. And once again she uses the plural “Kingdoms” rather than kingdom, once again suggesting, perhaps, that waiting for each of us is our own unique afterlife relationship with our personal God?
The final line is quite poignant in that she describes the “departed” as still existing by saying the “departed are”. She is suggesting that our loved ones are still vital and fulfilling a purpose (like a courtier), but that they have taken up residence elsewhere because they have crossed the great gulf between “morning” and “Even” (evening).
I admit to struggling with this poem; it’s not clear and obvious what she is suggesting with her word choice, but nothing in the poem feels out of place or poorly written – just obtuse. In fact the usage of plurals regarding the afterlife suggests a hint of uncertainty as to what awaits us after death – many “Kingdoms” and “Gods” can be imagined, and considering how many people and cultures there are in all of human history there are plenty of unique ideas about what awaits us after death.
After having read “Some, too fragile for winter winds“, I wonder if what she means by the many “Kingdoms” is that death itself is a kingdom? In that poem she describes death as “the thoughtful grave” and that God and Jesus did not notice the one who died, but death has been kind enough to not forget them.
I wonder if Wallace Stevens had this poem in mind for “Fabliau of Florida“? Both deal with magical / “mystic” images that is dreamlike and borders on the edge of reality and (perhaps) the supernatural. Both poems seem to exist near “isles enchanted” where “sultry moon-monsters / are dissolving” (Stevens). Both end with power of the sea: Emily’s “eye” of storm / Stevens’ “droning of the surf”.
Many of Wallace Stevens’ poem deal with the liminal spaces between land and sea, reality and unreality, and this is a theme Emily Dickinson also seems intrigued by. She often writes about being a part of nature, but also the world beyond, a world of perhaps faith, or God, or just somewhere more perfect where death no longer stalks us.
This poem begins with a sinking, perhaps even a drowning, when her ship (a barque, or here she calls it a bark) “went down at sea”. She most likely talking about a storm being responsible since she not only uses the wordplay of “whether” to open each of the first three lines – which has the effect of the poor craft being battered over and over by the bad ‘weather’ – and she also refers to the “eye” at the end of the poem which could refer to the eye of a storm, or a hurricane.
Yet what Emily does here is wonderful because she combines the image of the storm bending the sails of her ship and the reference to “isles enchanted” as that place in the great beyond, with the journey where “docile” sails have previously taken her to “isles enchanted” on her ocean adventures.
Stevens refers to this liminal place of imagination as moving “outward into heaven” where “foam and cloud are one”. It’s a magical image and is similar to that “mystic mooring” where Emily’s ship now rests. And we sense her trying to use her imagination to see where her “bark” has gone with the image of the eye not only being that of a storm, but her own eye, as if she is looking down from the sky (what she describes as “the errand of the eye”) into the sea of her imagination to find where her little boat has gone which can again grant her passage to new “isles enchanted”.
Stevens describes his little bark / barque as lit with “phosphor” and filled with “white moonlight”, a dreamy image of a boat that can only sail on the seas of one’s imagination, a boat that travels not of this world, but one between heaven and earth and where the “droning of the surf” never ends. Emily’s bark too is “out upon the Bay”, but not an actual bay, but the bay of her imagination.
Yet for Emily there is more desperation than for Stevens. Stevens gives himself over to the dreamlike quality of the image where the surf drones him to sleep and into the realm of imagination, but Emily’s use of the word “Bark” to open the poem and “Bay” to close it, gives this poem the feeling of someone hunting desperately for what they seek, the way hunting dogs “bark” and “bay” when they are on the trail of their prey. Combined with the image of the “gales” and the “eye” of the storm, Emily seems to be describing the state of her mind. These “isles enchanted” could be the dreams or places in the imagination where she likes to go, but this storm could also be her own mind – perhaps even a depression – that has sunk this craft which had before sailed so peacefully upon the sea. In other words, she could be describing the storm of her mind when it rages and does not give her the peace she previously sailed in when she was in her little boat upon the sea of imagination.
This is a fairly straightforward poem for Emily. She’s writing about how the days are growing more mild and that nature is adorning itself with colorful leaves and so she too has decided to ornament herself, unlike in winter when all a person can do is bundle up in drab, but practical clothes against the cold.
The most interesting line, for me, is “The Rose is out of town”. I admit I had to look up when roses typically bloom (a few weeks into spring) and then I realized that she’s probably plucked a few of these roses and they are sitting in a vase decorating someone’s open window to let the fresh spring air in after a long, dreary winter.
