Monthly Archives: August 2019

page 15 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Hard to say how Babu actully feels about her – he very well may have loved her and missed her, but he does not know how to show it – then again, how could anyone in a world where girls married at 13 and men probably had no experience either? All Nella wanted was to be held, like the angles of rice dust, or as Renu held her, or as her mother may have before she died. 

Did Nella drink the poison?

page 13 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Interesting scene between the married couple on the bus in that it’s such a simple, ordinary domestic scene of two people talking about normal stuff – a type of comfortable relationship between a married couple that Neela has never known. Still food (and medicine) are what she pays attention to and I wonder if she’ll drink the poison when she gets back home?

page 12 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Remarkable how the scene where she learns her husband isn’t dead is sad, not joyful. Once again she starts thinking of food, unlike when Renu held her in the night showing her how it should feel after sex. Neela describes how she feels as if “she would remain a fruit her husband didn’t really want to reach, that he would watch ripen and fall with only a vague and stolid interest”.

page 8 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

A mangal sutra (mangalsutra) means auspicious (mangal), and thread (sutra) and is tied around the bride’s neck during the wedding. She’s kept this in a bag of rice which when she puts her hand in it feels “as if hundreds of butterfly wings had brushed against them”. Rao mingles life, death, value, and food into one image. However, Neela is to be sent away because she is “useless”.

page 6 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Of course she wants a swing, she’s still only 14 – and how could she know who her husband is, she’s only 14.

Rao describes Nella’s hair on the floor as “coiled like seething black serpents” then describes the sun as it “hissed and spit as it neared the horizon”. The leaves are “dusty and exhausted” just like she and her mother in law.

page 4 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Kumkum (kumkuma) is a brightly colored ceremonial powder made from turmeric. Here Rao makes a connection between the cataract eyes of her mother in law with the sixth chakra (the third eye) as she rubs the kumkum on Neela’s forehead. The blind leading and helping the blind. 

Her mother in law will only wear white, never be allowed in the temple, and become like a ghost in mourning.

page 4 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

The image of the people killed in the ambush again uses food imagery: corn. Previously the image of Babu was of “a dry summer chili”; he’s imagined by Neela as a chili and a roasted corn.

Lalla, her mom in law is correct that everyone on the train was a child since everyone is someone’s child. Though Babu was an adult the story will be told it was mostly children that were killed by the Muslims.

page 3 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

How much time has passed between her wedding at 13 and the death of Babu?

Interesting connection between the skin of the banana reminding her of her mother’s voice (whom she never met because she died giving birth to Neela), and the “smooth wooden box [of the radio] with the mysterious voices spilling out” as she and her mother-in-law listen to the news of the train accident / Muslim attack.

page 3 of 244 of An Unrestored Woman

An Unrestored Woman

Neela is poor, skinny, 13, and to be married to 24 year old Babu. Food is important to Neela since she never had much and when Babu dies food is all she thinks about – sort of a parallel between Marcell in Swann’s Way when eating the biscuit leads to the involuntary memory of his childhood. The flimsiness of the gold chain dowry is like her skinny body – how could she possibly bear 10 children?

We grow accustomed to the Dark

Night on the Dnieper River, 1882 Arkhip Kuindzhi
Background Image: Night on the Dnieper River, 1882 Arkhip Kuindzhi

This poem could be about Emily’s experience as a writer working in relative isolation and having to “grope a little” in the darkness until she can adjust to “Midnight”. She might also be writing about dreams / the imagination, “Those Evenings of the Brain”, and how it’s a difficult process to learn to use one’s dreams / imagination in the act of making art that’s “almost straight”.

In “I found the words to every thought” Emily describes how we live like Plato’s prisoners in the cave and that art can only approximate the real thing, but also when art inspires us the words on the page or the oils on the canvas do seem to have the effect of orientating us in the direction of truth / the exit to the cave – if we let it. Imagine, for a moment, that we are one of Plato’s prisoners and one of our companions escapes then returns with news of the world outside our prison. All our companion can do is use language to approximate their experiences and hope that their skill with language is sufficient to inspire us to see what they see. Poetry is like this. The poet goes out at “Midnight” and explores the world of darkness but because they can adjust their eyes to the “Darkness” they avoid the danger of hitting their head on a low hanging “Tree” limb and then return to us with news of their adventure. And though we have not actually seen what they have seen and experienced, a skilled poet can still inspire us, can enable us to see in the darkness what no other light can illuminate. Though it be “Midnight” and “not a Moon disclose a sign – or Star”, we can still see clearly because our companion – the poet – has scouted on ahead and reports back to us.

The first two words of the poem seems to be the central thesis (as if poems could have a thesis) in that “We grow”. The entire poem is about growth, about finding one’s way, and for Emily perhaps finding one’s way as an artist who can see into the darkness of dreams and imagination and report back to the reader with her findings in such a way as to allow us to see what we have never seen before. Paradoxically, growth in this poem happens in the “Dark”, in the absence of sunlight in which things normally grow. In the first stanza the sun has gone down “As when the Neighbor” takes her “Lamp” inside after waving “Good bye” for the evening. And so when everyone is asleep, when the world is blanketed in darkness, “We grow”.

And our growth begins with those first tentative steps we take into the “newness of the night” as we try to see into the darkness. This is an interesting image in that she is asking us – as well as herself – to look at and into what cannot be seen. She asks us to “fit our Vision for the Dark” and so we must look not with our eyes, but with our minds, our imagination, our ability to dream. She asks us to become like the dreamer in “Many a phrase has the English language” who, though they sleep quietly in the darkness, the canvas of their imagination is illuminated brilliantly in their dreams. Emily describes this “larger – Darkness” in the third stanza as being the expansive landscape of our dreams in which not even the “Moon” or a “star” can shine its brilliance through our closed and sleepy eyes.

In the fourth stanza she describes how when we give ourselves over the the “Darkness” of our imagination we are brave because we must struggle to find our way. One can imagine Emily sitting at her desk struggling to find the right words for this poem, struggling to see into her own imagination what can only be illuminated with her own inner light (for not “Moon” or “star” light can penetrate there) and translate those visions into a language we can understand in the light of the waking world. And she explains how her attempts might be awkward, at least at first, and that she will hit her head on a low-hanging “Tree” branch as she gropes about for the right words, but eventually, with practice and bravery, she – and us – will “learn to see”. “We grow” with each attempt.

And thus in the final stanza she describes this landscape of “Darkness” as an exotic land that not only “alters” us as in how “We grow” from our travels there, but also that the “Darkness” is like an alter that we go to worship at. Emily is suggesting that the act of creating art is an almost religious experience and that to allow oneself to enter that hallowed, darkened cathedral alone will lead one to the light of the imagination in which the “Moon” and “star” shines brighter in the darkness of our imaginations than they do in reality. And at the alter is the poem itself, opened like the gospels for the priest to interpret to the people below, to guide them with the light of art, with the experiences of what they have seen ahead of the congregation who have not yet traveled to that land so that they may be prepared to enter the “Darkness” on their own, to give the people courage to be brave to see the light in even the darkest of nights. For Emily art is prophecy and she the reverent who “holds the Lamp” and wishes us “Good bye”.

“Secrets” is a daily word

The Confession, 1838, Giuseppe Molteni
Background Image: The Confession, 1838, Giuseppe Molteni

This is a challenging poem made even more obscure with her use of legal language, “remits”, “surmise”, “inviolate”. Perhaps she is suggesting that the secrets deep in our heart go to die once they are uttered. Secrets are the opposite of life in that if the “word” gives life (as in the biblical sense), then speaking a secret “word” kills the secret. Communication is life.

The word “Secrets” has an unusual definition. At first reading it seems as if she is talking about how we conceal something from someone else, and while she is exploring this aspect of a secret, the word “secret” is worth investigating a little further. Secret comes to us from the Latin “sēcrētus” which shares a relationship with “sēcrēt” meaning secrete, which basically means “to separate” (OED for sēcernĕre from which sēcrēt is the participial stem and which the English word “secern” is derived from which meant to “separate from the blood). In other words, what Emily is suggesting about “Secrets” is that they cannot exist on their own and once they are separated from the heart, the blood, the body, they die “dumb”.

