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.