Emily is also writing about how she is transforming in accordance with nature. During the winter the “morns” are harsh, the “maple” wears no scarf, and the “field” is barren or buried under snow. In other words, winter is old fashioned in that it’s the end of the year (think old man winter) and is, from a fashion sense, literally ‘out of season’ once spring comes around. But as the “nuts are getting brown” and the “berry’s cheek” grows more plump, she too is transformed by putting on a colorful bracelet, or perhaps some flowers in her hair, because that is nature’s way. She recognizes that we are natural beings (sexual even) who are part of this mortal realm and so we should act in accordance with nature.
Life doesn’t have to be an endless season of dreary spiritual servitude. God commanded that we be fruitful and multiply, and so Emily is complying with God and with nature.
It’s rare Dostoevsky plays up much comedy, but the scene where everyone is trying to decide if their party is actually a (illegal) meeting or not was very funny. Typical of these kinds of people to not really have any idea what’s going on, even the ones, like the young lady, who are full of fervor but are totally unreliable. And Shigalyov’s idea of putting 90% of all Russians into absolute servitude is … absurd.
When in doubt, always assume Emily is talking about death and a cemetery. But I do love how she describes the cemetery as a Village where the dead must be up to something, though it’s “still” and “cooler than the dawn”. In fact, I was reminded of the brilliant novel, Pedro Páramo in which a whole town’s dead are quite lively and very much want to be remembered but whom are willingly forgotten by the end of the novel.
The first stanza uses the word “often” when describing how many times she passed the “Village” on the way home from school. This use of “often” implies that she didn’t come by this way everyday meaning she could have taken an alternate route but “often” chose to travel past the cemetery. This relates to the end of the poem when she tells “Dollie” that when she is “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” that she too can come by the cemetery, which means that this might be how Emily felt when she was drawn to the grave. Emily earlier used the word “strength” in “I haven’t told my garden yet” to describe how she feels about talking about death and how that could relate to depression sapping her of vitality, and so she is alluding to death slowly taking the life from her.
The second stanza is very odd in that her use of “then” suggests that she eventually became aware of the exact time Death came for her, meaning that at this point in the poem she has died, and has died at a young age, “Earlier, by the Dial / Than the rest have gone”. But I also read it in conjunction with the word “school” in that she has been educated about Death itself and that Death will come at a specific time for her, but she doesn’t necessarily know the exact time. In the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“, she has become aware of Death but is afraid to tell everyone about it for fear they will think she is a crazy person and that her rambling on about the subject will only be upsetting for everyone. So this stanza could be about how she is aware of Death living in its “Village” and that she became aware of Death at a very early age. And this sense of being educated by Death relates to the end of the poem, with its strong rhyming pattern of “cold”, “mould” and “enfold” as you would use to teach a small child about something you need them to remember in “school”, in that this knowledge has enticed her and she is consumed with this knowledge of Death.
Thus, if we read the poem not as Emily being dead, but as being educated about death, then the third stanza can be read not as her describing the “Village” as if she is a permanent resident, but from the point of view as her as a schoolgirl viewing this scene and contemplating existence there with the knowledge of Death but also with being enticed by it. Death is, after all, always with us and will eventually entice us all to the grave, and this chilling description of a cemetery where it’s “stiller than the sundown” (which relates to time and the “Dial” of a clock running out), and it being “cooler than the dawn”, which comes after the long night after a “sundown”, and where the “Daisies dare” and where “birds can flutter” if they also “dare” – this whole image is both enticing in its beauty, but its a macabre beauty full of night, time stopped, and it being a place where flowers must dare to go.
The final stanza then can be read two ways. One is that if Emily is dead in this poem, then “Dollie” (her sister-in-law, Susan) can come to the cemetery when she is also feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” and cry out to Emily to take her and thus Emily will pull her down into the ground with her. In fact this is both a macabre but also romantic image of two close friends spending all eternity in an embrace, but it’s also sinister in that Emily seems to be the one in charge here and that she is pulling her friend down as one of Homer’s sirens would pull Ulysses into the sea. You can almost see the word “enfold” acting like the roots of the earth reaching up to ensnare “Dollie” and pull her down into the grave as the dirt covers their bodies.