Thus buried deep within the word “Secrets” is the desire for it to be removed from the body, for it to be secreted and purged from ‘the Human Breast”. “Secrets” are not meant to be “Dungeoned” inside us because left concealed in our hearts they will “Grate” at our hearts they way a guilty prisoner will tear at his prison cell, his bleeding fingers tearing at the stones in his fits of rage and anger, until both he and the cell are left uninhabitable. Furthermore, failing to release the “Secrets” in our hearts is like carrying death inside us. These “Secrets” on their own cannot live in the fresh air of freedom, yet locked away they invite a slow death as they gnaw at us. “Secrets” are truly “dumb” in that they want freedom but paradoxically are killed once let loose. If a secret wants to live it must remain hidden and take the host with it, like an infectious disease.

Emily has also buried legal terms within this poem which suggests she is concerned with how “Secrets” work against the laws of humanity (and perhaps universal truths), but she also expresses the anxiety we all have about revealing our “Secrets” for fear we will be judged. For example, if a person stole from their neighbor because they were hungry, they would not only be ashamed at being judged for their poverty in the eyes of their community, they would also be ashamed to have committed the act of theft, even though it was necessary for them to live. They have broken the law – both human law and God’s law – and so they fear retribution of the judge (legal system) who will prosecute their crimes. Thus the starving person remains silent, yet they now carry with them this “Secret” of having broken the law as well as the shame of their poverty which led to the crime which they want to remain a secret.

Emily describes the paradox inside this poem with how “secrets lie”. Though at first it seems as if she is using the word “lie” to describe something that is resting or hidden, she also means that “secrets lie” in that they don’t speak the truth: they “lie”. Yet how can something remain silent (as in keeping a secret) yet also speak (tell a lie)? This is the heart of the issue she is exploring in that in order to keep a secret a person must cover it up, they must lie to throw the judges off their track, which then leads to more “Secrets” and more lying. The person caught in this cycle is thus secreting lies which is like the image of a dying body that is secreting a disease. Yet if the original secret were revealed then the body might be cured of its disease because once the secret is out in the open it immediately dies because it is no longer a secret. True, the secret holder may then be at the mercy of the law – such as the starving person who stole from their neighbor – but there is nothing left to hide since the truth has been revealed.

Thus we can either go to our grave (“Sepulchre”) with our “Secrets” which have consumed us, or we can clear the air and, though our mortal bodies will still die, if we confess our “Secrets” then we will be judged worthy and be granted life (according to Christian theology).

Many a phrase has the English language

Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts
Background Image: Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts

As in “I found the words to every thought” where there was “but One” thought she could not put words to, and here there is “but one” phrase she has not “heard”. Yet unlike the previous poem, she seems to actually be describing this phrase and even wants it hear “it again” by the end of the poem.

What is most remarkable about this poem is how you can hear what she is describing – the sounds of nature are embedded in the “phrase” of the “English language”. For example, the ‘lo’, ‘a’ and “la” sounds as they flow through “Low as the laughter” (with that ‘s’ sound in the middle) is reminiscent of the sound of a “Cricket”. She repeats this again in “Thunder’s Tongue” with the sharp ‘t’ sounds and how the two syllables of “Thunder’s” is resolved with the single syllable blast of “Tongue”. The word “Tongue” is also doing double duty in that visually it reminds us is a serpents “Tongue” of lightening during a thunder storm thus she is combining the audible and visual elements into the words of the “English Language”.

The second stanza hints at how we often don’t even notice how language is working on us: it’s a subtle influencer that works more in our subconscious than it does when we are awake. For example, she mentions the “Whippowill” and rhymes this with “a’lull” which alludes to sleep and dreams. The whippoorwill is a nocturnal bird and so as we sleep its language enters our dreams and so Emily might be saying that the language of nature can be heard and understood best when we are asleep as it will influence our dreams, perhaps even a dream of a “Caspian [Chior]” “mummering” like the tide in the middle of the night. This stanza has a dreamlike quality to it and I believe she is suggesting that it is in dreams when we can most clearly hear the langauge of nature.

The third stanza seems to support this hypothesis of nature’s language speaking to us through our own language – just as if we too were like the “Whippowill” and the “English Language” was no different than birdsong. She uses the word “Orthography”, which is “a system of spelling or notation” (OED) and in the second line of this stanza describes her “simple sleep” in which this grammar of nature is “Breaking in bright” into her dreams. She continues with the word “Prosepctive” which is “a device which allows one to see objects or events not immediately present” (OED) thus further suggesting that only when one is dreaming can we truly interpret the language and grammar of nature. And yet, once she wakes, she weeps because she is no longer in a state which will allow her to interpret this language. Even the sound of the word “Prospective” (aside from its relation to the word perspective) has the quality of a distant, rumbling thunder leftover from the first stanza.

Thus the final stanza expresses her wish to hear “it again” and what it is she wants to hear can only be heard either in dreams or obtusely through the sounds of words in the English language. This whole poem is her attempt to mimic the sounds of nature inside her limited Anglo-“Saxon” language and her desire to continue to hear it. Ironically, she ends the poem with the word “Hush” as if she wants silence but is asking to actually hear something. Normally one would say ‘speak up’, not “hush” if you want to hear something clearer, so perhaps she is suggesting that what she wants to hear can only be heard in the silence – perhaps she’s even suggesting that words as they are printed on the page are silent until we speak them and so we are like Emily whom the words speak “Only to me” when we read the poem and thus can hear so much more inside this silence, like a dreamer who when we watch them sleep quietly but inside their mind a thunderstorm rages and the “Whippowil” inspires visions of “Caspian Choirs”.

I found the words to every thought

The Blind, 1879, Nikolai Yaroshenko
Background Image: The Blind, 1879, Nikolai Yaroshenko

There’s a playfulness but also a frustration here in that she never does find the words for that one thought – she’s like a prisoner in Plato’s cave who has no concept of “Cochineal” (red) or “Mazarin” (blue). But what she’s really getting at is how can a word, like “Mazarin” replace the real thing? We can be told it’s “Of a rich deep blue color” (OED) but what does that even mean?

I thought of Saussure’s work with semiotics, a word itself which originally meant “the interpretation of symptoms” (OED), and how, like Plato’s prisoners (“Races – nurtured in the Dark”), we are deprived of the truth of reality because words cannot replace the real thing.

The first stanza deals with her ability as an artist and also her own limitations. She has “found the words to every thought” she’s had so far except for “One”. In one sense she is trying to put into words some single thought which has escaped her, but her use of capitalization could be that the “One” is the ultimate truth, the ultimate beauty, the good, the beautiful: the One; God, perhaps, and who is the ultimate creator who does not lack words, which she might also be referring to in “I died for Beauty – but was scarce”.

Her image of the “Hand” that “did try to chalk the Sun” is a wonderful image as the futility of our own (mortal) efforts to effectively capture reality in art. A painter may paint a beautiful image of a sunset, but no matter how glorious the painting, it can’t replace the real thing, it can only stand in for it. And her use of “chalk” further enforces this futility in that one’s own “Hand” cannot give free travel to the “Sun”: we are not Helios with a chariot dragging the “Sun” across the sky, we can only interpret what goes on in the heavens as best we can – even the mythology is a poor reflection of reality in that it is only a story.

Yet there is a hint of hopefulness here in that she asks “How would your Own – begin?” as in where do we even start, yet the fact remains that we do create art, we do attempt to represent a “Blaze” in “Cochineal” in a painting or a poem, we make the effort to do our best to be like the “One” (the creator) and mimic creation through our own feeble efforts. Ultimately Emily did write this poem – if she had truly been frustrated she never would have written a word, yet here she is fully knowing that she can’t “chalk the Sun” and yet she tries anyway. And we, the reader, do see her “Blaze”, we do feel the deep blue of “Noon” as the “Sun” races across the sky. The “One” may defy us, but it is not totally invisible to us because there is a light illuminating the world and so we can do our best to appreciate it, and our humble efforts to mimic it bring us, in a way, closer to the “One”. We begin to exit the cave, at least a little.

I like a look of Agony

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna
Background Image: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna

I’m going out of order from the book because I’m taking a class on Emily Dickinson and I’m going to follow the syllabus for the next few months.

There is embedded here the image of the passion of Christ. Her use of “Agony” comes from the Latin agonia which refers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the final image of the “Beads” could be an allusion to the “homely” crown of thorns he wore. The question is is she suggesting that this is the one thing (suffering in death) we all have in common with Christ? This poem also shares some similar images with “A throe upon the features“.

