Category Archives: Poem

page 42 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, sheet 6,

The imagery is like that of a bride “in white” and growing into old age (“cane”) but there is a great distance between them, perhaps the distance between heaven and earth, between horizon and shore. There is a real longing here, a genuine desire to be together with “master” but also the anxiety that perhaps she might “disappoint” (wound?)

page 36 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, sheet 4,

Perhaps the volcanic imagery is a symbol of her heart’s passion which might have caused both of them pain, and that’s why she needs a leech to bleed out the excess in her which is larger than her (letter 1, sheet 1, letter 2, sheet 1)? Is she overflowing with pain? With passion? Is there a difference? Then she combines the horizon with the edge of the sea, as if the horizon is closing in at her?

page 36 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 3,

She continues with the theme of redemption in relation to repression and that which is forbidden. This leads into her wondering if master’s heart is in the same place as hers, so does she mean to admit she’s done something wrong which requires redemption but only because she’s human and makes mistakes of the human heart? Is it jealousy? Is the wound a wound she caused?

page 35 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 2,

She’s asking for “Redemption”, and she’s asked this before in letter 2 when she asked not to be banished. Is this “redemption” related to the image of Thomas and Christ’s wounds? And how is she altered, is it only in age since she still loves the same? She also wants to breathe the same air that “master” has, inhabit the same space, feel the same thing, but she feels sorrow at their separation.

page 32 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 3, Sheet 1,

She begins with a wound again (like 2’s Tomahawk) then follows it up with the image of doubting Thomas and Jesus’ wounds as proof of faith. Does she think of “master” this way, as like Christ’s wounds that she must see to believe in him? Is “master” a wound she feels? And this is related to the image of the heart, first seen on this sheet as the one “He built … in me”. Wound leads to heart.

page 31 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

It is really unusual how much she worked on these letters, but then it might offer some insight into how she went about the writing process with her numerous revisions in pencil and ink, and how she turned “He” into “I dont”. I wonder why she’d make such a careful alteration, but then later add many changes in pencil below? Did she mean for the letter to be done at one point then thought of something new to add?

page 29 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 4,

Again with the nautical / boat imagery she likes to use about the journey of life being like an ocean voyage (and a nice play on the word “tug”). And who is the “tug”? Is it “master”, is it inspiration? She seems so eager to please and not offend and I’m also reminded of those imaginary conversation we have when we’re lonely and want to express ourselves but can’t in person.

page 26 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 3,

This feels very stream of consciousness in how she goes from “wonder” stinging her more than the bee to saying the bee never stung her – is this thinking / writing the “gay music” she hears? But overall she talks of injury, of a “Tomahawk in [her] side” but she does not complain (like ‘I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself” DH Lawrence). Has “master” hurt her? What’s the injury?

page 22 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 2, Sheet 1,

Again, more uncertainty in her inability to find the right words. Here she describes being shunned like an odd “Backwoodsman” who has is on the verge of being banished from civilization, from “master”. She wants forgiveness and at this point in the letter she seems more certain of her word choice once she asks for forgiveness. Are these related?

page 21 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

“As Dickinson wrote she also revised – cancelling words, substituting others, and setting down unresolved alternatives as she proceeded” – “unresolved” being the greatest thing about her writing. I love how this intuits her process as an inertia that she worked with, as if she saw writing as riding a current, making a rudder correction as she went, but not worrying about the journey having any specific meaning.

page 19 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 1, Sheet 4,

The idea of sickness still lingers and though she seems relieved that Master isn’t in “Heaven”, she is still concerned for their health and wants to hear news, but from whom? How? They way the lips speak of “Dawn”, or the way sailors long for home but can’t communicate to the land? There’s a real longing in this letter for news of health, connection, and its relationship to the universe.

page 15 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

Letter 1, Sheet 2,

She speaks of the “Violets” that are next to her (perhaps in the garden as well on her desk), and she mentions “Spring”, so could master be the season of renewal that cures (sick) winter?

She wants to create, like an artist, but she scolds the flowers?

Funny how there is a connection to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock with “to and fro” & “Mr. Michael Angelo”. Did Eliot know of this letter?

page 8 of 52 of Master Letters of Emily Dickinson

I love how it’s the analysis of her handwriting, specifically the word “the” which gives us a clue as to when these letters were written. I mean, we don’t know the “the” of the poems, so all we can do is analyze the how of the “the” (not the why of the “the”).

I sometimes get the impression that if Emily were looking down on us that she’d be having a great time seeing all the trouble she’s put us through.

I started Early – Took my Dog

Portrait of a Young Boy and His Dog at The Beach, 19th century, Goldsworthy
Background Image: Portrait of a Young Boy and His Dog at The Beach, 19th century, Goldsworthy

Nice to see Emily’s dog, Carlo making an appearance in one of her poems. Something about the idea of Emily and Carlo hanging out makes me feel good, as in it seems fitting her closest friend would of course be a dog. And I believe that the dog is the “He” in this poem, and that his “bowing” is how a dog who is playing hunkers down excitedly, perhaps as he barks at the sea.

Perhaps what she is describing here is how even the simple friendship of a dog can save a person, that friendship doesn’t necessarily have to be between people (or God) for it to be meaningful.

The first stanza speaks of a whimsical adventure where the speaker and their “Dog” go for a walk on the beach and while it seems at first that the “Mermaids” are looking at her, it’s also possible the “Dog” senses them too. Dogs have keen senses and when you take them to the beach (or really anywhere) they are nearly overwhelmed with sensory input, but they also lack the understanding of what things are the way we do and so for them it’s not a stretch that what they sense under the water might as well be a mermaid. Thus there is a sense that the speaker is not only describing what they imagine is under the waves, but also what the “Dog” might be imagining, too.

The second stanza seems to keep up this blending of the fantastical with how a “Dog” might be imagining the world (if you could ask them). Here the “Frigates” are not just crewed by deck “Hands”, but the ships themselves seem to be alive, as if the ships are waving back to shore because they are living things. From a dog’s point of view it would all be the same, ship and man, and the dog would gladly bark back as if to wave too. I also love how she’s playing with the word wave and the waves of the sea without once having to use the world. Finally, the “Mouse” might be of special interest to the “Dog” since some dogs are keen to catch small animals, so perhaps the “Dog” has run off on its own adventure leaving the speaker to watch the sea.