But the other way this final stanza could be read is that Emily is still alive but merely possesses the chilling knowledge of Death and that if they are both feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold”, that Death should take “Dollie” instead of herself because since she has been educated about Death she is afraid of Death. In the line “it’s I,” “take Dollie” there is a break between the quotes so it’s not exactly clear who is saying either “it’s I,” or “take Dollie”. The common reading is to say it is “Dollie” speaking at Emily’s grave and that she is grief-struck and wants to be with Emily for all eternity in death. But it could also be read that when Death has come for both of them, Emily, recognizing Death because of her education of all those times passing by his “Village”, cries out to Death to recognize her, “It’s I,” (meaning “it’s me, Emily, don’t you remember or recognize me?) and then she tells Death to “take Dollie” instead.
And if we take the more unconventional reading of this poem as Emily telling Death to take her close friend instead of her, then the final word “enfold” could take on many more meanings, such as the usage of the way sheep are put in their pen which could suggest Emily has become Death-like in taking her friend (who is ignorant of Death (if we consider the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“) to the grave where she is sort of a shepherd who must bury one of her flock. It could allude to the image one enfolded in mourning clothes, wrapped up in grief the way one protects themselves against the cold, or simply to embrace “Dollie” the way one would when paying their final respects at the wake.
Granted, my reading is somewhat unorthodox, but I don’t believe Emily was going for just one image or the other, she is too talented of a writer to not recognize the ambiguity of her writing and thus, I believe, she was open to the possibility of many readings. The idea of Death is typically one that is frightening and is not something we like to think about, so it’s not unreasonable that someone might, in a moment of weakness when faced with a resident of that eternal “Village” to beg that they take someone else and not us. Granted, that sounds cowardly, but it’s easy to sound heroic than actually be heroic.
Looking back at “New feet within my garden go“, she writes that the “garden” is the cemetery where the dead live (and are at least a little annoyed with the carefree living walking about above). And here, once again, she alludes to her grave as a “garden”, but in this poem she is the carrier of death, the way a contagious person carries a disease, which is a way to think about death that nobody likes to consider since it forces us to face the fact that all of us carry this terminal condition.
When I first read the opening stanza, I wondered if perhaps she was talking about depression. She wouldn’t have had a word or medical diagnosis for this condition, but the disease existed then (and all through history) just as it does now. Here she seems to be struggling with a depression in that she is afraid to really face it for fear it should “conquer me”. The third line describes how she doesn’t “quite [have] the strength” which is a common feeling among people who are suffering from depression, but it also speaks to the even more terrifying condition of death which is present in all of us; death is continually inside us and robs us of life (our “strength”). The final line of the first stanza is truly heartbreaking because the “Bee” is an innocent creature that does not have the capacity to contemplate death (or suffer from depression), and it would be a shame to inflict such knowledge on such a simple, beautiful creature who is content to live in the moment.
The second stanza is particularly wonderful because the imagery evokes shame and a sort of emotional nakedness, as well as an honest admission of her own weaknesses. The “street” on which she will not name this disease of death is lined with the “shops” that “stare at me”. We can see the people looking out at Emily from inside their shops as she, in this imagined scene, announces death’s presence to the innocent townspeople the way she couldn’t do for the “Bee”. Yet she is on the outside here and everyone else is watching her out there alone acting totally out of character for someone usually “so shy – so ignorant”. She is exposed, both physically and emotionally, and the whole scene is frightening. And for someone who is suffering from depression, having people stare at you as (you imagine) they wonder what the hell is wrong with you, only adds to the anxiety and fear which deepens the depression. She ends the stanza with “have the face to die” which not only refers to her announcing the terrible news that death comes for us all, but is also the image of the face of shame on someone who is embarrassed and totally uncomfortable being so exposed.
The third stanza continues the theme of her possessing this knowledge of death but not revealing it to others because nobody wants to think about death all the time (the way a very depressed person might), but it also hints at a time when she was happier when she “rambled so” in the “loving forests”. She’s implying that there was a time that she too was ignorant of death – the way the people in the shops are, as well as the Bee – but the final line resting at the bottom of the stanza like a grave under the “hillside” and “forests” alludes to her death, and even possible a suicide: “The day that I shall go”.
The final stanza reveals the difficulty she has in talking about this subject. She writes that if she were to try she would only “lisp” the words – in other words they would come out all wrong – or otherwise she would be acting “heedless” towards the other people “at the table” by even bringing up such a depressing subject as each person’s inevitable and impending death. Yet the final two lines do give some hope because the “Riddle” is tied to the action of walking in the final line which implies that the act of living, despite death being ever present, is a sort of enigma. We carry on each day going about our business (as in our “shops”) with death inside of us every moment, yet we do have the strength to continue walking, to continue going on about our day, everyday. We do not give up and we persist in the “face” of that terrible truth that one day we all “shall go”. Where does this strength come from? Well, that’s the “Riddle” with a capital “R”.