I assumed on my first reading that she was referring to death in both stanzas, and while this reading is certainly possible, the major noun in the first stanza is “Agony” which isn’t necessarily “Death”, but rather the struggle all mortals contend with between good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death. Thus what she could be saying in this first stanza is that she likes “a look of Agony” because it’s a sign that a person is truly struggling to live – it’s not that she likes “a look of” “Death”, she likes “a look of” life, of the “homely” person who must contend with the difficult decisions of life and deal with the consequences of those decisions, be they good or bad.

This is why, I believe, she is alluding to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane whose “Agony” (agonia) was described in Matthew 26:41, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Her poem mirrors Christ’s dilemma in that he is alive (just as the first stanza deals with being alive) but that “Death” is going to come for all of us and thus the second stanza deals with this inevitable outcome.

Yet I don’t believe she is suggesting that “Death” is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something we all fear and struggle with, but like Christ who died to forgive sin, our own struggle with death is the end result of our coming to terms with our own lives and the decisions we’ve made and the struggles we’ve endured and which we may have to answer for in the next life once we cross over.

A throe upon the features

Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death, 16th century, Master of the Chronique scandaleuse
Background Image: Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death, 16th century, Master of the Chronique scandaleuse

The first 4 stanzas are Emily describing the process of death as an observer, but the final 4 stanzas could be describing how the dead “rejoin its own” or how we, the survivors “rejoin” our own after we are parted from the dead and as we go on about our lives. She could also be saying that she’s giving herself “permission” to let the dead go, or that God / “Death” has given the dying “permission” to enter the next life.

The first line of the poem begins with the beginning of the end of life as the subject finds themselves in the spasm of death. There entirety of the life of this person comes before the first line of the poem and their mortal existence ceases in the line break between stanzas. We do not know who this person is – Emily does not describe her feelings for the subject and if she lived them, cared for them, or even knew them. In fact the suddenness in which the poem begins with the spasms of death almost feels as if Emily has stumbled upon this scene, perhaps the way one would when they see the image in a newspaper of a soldier who has died on the battlefield – death is thrust upon is suddenly and we recognize it, even if we don not recognize the person who has died.

Lines 2-4 deal with “breath” in that “An extasy of parting” isn’t just the soul “parting” the body, it’s also the breath “parting” the mouth. This is supported by her use of the word “Denominated” which means “to give a name or appellation to; to call by a name” (OED) and is also a play on the word ‘dominated’, thus the name if death dominates the final breath of the subject.

Emily continues this naming of “Death” with her use of the word “mention” at the beginning of the second stanza. This “anguish” is not only felt by the observer (be it we the reader or Emily) in regard to whom is dying, but it could also refer to the subject themselves who is in “anguish” as they speak the name of “Death” who has complete control over them (dominates them). Her use of the word “grown” is a play on “groan” which could be the only way a person could pronounce the name of death and recalls the “throe” (spasm) of the first line. And perhaps this naming of “Death” is what allows for “permission” to be given for the subject to “rejoin its own” (the other dead) which mirrors the observer who must, with “patience”, allow the person to “rejoin [their] own” by moving on with their own life. In death the dying and the living must both move on with their own kind.

A something in a summer’s Day

L'Aurora, 1614, Guido Reni
Background Image: L’Aurora, 1614, Guido Reni

Beautiful poem! Emily continues her observations of the cycles of the day from sunset (‘If this is “fading”‘) and sunrise (“As Watchers hang upon the East“) to this poem which deals with the entire procession of the day – she even references Helios’ chariot. And all through the poem she plays with an ‘s’ alliteration as if it could be a summer’s breeze blowing through the whole poem, or even perhaps the sound of cicadas.

Twice in this poem she uses the female pronoun “her” not only to refer to the sun and the sun rising, “her flambeaux” and “her amber Flag”, but she is also referring to herself, Emily, the poet watching and writing. This continual act of creation of the day and the night and the new day again mirrors her own act of creation through her poetry in which not only does she observe the day, she creates the day in her own words. Emily is, in fact, playing the role of Helios as she guides the sun across the sky of the poem, a continual act of creation that illuminates the beauty of the world through the written word, specifically through her use of ‘s’ alliteration which not only could be a gentle breeze or cicadas, but the sun itself. In the stanzas where the sun is up (and the moon is bright) she leans heavily on this alliteration, but when the sun and moon are not visible, the alliteration is very slight until the final two lines of the poem which reintroduces the pattern with “dews” and “summer’s”.

In fact, the “something” she keeps referring to “in a summer’s” day or noon or night is this mysterious ‘s’ which combines perhaps sound (a breeze, a cicada) with the visual element of the light. Emily’s synesthesia could be what she is investigating and which she can only refer to as a “something”, and it’s a “something” she can only express in poetry. This is why I believe she is not only writing about the cycles of the day, but also about the very act of creation itself.

Formally, the poem can be read in a loop – the final line reveals a new “summer’s Day” and the first stanza explores the morning before “noon” (she explores “noon” in stanza two, therefore stanza one is likely the morning). Her rhyme scheme is unusual in that at first I transcribed it as AAB CCD EEF GGH IIJ KLML, but when I went back I think it’s actually AAB CCB DDB EEB FFG HHI JKLK because this would connect the first four stanzas in which there is a light visible (the sun and then the moon) which then leads into the dark of the night (stanzas five and six who have their own pattern) and finally stanza 7 which is unique just like every sunrise is unique. This JKLK rhyme seems to mimic a new day being forged as the sun who is the same everyday and is “gay” every “Day” (the K rhyme) creates a unique “summer’s day” each “morn” “coming thro’ the dews” (the J and L). Thus stanza six and seven stream into each other with a HIJKL before we get another repeat of K: “Crag”, “Red”, “morn”, “gay”, and “dews” before we get a repeat of “Day” (which is a not only “Another” day, but also a new day, too.

And Emily refers to the procession of one day into the next not only with her allusion to Helios who “Guides” “His caravan of Red” across the sky, but also with her use of “solemnizes” which means to observe something with “some amount of ceremony” (OED). Emily not only is observing what is going on around her but she is also creating the procession of one day into the next as the poem progresses across the page (and through the sky). She is both observer and creator, hence her use of the pronoun “her” in the poem.

Finally, she refers to “The wizard fingers” which is not only perhaps God’s “fingers” (be it the Christian God or another ancient Greek deity, such as Helios or Apollo or a reference to Book 24 of the Iliad and Homer’s use of Eos’ rosy fingered dawn) but she is describing her own “fingers” that “never rest” as she writes every day. Her acts of creation mimic the act of daily creation, and her poetry is like a summer’s day when the flowers bloom and life and energy and light is abundant. Yet she also concedes that even her poetry cannot fully capture the glory of a summer’s day when she describes how the “purple brook” – which is not only an image of a brook in the predawn darkness but also an image of blood flowing through the body and an allusion to the ink flowing from her pen – cannot truly be contained in its “bed” because its beauty is so great that nothing can capture it. In fact this is something Rilke would write about in his poetry years later when he would describe how the love inside us is larger than the size of our heart and our body – in other words, we carry around something in us that is larger than us and so it “chafes its narrow bed” (with “bed” also being a reference to sleep and dreams).

Her breast is fit for pearls

Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet
Background Image: Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet

Emily sets up a series of contrasts between the “I” and the “Her” (which could be Sue, or the Muses) in which the “Her” is “fit” for something that “I” cannot give. “I” lacks material riches and pedigree but can use the “twigs and twine” available to at least build an emotional relationship with “Her”.

There are some people who argue this poem is about her friend Sue while other people argue this poem is about poetry (the muses), but I don’t think it has to be an neither / or situation because both seem appropriate at the same time. Sue could very well be the must for this poem at least – perhaps many more.

The first line seem straightforward enough on first reading in that it Emily is glorifying the “breast” (the character) or this “Her” as being suited to wear expensive finery. However, the word “fit” is doing extra work here in that not only does she mean that these “pearls” “fit” on “Her” (as in they belong; is suited for) but a “fit” is also an obsolete term to describe a part of a poem or a song (OED) but the word was in use in Emily’s time. Thus Emily could also be saying that her poetry is fit for “pearls” just as Sue is.