Which leads into the third stanza where the speaker lets the tide come up bast their “Shoe”, then their “Apron”, then “Belt”, and finally the tide rolls in all the way up to their “Boddice”. Why does the speaker not move? Do they want to drown? Or are they unable to move because their “Dog” is not currently with them because they have run off to catch a “mouse”? If we think of this tide as the troubles of life that sometimes seem to want to drown us, then these troubles seem unconquerable when we are alone and have no friend to help us with them. And in the fourth stanza when the speaker has been pulled under water (perhaps there was a strong riptide / undertow) they seem resigned to their fate that they will be consumed, until they “started” because something has come along to save them.

In the fifth stanza the “Dog” reappears by the speaker’s side – “I felt His Silver Heel” – and with his gentle mouth he nips at the speaker’s “Ancle” (ankle) as if to pull the speaker back to shore and to safety. Then, once back on shore – “the Solid Town” of the sand / beach – “The Sea withdrew” as the “Dog” barks at it, head down playfully but alert, as if he’s barking at the “Mermaids” or the “Frigates”. The “Dog”, because he is a fearless companion, has saved the speaker from the troubles that had been consuming them because the “Dog” is a perfect friend, a friend who does not judge or complain and who will always be by your side when you most need them.

When you’re having a bad day, your dog will cheer you up seems to be what EMily might be saying here, and it’s a wonderful poem.

No Rose, yet felt myself a’bloom

Reeds and Cranes, 19th century, Kiitsu Suzuki
Background Image: Reeds and Cranes, 19th century, Kiitsu Suzuki

This comes at the end of one of the Master letters in which she asks the mysterious Master to come visit her in Amherst (“[this summer – could]”). She very much wants to spend time with Master, so perhaps this poem is saying that even without her having a token of love, a “Rose”, she still feels herself “a’bloom” with pleasure at the thought of their meeting, and the thought of Master coming to her causes her to soar “in Ether” as if in an ecstasy even though she is not a bird (which could represent her not having hope Master will actually come).

A letter is a joy of Earth

4 Cent Pony Express Centennial, 1960, United States Post Office
Background Image: 4 Cent Pony Express Centennial, 1960, United States Post Office

I love what she’s saying about us mortals being surprised with “joy” by a letter with news from somewhere and someone we’ve been awaiting news from. The “Gods” are omnipotent so they don’t need to send a “Letter,” but our mortal ignorance “is a joy” because a “Letter” says someone has thought of us and when we learn this it makes us happy.

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night

Dolce Far Niente, 19th century, Jozef Israëls
Background Image: Dolce Far Niente, 19th century, Jozef Israëls

I love the idea that even dreams have their own reality in that, as Emily believes, they are sent by God which makes them real, in a way. So perhaps that experience we all have when a dream feels so real that we expect it to still be there when we wake up is an experience worth putting more faith in?

Isn’t “Heart a Night” a strange expression? She doesn’t write ‘heart at night’, rather she uses “a”. What I think she might be doing here is playing with how we would scan this phrase. For example, if it was ‘heart at night’ we would read it where the emphasis of each word descends so that ‘heart’ would be highest, ‘at’ would be in the middle, and ‘night’ would rest at the bottom. However, but using “a”, “Night” jumps back up, in fact it almost rises higher than “Heart”. She introduces a surprise, as if she’s been awoken suddenly, perhaps by the dream she’s experienced in this poem and so “Heart a Night” awakens us too with its oddness and makes us sit upright in bed but we are still a little confused in that sleepish state when we re-acclimate to reality.

In fact, this entire first stanza has a quality of an experience that occurred for a very brief moment but then “slipped away”. The speaker was aware of the presence of this “Bride” as if it was real and now sits, perhaps in their bed in the dark in the middle of the night trying to determine if they had experienced a dream, a vision, or something more “solid”.

Emily pushes this sleepish confusion we feel when we are suddenly awake after a dream when she questions if the “Dream” had been real (“made solid”) or, and this is the most fascinating part of the poem, that the dreamer had been dreaming of the speaker. It’s not an unusual experience to wonder if the reality of the universe we experience is just a dream and we are the only real “solid” person, but do we ever consider that we are someone else’s dream, that we are the unreal made real by someone else? That’s a far more disconcerting experience – it’s uncomfortable to even entertain the idea – yet in this sleepish state she is unsure what is real, if she is real, or if reality is real or not. She’s confused and she’s trying to make sense of it.

And her conclusion is fascinating because rather than assume she’d been dreaming and then either go back to sleep or get on with her day while remaining sad what she felt was just a dream, she turns to God and decides that since he “Gave” all things to each of us, that even dream come from God and so, in a way, even dreams are real, they are “A Fiction superseding Faith”. The logic here is quite wonderful because it remains consistent with how we feel when we are still groggy after suddenly waking up from a dream – she’s not following rational logic, she’s able to capture that weird dream logic we feel in the halfway state between sleeping and waking. It’s a remarkable feat she pulls off because how often have we tried to hang onto a dream when we’ve woken up only for it to slip into some recess of our mind that we can’t recover? Emily is able to capture that sensation here, and while her “Bride” may have slipped away, she’s made the “Bride” real as a poem.

All the letters I can write

Narcissus Rose Auricula and Dragon Fly No 5, 18th century, Barbara Regina Dietzsch
Background Image: Narcissus Rose Auricula and Dragon Fly No 5, 18th century, Barbara Regina Dietzsch

Emily was an avid letter writer and this poem was part of a letter to her cousin Eudocia Flynt which included a rose, both an actual rose and this poem describing a rose. I think it’s a stretch to attach an overt sexual connotation to this poem (I mean you can, but that simplifies the poem too much). Rather, she is also describing how the parts of language can be used to multiple effects but also come up short of the real thing.

The first line has some subtle wordplay in that letters refers not only to writing a letter for the post, but also the act of writing an individual letter of a word, such as l-e-t-t-e-r-s. She then explains that all these “letters” that she “can write” are also, somehow, not right, that no matter how many she writes, they’ll never be the right letters to replace what she’s feeling or describing. I think of her use of the word “write” in the nautical sense of righting a ship and that no matter how many “letters” she rights, they always remain capsized, perhaps in the “Depths”.

There is also another definition to the word letter, and this was surprising when I looked it up, and that it is the obsolete noun definition meaning “A person who or (occasionally) a thing which hinders or impedes; a hinderer” (OED). Thus, buried in the history of the word “letters” is the act of these same “letters” getting in the way of the real thing. And since Emily included a real rose to go along with her description of a rose, then she understands how what she writes can never replace the real thing.