The most interesting aspect of this poem is in the second stanza where the “Angels” reimburse her “store” but then in the end she is “poor once more”. What is it that the “Angels” replenished but that has still caused her to be poor? Perhaps it is faith itself.
Overall she is writing (and recounting her own experience) about the death of two people who she has seen buried “in the sod”. Her use of the word “sod” as the rhyme she uses with “God” reveals her anger in that we sense that she is connecting and accusing God as the one responsible for putting her loved ones in the ground. She reinforces this imagery with the “door of God” because, visually, the open grave does resemble a doorway, one that leads to the next life. This doorway image coupled with her image of the “beggar” is poignant because it illustrates her grief and her powerlessness to actually do anything other than beg to God.
What is unusual is how she has focused on economics in this poem. The previous poem, “I never told the buried gold” also dealt with money and faith in that Kidd’s hidden gold was used as the bargaining tool for his clemency, but, like the illusion of gold on the sea (as in her image of the sun glinting off the waves which has the appearance of gold pieces), it is an image of poverty and that money and faith do not mix. Kidd was betrayed by someone who was also fearing they would be harshly punished over piracy (which ties into the “Burglar” image here), and in this poem the economics of faith reveal her frustration with God who can give and take at will and so she is left standing as a “beggar” at God’s “door” hoping that he will offer her a few golden coins of faith or solace / peace.
In the second stanza she does reveal that the “Angels” have twice restored her by bringing into the world two new lives for her to cherish, but the stanza is divided with competing factions – on the one side are the “Angels” who restore, and on the other is “God” who takes away. She presents a complicated relationship with God who she accuses of being a “Burglar” and a “Banker” and she is clearly angry with him for acting as like a thief (just as Kidd was in the previous poem).
But she is also expressing the frustration of mortality in how life can be granted and then taken away and that we can only stand as beggars before God’s “door” hoping for a handout but never being in the position of a “banker” who makes the decisions. We are forever at the mercy of a higher power, and this is a complicated image because it does seem unfair that we must go begging outside in the rain as we stare at the rich man’s door who, on the other side, lives a mysterious life we can’t see when we are alive. And this emotion is never more profound than when standing at someone’s grave looking into that door shaped hole in the ground that is a portal to the ultimate mystery of life – death itself and what lay beyond.
Stephan is kicked out, but he’s still getting a nice pension of 3000 rubles a year. Hard to complain about that, but I do feel bad for him, even if he never really accomplished anything and is, I believe fairly accused, of being a sponger.
More troubling was the lady in the group who needed to see the young man who had committed suicide because all other forms of “entertainment” bored her. The whole group was crass
Unusual poem in that it has a narrative and she even addresses the reader – or at least whomever is listening to this tale of Captain Kidd. Her use of the image of the setting sun mixed with the buried treasure as well as the thread of fate being cut is very clever and she even manages to hint at the Berg Adder, whose taxonomic name is taken from Atropos, as well as a brake which, according to the OED is a name for a type of bark trimming shears used when making baskets.
My favorite stanza is the first one in how the setting sun is compared to gold – you can feel the warm tropical air, smell the ocean salt, hear the waves against the ship, and see the golden sun glinting off the water like so many thousands of pieces of scattered gold. Yet there is an ethereal quality to this image, an unreal aspect which ties into this legend of buried treasure just being a myth. This dreaminess also ties into the final stanza where a “shrewd” person (probably the Earl of Bellomont) lures Kidd back to civilization with the promise of clemency, but this too was an illusion and Kidd was arrested.
The second stanza is odd in that she speaks of how close Kidd is to the storyteller and the listener of the poem, “He stood as near / As stood you here”, and the repetition of “stood” feels a little awkward. She again speaks of closeness with her describing there being only a “pace” “between”, but I don’t feel it’s clear what she is referring to. However, the image of the snake as a trickster is a nice image and this snake stands in for the shears of “Atropos” who will cut his thread and end his life. The snake could also refer to Kidd himself who has turned pirate and thus perhaps what Emily is trying to say is that even if someone is close to you they could easily turn to evil or have evil come between you and them.
