This is the sort of poem people have in mind when they think of Emily. Someone has died, even though they didn’t want to (who does?) and so they ask to be admitted to heaven. Her use of morning as a play on mourning is typical of her love of opposites where the morning gives life but also takes it away. Yet the final image of a “little Girl” being turned away is quite sad and reminds me of a continuation of”Taken from men — this morning“.
Her use of “please take a little Girl” is worth considering because she might not be referring to the speaker of the poem. In the first stanza she writes that the narrator was not “tired” of the “Day”; it was “tired of Me” and so she is “coming home”. The narrator is dying, but hasn’t made the journey quite yet. We get the image of a beautiful landscape where the “East is Red” as if she is flying over the forest towards heaven in the “East”. And as she makes this journey she is frightened a little, she says the “Midnight” she is heading towards is “not so fair” as “Day” and that she chooses “Day” (living) over “Midnight” (death).
Thus, when she writes that the speaker asks to “please take a little Girl”, there is a real sense of longing and sadness in having to leave the “Day”. In fact the poem is even a little frightening in that we know the “Day” will not have her back and so she must make a journey she is unwilling to partake of. This opens up the possibility that she is referring not just to death, but to the position of women in the world where youthful innocence is taken from them through marriage and that “Home” is the husband’s “Home” and not the “Home” she grew up in. The mourning of “morning” as the new bride travels through the landscape to her new “Home” is expressed in the fears of the “little girl” who has been taken from her “Home” to a new life.
The most interesting moment in this poem is when she wonders “what myself will say” upon coming home and seeing everyone’s eyes “turn” towards her as she walks in the door. The rest of the poem is filled with longing and expectation, but just as she is about to feel the “fire” of her hearth, doubt creeps in.
You could say this is a road poem, written on the journey as the traveler makes their way home, perhaps by the same person as in “Went up a year this evening!” She could also be saying that home is not just her literal home – such as in Amherst – but home is the afterlife too.
But it is her unusual image of “descending – dumb – and dark” which is quite fascinating. “Descending” is not typically how we think of what happens in the after life when we ascend into heaven. Here she is “descending” which in one reading could be her stepping out of the carriage at night onto the carriage steps and then to the ground below, but it could also be read as “descending” into the underworld – the Greek word being Katabasis which means to descend and which has a long history in art.
In The Odyssey, Book 11, Odysseus descends into the underworld where the dead will only speak once they have drunk from the blood he has brought with him. Upon his arrival he sees that since he has been away on his voyage his mother has died,
Then appeared the ghost of my dead mother, Anticleia, Autolycus’s child. I’d left her still alive when I set off for sacred Troy. Once I caught sight of her, I wept, and I felt pity in my heart. Nonetheless, in spite of my great sorrow, I could not let her get too near the blood, until I’d questioned blind Teiresias.
Odyssey, Book 11, 103-110
Thus in Emily’s poem when she says “To wonder what myself will say / And what itself, will say to me” she is, perhaps, alluding to Odysseus’ anxiety of speaking with the dead, his sorrow at seeing that someone he loved has died, and that the afterlife is not a cheerful place, but a place of darkness where the spirits are “dumb” until they are brought an offering of blood so that they then may speak.
In many of Emily’s poem, the voyage of life is compared with nautical imagery, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, “Whether my bark went down at sea” and “Adrift! A little boat adrift!” so she is part of that long tradition of writers going back to at least Homer who also see life’s voyage as a difficult ocean crossing. Thus as Emily is in her carriage or on her boat in this poem, she is filled with both the happy anticipation of arriving home which she describes with words such as “Extasy” (in her idiosyncratic spelling of this word), “expecting”, “Transporting”, and “fire” (as in the hearth fire of the home), but she is also filled with doubts which she alludes to with “late”, “dumb”, “done expecting”, “Agony”, “burn”, “long-cheated”, and “Beguiles”. She does not use these words in isolation, rather each of them can be read in a positive or a more pessimistic light which illustrates how the traveler who has been away too long – “how late” – will be filled with anxiety for the moment when they finally arrive and the fear of what they might find when they get there.
While the subject of the poem is not terribly profound – where do the dead go? how far a distance between life and death? – it nevertheless expresses the anxiety she might have felt in dying and that the religion of her day doesn’t seem to offer much comfort or any answers. More interesting is that she uses natural imagery to express her wondering and in that the question is answered because it is nature to which we go.
The first stanza deals with the grave which, logically, is the first place we’d look for the dead since that is literally where the body is. Yet though the body might be there, Emily keeps digging in this stanza, she doesn’t stop at “the Grass and the Dirt”, she works her spade harder going past “the Beetle’s Cellar” and “the “Clover’s Root” until, having dug below where even the roots of plants can grow she stops since there is nothing physical beyond this point.
Her genius as a poet is clear with her image of an “Arm” stretching up out of the grave after having been digging around underground for awhile. This image is not just her own arm as she hefts herself out of her excavation, but it’s the image of the “Arm” of the person whom she is seeking and who has crawled away. And she combines this image of movement with units of time to suggest that what she is looking for has moved out of both space and time.
The third stanza is my favorite because it both illuminates the person she seeks with “Light” while also remaining mysterious as to where this person has gone. We can both see and not see where the dead go because they exist with the Forms now and can only intuit them, a theme we’ve seen in “The Poets light but Lamps“, and “I reckon – When I count at all“. She also evokes the image of how the ancient gods would place heroes in the night sky as the constellations with “Over the Cubit’s Head”. This line, though it references the unit of measure derived from the length of a person’s forearm, could be her describing Orion with his sword lifted over his “Head”. Thus whom she looks for has made the heroic journey to the next world and exists only as a memory made of light.
Thus the final stanza realizes that whom she is looking for cannot be found by us mortals because we do not posses the transport required to travel further “than Guess” or further “than Riddle”. Yet she is alluding to the ancient stories humanity has told about the afterlife and that these guesses and riddles could refer to the Bible, Homer, Native American lore, or any of humanity’s attempts to make sense of what happens when we die.
Yet the answer seems to be in the poem the entire time: the natural world. From the “Clover” and the “Beetle” to the “Light” of the stars and comets, we return back to the great engine of life which is nature. That much she can be certain even if she is unsure about where the spirit may go. But even the act of writing a poem is an act of spirituality in that a work of art can bridge the gap between us and the subject and that gap is jumped instantaneously without regard to space or time or any other limitations.