However, she doesn’t give up on language. In fact she’s quite in love with it, such as how the word “Syllables” does have a velvety sound to it with all those soft S sounds and luxurious L sounds being drawn out slowly over three dexterous syllables. No wonder some people have compared this poem to the act of cunnilingus, especially when we consider the “Depths of Ruby” and the “Lip” – it’s easy to attach a sexual connotation to this poem. However, she is also describing how beautiful and mysterious a rose is, and it’s interesting that she never once uses the word ‘rose’ because though she is aroused by this rose, it remains “Hid”. Rather she talks around the word ‘rose’ perhaps because, like a letter which impedes or hinders true meaning, to say the word rose would mean whomever is reading this letter would imagine their own rose and not the one Emily has in mind and which she is trying to describe in beautiful detail. In other words, to say the word ‘rose’ is to define it, but to talk around it, to describe its quality and its effect is to somehow get closer to the truth of this particular rose.

One final note about the implied sexuality of this poem. If we read, say, Keats and his Ode on a Grecian Urn, we don’t immediately assume he’s being sexual in describing that evocative shape, so why do we ascribe sexuality to Emily when she describes a rose? It seems unfair to only connect a woman’s writing to the body and only the man’s writing to the mind because that is playing into gender stereotypes. Granted, Emily may have been aware of the loaded sexual imagery of this poem (though it was given to her cousin, so there’s that), but to make that the main emphasis of the reading of this poem feels very unfair to all the other work Emily is doing in this poem and it reduces Emily to a single dimension when in fact the majority of her work reveals that she has more dimensions than a rose has petals. I’m not saying we can’t read the sexuality in this, but there is a lot more going on here than a single dimension.

Why make it doubt – it hurts it so

Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse - 2nd Trumpet, 14th century, Nicolas Bataille
Background Image: Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse – 2nd Trumpet, 14th century, Nicolas Bataille

This is a heartbreaking poem, made harder in not knowing who “Master” is and what she has done to “Offend the Vision”. But perhaps it is the work “Vision” which is a clue since she often writes about the world revealed to her through imagination, so perhaps she upset with herself for not paying attention to her imagination and thus she lost a “Vision” which she can’t now recover?

The first thing that came to mind when I read this poem was writer’s block and the fear of not ever being inspired again. It’s a dread I live with constantly and I always feel as if I have to be worthy to be gifted a new idea with which to work from. And when I don’t have a new idea I fret endlessly about thinking that ‘this is it, I have no more ideas, I’m finished’ and so I work myself up into a near panic that I’ll have a sort of creative death. And I wonder if perhaps this is something she had in mind when she wrote this poem? That’s she;s worried that she will no longer be worthy of the inspiration granted to her my this mysterious “Master”?

But she also seems to be suggesting that she believes she may have offended someone and that she will now be forgotten because they no longer want anything to do with her. Emily, for as unusual as she was, I’m sure was aware that she was a bit odd and that people reacted to her differently than how people might react to the rest of her family. And she probably never felt like she could act any different than her typical unusual self and so she probably worried that others would not think well of her. She probably very much wanted people to like her (she seems to like everyone) but she also seems like someone who cannot interact with the world in the regular way regular people do – she’s far too much i her own mind, and she sees the world under such a different light that she’s just unable to act like everyone else. And this can be a terribly lonely experience – sort of like how someone who is disabled might grow frustrated with the world treating them different – and so she’s hyper-aware that her unusual-ness might “Offend” someone but she’s powerless to stop it.

I’m probably projecting too much here, but a poem like this is so personal that it’s hard not to put myself in the poem and look at the world through this poetic lens. Perhaps it’s also her use of the word “me” twice at the end of the poem (rather than the more formal “I”) which makes the poem feel as if it were written for each individual reader.

He showed me Heights I never saw

After being shown the highest point revealing the secrets of the world, she still hesitates to agree to put her faith in “He”. Perhaps having to be shown something rather than discovering it herself is what she is taking issue with, or perhaps her imagination is so rich she doesn’t trust it to reveal the real truth? Either way, her “face withdrew” and could she “further “No”‘ (know).

The most interesting word in this poem, for me, is the word “No” because she seems to be equating “No” with ‘know’, as if she is saying “No” to a sort of knowledge and knowing. Everything that has been revealed to her in the poem has come from it being shown to her by someone else and she seems to be saying that this sort of knowing is something she must withdraw from and say “No” to. In a way she is flipping the roles of Adam and Even by suggesting (slightly) that if she had been Eve she would not have eaten the fruit, she would have said “No” to the fruit of the three of the knowledge (knowing) of good and evil.

I’ve read that perhaps she is referring to Christ in this poem, and perhaps she did have Christ in mind, but she has written so many poems about the world being revealed to her – often the Platonic world of the Forms – that I feel she is questioning where this light which shines on the worlds revealed to her comes from. In this poem she describes a “light for me” which glows “solemn” and which she withdraws from, as if she is now skeptical of what she has discovered in her imagination. Perhaps she is speaking about doubt which, as any artist can attest to, is a powerful force always at work in the artist’s mind as to their own ability. Or perhaps she is skeptical of the church revealing how the universe works because she has seen with her own imagination the true beauty of the world and thus she is skeptical of the “solemn” light of the church (think a dimly lit chapel and its votive).

The Mountains – grow unnoticed

The Mill, 1648, Rembrandt
Background Image: The Rocky Mountains, 1866, Albert Bierstadt

Emily could be writing about herself as a poet who every day will “grow unnoticed” and she writes only because she must, not for fame or “applause”. Yet she also describes “fellowship” in contrast to the lonely work of building a mountain but who is it she desires “fellowship” with? Is she suggesting that the light of the sun (inspiration) spends each night with her in dreams?

I would imagine Emily never actually saw the mountains, at least not the kind she’s describing in this poem. However, not having first-hand experience is no impediment to the creative mind, and I think that’s partially what she getting at here, especially with the final image of the poem in which the mountains turn “golden” and then “night” comes. This image is important because the light of the sun which had been illuminating the “Faces” of the “Mountains” ends its day tucked in with the mountains, as if the light of the “Sun” which reveals all that which is visible to the naked eye, shines differently at night and illuminates the unseen world. If you think about how dreams work, especially the fact that you can see even though your eyes are closed, where is this light source coming from if not the “Sun” who has nestled itself in the mountain range of your dreams?

Thus Emily, who does not often leave her home, is still able to travel across the universe every night and then reports back her findings the next day in her poetry. She is, like the geologist who studies how “Mountains – grow”, she records the growth of her imagination and what is revealed there in her own notes, and she does so without asking for any recognition or help. Her only companion is her imagination and that seems to be plenty of “fellowship” for her.

