Category Archives: Peter Paul Rubens

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.