The standard reading here is that you’re not going to find the Lark’s music by splitting her open, however, if you split two larks apart they will sing for each other (as in a mating call). But this poem is meant to be read with as many readings as possible because I think Emily is showing off (perhaps to Thomas Higginson) who maybe doubted (John 20: 24-25) the music of her poetry.
Let’s consider Emily’s and Thomas’ relationship as that of two songbirds who are separated by a distance and thus sing to each other through their correspondence. In this way two people are not that much different than two lark’s who sing for each other in the meadow. And though I’m not implying there is more to their relationship beyond professional and friendly correspondence, I do think Emily is connecting birdsong to that of human speech and writing – we’re all trying to communicate what is in our hearts and minds as well as possible. Thus when two birds are “Split” they will sing all the louder for each other.
And I think that it is in context of their correspondence that this poem can be truly enjoyed because perhaps Thomas Higginson was too harsh to some of her poetry or perhaps he read into something that wasn’t there and this annoyed Emily to the point of writing this poem. I have no evidence for this, but the fact that she begins a poem with a line that means you’re not going to find the beauty of a bird’s song by cutting her open (just as you’re not going to find the beauty of a poem by endlessly dissecting it) then it seems as if she at least had in mind her own poetry and how it might be received or interpreted by others.
And it’s perhaps the second line of the poem, “Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled” which might be a clue as to the issue Emily might be having with how Higginson is reading her poetry. This line is, for me, a wonderful example of her synesthesia, and to her it makes perfect sense that a birdsong would be like a “Bulb” (if we think of the bird as a “Bulb”) whose chest swells with each breath and thus resembles “Silver” and each time the little bird puffs up like a “Bulb” it’s like her feathers roll back and forth on her breast. She’s combining hearing and vision and movement in one image and it’s a strange image and requires some work on the reader’s behalf to be open to it. And such an unusual image might be the sort of thing that Higginson might struggle with and perhaps not really understand what she’s doing. For Emily this synesthesia is perfectly obvious, but for someone who does not possess this gift, it’s like being a “Lark” that has been separated from its mate so far the song no longer reaches the ear.
Though she might be aware that she posses a talent few others have and that might be why she uses the phrase “Scantily dealt” because, like the lark’s little song in the meadow, her poetry is but a brief song in “the Summer Morning / Saved for your Ear”. Her song is meant for a specific “Ear” (perhaps the “Lark” she has been separated from) but she might also be aware that it might not be received as intended. Though there is an implied sexual image here in that the song is sweet and intoxicating and that birdsong is often understood as their desire to mate, so perhaps she is combining the possibility that her poetry will be misunderstood with her own sexual desire and frustration? Even the word “Lute” which at first seems to refer to the musical instrument, might be a reference to its other definition as “clay or cement composed of various ingredients, and used to stop an orifice” (OED), meaning that when the ears are old and can no longer hear they might not be able to hear her song and thus she remains “Split” from her “Lark”.
The second stanza is even more remarkable in that she combines the image of a “Flood” with that of her song (her poetry) pouring out of her (especially as she realizes that whom she calls for can’t hear her and so the song becomes more desperate), with that of the image of God’s judgment. If we return to Higginson and the possibility he was too harsh to one of her poems, this might be her way of exacting revenge by saying that the words will “Flood” out of her so powerfully that they will cover every corner of the earth. And when we read this poem we get the sense that she wants every word to pull double and triple duty with multiple meanings and readings that it’s like a “Flood” of meaning. Yet just as we are unable to understand the intricacies of the bird’s song, the meaning is lost on our “old” ears which are unable to hear as well as they should.
Emily then refers back to writing and her synesthesia with her use of “patent” which in one sense refers to the rainbow which was God’s promise (a contract / patent) with humanity that He will never do that again, but it’s a message made of color, not of words. So just as Emily sees the birdsong as a “Bulb” of “Silver rolled”, she sees her writing as a contract (perhaps with the Form of art or love or beauty or God) made up of meaning and color. For her they are one and the same, but to the reader it might seem either overwhelming or just plain difficult to understand.
She again repeats the third line of the first stanza in the second line of the second with the way she connects “Scantily” with “reserved”. “reserved” in one sense means that it is set aside for one individual, but it can also mean to hold back which not only relates to the image of the rainbow after the “Flood” but also in the sexual sense in which the “Lark” which has been “Split” from its partner sings out only with the desire for one true “Lark” of their heart. She will “Gush” with song just as the waters gushed over the whole of the earth, and her song gushes with emotion, as well as meaning hidden inside her synesthesia and her use of multiple definitions of words.
Yet this image of a “Flood” and to “Gush” could also refer back to how when you “Split the Lark” (when you cut her open or overly dissect a poem) she will bleed to death. In other words she wants the song to be enjoyed for what it is, and that to look too far into it misses the whole point. The song is supposed to be beautiful. Yes, the song has meaning in that it calls out for a mate, but it also has its own beauty as separated from any further meaning. The song and the poem can be enjoyed just by listening to it. One doesn’t need to understand synesthesia to love how “Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled” sounds – it just rolls off the tongue, it’s pleasant to hear and to say. Yes, it carries a deeper meaning, but it first should be enjoyed at the most sensual level, it should speak directly to the heart before it speaks to the mind. The rainbow can just be a beautiful experience – the possibility that it also carries a more significant meaning is almost irrelevant.
Thus the “Scarlet Experiment” may not only refer to the splitting open of a “Lark” to see its internal organs (the way we have cut open this poem) but the “Experiment” may refer to one heart reaching out to another but being unsure if it will find its way to its intended home. The song and the poem may miss the mark or fall on old and deaf ears (“Lutes be old”) and so her poetry is an “Experiment” of which she is worried about those who doubt what she is trying to say. “Thomas” not only might refer to Higginson, but also doubting Thomas who needed to see the wounds on Jesus before he could believe, he couldn’t just take it on faith the God would rise again, that He would keep his promise (contract / “patent”) with humanity, he needed the equivalent of a legal document before he would give himself over.
And thus the turn of the poem happens at the very end when she seems to speak as Jesus did when, after all the work we had to do do see inside the workings of her poem, that she is indeed “true”, that her poetry is beautiful, that there is beauty here, that it is musical – that she is talented. She wants to alleviate doubt, but she had to go through the whole process of opening up her own body, of wounding herself the way one would if they were to “Split the Lark” so that once we saw inside of her we would then believe her abilities as a poet.