The Sunrise runs for Both

River Scene, 1840, Sebastian Pether
Background Image: River Scene, 1840, Sebastian Pether

Stunningly beautiful poem, especially because she is able to capture the expanse between horizons as if she holds her arms up and outstretched to the glory of the heavens in celebration of all this beauty. And there is an intimacy here in that we share this moment of a day alone, there is nobody to bother us, only us and the rotation of the earth through the sky.

To say this poem is breathless would technically be inaccurate since she involves the breath of the sky in the opening stanza, though she hides it in the word “unwinds” (wind) and “Breadth” (breath). In fact the opening stanza mimics breathing in that the poem opens with the verb “runs” and closes with “still”, as if the sky is breathing and each day is one cycle of inhaling and exhaling. Yet to say the poem is breathless would also be accurate in that what she is describing has left her breathless at the beauty of the “Noon” who “unwinds Her Blue” across the sky like a ribbon being untied on a gift.

But what does she mean by using the word “Both”? In fact the poem is filled with images of a set of 2: “Both” (three times, once each stanza), “Two”, “set”, and “One – / And One” (as in 1 + 1). Who are these two? I’ve read that it could be a poem about two lovers, which seems plausible, especially since there is a strong current of an almost aching love in this poem as we observe the beauty of the sky. But if we take the poem for what it is: a description of the sky throughout the day and night, it feels as if she is somehow connected to the majesty of the heavens, that she is in love with the whole universe and that the “Both” is her and the heavens. We could image her standing on a hill watching the sunrise, then as the day “unwinds” until evening when the “Lamp” of the moon comes out until she too sets and the “Dusky Arms” of the Milky Way appear and we end with an embrace (as lovers would at night) and the lie together (either to sleep or to make love).

Pain – has an Element of Blank

Simple Bodily Pain, 1785, Charles Le Brun
Background Image: Simple Bodily Pain, 1785, Charles Le Brun

Whereas “Pain” is all consuming of itself, it’s interesting how she describes it has having an “Element of Blank”, as if there are other elements which make up “Pain”. And what is this “Blank”? Usually it’s an absence which is unusual in that “Pain” is made up of a lack of something, a lack of some “Element” which is also “Infinite”.

Plato spoke of the Forms and the ancients were familiar with the elements (Water, Earth, Air, Fire), but I wonder if it ever occurred to them to think of “Pain” as a form? Perhaps, though Emily has identified what it is about “Pain” that makes it so hard to describe because it contains elements of a lack inside of itself. And if we keep with the Greeks, then anything that lacks means it is not a form because a form can lack nothing, only the imitations of things possess a lack, therefore “Pain” could not be a form. Thus “Pain” would be the absence of the forms, would mean that when we experience “Pain” we are as far away from the good, the beautiful, and the true as we can get.

Another interesting aspect of this poem is that Emily does not use the word “I” at all. She seems more interested in studying “Pain” the way a scientist or a philosopher might. She does not say ‘I am in pain and it sucks’, rather she places “Pain” in the poet’s petri dish and attempts to describe what this bugger is and what she sees is basically something that feeds only on itself whose “Future” is only more “Pain”. In effect she is separating herself from “Pain” (and “Pain” from herself) by describing at some outside force so in a way she has sort of got control of it because first she identifies that it is made up of “Blank” (a lack) and that it is something which exists independently of the “I” which means it can be mastered and contained and perhaps eliminated.

Yet on an emotional level we can identify with this poem because whenever we have experienced “Pain” we feel as if we become “Pain”, as if that all-consuming energy of being hurt truly does not seem as if it will ever end. And perhaps that is because it is so difficult to remove the “I” from “Pain” because as creatures with senses there is no other way for us to experience “Pain” – we can’t put it in a petri dish and poke it and electrify it and contain it, all we can do is deal with it.

A little Road – not made of Man

Troika In The Steppe, 1882, Ivan Aivazovsky
Background Image: Troika In The Steppe, 1882, Ivan Aivazovsky

I love her use of the word “Thill” because it’s so close to ‘thrill’ as in the ‘thrill “of Bee”‘. She creates a sense of excitement and fantasy in this first stanza which she then contrasts to her disappointment (perhaps?) that “no Curricle” bears her in that “Town” (or if that “Town” even exists).

I suppose a question I could ask is if she is skeptical if there is a “Town” ahead (heaven, home), what does she think the “Bee” and the “Butterfly” are doing as they pull their “Curricle”? It would be a strange image to have these creatures trained and attached to their vehicles if there were no destination for them to get on to. When we see a “Road” we assume it leads somewhere and that the travelers we meet on the road are making their way to some destination of which the road allows them to get to. But what if the “little Road” was the destination, what if the journey was the thing we should be more concerned with, not the possible destination?

Emily is not concerned, in this poem, with destinations, she only considers the “Road” and the fantastical creatures she sees there. And even when she does consider a destination she describes that place as somewhere where a “Curricle” would “rumble there”, as if the destination were yet another road filled with magical beasts pulling carts filled with travelers on an endless road, as if heaven itself were not a place but an endless journey. This “Town” (heaven) is a place of movement and magic, not of static foundations and immovable columns, it rather has an energy and a freedom, a ‘thrill’ “of Bee” (perhaps a thrill of being) where existence isn’t one fixed place but everyplace all at once.

Bereavement in their death to feel

Photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860, Unknown
Background Image: Photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860, Unknown

Very unusual poem about hearing the news of someone dying (perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning) but nevertheless still sharing an “Immortal” bond with that “stranger” even though their “Presence” has gone. And it’s the final line of the poem, “Absconded – suddenly -” which leaves us wondering about the nature of the soul after death – is it hidden? is it immortal?

A few words jump out at me as perhaps being key to this poem: “feel” in the first stanza, “paralyze” in the second, and “Presence” in the third. Perhaps Emily is attempting to describe the process of how death works to transform someone with whom we’ve had a “Kinsmanship” with to that of someone who is now “vital only to Our Thought”. But is she is speaking about the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning then this is an unusual transition because Emily did not know her personally other than through her writings.

Thus maybe Emily is also describing her relationship with other writers as being “Vital”, as if they are friends connected through language and writing and through which Emily does not see any difference between a relationship with someone she physically has been in contact with and someone whom she has only known intellectually. Emily’s penchant for letter writing in lieu of her engaging with society would seem to support her view of living a life of letters and it might be why she capitalizes the word “Vital” at the start of the poem to describe her relationship with the person before they have died and then does not capitalize the word “vital” when they have passed on. That “Vital” relationship has been transformed “In dying” from “Vital” to merely the “vital” “Presence” of our thoughts because she can no longer engage anew with this “stranger”.

