Category Archives: Repin, Ilya

One dignity delays for all

Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk, 1883, Ilya Repin
Background Image: Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk, 1883, Ilya Repin

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 feet of people walking home

Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1873, Ilya Repin
Background Image: Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1873, Ilya Repin

My initial reading of this poem reminded me of TS Eliot’s poem, Preludes. In that poem the people are described only by their “muddy feet” and the trash they leave behind as they walk through this wasteland of a life. The final image of his poem is that of lives as being no different than the poor “ancient women” who gather wood scraps for heat in the “vacant lots”. It’s a bleak image and I think Emily’s poem reminded me of it because of her image of the “Bargemen” who, as was the job a long time ago, walked along the shore dragging a heavy cargo boat behind them. It was pure drudgery and hard, unpleasant work, and was made famous by Ilya Repin’s painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga in 1873.

However, unlike Repin and Eliot, Emily’s images are more hopeful, though I believe she has embedded in her poem hints of sorrow, such as a play on the word “bore” to not just mean years of the the “practice” the faithful engage in in preparation for the real thing, but also as in it being boring / rote / repetitive. She also uses the word “Extorted” to describe the labor of the divers rather than use the word extracted. “Extorted” carries with it the image of humanity being extorted by our worldly masters who use us as serfs for their own financial gain, especially in trades such as pearl farming, but the image can be expanded to any labor in which the workers might actually be slaves. This ties back to the singing of “Hallelujah” because there is no other comfort for people who are being “Extorted” and exploited. She even goes as far as to use the word “Larceny”, meaning theft, and it seems as if she is describing our sins as well as how the morning carries away the darkness of the night.

Finally, she describes who her own “figures fail to tell” her how far away heaven really is and that her “Classics” (the bible and other great books) are not forthcoming in revealing when and if “immortality” will be revealed. She describes her “faith” as something that the “Dark” adores, meaning that there is a presence always trying to keep her from faith, to avert her “rapt attention” from the glory of “immortality” and from being able to walk “home”.

However, the poem can also be read much more optimistically than if TS Eliot were critiquing it. For example, she begins with the joyful image of “people walking home” in their “gayer sandals”. This paints an image of the poor and meek who only can afford simple “sandals” but who are free to return to their “home”, a subject she explores in “Water, is taught by thirst“. She also describes the miracle of the “crocus” which blooms right out of the snow, which she explores in “To him who keeps an Orchis heart“. These are both images of the the faithful who, despite hardships, endure the journey towards beauty. And these are the faithful because their “lips” have been praising heaven for “Long years” despite the heavy load they carry – she describes them as “Bargemen”.

The second stanza describes beauty that is hidden or concealed and that one must labor at to find. She describes the prize as a pearl that must be “Extorted” and she also describes the faithful as being like Seraphs whose wings (“Pinions”) are not visible and thus we must walk on our feet until such time as when we can once again soar. Thus she is describing the world we live in as like a “Night” upon which “morning” will eventually paint its picture (like a “canvas”, or dark like underwater where the oysters lay hidden among the rocks. Her movement from describing the “Pinions” to then describing the sky just as morning is about to break is quite remarkable because it literally gives us the sensation of one about to fly.

The final stanza speaks directly of her “faith” that heaven is home and that one day she will grow wings and live as a “peasant” / angel. But it is from her faith alone that “Such resurrection pours”, not from the bible or from her own figuring, there is nothing in this world that she can look at directly and know for sure she will return to any home. She is like the “bargemen” who trudge along carrying a heavy burden with the hope that one day it will be delivered, but that she is not in control of since she is not the owner of the barge or its cargo (perhaps filled with pearls for some wealthy client). She must walk beside the river or resurrection, the river where Jesus baptized the faithful, but also the river Lethe where all is forgotten and thus one must have faith alone that the river will take one home.

There is a lot of beauty and pure faith in this poem, but there is also a burden and a sorrow embedded in it as well. Faith is difficult; life is suffering.