Though she doesn’t use one of her favorite words, transport, she is describing the sensation of being transported into the realm of art, a world of pure forms and extasy (as she spells it) as well as being carried into the world of the work of art, such as the scenery in a painting or the joy of a sonata. Art is her lodge in a vast wilderness (which she wrote in her copy of the Aeneid).
I suppose the question she is asking here is what is it about art – from both the artist’s point of view as well as the connoisseur’s – that alters our reality? What exactly is going on when we look at a painting that transports us to another world, causes us to weep when we read a line of Keats, or makes us believe, if just for a moment, that we are in the presence of God when we hear Beethoven’s Ninth? What mystical information is being transmitted from the physical object that is art – the canvas, the sheet of paper, the musical instrument – which transforms our emotional state, our inner reality?
Emily doesn’t seem to have an answer as to the specifics of how art works, her solution is merely to allow “Art” to “stun” her, to transport her as if she were in a “Balloon” and were carried along the “celestial” currents of the invisible “Ether” of art. She is content to enjoy what “Art” can do – she’s not so much interested in the how. And perhaps this is how the earliest artists also felt when they crawled through dark and narrow caves with only a portion of animal fat to light their way so that they could recreate the world as they saw it. They didn’t care how they were impelled to do this, they only knew they must – perhaps they thought it was part of their relationship with some sort of God which compelled them and when we look at the art they left behind it’s hard to not feel a reverence for their craft.
Such is the overwhelming power of art; God itself resides there.
Emily describes three forms of art in this poem: painting, music, and poetry and I feel she is also ordering them so that the most important (to her) completes the poem. The first, painting, she describes not just the act of viewing a painting, but she is also interested in its creation. She uses the word “stir” which evokes the painter mixing their oils, and she describes “how the fingers feel” as if we are the artist holding the brush which makes the canvas come alive with its subject. In a sense she is talking us into the space that exists between the artist and the art, a “rare – celestial” space that, while it does not exist in reality, does in fact exist in reality simply because the work of art was created thus something whose “bright impossibility” has transformed the thoughts and imaginations of the artist into a physical reality on the canvas.
But she’s not just saying that the artist has captured an image – she uses the word “bright” which also implies light, as in seeing – but that this physical object evokes an emotional response. This piece of wood with stretched canvas upon which animal fats and ground plant matter are mixed and smeared in such a way that it transcends the mere physical limitations of the frame and expands outward so that we actually feel the art, it gets inside us and causes us “torment” even though there is no villain in the room, and “Such sumptuous – Despair” even though we’re just looking at some wood, fabric, and oil.
Having broken free of the physical limitations of the frame, she moves on to music which is even more unusual in that music does not exactly exist the way normal physical objects do. When we hear a piece of music we are hearing a series of notes, but music doesn’t exist as a whole and physical entity whose boundaries we can define, music occurs because the notes, once inside of us, are transformed into some cohesive substance of the mind. Emily describes this sensation as the invisible gas which fills a “Balloon” and the invisible gas – “Ether” – which desensitizes the patient and allows them to be susceptible to the surgeon, in this case the composer whose invisible notes float as if they are a free-floating “Ether” which drugs the unsuspecting mind and reshapes our typically rigid frame of consciousness into something more sublime.
Finally she hints at how the patient (both as in the sense of the audience being like the artist’s patient, as well as those who are willing to take the time to appreciate art), once they are under the influence, are stunned, as if Zeus’ “Bolts” had struck them down and were working some miracle upon them. She also suggests that “The License to revere” is something that is loaned to us, that it is a “privilege” which means it is not something which belongs to us. Zeus’ “Bolts” are his alone to strike us with, we can only stand in awe of such a gift but cannot produce our own. However, once struck with this “Bolt” the will of the gods is now working through us, we become the instrument of the gods, our actions are like the vibrations of the reed or the stirring of “the fingers” and in this state we are “Enamored” that we have been given this rare “privilege”, we are “impotent” to explain it or even stop it, and if we are wise we are “content” to allow it to happen.
Thus we are like the canvas, the musical instrument, and the poet’s notebook – we are the canvas of the Gods who work though us and allow us to touch them through art, to touch the infinite, to experience the forms, to transform matter into a wand which can so alter our emotional state that once in that state it will begin to alter our physical state too by pointing us in new directions, by shining a light on a world we never knew existed before and thus allows us to transform our lives.
We literally become new people through art. And that is magical.
Process of elimination would mean she’s talking about autumn, specifically the colors of autumn from white to black, to red, and yellow-green and dark green. It seems she is writing from the point of view of nature (apostrophe) as she wonders what is happening to the world as the seasons colors begin to change and she must wear “Cuffs of Chrysolite” into the evening.
Autumn is the time for reflection when after the long summer the leaves turn, the sky darkens earlier each evening, and we begin to watch the sky for signs of snow. Perhaps Emily wrote this poem in response to the end of the warm season, perhaps there had been a day in particular that was colder than usual and so she imagined what the earth itself must think as it looks in the mirror and notices it is wearing a dress of a new color.
What’s unusual is that nature seems to be confused, as if she has never experienced an autumn before but has experience with “Summer”, “Spring” and “that long town of White” (the snows of winter). Autumn is usually portrayed as the time of harvest when, as Keats writes, “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue” and so there is usually an abundance associates with this season, yet here it seems to be a period of forgetfulness and where the days live so short that the sun “shuts my question down” because it doesn’t have time to answer her questions. And in the end she seems as if she is forced to wear a new dress – in one version she wears “clasps of Chrysolitte” which gives the impression of her being chained or imprisoned, and in this version she wears “cuffs” which alludes to dress. Either way she seems to be forced into this season, as if the autumn harvest wasn’t an occasion of bounty and joy but of people and even the sun taking what they want from her and then leaving her barren. In other words, Autumn seems to be portrayed as a mother who child is taken from her every year and , perhaps from absolute grief, she dies in winter so that she can forget the pain of the harvest.
Emily is talking about how “The Poets” even after they have died continue to illuminate the world through the “Suns” (and there’s a son’s pun in here too) of their art. However, the word “Wicks” as defined as “a corner of the mouth or eye” (OED) implies the phenomena of averted vision which is when you have to slightly look away from a star to actually see it (“The Poet’s influence) better.
In “We grow accustomed to the Dark” Emily gives us the image of the neighbor who, after saying good bye to us, extinguishes their lamp and thus we are left to stand out on the street in darkness where we will need to find our own way and travel by our own light, we must “fit our vision for the Dark”. This is what Emily is telling us her profession is, she is like the neighbor who holds the lamp and greets us in the night and who inspires us to continue on in the darkness to the next poet’s lodge in some vast wilderness.