This could also suggest Emily sees the act of creating art and writing as a living process – that art is a life force of its own and thus when the artist died it is as if their soul as “suddenly” “Absconded”.

‘Twas later when the summer went

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dali
Background Image: The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dali

Maybe I just have a poor sense of keeping track of when things happen, but I’ve tried diagramming the order of events in this poem and can’t figure it out. Does the cricket come before or after summer, and does the cricket leave before or after winter? Of course I think this is part of her point about “Esoteric Time” only making sense to whoever winds that “pathetic Pendulum”.

Emily is referring to the pathetic fallacy in which we attribute human emotions to nature or inanimate objects, such as how Shakespeare using the storm in King Lear to describe Lear’s inner turmoil, but even more deeply in how Heidegger described how in the pre-modern era humanity’s relationship with nature was fundamentally different than it is now – he described how at some point we began to see nature as a resource and not as part of our own world which has led to humanity believing themselves to be outside of nature and not a part of nature.

Emily seems to be intuiting this relationship with nature in how it’s difficult to pin down when events are occurring in the poem. Perhaps a mathier person than me can apply a formula to this poem and explain it, but for most anyone reading this the first time through you’d be hard pressed to determine the order of events. And I think that’s on purpose so she can describe our unusual relationship with time and nature as being something we are in tune with but also hard pressed to actually understand. We know when we are supposed to be “Going Home” when a winter storm is coming on, but we do not know when we are “Going Home” as in the day we die. Thus nature is a “pathetic Pendulum” in that in one sense it tells us when the regular seasons are coming and going and that will affect our daily and mortal routine, but it’s a “pathetic” (excuse for a) reliable “Pendulum” in that it does not let us know when we are going to leave this world.

Thus our place in nature is unsure and uncertain and our ability to determine anything is unreliable at best since that “Esoteric Time” is kept by a clock maker who does not easily reveal their secrets to us.

One note from One Bird

Li Livres dou Tresor - F65 Knight Charging a Snail and a Bird, 1325, Brunetto Latini
Background Image: Li Livres dou Tresor – F65 Knight Charging a Snail and a Bird, 1325, Brunetto Latini

Interesting how she moves from the “note” of a “Bird” being worth more than a “Million” words, to the deadly image of a single “sword” being all that’s required to make a point. You wouldn’t typically equate gentle nature with violence, especially considering the old saying of the pen being mightier than the sword (which Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined in 1839), so perhaps she means something else?

Emily wrote this poem more than a decade after the end of the US Civil War, however the memory of the rhetoric found in the newspapers would have remained and tensions in rebuilding America would still have been high – much like how tensions in the US are still high nearly twenty years (at the time I’m writing this) after 9/11. So perhaps she isn’t necessarily equating the “note” of a “Bird” with violence, but rather she is making a distinction by saying that the “note” of a “Bird” is what we should be listening to because even a single “word” is like a “sword” ready to be drawn from its “scabbard”. A word can kill, and when those words are printed (such as in the newspapers) they can lead to violence.

And there is a slanted reference here to printing in her use of the word “scabbard” which up until 1787 was the term used for the “thin board used … by printers in making register” which is the tool used to justify text on a page, now known as the scale-board. This she might be alluding to how words can be used to justify violence – the raising of a “sword” – and this seems plausible since “word” and “sword” share all but a single letter.

I never hear that one is dead

The Scream, undated, Edvard Munch
Background Image: The Scream, undated, Edvard Munch

Interesting juxtaposition between hearing and thinking, especially in relation to the image of the “yawning” “abyss” and how that echoing fading away is like one’s life fading away. When we hear an echo we often try to see how long we can hold onto its sound before it’s finally gone, and so life is sort of like a fading echo we are terrified to lose.

It’s interesting that she talks about hearing of someone who has died because often she writes about seeing someone dead in her poetry, but here it’s second-hand, perhaps gotten from a letter or obituary or in conversation. Either way she’s not dealing directly with the dead, she’s already separated from them through physical space, and now she’s also separated from them across the “abyss” between then living and the dead. In both cases there is a distance between life and death, but what that distance is is something that would drive a person to “Madness” in attempting to comprehend. This distance is something we can’t access with our senses (such as hearing), but we are still aware of its existence because we intuit that “Consciousness” is no longer present.

But then what is “Consciousness”? Here she describes it as a “stranger” and that the activity of “Consciousness”, such as holding “Beliefs”, are “Bandaged” (tied-up or blindfolded) and seems to be a jumbled stitched together horror that no “man” would dare “face”, even though it exists within all of us. There doesn’t seem to be any unity in this “Consciousness” she is describing, but rather it is something perhaps random which could mean she is saying life itself is just a random occurrence without any real meaning.

And thus her use of “hear” and “Tone” might be way of describing thought which is the sound and echo of our “Consciousness” echoing out of some unknowable and infinite “Abyss” inside each of us.

These are the days when Birds come back

Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt
Background Image: Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt

One of the few poems she published in her lifetime. Here she enjoys a warm autumn day while understanding that summer is over and winter is on its way. Readers of this poem would probably have assumed Emily was quite devout since she relies heavily on religious imagery, but they might have missed how she’s really talking about broken promises.

In the first stanza, the birds who have begun their migration south have returned believing that summer has returned while only a “few – a Bird or two” are not fooled and do not look back to New England. I actually thought of Lot and Lot’s wife when I first read this since looking back to the past which she equates to the “sophistries of June” is a sign that you wish to return to your sinful ways and thus God will punish you (turn you into salt). And this is what is unusual about this poem in that she’s saying “June” was lying to us, that the springtime is a trickster almost akin to Sodom.

Yet it’s not just springtime she says breaks its “sacrament” with us, it’s every season because even though “summer” was the season of plenty, of “bread” and “wine”, all we can do in autumn is remember what times were easy, to eat this bread and drink this wine in memory of something that has ended. The life of leisure and abundance is slowly falling away like “a timid leaf” and the speaker of the poem wants to return to those “summer days” the way Lot’s wife looked back on her old life before God punished her.