The third stanza pretty much just mentions the buried treasure, but her use of the word “honest” seems almost funny because we know he stole all this “wondrous booty”.
The fourth stanza refers to if he will or won’t “reveal” “the secret” of the treasure and it can also perhaps refer to Bellomont’s deception since he was luring Kidd back with the false promise of his being cleared of charges. The final line of if he will “sudden sail” illustrates the possibility that Kidd will “sudden sail” off at the slightest hint of treachery.
The final stanza refers back to the first with the image of time having run out for Kidd. As the sun is setting in the first stanza we get the impression that the day (life) is ending for Kidd. The use of the word “divide” is particularly well used because it relates to how the thread of life may be “bisect” (cut) and this his life ends, but it also refers to the dividing up of the buried treasure with Bellomont in exchange for his freedom (additional life). Thus Atropos will “decide” which fate will play out and, as we know, Kidd was betrayed and his thread was cut.
The drunker he gets the more he questions what is the physical attraction, the desire for sex, for physical love with Justine, or perhaps with anybody for that matter. He equates sex with drunkenness as he stumbles around the city’s red-light district, a drug that everyone wants and needs and that drives everyone to mad extremes just to feel … something.
I imagine Emily having carefully picked a flower for a friend, a friend whose friendship is incredibly important to her but that she might not be able to express how much so in words and so she gives this flower – which is pregnant with significance – to her friend, but her friend is unaware just how important this gesture is to Emily. Only the “angels know” her secret.
Proust writes on multiple occasions in Swann’s Way how the narrator (Marcel) assumes there is significant meaning behind even the slightest gestures another character is making. Odette may look at Swann in a particular way that is interpreted to be a sign of her innermost thoughts and feelings, but in reality may have just been caused by the sun in her eyes. And for Odette there may have been nothing significant at all in any of her actions, but to an observer – and especially for Swann – everything she does is meaningful. In fact, the cattleya flower Odette wears becomes a symbol of sexuality for Swann to the point of total obsession. “To do a cattleya” becomes his way of making love to her and Odette may even be aware of this, but she never presses the issue and so the flower quietly stands in for their relationship.
Meaning is hidden in everything and for many of us it remains a secret. Swann’s passion for one phrase during the (fictional) Vinteuil Sonata is the catalyst for sparking involuntary memory. While the rest of the audience quietly enjoys the piece of music, Swann is thrown into an ecstasy and he recalls every moment with Odette, even the moments that might be wholly insignificant to any outside observer. As he sits among the audience as the music plays, he is mentally transported to another realm but nobody looking at him (other than the narrator of Swann’s Way, Marcel) would have any idea that he was experiencing anything unusual.
This poem seems to be operating in the same way. This flower – let’s call it a cattleya for fun; it will be our secret – is loaded with significance for Emily, yet what exactly that significance is her friend (and us) do not know – only the “angels” are not “unsuspecting” because they know the secret, they are like Proust’s narrator who knows everyone’s secrets.
Her friend wears the flower all day long and thus Emily too rides along with her friend, but she must do so through the flower; the flower is the avatar for a secret Emily is unable or unwilling to share. In fact, a good poem, like any good work of art (such as Vinteuil’s “little phrase”), does have meaning inside of it that can be uncovered if one chooses to look closer, yet Emily’s trick here is to not tell us what her secret is, she leaves it up to us to discover meaning because in doing so we not only grow closer to her, but become more aware of ourselves. Besides, the meaning we choose to see says more about us than it does about anyone else.
We don’t know everyone’s secrets and thus we should be more empathetic towards each other because what might not seem meaningful to us may be cosmically important to someone else. Even for someone like Emily who, as a poet, can express herself beautifully, even she is unable to express exactly what her secret is and she must remain hidden in her flower. Shusaku Endo writes in his novel “Silence” that “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Emily is expressing a similar sentiment in that her flower is delicate, but to her all of her feelings and emotion are wrapped up inside it and it is up to us to respect her secret and to take a moment to look a little deeper into each other in the hopes that we may see how important even the slightest gesture is to someone else.
Being ‘wrong’ about a poem has its own rewards and I always keep my notes to remind me of my initial inspiration. For example, at first I thought she might be talking about Eve in the garden, but then “new fingers” made me think of newborns and childbirth and I wondered if she was writing about pregnancy, but I was confused my the bird “upon the Elm”. But it was a cemetery all along.