The second line stands out because she puts the word “Diver” in quotes. The meaning of this line would not seem to be lost without the word in quotes, but I believe she’s using the word to also do double-duty. At first reading she is referring to the image of pearl divers and that she is unable to diver for pearls to give to “Her”, but a “Diver” also refers to a pickpocket (OED) so Emily could be implying that she isn’t someone who can pluck beautiful words / pearls from their home to “fit” into a poem. I’m not suggesting she alluding to thievery, but the word choice might be referring to how she might think about inspiration and where the right words / pearls come from in that she has to be like a pickpocket to find the perfect ones. In other words, she’s possibly alluding to a deftness and nimbleness to choosing the right words.

The third line is unusual in that Emily does not write that “Her brow is fit for” crowns, she says “thrones” instead. How can a “brow” be “fit” for a thrown when crowns are what sit on brows? I think the answer to this question is that because Emily is a talented poet she does not dive for the obvious word choice. Let’s say she had used the word crown – we would have the image of “Her” wearing a crown, perhaps one trimmed with “pearls” from the first line. Yet when Emily uses “thrones” she expands the image to paint a picture of a royal figure sitting on a thrown who is also wearing a crown. We imagine a queen and all her glory, but if Emily had just used the word “crown” we actually would have not imaged someone so glorious since we would have only been focused on her physical characteristics and not her entire persona as a queen. By being unexpected, she uses a word associated with a crown to enlarge the importance of “Her” and it creates a more detailed image in our imagination.

The fourth line build off the royal persona and majesty of the previous line by suggesting that Emily does not have the pedigree (“crest” as in family crest) to stand before the queen in her court. Not only is she not adept at finding “pearls”, she lacks the lineage to even stand in “Her” presence. And Emily could be referring to her situation as a woman writer in New England in the 19th century as someone who does not have the pedigree of someone like the famous poets of her time or the social standing to allow her to find her own way as a poet.

Yet in the next line, “Her heart is fit for rest” (though in other drafts the word “rest” is switched to “home”) she is saying that regardless of one’s pedigree, “Her” heart is willing to accept anyone to “rest” there. And there might be some subtle wordplay going on in this line too with not only the use of “fit” to refer to a section of poetry, but “for rest” could be read as forest, meaning the wilderness in which Emily lives as a poet outside of the cultivated lands of the poets who have the pedigree to stand before the queen, and it also sets up the image of the following lines in which a “sparrow” builds its “nest” in “Her heart”. In other words, “Her heart” is a part of a poem in which there is a wild place inside of it. And this could tie back to Emily’s feelings towards Sue in that Emily has a wild place in her heart for Sue, but Emily also wants to use the word “home” as a place away from the forest (the wild place) where she can be safe. Thus home and “rest” seem to be at odds with each other in points to a conflict within Emily’s own “heart” about her feeling towards Sue and towards poetry.

Thus the home that is built in the final three lines of the poem incorporates a wildness and the domestic. Emily compares herself to a “sparrow” and in the next line she might be referring to Sue as “sweet” (as in darling, beloved) and not just that Emily’s “nest” is made of “sweet” (pleasing) “twigs and twine”. And the use of the word “twine” seems to allude to the entire poem in that she not only referring to something string-like with which a bird uses to build a “nest”, but also to “a fold; a coil; a convolution; a twist or turn in the course of anything” (OED). The poem does feel coiled, as if it has multiple, interlocking pieces that when unraveled (like the fit of a poem) might seem convoluted, but when put together creates a unified whole; she’s taking something wild and making it domestic and she can do this all year round.

Emily might say that she is not a “Diver” but I believe she is well aware at just how adept she is plucking “pearls” from their oyster. She knows how to build a queen out of a throne and she knows how to “fit” a poem out of “twine” into a “nest”. In fact, this is Emily showing off how good she is.

As Watchers hang upon the East

Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen
Background Image: Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen

While the previous poem, ‘If this is “fading”‘ dealt with the sun setting, this poem is an image of the sun rising. Here she equates waiting for the sun to come up with a “Beggar” – and not just poor economically, but perhaps a spiritual beggar too – with the hope that there is a “Heaven” to come. She replaces the darkness with “the lid of Amethyst” as light satisfies faith.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty about heaven in this poem. The most unusual line is the final line of the first stanza, “Heaven beguiles the tired”. When I first read this I passed over it quickly assuming she meant that “Heaven” is given respite to the tired, but there is an odd paradox in this line in that how can “Heaven” deceive (“beguile”) and why is “Heaven” deceiving the tired? Is she referring to “the tired” as an apostrophe which needs to be driven out of the “Beggar”, or are “the tired” the same people who are the “Watchers” who are up before dawn as they “hang upon the East” (stand waiting for the sun to rise) and heaven is deceiving them? She describes the “Watchers” as being “Beggars” who are “too far for the delight” of the “brooks” which are the oasis in the “Deserts”. Thus while there is the image of people waiting for the relief of dawn, she introduces an uncertainty that “Heaven” will actually appear.

The second stanza seems at first to resolve this issue of waiting as “the East / Opens the lid of Amethyst / And lets the morning go” – which, by the way, is a remarkable image of a sunrise – but she ends the stanza with the question “if true”, as if “Heaven” really can satisfy the needs of the “Beggar”. Emily has no doubt the sun will rise in the astronomical heavens, but even as she looks at this glorious sunrise, she still seems to doubt if there is a spiritual heaven after all. She leaves us wondering if the need each of us (might) have for an afterlife will actually be satisfied and will we beggars be presented with the jewel (“Amethyst”) of heaven to cure our hunger? She has the hunger and desire for faith, but she also has her doubts if “Heaven” is “true”.

Yet there is another way to read the final line of the poem this is not as doubtful. She could be suggesting that “Heaven” exists for us “if true”, meaning if WE are true. A true person (an honest, good person) will be presented with the jewel of “Heaven” if they have enough faith. And this dual meaning could be her way of describing how we are all spiritual beggars full of needs and doubts and how easily we can be beguiled by the possibility that there could be a brook somewhere in our desert but which is too “far off” for us in our own lifetimes. The image of wandering in a desert is right out of Exodus and Moses never did enter the promised land, but he believed it existed and he was able to at least see his “Heaven” because he remained “true”.

This is a very clever poem which can be read as someone who has a tremendous amount of faith or as someone who has doubts which makes this a very human and honest poem because who doesn’t have doubts? Even when we are presented with a feast or a beautiful sunrise, we can still find a way to doubt, and on the other hand even when we are wandering in a desert, we can still be filled with faith that there is a brook to satisfy our thirst. It’s odd how when presented with evidence we doubt and yet we believe more strongly when we lack any evidence at all.

If this is “fading”

Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness
Background Image: Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness

Instead of describing a sunset – which is what a lesser poet would do – here she almost seems to become the sunset itself. She also mimics the slowness of the sun setting as it first fades, then dies, then sleeps, and in the final two lines she travels into the world of sleep where she both says good night to her “Fellow men” but also greets the world of “Fellow men” in dreams.

I wonder what the first humans thought was happening the first time they got tired and went to sleep – did they think they were dying? Did the first humans watch the sun setting and think the world was coming to an end? Scientifically speaking, they didn’t since all life on earth would have been accustomed to the setting sun and our evolutionary ancestors were falling asleep long before we left the trees to walk about the savanna. Yet the first humans were also the first living creatures to have (as far as we know) the capacity for poetry and this poem does seem to tap into a sort of ancient and mythic territory where the body journeys into a realm of spirits at nighttime.

The first verb of the poem is “fading” as she watches the light slowly “fade” from the day sky. This is a peaceful image and if you’ve ever really sat and watched a sunset it almost seems as if the process only takes place in hindsight since the actual changes are nearly imperceptible. Thus, for Emily, if life is fade from the body, then let it be like this, let it be gradual, painless, and serene.

The next verb, “dying” is her equating the dying light of the day with the death of the “fading” body. And this image is nothing new in poetry – countless poets good and bad have made the connection with the setting sun and death, but she puts an unusual twist on the image by asking for her “dying” body to be wrapped in “such a shroud of red”. This creates the image of her body somehow being aloft in the reddening sky as the sunset envelopes her. This image is what made me think she was tapping into something very ancient, almost shamanistic where the spirit is carried into the heavens as the “dying” light consumes the body and the two become one. It’s a striking image.