Of course this is a very pessimistic reading of a poem that is usually read as being about someone daydreaming about summer during an particularly warm autumn (perhaps late October) day and that only the “Bee” and “a Bird or two” are wise enough to not be fooled by the temporary reprieve of impending winter. Yet the longing and yearning for a time when things were easier fills this poem with a melancholy of someone who believes that all they will be able to do is remember better times because hard times are coming soon. All the promises (“sacrament[s]”) that were given the speaker earlier in the year “Hurries” off the branches the way someone who grows old looks back at all the promise of their youth turned into a pile of leaves late in life.

And though Emily often talks about cycles and the return of things, here the poem seems to have a finality to it, as if there will be no more sophistic June’s to come, that all is ending, all the promises have been broken, and all that’s left is to remember the way things were when times were better. In the end she asks to become part of immortality, to be accepted into the ranks of He who has been resurrected, but this plea goes unanswered – God does not come down from the clouds to take her up to heaven, she can only stand and watch the leaves fall from the trees in silence and hope that things may get better.

Volcanoes be in Sicily

Neapolitan School Travellers At The Crater At Mount Vesuvius, 19th century, Unknown
Background Image: Neapolitan School Travellers At The Crater At Mount Vesuvius, 19th century, Unknown

I’m going to go way of script with this poem and talk about its meter because it’s a very fun poem to recite out loud, especially if you do it without pausing at the end of each line. I count 16 beats in this poem when I read it and it flows out like “Lava” flowing quickly from the “crater” and gives the poem an almost jump-rope beat, the way kids would sing rhyme a poem. It’s very fun.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about Emily’s home life and how she spent most her of day working in the kitchen, or in the garden, or doing numerous domestic duties, that made me think that when she read that Vesuvius had erupted yet again, that she composed this poem as a fun way to pass the time.

The way I read the poem is like this:

be in Sicily
And South
America I
from my Geography
nearer here
A Lava
step at any
time Am I
inclined to climb
A Crater
I may contemplate
at Home

I thought of reading it this way because the poem (in both versions) does not contain any dashes, it just reads as a straight run, so when you get to the end of the poem you can start again and keep repeating it – which is why I thought of kids jumping rope and singing rhymes for the beat. And so I imagined her in the kitchen, perhaps mixing something in bowls or on the stove and it bubbles over and reminds her of the eruption and so she stirs to the beat of this poem over and over again.

I know this is a total stretch of the imagination and that I’m not really talking about the poem’s content, but there is such a rhythm to it that it’s impossible for me not to hear it and have fun reciting it over and over again.

She rose to His Requirement – dropt

Roman Mosaic - Ship & Sea Life, 1st - 4th century, Unknown
Background Image: Roman Mosaic – Ship & Sea Life, 1st – 4th century, Unknown

I love the image she creates of a serene agitation building up like a “Pearl” in the secret place of her life that “He” can’t get to. She maintains her independence while also submitting to the mechanism of a relationship but she maintains that she does not belong to anyone. Wonderful wordplay of “she rose” as in she’s a rose and he’s a requirement.

As typical for Emily, it is ambiguous who the “He” is. On first reading it’s easy to assume she’s speaking as a new wife, however she could also be speaking as someone who understands that in order to grow up they will have to follow someone else’s rules – even the wealthiest businessperson is still beholden to their shareholders. What she is exploring here, however, is the dual nature of this act of free will, free will as being the freedom to choose to submit to an authority, as what Milton was writing about in Paradise Lost. And while she describes this as being “honorable Work”, she describes the act as like an oyster that will “Develope Pearl” because something has agitated a tender, and private spot but instead of growing angry it grows something beautiful – though from the oyster’s point of view, a pearl might be just so much excrement.

The most difficult part of the poem is the second to last line, “But only to Himself – be known”. As I was reading this I first assumed she would say that “He” wouldn’t know “The Fathoms they abide”, in that “He” wouldn’t know her secret “Pearl”, but the way this reads seems to be that only “He” knows this pearl exists, that even she is unaware of what is growing in her. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the soul in that through the process of living, of growing up, of engaging on the free will to submit to authority, our “Pearl” soul grows out of the agitation of living until God is ready to dive into the dark “Fathoms” of the universe and extract the gift we’ve been growing without even knowing.

He fumbles at you Soul

A Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet
Background Image: A Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet

The “He” in this poem is ambiguous, it could be a public speaker, a preacher, God, her own father, or even Zeus or some male aspect of thundering nature, like a storm. Either way it’s an authority figure of some sort that begins with a fumbling (which seems almost careless), then leads to a sustained “Blow” (which feels violent), and ends with “still” (and firm and pause / “Paws”).

As in “He put the Belt around my life“, there is a violence embedded in the “He” character. In that poem “He” has placed a belt on her which could also be a sort of infliction and not necessarily the gift of poetry / art that she describes. To “Belt” someone is to hit them, and thus in this poem “He fumbles” which, though not quite as directly violent, still feels like a violation, like a young man whose greedy fingers won’t let go of a young woman.

What the “He” really reminds me of is a storm, such as a gale, or Nor’easter, or hurricane that would have been familiar to Emily in New England. These are violent storms that start off slowly (“fumbles”) then they pick up in intensity and until they deal “imperial Thunderbolt[s]”. Yet this is nature’s music, nature’s violent art that comes from the same clouds she describes as being a member of in “He put the Belt around my life“. Thus perhaps she is saying that creating art is like a storm, a violent confluence of emotions and energy whipped up and mixed up like an “etherial Blow” that destroys everything in its wake and leaves a devastating silence behind.

What’s interesting is that Emily usually associates nature with the female pronoun, but here nature is associated with the male pronoun, so perhaps she sees nature as having a dual personality, it has male and female qualities – which makes sense since life on earth is typically divided up into male and female – but this “He” has a violence about it that is unlike the nature which grows flowers and sees after gardens. Here it destroys, not builds, yet even in destruction there is renewal in the silence after the storm. So perhaps this is what the creative process feels like for her, in that inspiration comes on like an angry male God, throws everything in her mind into a whirlwind which she must weather, and only after she’s ridden it out can there be peace.

Thus could this be who the mysterious Master is? A male-centric force of violent inspiration? A storm of the imagination?

He put the Belt around my life

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake
Background Image: Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake

The opening image of this poem is hard not to read in the 21st century as it being almost violent, as if the gift God has given her (to write poetry) isn’t just a simple “Belt” she wears, but is almost a form of oppression. She equates “He” with royalty and power and she wears that same belt they do and so she is both victim of oppression and a practitioner, too.