The first three lines deal with the living going about their business such as walking through the “garden” as they “stir the sod” while the “Troubadour” chirps happily – perhaps hoping for a mate to answer the call – in the “Elm”. Yet the final line reveals that the peace has been broken – she refers to this as a betrayal of “the solitude”. The word “Betrays” gives a strong emotional quality to the poem’s speaker in that we get the sense they are annoyed by all these “new feet” and stirring “fingers”. And formally, this last line resting below the living first three matches the visuals of someone who is laying in their grave (and is annoyed with the living).
The first two lines of the second stanza continue this tension between living and dead as she alternates between “Children” (living youth) with “Weary” (old death), and again with where the “Children” “play upon” as opposed to the dead who “sleep below”. Finally the closing lines of the poem deal with the passage of time and the speaker’s weariness continues with the line “pensive Spring” as if springtime in this particular garden was a gloomy affair when the life above is restless as it walks and stirs and sings – better for it to be winter when the “punctual snow” returns right on time to cover the earth in “solitude”. Her use of the word “still” in both lines reveals not only the speaker who is “weary” of, once more, Spring’s return, but also in how the ‘stillness’ returns when the snows come. In fact, this final line reminds me of Joyce’s “The Dead” when he writes:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
One thing I want to note is that my initial inspiration about this perhaps being a poem about a pregnancy is that in the final two lines a period of about nine months does pass between the start of “pensive Spring” and the return of “punctual snow”. This passage of time coupled with “new feet” and “new children” as well as her use of “punctual” reminds me of the cycle of life not only of the earth but also within each of us. One day we walk in the sunshine as the birds sing in the “Elm” while the next we lay underground and become the energy source which will fuel next year’s growth in the garden. The whole earth is pregnant in this poem, and even in death there is still life that grows from what came before.
I think it’s her use of the word “garden” that could be read slightly cynically as if the speaker is annoyed that their body is now the source of nutrient that the “new fingers stir”, but it could also be read as something rather beautiful in that it recognizes this cycle and our place within it and how even in death there is a memory of all that came before and that the dead want to be remembered.
As with “There’s something quieter than sleep“, she is confronted with the body of a deceased loved one and is contemplating the grief she feels with the possibility of a joy in the afterlife no living person can comprehend because nobody can comprehend infinite bliss which she describes as “our prize” but seen with “penurious eyes”.
The first line is remarkable in how she manages to show how attached we are to the ones we love with the image of sitting at a wake (“to sit”) as the body lies in repose. If we break the line up we can read it as “the dead we love” and she is saying that love does not stop once someone passes on, but also that there is that feeling of loving that they are dead because they now live in the glorious afterlife.
The second line can work not only as her explaining how the dead “become so wondrous” in that they live in that supernatural realm of infinity. But the use of ‘wonder’ introduces an element of her contemplation of what exactly happens when a person passes on which she sees as a “wondrous” event. Finally she is called back to this life with “wondrous dear” in that not only are the dead still “dear” to us, but you can hear how these might be words of comfort at a wake when someone might be trying to comfort Emily by calling her “dear” as they try to console her which again recalls the moment in “There’s something quieter than sleep” when the “simple-hearted neighbors” try to comfort each other.
Her use of the word “grapple” in the third line is the perfect word because it illustrates her wanting to grasp onto the “lost” – and here “lost” refers both to the dead and those of us left behind (fantastic wordplay) – but to “grapple” is also to struggle, and the line ends unresolved “we grapple” but she does not say with what and it remains a mystery that we cannot comprehend. Hence why we are also the “lost”.
In the fourth line she again uses clever wordplay in her use of “rest” in that the “rest” can refer to the rest of us that “are [still] here” on this mortal realm, but it also paints a picture of the dead resting in their grave – their bodies remain behind while their spirits have moved on.
She then uses a line break to demonstrate the vast and unfathomable gulf between the living and the dead which no words can describe (something she alludes to in “The rainbow never tells me“).
The second stanza is wonderfully complex in how she uses the language of math (logic) to contemplate that which is beyond logic (God / the afterlife). She calls this paradox “broken mathematics” and she uses the words “estimate” and “ratio” (which not only means a proportion, but also refers to pure reason) to describe how we “grapple” with comprehending the “prize” which is the afterlife (which she describes simply as “Vast” after continuing the enjambment of the previous word “prize” thus demonstrating our inability to bring reason into contemplating what this prize might look like) but how “penurious” (poor / lacking) we all are in our ability to actually comprehend “the dead” with our eyes.