The next verb is of “sleep”. Again, equating sleep and death is nothing new, but here she is mimicking her action of watching the sun go down with her own eyes closing. In effect we are falling asleep with her “On such a night” and she has prepared us for the dreams to come with her image of being buried “in such a shroud of red”.

And she completes the image of sleep with “Good evening” which is actually a cute pun in that she’s saying this “evening” has been “good”, but also the word “evening” does not just mean nighttime, it also means a leveling – to even something out – which completes the image of the body and the sunset becoming one. And it is at this point where we are in the dream because not only does she say the usual “Good evening” to those we wish a pleasant sleep, but this “Good evening” can also be a greeting that she announces to her “gentle Fellow men”. And who are these “men”? Well, the image of the “Peacock” and all its eyes could be the eyes of all the “gentle Fellow men” who are also falling asleep at the same time and as the “Peacock” closes its feathers as the sun sets under the horizon, all the eyes close together and journey into the land of dreams as everyone “presumes to die”. And thus the poem ends when we are fully asleep.

Talk with prudence to a Beggar

The Beggar Maid, 19th century
Background Image: The Beggar Maid, 19th century

As in the previous poem, ‘“Arcturus’ is his other name‘, this is also a poem about empathy, about understanding the situation of another human being but this poem is also asking the reader to be aware of how your own situation, while perhaps more favorable (at the moment, anyway), is not something you should gloat about or lord over somebody with. This is one of those poems politicians would do well to read and take to heart.

It’s hard not to wonder if Emily was thinking about the situation in the American South, particularly slavery when she wrote this. The final line, “Have sometime proved deadly sweet” has an ominous tone to it, as if the person who has to listen about someone’s silver mines in “Potosi” Bolivia, and their collection of “wines” and good food (“viands”) is on the verge of becoming violent and will use violence to improve their own situation.

Another unusual aspect of this poem is that it is not religious, there is no mention of about the riches a person will find in the next life. How many biblical stories are about the meek inheriting the earth, about the glory and riches they will find in heaven as long as they remain obedient in poverty while alive? Emily seems to be challenging this message by saying that you will only make someone more miserable – violent even – if you preach to them about how they should live when they have so little. One wonders if Emily had in mind preachers who were wealthy but taught the virtue of poverty while at the same time taking what little money the poor had before moving on. I don’t know what experience she may have had with such people, but she probably was at least aware that there were scam artists working under the guise of religion.

“Arcturus” is his other name

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby
Background Image: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby

Gertrude Stein wrote on her 1935 essay Poetry & Grammar that “a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known”. And at the end of Emily’s poem she hopes that God will be like Stein and see past all the nouns and adjectives used to classify her and still allow her into heaven because he loves her.

Before I get into ‘classifying’ this poem I believe I should be self-aware enough to realize that the more we pull apart a poem the more we’re likely to kill it or at least leave it in a state wholly unrecognizable from what its author intended. What Emily is asking in this poem is that we look beyond classifications and judgments and rather see into the heart of a person no matter how “Old fashioned” or “naughty” or “everything” else they are and “lift” them over the threshold and into our hearts. And so it’s with a leaky bucket of irony that I dig into this poem.

The poem can be divided up into two halves. The first half is, I believe, not only examples of things that are harmed when we classify them, but she is also referring to herself with each example.

For example, “Arcturus” comes from the myth of Arcas and his mother Callisto. Callisto had been turned into a bear and when Arcas was out hunting he almost killed her but Zues intervened and also turned Arcas into a bear and placed them both in the sky as stars. Emily empathizes with “Arcturus” because though he was once a great king, he is now just a bright star in the constellation Boötes. The key here is that, like the final stanza, Zeus (God) recognizes that the bear is actually Callisto and so he prevents a tragedy – Zeus sees past the classification of a bear and can peer into the heart inside to know its true essence the same way Emily hopes God will see past her sins and still allow her into heaven.

In the second stanza she is not only describing a scene in which she is corrected by a passing savant (“Savan”) when she misidentifies a centipede as a worm, but she is also identifying with the worm as an allusion to Job 25: 6, “how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” In other words, humanity can be vile and wicked like a maggot – even the first man (Adam) was little better than a “worm” in that he was born of the earth and dirt. However, her use of Resurgam”, which means “I shall rise again”, speaks to how we shall be transformed from lowly dirt-based creatures into something greater. Thus sinners that we are (like maggots) we can still be allowed into heaven. However, she is also commenting on how the scientist – the “Savan” (savant / genius / smart person) does not see the value of the worm / centipede because they are only interested in classifying the object and is not able or willing to see the spirit of the creature. This is what Stein means when she says in her essay that:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes.

Emily has the “intensity of emotion” about her subject (the worm) even though she doesn’t know the noun (“centipede”) that some smart person has given it – she sees past the noun and into the spirit.

The third stanza is interesting in that she is very self-aware about her own actions. Emily loves to pick flowers and give them to friends, but she also identifies herself (and her poetry) with flowers. Here she compares her actions to that of being a “monster” which, like being a “worm” or being “naughty” might prevent her from being accepted into heaven. In fact, if admission into heaven were up to other humans, nobody would get in because we’re so busy classifying and judging each other as monsters and sinners – we rarely look into the soul of a person, we only see their noun-quality and their adjectives such as ‘Emily is a wicked monster’. Gertrude Stein would never say this because she looks beyond the noun (Emily – and also monster) and discards the adjective (wicked). She transforms Emily – “Resurgam” – as Callisto and Arcas were transformed because she is like Zeus who can see into a person’s heart / spirit.

The fourth stanza is easy to read as just being about a “Butterfly” because butterflies have transformed just like Arcas and Callisto, but Emily is instead pushing the action of the “Savan” and alludes to how an etymologist pins butterflies to a base so that they can be studied. Emily here is concerned with being judges, with being put on display, but not in a way that people will see into her heart, but are only concerned with surface details, with her biology and physical attributes and is classified as a “centipede” and not in the way Stein would see Emily as an artist. This image also plays on stanza three in which she is only on display and could be a reference to her own poetry in which someone might read her poem and think it’s pretty but without actually taking it to heart. She’s worried that her poetry might just be used as decoration, like a flower in a vase or a butterfly broach on a dress, and not see the meaning of why the flower was given to someone or why the butterfly broach was given as a gift.

Thus the four nouns of the opening stanzas: the bear, the worm, the flower, and the butterfly deal with transformation and also her anxiety over being misidentified and classified as something that she isn’t. She worried that Arcas will not recognize her and will only see the bear and shoot her.

The final four stanzas thus pose the questions to the reader as to what if we do the work as Zeus (and Gertrude Stein) did and look at each other with new eyes. She asks in stanza five what heaven is like now since scientists have classified it as just a “Zenith” – does it still exist? Is Zeus still up there looking down on us? In other words, is there any magic left in heaven now that we think we understand what the heavens are? Or, to put it another way, do we truly see the beauty of a poem after we’ve classified it and pulled it apart and put it on display? Do we have the ability, like Zeus, to truly see into the spirit of another human being or a poem, to look beyond a simple classification and see the beating heart and vital spirit within?

This is the twist inside this poem in that she is asking if we have the power of the Gods to look beyond mere appearances and use our tools of inquiry to find the truth inside the human heart. In other words, can our predisposition to classify everything the way science does, actually lead to truth?

In stanza six she asks us to look at the world in the way a child does when they stand on their head and look at everything upside down. We adults don’t often do this because we are accustomed to not goofing around and sticking our butts in the air – we see it only as a childish “prank” – but a child hasn’t been indoctrinated into the adult language of classifying the universe and thus they are more likely to see past a bear and imagine it as a goddess – Callisto – the way Zeus can.

Emily is also asking us to stop looking at the stars (the “poles”) as if they are just a specific named star such as “Arcturus” and rather slew our understanding in the opposite direction to look at the universe with fresh eyes.

Stanza seven plays with the childlike playfulness and “prank” of stanza six and expresses her anxiety that perhaps the “Children” have all grown up and will “laugh at me” for being so foolish. She’s worried that even the children will not see past her exterior and will judge her only her on some of her “naughty” actions. She’s worried that they will only see her sins and not her virtues which are often buried deep inside the heart. If we recall the image of the flower in the vase then to a passerby they would not know that such a flower had been a gift of friendship between people who care about each other, they only see a pretty flower in a vase, but to the people involved they do understand the significance of that flower – in fact they may even have a special name for that flower, a noun that nobody else knows and is significant to only the parties concerned.