John Ruskin writes in On Modern Landscapes about how modern art, unlike medieval art, focuses on “things which momentarily change or fade” (V3, Ch16), such as how modern artists depict clouds in great detail, unlike the medieval artists whose art depicted a world of “stability, definiteness, and luminousness”. Much attention is paid to “the service of the clouds” and thus modern artists are quite unlike Aristophanes who saw clouds as “great goddesses to idle men” and “that they are mistresses of disputings, and logic, and monstrosities, and noisy chattering”.

What Ruskin (perhaps inadvertently) illuminates is an embedded sexism. Aristophanes describes clouds as female and employs the tired tropes of women who argue, lack the capacity for logic, gossip, and turn men idle. Ruskin also seems concerned with our modern penchant for “speaking ingeniously concerning smoke” and that we are preoccupied with our “ignorance respecting all stable facts”. And so what Emily is doing in this poem is addressing these issues by taking them head on.

Emily has been accepted (in this poem) as “A Member of the Cloud”, she sees herself as part of that great tradition of artists and perhaps even philosophers who try to understand and appreciate the fleeting beauty of life. Yet she is also beholden to the powers that be – men – and nobody is more male than God, but she is also referring, perhaps, to the publishing world which in her time was overwhelmingly male. And so she exists in a weird transition phase in which she is modern in her desire to consider the clouds, but also attached to the old, medieval worldview of rendering all things in exactness because God is stable and therefore so must the universe and all of human experience be stable (somehow) too.

In Emily’s time she was expected to “do the little Toils” which were considered ‘woman’s work’, a life of domestic servitude in which the best a woman could hope for was to get married, something she explores in “I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that“. Yet Emily has been gifted the talent to create art, to contemplate the clouds and see in the most fleeting and insignificant corners of the universe the forms of beauty. And she doesn’t want to be stuck having to perform “little Toils” because, like a member of royalty, she’s better than that, unlike those of the rest of us “That make the Circuit of the Rest” (of us commoners). Our days may be dull, but her’s are filled with a beauty only she can see in the clouds while we still hold onto the medieval thinking in which the clouds are just the road to idleness.

Thus Emily is not content to “deal occasional smiles” like a good girl who is expected to do the housework for a man, she “must decline” the authority of the stable world and live for the clouds because God himself has accepted her into the ranks. Though the irony that only God (a man) could grant this to her is probably not lost on her either.

I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that

Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Fyodor Rokotov
Background Image: Empress Catherine the Great, 1763, Fyodor Rokotov

Very unusual poem considering we know she never married. Here she imagines being a wife as like being a “Czar”, an absolute ruler in full control of one’s domain, and she likes this feeling of power. She compares this to “the Girl’s life” which is an unmarried “pain” in which she has no control over her life and would be how she actually felt about her situation.

This poem speaks to the roles available to women through most of human history in that the best life might have had to offer is to be defined by their relationship with a man and, failing that, then being single is just “pain”. When Emily wrote this she was, and always would be, a single and unmarried woman which while she describes as being a “pain” she was also free to devote herself to her poetry, an art form which would allow her to (naively) imagine being a wife as being like a “Czar” of Russia, such as Catherine II. Of course being married is nothing like what she’s imagining here, but perhaps what she is getting at is that instead of being married to a man, she is married to her art?

As someone married to poetry, she is “Czar” of the domain of her imagination, she can conjure up anything she pleases and command her pen to do what she wishes – she is in total control. And before she was married to her art, perhaps she saw herself as a naive “girl” who had yet to take control of her life before she discovered the power of her poetry. Her poetry can take her all the way into “Heaven”, when previously she was merely stuck on “Earth” and the real world having to deal with real world “pain” and issues. And so she doesn’t want to “compare” her new life as a “Wife” to poetry because everything before that time “was pain”.

Remembrance has a Rear and Front

Working Priory - West Side, 1823, John Hassell
Background Image: Working Priory – West Side, 1823, John Hassell

She is perhaps saying that she doesn’t want to remember something or could she be saying that she doesn’t want to remember something alone, that she wants to share her memories with the other people of the “House”. A life lived with no people in it is not a life well lived, thus memories should be populated with the memories of the people we care about.

This poem is similar to “The Angle of a Landscape” in that she is talking about memory as being like a “House” – in that poem she talks about the walls of her room and here it’s the physical architecture of building a house. Yet the “House” in this poem feels empty because there is only a “Mouse” in the “Garret” that is either eating the trash left behind, or is making its own “Refuse” in the form of its droppings. But she is also referring to the grave when she describes “the deepest Cellar / That ever Mason laid” which gives this “House” a foundation of the all the dead who ever once lived there and perhaps this “Mouse” is gnawing on the dead themselves.

The etymology of the word “Cellar” is worth noting in that the word has sometimes been confused with ‘sollar’, the upper room of a house (the solar), and Emily seems to be playing with this confusion by implying that when one is in the “Cellar” they are ready to be received into heaven, but she fears that “Almighty God” might forget about her and leave her alone in the grave. Her anxiety here is that she does not want to be forgotten when she dies and she doesn’t want the house she built (perhaps her life and life’s work) to be forgotten.

The Angle of a Landscape

Antique 19th Century Landscape Church Steeple Oil Painting, 19th century, Unknown
Background Image: Antique 19th Century Landscape Church Steeple Oil Painting, 19th century, Unknown

This is an unusual poem for Emily because she is using imagery to, perhaps, describe her emotional state, thus this poem feels very modern in that the outside world becomes a representation of the interior world of the individual.

Most striking is her juxtaposition between the ephemeral quality of the reflection in her wall with the very solid, very permanent finger of the church steeple in the distance. She might be expressing her own feelings about how fleeting life is yet watching over everyone is this consistent spirit, be it God or Nature or the Forms, that one can always look to and find in the same place. In fact this image made me think of Marcel in Proust when he describes all the church steeple’s as these landmarks which he used to orient himself in the world and which he could always count on to be watching over him, as if they were the guideposts of not just a traveler, but the guideposts of morality.

The first stanza seems to present us with an image of possible decay. The “ample Crack” could be a defect in the wall of her room, as if where she is living is falling apart, that the space she inhabits is reverting back to the earth. Thus her room and her body seem to interchangeable. There is also the imagery of her being separated from the world behind her “Curtain and the Wall” as well as the shadow on her wall of the distinct line of the landscape reflected on her wall in which there would be a sharp distinction between the sun and the line of this shadow.