Thus we cannot see what lies in store for us in the afterlife because our eyes are too poor in that not only are they filled with tears as we sit at the wake and attend the funeral, but also because we do not possess the ability to comprehend the afterlife; our reason and “mathematics” are too poor an “estimate”.
On one level she is observing how in life we are all part of the same procession which ultimately leads to death, but she is also making an observation about class in that even the most “purple” (royal) and “ermine” trimmed nobility are headed to the same fate as “simple You and I” and that a poor person’s “escutcheon” (which she spells “escutscheon”) is as valid as the king’s.
I love the image of “One mitred afternoon” because not only is she using afternoon as the time of life when our own sun will begin its dip below the horizon of mortality, but you can almost see the sun shining through the clouds, lighting them up like a golden ‘mitre’ in the air. It’s a wonderful image. Her use of “purple” enforces this imagery by adding more color to the scene while also building up the image of royalty and wealth.
The second stanza is remarkable in how on the one had she describes a procession of a royal dignitary processing through a city as the crowd cheers and strains to get a better look at them, but she also has put all of humanity into that “Coach” and “we ride grand along” together. She’s showing that we’re all on the same ride, we’re all passangers in the same coach and she enforces this solidarity with the line “Chamber, and state, and throng” to make the connection between the king in his “chamber” who leads the “state” which is made up of the “throng” of people.
The third stanza is about duty and she uses the words “attendants”, “service”, and “loyally” to describe that all of us are in the service of only king which she described in the first stanza as the one whom “none [can] evade this crown”. Yet she is not saying that there is such a massive gulf between God and humanity because she continues her hat metaphor to describe how even the lower classes raise their “hundred hats” – the poor also wear a hat like the bishop (who wears the mitre) and the poor (the “simple You and I”) even have their own “meek escutcheon” (coat of arms / family crest) just as an earthly king does. We all wear a hat: the King, the poor, and even God with his “crown” and so we all have that in common.
In the end we all come to the same fate, but she isn’t necessarily making a case against being rich in favor of being poor, rather she paints a picture of life as a parade and celebration in the afternoon under a blazing sun in which we all come together as best we can and “claim the rank to die”. She is not judging class, she is merely inviting everyone to the same party regardless of their circumstances.
The poem begins and ends with an omen. The first is one of hope: the rainbow, the other is more ominous: the birds, as in augury which, while she often uses birds as a sign of faith, here she mixes it with the the violent fates of Roman leaders – you can almost see the vultures circling overhead. She is also talking about how nature (feeling) communicates better than words / philosophy.
Her use of the word “gust” is interesting because she’s not just referring to a “storm” after which the rainbow will appear to signal God’s promise, but “gust” can also mean to express one’s enjoyment through speech. Yet what she is trying to say is that words and logic fall short of the signs of nature / God. Philosophy, of which Cato was a stoic and a lover of logic as the greatest virtue (think Spock from Star Trek), she is relating to just a bunch of spoken bluster. Chaucer compared speech to farts in The House of Fame when the professor / eagle says:
‘Soun is noght but air y-broken, And every speche that is spoken, Loud or privee, foul or fair, In his substaunce is but air; For as flaumbe is but lighted smoke, Right so soun is air y-broke.
Furthermore, the Eagle in Chaucer’s poem is a representation of Rome, and this bird is a stuffy, boring professor who loves to hear himself talk but doesn’t manage to say very much. Emily is making a similar comparison to speech and worldly learning in that it’s all a bunch of blustery words, but even a bird can tell when a storm is coming without the need for a weather report and thus will fly away to a safer location. In this way she mixes the portent of augury in which she relates to Rome and Cato’s “eloquent” struggles with Caesar.
In the previous poem, “Sexton! My Master’s sleeping here“, the “Daisies point the way there”, yet in this poem the “flowers turn from Forums”. She is saying that the institutions of humanity are not infallible, and that faith in God (“rainbow”) is the only sign of truth and knowledge that can be trusted because even a “bird” knows how to read it.
There is a subtle irony here in that Emily can only express her ideas with words, the very things that can’t be trusted, and so the poem demonstrates the problem all humans run into in interpreting the world in that we’re always going to be imperfect and that our words, unlike God’s words , such as in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” which explains that the only true words / language is God’s, not humanity’s. Thus words will always fall short and fail to really say anything, which is why she uses “Cato” as her example because even as “eloquent” as he was, his fate was no better than Caesar’s or anyone else who has ever lived.