Thus Emily hopes that God too will know the truth of the flower as she flips the “poles” of this poem to mirror the beginning in which Zeus saw the truth and placed his children in heaven. Here she hopes God will do the same and see past her sins and “lift his little girl” into the heavens as well and place her among the stars the way Arcas and Callisto were. Emily literally transforms the poem from a classical allusion to ancient myth to her own desire for God to do the same when it is her time.

My friend attacks my friend!

The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme
Background Image: The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme

You can feel Emily’s frustration at getting involved between the argument of two friends, one of which turns on her for interfering, and which ultimately leads to her wanting to just shoot everyone, herself included, to be done with this nonsense. We never learn what the friends are quarreling about, but it must be something petty – which is interesting because it escalates into tragedy.

The difference between tragedy and comedy is that in a comedy the characters are usually unaware that their actions (their shortcomings) are the cause of their failures, while in a tragedy the characters are painfully aware (at least by the end of the story) that their shortcomings are leading to their failure yet they are unwilling to do anything to prevent the tragic outcome.

In this poem Emily sees both the comedic and the tragic qualities of getting involved in an argument between friends. At first she is more than happy to just watch this “Battle picturesque” as one “friend attacks” the other “friend”. The word “picturesque” is worth digging into because it doesn’t just mean a pretty scene that is “pleasing or striking in appearance; scenic” (OED), it can also be used figuratively to describe something “strikingly graphic or vivid, colorful; (ironically) careless of the truth, esp. for effect”, such as a line Jack London writes in Sea Wolf, “For the first time in my life I experienced the desire to murder—‘saw red’, as some of our picturesque writers phrase it” (emphasis mine). Thus the use of this word hints at the possibility that the friends are bickering over something trivial or are having a simple misunderstanding.

However, Emily gets involved by line three, “Then I turn Soldier too”. We don’t know why she has jumped in, but perhaps she has because she thought the issue could be easily solved since it seemed so petty to her as an observer. There isn’t a line break or a dash leading into line three (in fact the poem is devoid of her unusual punctuation), rather she just jumps right in assuming she will find a solution to the issue. Yet in line four one of her friends – and she carefully chooses not to say which one because it could as well be either of them – turns on her and mocks her for getting involved. It might also be worth noting that she uses then pronoun “he”, not ‘she’ or ‘her’ so she might be writing about her frustrations at dealing with pig headed men who refuse to back down from an argument with each other and will turn on anyone who tries to get in the way. Not that women aren’t equally guilty of being stubborn in an argument, but she is equating this poem’s military and war imagery (“attack”, “Battle”, “Soldier”, “martial”, “gun”, “shoot”m and “glory”) with a male pronoun.

The final four lines of the poem are pure frustration with the situation she finds herself in which she expresses nicely with hyperbolic image of a gin so large she could shoot everyone, including herself, and just be done with it all. Thus in the end she combines the comic aspects of the poem with a tragic ending in which everyone dies. And I think this is important because I wonder if we think of the argument between her two friends as a political argument between the situation going on in the United States at the time. Many people in the north, especially in New England, believed they had the moral high ground concerning the issue with the South, but there were many people in the North who benefited from the South’s exploitation of slaves. Arguments over what to do in the lead up to the US Civil War would eventually become brother fighting brother on the battlefield during the war. Thus this poem seems to predict the tragedy and the comedy of the political situation in America at the time, especially the ending which sees the issue resolved with extreme violence.

In fact, if she did perhaps have the political climate in mind when she wrote this, we can feel her exasperation with the situation in that she feels totally powerless to bring about a resolution to an argument she sees as about to turn tragic in a comically awful way. And I’m not saying there is anything funny about the US Civil War or that she was making light of it, I’m using comedy in the darker sense like the way the film Dr. Strangelove looks at the tragedy of impending doom through the lens of a comedy in which everyone involved is an idiot – a dangerous and armed idiot.

In rags mysterious as these

Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens
Background Image: Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens

I wonder if by “these” “rags” she means the words of a poem? Words are only a signifier, not the thing signified, and so they are like “shining Courtiers” asking for the wealthy recipient to pay them attention – in other words, words can only transmit an idea, but it’s up to the person receiving the idea (or the poem) to turn it into action (“alms”).

Emily collected many of her poem in a series of fascicles which were hand sewn and which represented the work she believed should be part of a collection of her best (or perhaps favorite) work. Thus it’s possible “these” “rags” could be referring to her fascicles and that “In” them her poems are the “shining Courtiers” that she hopes will be good enough to be read – perhaps even celebrated one day – by someone of importance (who lives behind “some imposing door”).

So many of Emily’s poem contain words which can be read multiple ways – for example in “Low at my problem bending” – and while she often reveled in this wordplay, I wonder if she was also somewhat skeptical about words and how they sometimes fail to get across what she meant. Some of her poems seem to hint at an insecurity as to the quality of her work, such as in “Ambition cannot find him” and “For every Bird a Nest“. And given her secretive nature she seems to me to be someone who was concerned that while on the one hand she must have known how talented she was, she also might have worried that nobody else would understand what she was trying to say in her art. How many times have each of us said something that the other person took in completely the opposite way in which we meant to the point that it might have caused an argument?

This is the problem with words. A word is like a beggar dressed in “rags” that goes about asking for “alms”. And these beggar words can fill multiple roles as they wander about looking for a home because they are eager for work and can do multiple jobs of they’re allowed to. Take, for example, to word “imposing” in this poem. At first glance it seems as if she is using the word only to refer to the “door” and how it elicits a sense of fear or at least skepticism as to what lay behind it. When a beggar goes to the door of a rich person that beggar will be fearful of the door being slammed in their face. However, the word “imposing” also a term used in the printing process and means “The arrangement of pages of type in a ‘forme’” (OED). Emily has cleverly hidden (in plain sight) an allusion to the act of writing and, more importantly, publishing. Thus she could be saying that the “imposing door” belongs to an editor or publisher and that she is concerned that her “rags” will not be accepted for publication.

In other words, she is not sure her words are good enough. She very much wants her words to connect to the reader, to have an image such as a “golden floor” come to life in the imagination of the reader, but she seems to intuit the fragile relationship between what a word signifies and how it is acts as a signifier – a relationship which the modernists, such as Gertrude Stein, will explore nearly half a century after Emily’s death. After all, a “golden floor” does not necessarily one inlaid with rare metals of enormous value because “golden” can also refer to something being “superficially or misleadingly attractive” (OED) and thus she again hides in plain sight her apprehension and insecurity as to the worth and value of her words. She worries we won’t “get it” – and perhaps nobody really would, at least until the modernists.

Yet there also seems to be an element within the poem in which she is hoping that her beggar words will be treated the way the ancient Greeks treated the stranger as a possible God in disguise. A word might show up at your door and if you turn it away you might incur the wrath of Zeus, but if you let it in then a humble word which seemed to only be so poor as to have only one small meaning, could turn out to be a “golden” and “imposing” deity whose “purple” and “plumes” and “ermine” had been veiled under “rags”.

In other words, this poem celebrates reading into a poem, while also keeping intact the insecurity we feel when we’re not sure what we are saying is being received as intended.

I had some things that I called mine

Time of Harvesting, 1887, Grigoriy Myasoyedov
Background Image: Time of Harvesting, 1887, Grigoriy Myasoyedov

A common reading of this poem is that she is suing God for bringing an early frost to her garden, and this may have been her initial inspiration, however, what is more interesting going on is she is speaking up for the working person who is wronged by their employer but has no recourse for damages, a ruling set forth in Shaw’s Farwell v. Boston & Worcester Railroad decision in 1842.

The Fellow-Servant Rule was a legal term in United States’ labor law that said an employee cannot sue an employer for damages when they are injured by a co-worker: a fellow servant. The law said the victim should go after the co-worker for compensation but they cannot pursue “Action” against their employer. In Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road a worker lost their hand due to the negligence of a coworker but was ultimately unsuccessful in suing the Boston and Worcester Rail Road company because of Lemuel “Shaw” who was the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice who wrote the decision saying that only the responsible coworker can be blamed and that the company they both worked for was immune to liability. This employer friendly view on workplace injury would last for nearly a century until Workplace Compensation was enacted in every US state in 1949.