The first line of the poem is both humble and speaks to the mortality of the poet. She describes “The Poets” as mere lamps whose flame will eventually “go out”. “The Poets” are instruments whose function is to cast “vital Light” and thus it is this “vital Light” which is important, not “The Poets” themselves, it was what “The Poets” illuminate which inspires and lights the way. If life were a vast wilderness, then “The Poets” are the residents of that landscape who guide us on our way towards dawn.
Yet though “The Poets” are only “but Lamps” who cast light into the darkness, they also amplify this “Light”, they are a “Lens” that disseminates the “circumference” of the smallest wick of light which allows those of us who are unable to see the light otherwise. “The Poets”, like the great scientists, such as Newton, capture some essence of truth and beauty and amplify it so that the rest of us can see it too. It’s not that “The Poets” invented beauty or the scientist invented gravity for they were there all along, but “The Poets” and the scientist give voice and language to these things, they cast light on what was already there but had been hidden in the wilderness. And once the light has been cast, “Each Age” of sons (and daughters) afterwards will be able to carry this light to each successive age, like a pilgrim carrying a horn of light through the darkest of winter storms so that they will be able to make camp at the next lodge.
Thus the poet sees the universe with inverted vision, they can see the light that escapes us because we only look directly at it, but “The Poets” are able to look slant, to look a little to the side to see the truth hiding in the halo of a distant star. “The Poets” then report back to us and give us the tools we need to see as they have.
Emily’s confidence as a poet is remarkable as she place the “Poets” higher up her list than “the Heaven of God.” Yet, like Milton, isn’t the poet truly the one responsible for giving us heaven? We know heaven, hell, and Eden so well because the “Poets” have illuminated them for us, therefore we would not know how to “reckon” our way to them without the poet’s “Sun” as guide star.
Emily also seems to be expressing her doubts about “The Others” who could be those people who do not see true beauty in nature, that only think of the “Sun” and the heavens as a “needless Show” that God will destroy one day, as if all of creation is merely a waiting room for something to come later. Emily might be referring to preachers who place no value on the natural world as if there were nothing to gain for our spirits by enjoying the beauty all around us.
Yet isn’t the poet the greatest of all preachers? If God did create the universe, then won’t we more clearly see the path to “Grace” from the shining light of the poet’s “Sun” which hangs high in a year-long “Summer” sky? There are no cold and faithless nights in this poem, all of creation is illuminated whenever we read it, and so when we feel furthest from “Grace” one need only to read the poem again to be assured that ‘the Further Heaven” and all its glory does await each of us.
The most interesting image in the poem is that of ‘The East”. Though the sun rises from this direction she seems to be saying that “The Others” are the residents of that land where the “Sun” has yet to rise, that they live in the darkness of a society who does not value the poet, a race of pre-dawn creatures who “would deem extravagant” the year-round sun of the poet’s “Summer”. Emily believes that only the poet can raise the sun just as the prisoner who returns to Plato’s cave can illuminate the shadowy world of those who have never known such a light. In other words, the poet gives meaning to the world, otherwise the “Sun” and all the heavens are little more than physical objects. The “Dream”, then, is more real than when we are awake, a theme she has explores is “What I see not, I better see“, and to be awake is to be guided by a light not nearly bright enough to lead us to “Grace”.
Emily wrote this (letter 868) for a grieving Sue when her son, Gilbert died at around age 8 or 9. However, the poem itself seems to be addressed to Gilbert who she says as passed “Pangless” to the “Light” unlike the rest of us who “slowly ford the” sorrowful river of life which he merely “leaped across”. Yet though she celebrates him you can feel the sorrow at watching him go.
The letter Emily wrote to Sue is worth considering when reading this poem:
Dear Sue –
The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled – How simply at the last the Fathom comes! The Passenger and not the Sea, we find surprises us – Gilbert rejoiced in Secrets – His Life was panting with them – With what menace of Light he cried “Dont tell, Aunt Emily”! Now my ascended Playmate must instruct me. Show us, prattling Preceptor, but the way to thee! He knew no niggard moment – His Life was full of Boon – The Playthings of the Dervish were not so wild as his – No Crescent was this Creature – He traveled from the Full – Such soar, but never set – I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies – His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an Echo – his Requiem Ecstacy – Dawn and Meridian in one. Wherefore would he wait, wronged only of Night, which he left for us – Without a speculation, our little Ajax spans the whole –
Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light, Pangless except for us – Who slowly ford the Mystery Which thou hast leaped across!
What stands out, at least at first, is she refers to Gilbert as “our little Ajax”. On my first reading I assumed she meant the great strong-man hero of the Iliad who vies with Odysseus for Achilles armor, however taking into account the words “Fathom” and “sea” as well as her use of “ford” in the poem, I think she could also be making a comparison to the younger Ajax who died at sea, though he had so incurred the wrath of the gods that I doubt his death would have been “Pangless”. Thus Emily could be drawing on the image Ajax the elder’s great strength, or this could even have just been a pet name for the boy whom she describes as full of energy as he leaps across the river the separates mortal life from the next world.
In fact, both the poem and the letter are filled with images of energy and boundless life such as “leaped” (in the poem) as well as “Dervish”, “soar”, “velocity’, “flies”, and “winds” which serves double duty as an image of the wind as well as the sad music of the “Bugle” as the funeral notes “wind” away into the “wind”. Emily converts his energy into music which then is carried on the currents towards heaven which she describes as “an Elegy in Echo” and a “Requiem”.
This is Emily’s brilliance as a poet in that she is able to both celebrate and illustrate the life of someone she loves while also expressing her sadness and grief at the same time. The image of the poem is firmly rooted on the bank of our side of the river as we watch little Gilbert leap across and leave us behind. While he enjoys eternity, we must continue to suffer in the rapids of our sorrowful lives full of pain and grief. Gilbert does not even look back, his final action is one of leaping as if he is like the subject in an ancient Greek fresco which depicts some great hero in mid action and thus his energy is immortalized in a work of art while we can only stand by as a passive and grieving audience to his glory.
This action also has the effect of Gilbert never looking back at life, as if he has left everyone behind and will not spend even a moment considering his previous life. The action of life moves only forward, like a river and so while we grieve the deceased, they do not grieve us, they do not even consider us because soon enough we too will join them when we have forded the great river of sorrows and join them in eternal action on the far shore.