In other words, we live in a world of language and words, but this world we’ve constructed is false, no matter how well we speak, and eventually it will all end in our passing from this world with the possibility of a greater world beyond. In this way our world is the “storm” and the rainbow / omen is a sign that things will get better, but first we must navigate this treacherous world.
The scene where he finds that Nessim’s telescope had been pointed at him and Justine in the hut (and at the tossed aside copy of King Lear – now that’s a portent) was chilling. And then when Nessim comes barreling down the dune in the back of the car firing at the birds and then thundering off, and earlier writing the word ‘beware’ in Greek in the sand was madness. Then his memory of the army … violence is coming
The duel was funny – sad funny. We don’t know why Gaganov is so furious with Nikolai except it’s something that happened a few years ago which, though nobody knows about it, was a disgrace to his family and caused him to end his military career. Yet we know as much as Nikolai seems to care. But imagine being Gaganov and having Nikolai not even care about the duel even though it means so much to him. And he still lost
The footnote posits that she is writing about Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb of Jesus which seems highly plausible. She repeats navigational language with “lead”, “point”, and if you speak Sexton and Sextant they are very similar and she is playing off the idea of being led (by faith) with her ocean metaphors, and the tomb / relic imagery of a Sexton’s responsibility.
The Sexton is most likely referring to the angel Mary sees in the tomb since a Sexton is the person in the church who is responsible for the relics and holy vessels. This angel’s responsibility is unusual however in that the tomb is empty – there is no physical relic to maintain (other than the tomb itself, I suppose), he is only there to tell Mary that “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16: 1-8, Matthew 28: 1-10, Luke 24 :1-8) so he is a keeper of information and points the way towards faith. There are no relics of Jesus, all that remains are people’s faith in him as God and this imagery mixed up with a sextant which navigates by the stars (which could be read as angels who reside in the kingdom of heaven) gives the impression of being pointed in a particular direction.
The second line which begins with “Pray lead” is not just literal as in a command to someone such as ‘pray tell, please lead me’, but also in the act of praying being the way to be led to a destination (towards God). Praying thus is related to the sonic similarity to Sexton / sextant in that one is being led (navigation: sextant) to the holy place (Sexton).
Lines 3 and 4 are nurturing in that the poet / Mary explains that she “came to build the Bird’s nest – And so the early seed”. This image of preparing the “nest” (which recalls the “bed” of the “Master”) combines the domestic with the idea of nurturing the faith in that “pray” is like building a nest which helps grow one’s faith. The bird imagery is something she has used multiple times before in reference to a bird being the symbol of faith and searching for faith (see “My nosegays are for Captives“). Interestingly “sow” is not just a term for farming and tending seeds, but the second verb definition (OED) can also mean ‘to grieve’ which gives an emotional quality to the scene and how Mary must have felt after Jesus had been crucified and was going to prepare his body with oils, but also relates to those of us left behind on mortal earth who must toil miserably in laboring with the land – built into the very act of farming ‘to sow’ is the notion of grief and misery, an image she has alluded to multiple times as well.
The image of “snow creeps” is such a beautiful image! With just two words she is able to paint a picture of the actual movement of snow falling slowly, but the word “creeps” also gives it a sense of forboding which could be her way of describing the slow creeping of death which is coming for all of us anyway (think of her later poem “I could not stop for death”) as well as “Delayed till she had ceased to know“.
Most importantly this second stanza has a strong musical component but it’s cleverly hidden in plain sight much like faith for the faithful is hidden in plain sight. The final word of the poem is “Troubadour” which is a lyric poet. Music and verse are combined in this word, but it also shares a rhyme with “door” from “his chamber door”. The door is the stone which God had moved so that Jesus could begin his rise from the dead and so it is like the beginning of a new piece of music which could be read as ‘chamber music’ since the first notes have been played to a small, select audience (Mary and the other women present). Finally the image of “snow creeps” is not just visual but audible too in that once you start listening to this stanza you can almost hear the snow falling outside the tomb.
Finally, the image of the “Daisies” pointing is a breathtaking image in that flowers do not have finger with which to point, yet you can feel that this is what the flowers are doing – we can almost see the white pedals bending in the direction of Galilee (or more importantly to heaven) but it is also a highly feminine image of the women who may be holding flowers as they came to the tomb, and at a deeper level, be an allusion of how even the most humble of earthly creatures knows where heaven is. This pointing also refers back to the angel / “Sexton” who keeps the tomb and tells Mary where to find Jesus.