So what does this have to do with Emily’s poem?

In the final line of the poem she writes ‘I retain “Shaw”‘ which has two meanings. First she is referencing Lemuel Shaw mentioned above, but she is also making a reference to one of her family’s day laborers, Henry Shaw. Thus “Shaw” refers to both the employer (Lemuel Shaw being the stand-in for en employer since it was his legal decision that gave immunity to employers) and the employee who is at greatest risk from injury but is unable to sue for damages.

Thus the whole poem can be read from two different points of view, the point of view of the laborer who has been injured and wants to sue their employer, or it can be read from the point of view of the employer who does not believe they are responsible for the actions of their employees. For example, the first line of the poem is “I had some things that I called mine” could refer to the poor laborer who only has “some things” (e.g. is poor and has very few things) or it could refer to the employer who has “some things that I called mine”, meaning they are the owners. The second line strengthens this tension between two parties who oppose each other by introducing “God”, however it is left intentionally unclear if “God” is the plaintiff or the defendant in this “rival claim” between parties who, up until recently, had been amicable (“amities”).

In the second stanza Emily describes the workplace as “The property, my garden” in which the work of sowing there has been done “with care”. Again, she does not state who is the true owner here, it could be her “garden” or it could be God’s garden; she is deliberately being ambiguous as to who the employer is here. Granted, it would feel like common sense to say that “God” is the employer, he did force us out of the Garden of Eden to a mortal life of hard labor after all, but that would be selling the poem short because she is making a case for her own authority and for what she believes she has a right to. The poem is far more interesting when we consider she could also be arguing that “God” is her servant and that she wants to sue him for damages. Of course we know this is a futile case, even a little comical, but who has never felt that the universe was being unfair to them and thus wanted some sort of retribution for a wrong done to them, even if it’s a case they know they can’t win?

The second line of the second stanza is worth looking at closer, specifically how the work that has gone on in this garden as been done “with care”. Emily is saying that either the workers have been working carefully and that what happened is the fault of the employer (who is not careful) or she is saying that the employer has made sure that everything that goes on in this “garden” has been done with care and that anyone acting dangerously is thus liable for their own actions.

The final two lines of the second stanza are also ambiguous lines in that the action of claiming “the pretty acre” could be from the point of view of the employer who is claiming ‘Hey, I own the garden’ or from the point of view of the injured employee who is claiming that they have a claim on that property in the form of monetary compensation (such as a lean on a property in which one party claims the property of another). Finally, a “Bailiff” (the law / the police) is sent in to preside over this “rival claim”, but it’s unclear who sent the “Bailiff” because Emily’s use of a dash after “acre” could mean either she has sent the “Bailiff” or “God” has sent the “Bailiff”.

The first two lines of the third stanza talks about the “station” or the social position of the people involved in this case and how because of their “station” they can’t be held responsible under the law. In other words, if she is on the side of the employer then this “station” is referring to how the employer is not responsible for the negligent actions of their employees, however if she is on the side of the employee these lines could be read as their “station” being such that as employees only they are responsible for each other and thus can only sue each other and not the employer. Thus either they are rich and can’t be held accountable, or they are poor and thus the case between employer and employee must be thrown out.

However, the last two lines of the third stanza reveals the motivation behind each party’s claim to a lawsuit by saying that just because one party has “Arms” (weapons) or has a certain “pedigree” (either they are rich, or a poor laborer), “Justice is sublimer” than either of these things and that the court case will proceed, perhaps all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. She is saying everyone is equal under the power of the law, but she’s saying that ironically because of course a person can’t sue “God” and so He can do whatever he wants, just as an employer can do whatever they want or, in terms of the Fellow-Servant Law, poor laborers can do whatever they want too since their employer won’t be held responsible. In other words, the law is not equal for all.

The first two lines of the final stanza could once again be read one of two ways: either she is the employer of the “garden” who will ‘institute an “Action” in court to protect herself from her negligent employees, or she is the employee who is suing their employer for negligent activity.

The final line of the poem completes this wonderful poem’s ability to play both sides of the coin with the use of “Shaw” either being her retaining the services of Lemuel Shaw who will side with the employer, or she is siding with the poor laborer, Henry Shaw, and is thus on the side of the working person.

So why doesn’t she ever take a side in this poem? It would seem that taking the side of the injured worker would be the moral choice, but notice how she has set this legal case up to be the poor worker in the “garden” against “God”. How can a person have the right to sue “God”? It’s absurd, right? Especially when “God” is also the judge and so how can we possibly expect that we could get a fair hearing when “God” is the judge, jury, and executioner? Of course for someone who is one of God’s faithful they will say that God is perfect and would not make an errors in judgment, but our own courts and laws are made up of imperfect people and imperfect laws that must be decided as impartially as possible. Thus I believe she wrote this poem to remain ambiguous as to allow we, the reader, to make up our own mind, to allow us to play “God” for a moment and thus experience how difficult it would be to rule in a case where both parties have an equal claim and neither are actually guilty even though there is an injured party. This is an impossible case to adjudicate, yet a decision must be reached regardless and she leaves us to argue the case on our own.

This is a remarkable poem, especially since it probably stemmed from her just wanting to complain about an early frost in her garden that might have injured her flowers. The poem also expresses her willfulness against authority which we’ve seen in the poems she wrote complaining to her father about being woken up too early, such as in “Where bells no more affright the morn” and “Sleep is supposed to be“.

What Inn is this

Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez
Background Image: Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez

In her poem “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently” the traveler voyages across the sea that connects life and the afterlife and during a threatening storm she meets a guide who helps her to the shores of (perhaps) heaven. In this poem, however, whatever happens after death is more like a prison (or a Hotel California) and the guide is a Necromancer who rules over the guests. She paints a much more sinister image than she previously has and this shift speaks to her imagination.

While she does not say in the poem that the “Peculiar Traveler” is in hell, there are a few clues which might lead us to believe that’s what she had in mind. For example, the word “Peculiar” does not necessarily mean odd or strange, it also can refer to someone who is distinguished but, more importantly, it has a New England regional definition meaning “a district or piece of land not (yet) incorporated in or as a town”. Thus we could read “Peculiar Traveler” as a traveler who has journeyed to a peculiar land – land which is not attached to the mortal realm or perhaps heaven. And though “peculiar” in this sense is obsolete, it was current up until 1815 and probably remained in common / spoken usage when Emily was writing.

Another very unusual word is “Necromancer”. Obviously we think of someone who communes with the dead, but a necromancer is also a name for a chafing-dish which is a vessel that keeps food warm until it is served. And how could these things possibly be related? Well perhaps this “Peculiar” place Emily is writing about is sort of a way-station – an “Inn” – where the dead are kept warm enough until they can continue on their way to better accommodations. However, we could get even more morbid and look at the word “Necromancer” in relation to the empty “tankards” and the cold “hearth” as meaning that this particular “Traveler” is about to be feasted upon in this “Inn”. In other words, there is a slight reference to a sort of cannibalism where the “Landlord” will feast upon the dead and this activity will fill the “tankards” and light the “hearth”. There is even a possible allusion to the sacrament of the Eucharist which by eating the body of Christ has sometimes been viewed as consuming someone’s body to prolong life – though in the case of Christianity it is to partake of Christ’s everlasting promise of life after this one.

However, if we reign in that imagery to not be so gruesome, she could also be referring to the body of a corpse. The word “hearth” shares a relationship with ‘heart’ thus the traveler’s heart here has stopped (they are dead) and the “tankards” could refer to the blood of the body. In other words, she could be talking about a morgue where all the bodies are like travelers at an “Inn” but the “Landlord” is the mortician who prepares the body to make it’s final journey to their final home with the rest who are “below”. And since the dead do not need to eat there is no need for “maids” nor for “brimming tankards” nor for “ruddy fires on the hearth”.

Low at my problem bending

El coloso, 1825, Francisco Goya
Background Image: El coloso, 1825, Francisco Goya

Who can’t relate to this poem? Whenever you deal with one problem, something bigger and requiring even more effort to deal with comes along and demands your full attention. In the end we’re left in exhaustion and bewilderment at the problems life is always throwing at us and which we must always be subservient to.