The second stanza is a marvel of genius in how she effortlessly describes the watery, shimmering quality of the “Bough of Apple” reflected on her wall. We can see not only the outline of the branch but also the halo of light around this shadow as the bright sun behind the “Bough” reflects around it and seems to make the image dance like a “Venetian” canal. And this “Venetian” image also speaks to the possibility of her own dreams she might have been having before she awoke in stanza one and that the walls of her room are like the walls of the mind in which our dreams are projected onto the surface of.

The central stanza has the effect of allowing us to see along with her as she lies in bed watching the shadows move across the walls. This is a very slow stanza in which time slows to a crawl as if the “Occasional” movement of the “Vane’s Forefinger” were like the slow movement of the hands on a clock. Thus she lies there as the weather slowly changes, as the day slowly creeps along the walls of her room. And again I’m reminded of Proust when Marcel remembers the image of Golo from his magic lantern that projected onto the walls of his childhood bedroom.

The fourth stanza has an element of the eternal in it in that “The Seasons – shift”, that is time goes by like a continuously flowing river (or canal) but that what she finds in reality does not equal the treasures of her mind. There are no “Emeralds” nor are the there “Diamonds”, she only dreamed of these riches and reality is just the slow, cold, river of time flowing along across our bedroom walls. This image could very well be describing her possible depression where she is describing her disillusionment with reality, with her desire to capture something beautiful but always somehow coming up short. Emily feels so strongly that even the shadows impress her, but she knows these images are not real and so she feels powerless to deal with reality. So while she is enchanted by the beautiful imagery dancing on her walls, she is also trapped in a room slowly falling apart that she seems unable to leave, that she seems to be trapped in for an eternity.

And the final stanza outright uses the work “caskets” to describe what has come to fetch her when she has died. Here she is mixing the imagery of dreams with that of the afterlife, in fact there really doesn’t seem to be a difference, and one wonders if she might be saying she was dreaming of death as she lay there in her room, depressed. Central to this final image is the “finger” of the church’s steeple, as if God himself is pointing at her accusingly, or his pointing her towards heaven, or is implacably and inscrutably still by not saying anything or offering any assistance. The image is like the hand of a sundial which the shadows dance around but itself is mute, is just an impediment to the light of the sun. Is she suggesting the church is merely that which creates shadows? Is she suggesting the church is central to the guiding of our journey along the “Venetian” canal of life? It’s all mysterious and beautiful.

Fame is a bee

Beekeeping - from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century, Ibn Butlan
Background Image: Beekeeping – from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century, Ibn Butlan

On first read this poem seems simple enough: “Fame”, while it has a “song”, can also hurt you and it can fly away without warning. But why is she comparing “Fame” to a “Bee”, and in what way does a “Bee” have a song?

Formally this poem is doing something rather interesting in that it is deceptively plain. At only 4 lines, where each line is built with pyrrhics of unstressed single syllable words – 4 words in the first three line and 2 more in the conclusion – with an ABCC rhyme scheme, the poem doesn’t possess a lyric quality, in fact, it’s reads rather flat and it stands out among her other poems which often sing in a ballad meter. Perhaps she is using this flat delivery to express her own feelings about “Fame” in that in and of itself “Fame” is flat and boring, and it contains nothing of any real interest.

Yet it is her use of phyrrhics which is her most clever trick. In poetry, a pyrrhic foot is two unstressed syllables, such as “Fame is” and “It has”. But Pyrrhic also means to win a battle whose victory was so costly to the winner that it turns out to not be worthwhile (OED, adj 1). Thus Emily is telling us that “Fame” is a battle whose price is so costly that you will never gain anything useful from it and she has constructed her poem to reflect this philosophy. And what she isn’t saying outright is that when we spend all of our time worrying about “Fame” we neglect the hard work and effort that is involved in making art or just living a productive life.

And it is productivity rather than “Fame” that she seems most interested in and is why she is using the “bee” as her vehicle to describe “Fame”. Yet there is a paradox here because a “bee” is known for its industriousness and for its valuing the hive community over the needs of just one individual. Once again we can turn to the word pyrrhic which can also refer to “an ancient Greek war dance simulating the movements of combat and performed in full armour” (OED, adj 2) which resembles the activity of bees in their hive. The bees dance to tell each other where the flowers are, and the bees band together to protect the hive from intruders. The bee, on its own might not be very impressive, yet as a community it is a formidable opponent. Thus what Emily might be trying to do here is show how it is hard work and community which are the values a person should encourage rather than going off to court “Fame”. “Fame” is a solitary endeavor, like the lone bee, or the lone unstressed syllable, or the Greek warrior separated from his unit, but productivity and disciplined hard work is everlasting because it can stand up to any “sting”, it can win the battle and though there might be causalities, a hive working together is less likely to suffer a pyrrhic victory.

But what does she mean that “Fame” also “has a song”? Bees buzz, but they do not “sing”, at least no “bee” I’ve ever heard. What Emily might be doing here is intentionally misleading us to demonstrate that “Fame” also does not have a “song”, rather the sound it makes is just a dull buzzing, a droning of pyrrhic syllables. In Chaucer’s The House Of Fame, he compares gossip, which is the instrument of “Fame” to passing gas. For Chaucer “Fame” is just a waste product that has no value and is, at best, something we can laugh at but that will not stand the test of time, it is just so much wind whirling around that will only make you dizzy if you get caught up in it. “Fame” is a waste of time, it is a pyrrhic victory, it is basically a fart.

Emily may not have had a fart in mind when she wrote this, but the sentiment of the poem lines up with the point Chaucer made about “Fame” in that it is fleeting at best. “Fame” might sound nice at first but upon closer inspection it’s just so many bees who will get angry when you stick your nose in their hive. Yet buried in the poem is Emily’s typically American philosophy that hard work is the substance – the honey – of life, that being part of a community and a family is what is everlasting and that longing for individual attention is a waste of time and produces nothing of substance.

Good Morning – Midnight

Under the Trees, 1865, Thomas Moran
Background Image: Under the Trees, 1865, Thomas Moran

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.

Tho’ I get home how late – how late

The Homecoming, 1887, Arnold Böcklin
Background Image: The Homecoming, 1887, Arnold Böcklin

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.

Under the Light, yet under

Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4), 1796, Henry Fuseli
Background Image: Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4), 1796, Henry Fuseli

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.

Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music

Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton
Background Image: Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

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.

I would not paint — a picture

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Caspar David Friedrich
Background Image: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Caspar David Friedrich

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.

It can’t be “Summer”!

Atlantic City, 19th century, Alfred Thompson Bricher
Background Image: Atlantic City, 19th century, Alfred Thompson Bricher

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.