The word “puzzled” is a remarkable adjective to use at the end of this poem because it implies that Charlotte Brontë will continue to be “This bird – observing others”, though who now will be applying her craft as a writer and observer in “Heaven”. Emily is suggesting that Charlotte will live forever and that her works will continue to inspire even though she is no longer with us.
Emily is quite bold in making a connection between Charlotte and Jesus, however I would assume that Charlotte was an incredibly important figure in Emily’s life, not just as a writer, but as a successful woman writer. Perhaps this is why Emily includes Charlotte’s pen-name, “Currer Bell” because she wants to recognize the struggle for female writers who work in a field dominated by men. The middle portion of the poem is dominated with the image of “anguish” which she compares to Jesus’ “anguish” in the Garden of “Gethsemane” (a topic Emily has written about in “I like a look of Agony“) to Charlotte’s struggle with her illness but also as a female writer.
In fact, Emily is keen on exploring the notion of “anguish” as it relates to the loss of one’s name and identity. “Currer Bell” was the name chosen so that Charlotte could publish without the public knowing she was a woman, but imagine the pain involved in such a decision, to spend so much of one’s self in the act of creation only to have born into the world as an orphan without its rightful mother. Emily would likely have felt the same way if someone had tried to separate her from her work, but as Christ agonized at “Gethsemane”, so too must have Charlotte who also wanted to be published and to allow her art to take flight but at the same time would most likely have been conflicted about having to change her name to make that happen. Which is the right choice? Allow your child to go of into the world without the protection of your name attached to them, or keep them at home in the nest never to fly? The parallel to Emily’s decision to remain anonymous is thus greatly illuminated.
But Emily is also concerned with transformation. The poem is structured so that by the end “Currer Bell” is rightfully identified as Charlotte “Bronte”; she no longer has to hide behind a false name, yet she is like the “Nightingale” who, though her song can still be heard, she remains hidden from mortal view in the next life at Elysium among the “Asphodel”. And as transformation involves growth, Emily uses the imagery of gardens (Elysium, “Gethsemane”, and “Eden”), and “cunning moss” and the “weed” to infuse the poem with a vitality of life that when cultivated has the potential to grow riot all over not just the mortal earth but also in the afterlife. Barren fields where “When frosts too sharp become” are reseeded the next season by “This bird” who seems to migrate between the gardens of this world where the cages of the dead artists gently fertilize the soil with art’s potential and the next world where the “Asphodel” grows and the dead listen with a “puzzled Ear” at the “soft” “sounds of Eden” for all eternity.
Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 43, “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”. In his sonnet he describes the paradox of how when our eyes are closed (wink means to dream) that we see best in our dreams, that when it is dark it is actually most light and that in the light is when we can clearly see the absence of what we love. Emily agrees with Bill on this paradox, perhaps because no matter how well a poem can be written it can’t really do justice to the subject of the poem.
Emily begins by playing with the words “I” and ” Eye” and then makes a connection to the “Faith” which is something that can only truly occur when one cannot see; faith occurs in the absence of physical light (evidence) because it is its own source of light that can see past the darkness to reveal a greater truth. And to do so one must see with a different set of eyes, which Emily refers to as “My Hazel Eye” but not because her actual eyes were “Hazel” but because her “I” is “Hazel”, the “I” she truly sees with because the “I” has “Faith”.
However, I don’t believe she is limiting “Faith” to just a religious definition; she does not mention God or angles, rather she seems to be writing about the absolute form of “Grace”, not just any particular God’s “Grace” but pure “Grace”, the fullest expression of a benevolence that does not judge but rather grants an absolute salvation for anyone willing to accept it. And this “Grace” is, unlike the sun in “There came a Day – at Summer’s full” a light that can only be seen with “My Hazel Eye”, that “Eye” of the “I” which can “behold” the world which no physical light can illuminate.
For example, she writes that “my sense [is] obscured” when she is awake rather than when she is asleep during “periods of shutting” when the true “light” falls on “The Features so beloved”. She is saying that our senses are not capable of truly seeing the forms – such as the form of “Grace” – but that in our dreams we can comprehend them. Though she is asleep “in my Dream” she will “arise” which is a wonderful image and paradox of the sleeper arising, of being truly awake when one is asleep. No wonder she gets annoyed with her father when he tries to wake her up to early as in “Sleep is supposed to be” and “Where bells no more affright the morn” because to her the waking world is really when we are most oblivious to the wonder of “Grace”.
The same can also be said for the world of art and poetry. Dante wrote about his perfect love with Beatrice but could only express the pure form of that love by placing her in paradise, in other words by placing her in a work of art. And though he loved her when she was alive and could physically see her by the light of day, it was in his imagination and in art in which the fullest expression of his pure love to her could be expressed. The same holds true for Emily who sees the world must fully in her poetry and when her pen, not the actual sun in the summer’s sky, illuminates the world of the “perfectness” of the forms. Thus art is a form of “Grace” that we can see with both our “Eye” and our “I”, a “lid” which can be opened so that we can glimpse the beauty beyond. And this beauty is something she must “better see”, not just in the sense of it being more clear, but that she “better” do it because it is important, because to truly find one’s way to “Grace” one must learn to see with their “Hazel Eye”, with their “I” and not only their sensual “eye”.
I’m reminded of Dante’s love for Beatrice whom, though she married another man, he loved her his entire life, even long after she died. Only in poetry is he able to be with her in heaven when she takes over for Virgil and guides him through Paradise (Divine Comedy) as well as when they were both only 9 years old and met her (in real life) and Love spoke to him (La Vita Nuova).
Emily would have been familiar with Dante, and though I don’t know if she ever read La Vita Nuova (The New Life), there does seem to be a parallel to the revelation Dante felt when he first saw Beatrice and the spirit of life spoke to him saying “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me” with Emily’s experience of catching a glimpse of “that New Marriage”. Unlike Dante, however, Emily’s revelation seems to be directed not at an individual, but rather to “Love” itself, as if she had fallen in love with “Love”. And, like Dante who would only ever to be with Beatrice in poetry (and in death), Emily recognizes that her and Love are “Bound to opposing Lands”, at least for the time being, and that she won’t find Love’s embrace until she too is “Deposed – at length – [in] the Grave”.
Emily seems to have worked on the poem quite a lot; there are multiple copies of it, each with unique revisions, such as the word “Resurrections” being switched to from “Revelations” as well version C of the poem which she uses her signature dash more frequently than in version D. The more fragmented form of version C does have the affect of being almost breathless, as if Emily is trying to capture the revelation she feels at being in love with “Love” and, at least for a moment, was aware of her soul’s place in the infinity of the universe, as if she glimpsed an infinite love and she desperately tries to recreate that sensation in her poem.