The Oxford English Dictionary is our best friend because looking up even the simplest of words opens up a whole world of possibilities for us to examine Emily’s poetry. For example, she begins the poem with the word “low” which is not unusual in poetry, except that a poet usually uses the word ‘lo’ (as in lo and behold) and means “to direct attention to the presence or approach of something, or to what is about to be said” (OED). Yet here she plays on this standard interjection by not only implying that something is approaching (a bigger problem) but that she has been bent “low” by this problem. Thus not only is she announcing something, she is also expressing how it has power over her. In fact if we consider that she might have been inspired by her father working on some difficult financial matters, he would appear to be bent low over his books with a “busy pencil” as he tries to solve a problem that has “baffled him”.

The next word worth looking up is “serener”. Again, like ‘lo’, this is not an uncommon word to find in a poem, but again she is playing with its multiple possible definitions. For example, while the common meaning is in describing something that is calm and clear, it is also used as an honorific to someone of great importance. Just as with “low” in which the poem begins immediately with the image of someone “bending” under the weight of their problems, “serener” describes this problem as so large, so stately that it overwhelms every other aspect of life the way a king demands loyalty from their subjects. Even the sound of the word “serener” has within in it the sound of the word ‘sir’ which one might use to address someone who outranks you.

And rank is important here because the word “check” in line 5 is doing more work than Emily just looking at her “busy pencil” as it works across the page because “check” is a term used in chess when the king is in danger of capture. And this is an interesting image because she is not just implying that her problems have her in check, but that she is attempting to use her “pencil” to attack her problems and possibly put them in check. In other words, the act of writing the poem is an act of fighting back thus line five could be read as “I check [my problems with] my busy pencil”. Thus she (or her father) work on figures in their books, yet they “file away” the way a soldier in their ranks down when they march off to war (or in defeat after battle). Over and over she is using words which imply military action: “serener” as in the person in charge, “check” as in a military attack and even the checkered pattern on a herald as one would see in medieval warfare, and “file” which describes the formation of the soldiers doing battle against the problem.

Yet in the end her “fingers” are like soldiers fleeing from a battle that has been lost and thus she is in even greater confusion as to how to deal with her problems now than before she began. This is a wonderful image because if we look at this poem as her writing about the process of writing a poem, she is successful in expressing the difficulty of the artist in capturing the thought or thesis they had set out to express and how very often the problem can’t be solved and the poem might be left unsolved. Yet she is able to solve the problem even though the poem ends in total confusion – a trick on Emily can pull off by saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, a talent she uses even in her careful word selection, especially with simple words such as “low” and “check”.

It is also worth mentioning that as this poem appears in her fifth fascicle from the summer of 1859, she might also be expressing the anxiety of a nation that was dealing with a highly uncertain future. The American Civil War would officially begin in fewer than two years, and so she might be combining the image of her father at his books trying to keep his finances in order as war looms, with that of the many people who were writing in the newspapers at the time trying to deal with the looming problem of a possible war on the horizon, with her own issues to create art in troubled times. In each possibility, there is the image of people writing: her father in his books, the journalists and essayists in the papers, and the artist in their journals, and all of them dealing with a looming problem that outweighed all others and would outweigh all others to a degree nobody had yet imagined – except perhaps Emily whose poem express a tremendous anxiety for a future that does not seem to see a solution to these problems.

South Winds jostle them

Girls Picking Flowers in a Summer Landscape, 1893, Gaston Bussiere
Background Image: Girls Picking Flowers in a Summer Landscape, 1893, Gaston Bussiere

Once again Emily is writing about writing. Here she is writing a poem about flowers yet the poem never once mentions flowers, rather she focuses on the life that surrounds a flower such as “Bumblebees”, “Butterflies” and the act of “plucking”. Yet it is within the universe of poem in which this activity occurs and thus the meaning of a thing is defined by it relationship to other things.

Apparently this poem was a favorite of hers to send to other people along with some actual flowers which she had picked herself. Thus the poem and the flowers were a reminder to the recipient of Emily and Emily’s thoughtfulness towards them and helped to strengthen the relationship between them and though Emily was absent, the flowers and the poem were a representation of her, just as the poem represents the flowers which are absent within the poem.

Digging deeper into this poem reveals that Emily as the artist, if she is like the flower, disappears within the poem. She is revealed only though other people’s relationship to her, yet she remains elusive. Her friends, such as Thomas Higginson whom this poem had been sent to, are here represented as the “Bumblebees” and the “Butterflies” who “come” and “pause” at her flower and have traveled a great distance “On their passage Cashmere” to “Drink” from her. And though after “plucking” the flowers does she “Present them here”, she herself is not present. Thus she is both “here” and yet not “here”, and her present stands in place of her actual presence.

On another level she is also describing the problem with representing anything in art. No matter how well the poet describes the flower a poem can never actually be a flower – the flower will always be absent and in its place will be only words. Yet her genius is in not describing the flower at all and rather centers her attention on everything surrounding the flower. This has the effect of her seeming to slip unseen into her own art and puts the emphasis on other people without putting the focus on her, yet she can’t help but also become the true focus here because in her absence we can clearly see her in the poem as the flower we know she is writing about. In other words, for someone who remained hidden away and didn’t seem to want a lot of attention, she was nevertheless at the center of everyone’s attention by hiding herself in plain sight within her poetry. Thus Emily is everywhere and nowhere.

Perhaps she would give this poem as a gift because it was a clever way to get the recipient to think about her without her actually having to come right out and say, “Hey, it’s me, Emily and you should remember me!” And so this is wonderfully clever poem in which though she is giving someone a gift as if to say that she only wants to person a selfless act of gift-giving, winds up actually putting the attention back on her by forcing the recipient to remember her even though there is a “passage Cashmere” distance between them.

“Good night,” because we must!

Flammarion engraving from L'atmosphère - météorologie populaire, 1888, Unkonwn
Background Image: Flammarion engraving from L’atmosphère – météorologie populaire, 1888, Unkonwn

Curious Emily wants to take a peek into what lies beyond death but what’s interesting here is that she doesn’t seem to have any problem believing (at least in this poem) that there is a god (“Father”) and Seraphs, so if she is confident there is an afterlife why does she need to take a look for herself? Is she testing faith? Is she asking God why he feels the need to keep us in the dark about eternity?

Her previous poem, “Our share of night to bear” has a possible allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book V when Raphael visits Adam and Eve after Eve has a disturbing dream where an angel eats the forbidden fruit. God has instructed Raphael to reveal everything to Adam and Eve so that they will not be tricked into sinning, but rather will have the free will to make their own decisions because they’ve been given all the information they need. In other words, God is not withholding vital information from them.

In this poem she continues the theme of knowledge by asking God why he has blocked off the gates of Eden. In Genesis 3: 24 “[God] drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life”. Humanity is barred from seeing beyond their own mortal limitations and thus are deprived of the information we could use to know one way or the other if a paradise truly awaits us after we die. Emily desires to “go” “Incognito” (perhaps a nod towards Dante whom only Virgil and Beatrice recognized in his journey beyond the pale) and see for herself because she believes she has a right to know the truth.

The irony here is that she is committing the failures as Satan in questioning God’s authority and assuming she should have the same knowledge as God. Her use of the word “saucy” is not so much her describing the elusive “Seraph” who guards paradise, but is describing herself as being insolent to her superior: God.

However, her intentions are even more mysterious because of her use of the word “tell”. First she wants the angles to “tell me” and then she asks “Father” to “tell” them to “tell” her. The issue here is if she wants to actually go to paradise and see it with her own eyes, why does she need to be told anything? To “tell” is part of a narrative, and in Emily’s case might refer to her own poetry in that she wants to be inspired, perhaps in the way Milton was to write great poetry that glorifies paradise / nature / her own beliefs. Her playful use of “o” assonance in lines three and four of the first stanza could represent her efforts to “go to know” through her clever use of words, but because there is an infinite chasm between the two stanzas (the blank space) she is unable to cross over and truly represent paradise in her poem because it is blocked to her. The “saucy Seraph” has eluded her and will not “tell” (inspire) her and she represents through the second stanza’s breakdown of the rhyme. Stanza one follows an AABB, however stanza 2 follows CBDB, with B trying to rhyme with her desire to see paradise in the previous stanza, but the final word, “to” uses a slant that feels out of place because she doesn’t have the inspiration to “tell” a poem that portrays paradise.