Emily describes in the first stanza how on the longest day of the year – the summer “Solstice” – she experiences an event she thought was reserved only for the holiest of people: “the Saints”. Up till this point she had considered herself to be quite ordinary and that the love shown to “Saints” was not the same love she would ever experience, as if God had degrees of love depending on who you were. Dante also refers to the position on the sun when he writes “nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost” as if that particular day was the most important day of the year – in fact of his life – and that the importance of that day would be like a “Solstice” that is never ending in which the sun remains forever at its peak. In other words, the events of this day would be momentous and would forever cast its light on both their lives until the day they die. Perhaps this is why Emily suggested using the word “Revelations” rather than “Resurrections” since what was revealed to her in the light of the longest day would shape her from that day on, yet she is also resurrected in that she is reborn on this day and that she will leave her old life behind.
The second stanza is interesting in that she describes how everything else was quite regular and ordinary. But just as the sleeper whose dreams are full of thunderstorms and marvels, to the observer nothing out of the ordinary seems to be taking place, there is no thunderstorm outside of the sleeper’s dream. Thus “The Sun” goes round as normal, and “The Flowers” sway in the breeze just as they always have, and her “Soul” remains in her body just like normal – in other words, she hasn’t died, but she has experienced something only she (and her “Soul”) is aware of.
And what it is that Emily experiences is described in the third stanza as being “The Wardrobe – of Our Lord” which she means as “Love” itself. This could be read a few ways, most obvious being that perhaps she has discovered Christ and Christ’s love for her and all humanity and that for a moment she shares in this divinely inspired beauty as she walks among the flowers as the sun travels overhead in the second stanza. But she is experiencing something more than a religious, Christian epiphany, she is experiencing “Love” itself, a love that cares for everything from the “Flowers” in the breeze, to “the Saints” and everything in between. She’s experiencing the Platonic form of “Love”. This is why, perhaps, she describes “speech” and the “word” as being profane because if a Platonic Form could be described with language then it wouldn’t actually be the true Form because a “word” is just a “symbol”, it is not the true thing itself. All Emily can say is that she feels it, she knows it is surrounding her the way the light from the summer sun shines on all living things and makes the grow and gives them life. Thus “Love” has been revealed to her and she is, for a moment, like “the Saints” who are resurrected into heaven and like Dante who, upon seeing Beatrice for the first time, though they were both only 9 years old, he experienced an event that would shine on him his entire life.
And though “speech” does not profane this moment (just as Dante does not speak to Beatrice on their first meeting), she is still able to “commune” with this love for a “time”, yet she is also aware that this moment will pass just as Christ’s disciples knew during the last supper that the end was near. This image recalls the “solstice” as once the sun reaches its zenith it will begin its long climb back towards the horizon and will not spend so long in the sky warming the world below until next year. The poem even becomes somewhat frantic as she divides up the fifth stanza with 8 dashes (the most in any stanza), as if she is clinging to what has been revealed to her but it is slipping away so quickly – “The hours slid fast” – that she’s trying to capture and hold onto whatever snatches she can in her poem but “Love” is sailing past her in the other direction. Emily often uses a boat metaphor to describe the voyage of life, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, yet unlike that poem which the pilot guides her to the next life, she is heading in the other direction which is the voyage of our mortal lives.
In the sixth stanza the moment has passed and “time had failed”; the sun has moved onto the horizon and the revelation that was revealed to her is no longer something she can experience first-hand. And since there were no words to describe the experience, the moment has passed by silently – in fact even the exact moment was so brief that it would be impossible to measure the exact moment it occurred since the sun never stops its journey thought the sky, it only travels through the zenith on its never ending journey, there is no exact ‘there’ there, just as there is no way to point to a Platonic Form as say “there it is!” However, the sensation remains inside her, the way the memory of Christ on the cross is depicted on the crucifix when Christ was both mortal and divine, when he was both dead and alive. One could not point to the exact moment when a person passes from one existence to the next, we only know that it does happen, just like the sun passes through its zenith.
When Emily does know, however, is that she too will make the same journey as Christ, she too will pass her zenith and “time” will fail her and she will be able to experience that pure form of Love for eternity in the next life, just as Dante believed he would when Beatrice guided him through Paradise. Yet all she can do for now is try to put her revelation down into a poem and as best she can use language to describe the indescribable, to capture a moment in time that no clock could ever measure because it does not exist in any one point in time, but rather exists outside of time, in a place where “time” fails: eternity and eternal “Love”.
This is a disturbing poem and it’s hard not to imagine Emily is talking about herself. She uses horrific imagery – “Goblin” and ghost imagery – along with prisoner imagery – “Felon” and “Dungeoned” – to describe “The soul” – her “soul”. There is a sense she is dealing with issues of self esteem, depression, mania – a loss of control of “a Theme – so -fair”.
The first image of the poem is one of wounds, and it’s possible she was thinking of images of wounded soldiers in the US Civil War, but also of her own “Soul” and how there is something lurking deep inside her that terrifies her, as if she is at war with herself and her own mental states the way the United States was also at war with itself. The image that comes to mind with a word like “Bandaged” recalls images of young men being operated on inside the battlefield hospital tents, such as Jonathan Letterman’s introduction of the concept of triage to treat wounded soldiers. Emily introduces a theme of a fragmented whole that heals as it also bleeds.
The second stanza uses outright military terminology as “Fright” gives her a “salute”, yet she seems as if she’s already dead as “Fright” caresses “her freezing hair”. Perhaps Emily saw a picture of a dead soldier in the paper and the imaged frightened her, but she could also be relating the sensation of a “Fright” inside herself which is like an ugly “Goblin” living inside her that is the source of her own negative thoughts. Though she tries to be whole, something insider her whispers “a thought so mean” and this could be her way of explaining how when someone sufferers from depression will think the blackest thoughts, as if a “Goblin” were speaking to us. Thus a combination of the imagery of the battlefield dead along with her dark thoughts might be her way of expressing the darkest of all thoughts: suicide.
The third stanza “swings” in the opposite direction where rather than the lethargy of her “appalled’ “Soul”, there is a mania inside her “like a Bomb” whose length of fuse is entirely unpredictable as it rolls about the battlefield spitting angrily while the terrified soldiers try to run away from it. Again she uses the battle imagery of the “bomb” and “bursting” and the insanity and manic terror of war to also describe her own emotions as she “swings” from one extreme to the other. Her fractured “Soul” knows no peace and perhaps she feels as if she is at a continual war with herself and that like the soldier who tries to run from the “Bomb” she too is running from the bomb inside her which could go off at any moment and wound her.
She introduces the language of a prisoner with the word “escape” in the third stanza which she carries through to the end of the poem with the words “borne”, “Dungeoned”, “Liberty”, “Felon”, and “shackles”. This switch from military imagery to that of a prisoner could be a parallel with soldiers who ran from battle but were captured and probably executed for desertion. In fact, the etymology of the word “Staple” describes how a ‘stapol’ was a block for executions (OED).
Thus she feels trapped by the “Goblin” inside her that whispers “a thought so mean” and she longs to run away from it, but she knows she will be recaptured and “The Horror welcomes her, again” and that this “Horror” is “not brayed of Tongue” and that it will continue to whisper its “thought so mean”. She cannot run away from this “Goblin” whose dark whispers are like a bomb that she longs to run away from but can’t because she will be recaptured, she is a prisoner to her own inner demons the way a deserter is a prisoner for running away from the “Bomb” on the battlefield. She is stuck and fractured, just as the United States was at this time.
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”.
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”.
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’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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
The poem is broken up into two main themes: stanza one is about portions, stanza two is about navigation. Each stanza is broken up into two further themes: stanza one being about what we can have & what we put in, stanza two being about what guides us & where we get lost – with the final line being found again. In other words, there is a star or stars (NOT in the sense of astrology but of ocean navigation) guiding our way in life but we can also get lost in the mist (amidst) of life.
I’m not sure Emily’s “thesis” is clear in this poem, but there are some fascinating word choices which might lead us (navigation) into the “mist” of her obscurity. The word that jumps out at me is the word “mist”, which she writes as “a mist” which can also be read as ‘amidst’ as in being among something but also as a state of things falling apart (as in something was amidst). In Milton’s Paradise Lost V: 435, after Eve has had her dream in which she sees an angel eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, God sends Raphael to remind Adam and Eve of what dangers lay in wait for them and that they must be wary of temptation. When Raphael shows up to their home, Milton writes:
So down they sat, And to their viands fell, nor seemingly The angel, nor in mist, the common gloss Of theologians, but with keen dispatch Of real hunger, and concoctive heat To transubstantiate.
What Milton is saying is that the angel was not “immaterial” but that he had a corporal body with which he had a “real hunger” thus not only did his body transubstantiate from a mist to a solid, but he could also (at least partially) digest the food (turn food in heat / energy).
OK, so what does this have to do with Emily’s poem? Well my point is that when things began to go amidst in Eden, God sent a star (Raphael) to Adam in Eve to guide and instruct them less they be taken by surprise by Lucifer. God requires that Adam and Eve have free will in all their decisions so he can’t keep them ignorant of Lucifer’s intentions. Raphael also explains that humanity possess the ability to reason, unlike the animals, but that they should always choose to serve God (hence the free will argument in that they should have free will to serve, which is sort of a paradox if you think about it).
Thus what Emily is probably getting at in her poem is that we have to live our own lives and we each have a “share” of darkness (“night”) to “bear” (navigate) as well as clear skies (“morning”) to enjoy. We also have the ability to fill the empty spaces of the world with “bliss” as well as with our “scorning”. In other words, we have a lot of free will to do as we please and we can choose either good (“morning”, and “bliss”) or we can choose evil (“night” and “scorning”). And because we have the capacity to do both, we can transubstantiate our essence into either activity: good or evil.
Emily is talking about how best to navigate life and she is playing the role of Raphael from Milton in that she is describing the multiple ways life can go. She even says that “Some lose their way” which means that it is easy to get lost and confused, especially when we can’t see “a star” but if we stay true then we will eventually find the “Day”. In fact there is an allusion to the north star cleverly hidden in the poem with her use of the word “bear” and then her mention of the word “star” twice. Someone who knows the night sky would recognize this as a reference to Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Ursa meaning bear), and that if you follow the stars on Ursa Major they point to the north star which is located in Ursa Minor. Thus a sound navigator can always find true north (the true way) to morning (the proper path).
I know she’s writing about how an ordinary person in life is now distinguished in death, but this poem is prescient in that it could apply to herself and her work: in life she was mostly unremarkable but now is considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I wonder how much of her own ambition is embedded in this poem? Did she know how good she was? I think she did.
The poem begins with a device she often uses in that she uses apostrophe to turn both “Ambition” and “Affection” things that have their own agency. Here “Ambition” seems to be searching for “him” while ambition’s companion, “Affection” has no idea how “many leagues of nowhere” are between them and this “him”. The question to ask here is why is “Ambition” looking for “him”? “Affection” looking for “him” seems obvious if we consider Emily is contemplating someone whom has died and her “Affection” goes out to them but they have no idea how far “Affection” must go for it to reach them. “Ambition”, on the other hand, implies action; the OED defines this word as “The ardent desire to rise to high position” (OED). Is “Ambition” looking for the vehicle with which it can use to rise to this high position yet is unable to do so and thus both “Ambition” and “he” remain in obscurity and without “affection”?
I think what is going on in this poem is more than just a eulogy for some unknown person who has died. I think what she’s writing about is her own work, her own “Ambition” and her own “Affection”. Consider if “he” might be referring to the poem itself yet “Ambition” – the desire to rise to a high position – cannot find the poem, as if there is a gulf between the words on the page and whatever it is that is required for those words to transcend the ink on the paper into something greater: as in a work of great art. And no matter how much “Affection” Emily has for this poem, they have no idea how “many leagues of nowhere / Lie between” themselves and greatness. In other words, she might be asking what is it that makes a poem great, at what point does “Ambition” find a poem and turn it from something “undistinguished” into something that is “Eminent Today”?
The line break between the two stanzas represents these “leagues of nowhere” in which the transformation takes place, but she is unable to describe the process and is only able to describe the results: what was once “undistinguished” is now “Eminent Today”. How this process took place is unknown, but perhaps the clue is in the fact that by merely writing the poem she has served as a bridge between the states of being “undistinguished” and the one of eminence. Through the act of creating art and by pouring her affection into it, she is able to transform mere words into a “mutual honor” for eternity (“Immortality”).
I think what is buried here in the poem is not a person, but her own insecurity and dilemma with her art. She wants “Ambition” to come to her, but her “Affection” – her heart – has no idea how to cross that gulf which lies between herself and “Ambition”. Yet she wants “Immortality”, she wants her art to live on – which it has – but she is troubled by the process, perhaps because while sometimes she can see the greatness in her work, other times she lacks the confidence – the “Affection” – to believe that what she is doing is in any way distinguished. I think she is worried about being vain, an issue she explored in “For every Bird a Nest“. She seems to be held back by some grip of modesty in that she, on the one hand, knows how talented she is, but on the other does not want to impose or seem vain in the eyes of others. I truly get the sense she is highly conflicted about how she sees herself and because she is so filled with “Affection” for others, she is willing to put aside her own “Ambition” in order to allow other to be glorified, which is what this poem is initially about if we consider she is writing about someone whom she knew who has died.
Recalling her earlier poem, “Sleep is supposed to be“, once again Emily is annoyed with having to wake up early and would rather be among the “Children” who “sleep / Thro’ centuries of noon”. But another way tho think of this poem is with the Isaac Watts hymn in mind which recalls Moses’ promised land and how earthly labor will one day be relieved in “Heaven”.
In Emily’s day it was not unusual for factory bells to begin ringing the workers to their shifts beginning at 4:30 in the morning. Previously, and for all of human history up till that point, people’s day were managed by the sun, but with rise of industry, clocks, bells, and managers ruled the day’s schedule. Fewer and fewer people were working the land or were close to nature because now they lived in the cities and so rather than a natural cycle ruling everyone’s lives, the unnatural world of “nimble Gentlemen” was in control.
And so Emily is on the one hand complaining about having to be woken up so early, she also addressing a deeper concern – one shared with someone like Henry David Thoreau – that our lives would be better spent if we did not answer to the master of industry but rather allowed our lives to be ruled by nature.
In the first line of the poem she equates the “bells” of the “Factories” (which is in the second to final line of the poem) with creatures who “affright” the morning, as if they give offense and terrify the woods and the countryside. Rather than the sun alighting the land, the bells frighten the small creatures and sleeping children, an image she comes back to in the final line of the poem.
She continues this railing against industry by describing the work that goes on in these factories as “scrabble”which not only means “a scramble; a confused struggle” (OED) but also is a slight against the paperwork going on in these places as useless scribbling quite inartistic compared to the beauty of poetry. And the image of a “confused struggle” is carried into the third line in which she describes the “very nimble Gentlemen” which not only refers to them being early risers and adept at grabbing the earliest of the morning’s worms, but also being “nimble” enough to navigate the press of “confused” workers who “struggle” out of bed and into the factories. Finally, Emily forces these businessmen to “keep their rooms” and so rather than the workers being practically imprisoned in the factories, she imprisoned the businessmen to remain at leisure in bed in their apartments.
The second stanza describes the sort of town she would rather live, one free of authoritarian bells where a person can sleep all day. She equates this perfect town to “Heaven” where, one assumes, we will no longer have to labor due to Adam and Eve’s sins, but she in not just referring to God the father, but also her own father with the word “Pater” as in pater familias who is the head of household. She is making a cheeky contrast between the father in heaven and her own father who won’t leave her alone.
The final stanza incorporates the Isaac Watts hymn, There Is A Land Of Pure Delight, whose final verse she quotes directly with the first two lines. Here Emily is dreaming – because she’s probably still half asleep as her father rings his bell at her door – of the promised land where labor is no longer the burden that all humankind must endure. What is interesting is that she refers to “Father’s bells” which, though she is describing her actual father’s bell, is embedded in this image of Moses who followed after the father in heaven. This is unusual because she is not just saying she wants to be free of her own father’s insistence she get up and go to work, but is implying that she wants to be free of God’s bells, too. But what I think she is referring to is that since God punished humanity to a mortal life of labor, she is comparing this punishment to her own father’s punishment and thus she wants to be free of all these mortal responsibilities. She also might be referring not just to factory bells, but church bells, too since she might not have been so keen to wake up early on Sundays either.
This is another fun poem and reveals her willful personality and gives us a glimpse of her relationship with her father, if at least in a playful way. But there is a slightly darker overtone here in that if we consider if she was someone who we would today describe as suffering from depression, not wanting to get out of bed is a common symptom of that illness and so we could also be getting a glimpse at her own mental state. I don’t want to diagnosis here – I’m not a medical doctor – and besides young people are not always the most eager to wake up early, but I do think it is worth keeping in mind.
Though nature loves her, the final two lines of the poem seem to imply that something is preventing her from returning the joy. Her “silver mists” are her tears, and they could be read as tears of joy or happiness at being in nature, but there is a longing here, perhaps because it is winter and she longs for summer, but maybe because she does not understand why nature loves her.
“Wherefore” is one of those words that you see a lot in poetry (especially bad poetry) but though I’ve seen this word a million times I decided to look it up in the OED because since Emily doesn’t write bad poetry, then perhaps she is using this word very much on purpose and so I should really know what it means. The main definition of “Wherefore” is “for what purpose or end?” (OED) and thus embedded in the word is a ‘why’ question. In the second to final line of the poem she is asking ‘for what purpose’ do my eyes fill with tears?’ and then repeats the question by asking the “Summer’s Day” directly why her eyes are filled with tears even though nature loves her and comes alive when she is near.
And I get the sense that she is having a difficult time feeling joy even though she knows those around her feel joy at her company. In other words, she seems to be describing a depression in which even though a person knows they are loved, they feel cut off somehow, unable to connect emotionally to the world around them. The final line where she addresses a “Summer’s Day” (in the apostrophe), there is the sense that she is almost begging for an answer. In the previous lines the “Brooks laugh louder” and the “Breezes madder play” and thus there is a rising emotional quality to the scene as if her mind is filled with competing emotions that are almost overwhelming yet she is unable to return the emotions back to the “Brooks” and the “Breezes” and feels isolated even when she is surrounded by love and joy. In fact there is almost a manic feel to this final stanza with “louder” and “madder” as if she is describing her mind’s turmoil – she can’t relax, she can’t just accept the love that is being shown her and so she can only question it which, she knows, is sad. She wants to feel that joy, but somehow she can’t.
Emily is longing for a “Summer’s Day” in her heart and in her mind. Her season is a season of winter that longs for a “Summer’s Day”, but the cold and winter storms prevent her from feeling the warmth that is otherwise so freely given to her. She knows she is loved, but she finds it difficult to actually feel it.