Category Archives: Poem

By Chivalries as tiny

A Young Girl Reading By Candlelight, 18th century, Philipe Mercier
Background Image: A Young Girl Reading By Candlelight, 18th century, Philipe Mercier

I imagine someone has given her a flower “or a book” and that kind gesture of gift giving brings a smile to her face when she is alone at night. This is a very sentimental poem, but it’s very personal since someone did something which meant a lot to her and that made her happy.

What’s interesting, however, is that she describes this happiness occurring “in the dark”, long after the gift was given. She does not write about the moment the gift was given to her and the joy it brought her when she was face to face with whomever gave it her (assuming it was given to her in person), rather she imbues the object with the memory of that event and with the sentiment of the thoughtfulness that went into giving her this “tiny” gift. And this might seem like a trivial point because of course people have memories attached to the gifts that have been given to them.

But I think this is worth exploring a little bit more because what Emily is writing about is how she creates her own reality. A book, or a flower, are just objects with no meaning in and of themselves. Most books and flowers spend their entire existence without any meaning given to them. Yet when someone comes along and picks a flower which they give to a lover or a friend, or when we go to a bookstore to buy a gift for someone special, the object becomes more than just a simple book or flower, a memory is attached to it and the two are linked forever. Our reality is altered because whenever we look at that book or flower, we don’t only think of the object, we also think of the person who gave it to us, the day we received it, possibly what the weather was like and what our feeling were about the gift giver. It is in these moments that we build our reality up one object and one memory at a time.

I know this might seem like a terribly obvious point to make because it’s something we all do all the time, but I do think it is important to consider how we see the world, especially when we find ourselves “in the dark” and can no longer see the objects which make up our life and can only rely on memory.

This theme of valuing something, even something simple, is one she has explored before in “I had a guinea golden” where she discusses how being careless about how we value something (or someone) can lead to a friend becoming a traitor.

If I should die

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin
Background Image: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852, John Martin

At first glance, this is a very funny poem, and it reminds me of Tom Toro’s famous New Yorker cartoon (Jan 30, 2015) where a businessman in a suit is sitting around a campfire with some children after civilization has collapsed and he’s explaining that while it’s unfortunate the world was destroyed, for a brief moment he helped create a lot of value for shareholders.

The footnote in my edition of Emily’s poems explains she wrote this a year after the Panic of 1857, a financial crisis that effected her father when Amherst’s railroad company went bankrupt. The poem is filled with the language of finance, such as “option”, “enterprise”, “stocks”, “Commerce”, “Trades” and she compares the industry of the “Birds” and the “Bees” with the “sprightly / Conduct” of “gentlemen” who keep the financial institutions afloat.

My first reading of the poem picked up on a surface level of cynicism in which she is juxtaposing the industry of nature with the money chasing of human business which doesn’t actually produce anything. Emily ascribes to nature the value of a bird building, a bee bustling, and the sun beaming and burning, while she ascribes to “gentlemen” the act of “Trades” flying and “Commerce” continuing. At first glance it appears she is valuing nature over earthly affairs which will come to end once we “die”.

She also writes two unusual lines in the middle of the poem, “One might depart at option / From enterprise below” which separates the natural imagery above with the worldly business below. An option, in financial terms, is an agreement for the right (not the obligation) to buy (or sell) something at a future time for a set and predetermined price. For example, if Emily were writing today and a film producer wanted to turn her poems into a film, the producer could option her work for the right to do so. Yet in this poem she seems to be comparing the right to option stocks with our own souls.

Her line “enterprise below” alludes to what happens to us when we die: we go into the ground and, perhaps onto an afterlife, but it also directly points to the lines that are written literally “below” this one in the poem. And she uses the “option” in reference to when a person will “depart” this world, as if someone has bought the option to our souls and on a day of their choosing they come to collect.

Thus she is comparing life to a transaction in the stock market of life, and on my subsequent readings of the poem I felt she wasn’t being purely cynical about “gentlemen” wasting their time with ephemeral affairs that hold no real value (though that does exist here since she relates “below” to death as well as finance), but that she is also saying that the industry of humanity is that of finance and options just as much as the “Bees” and the “Birds” have their own work to do which, one day, will also be forgotten when they die. Yet life will go on after we no longer are alive. Our descendants will continue to busy themselves with earthly affairs while we, in our graves with our “Daisies” go on about the business of being dead. In other words, it’s all relative.

And I also don’t think Emily would have been as cynical as to think the financial opportunities her father was involved in were time wasted – she, and the rest of her family would depend on that money to live and thrive, and besides, these affairs wold have been important to her father so I doubt her relationship with economics would have been simply cynical or her attitude towards her father’s loss in the railroad company simply as her not caring about him or it.

What I think she is trying to say is that we should have some perspective on life. While alive we, like the “Bees” must get on with our affairs, even if it is as silly as buying and selling “options”, but that we should remember that these affairs will only be important to us for the brief time we are alive and that the “enterprise below” will then be important to us when we leave this mortal realm.

Sleep is supposed to be

Sleeping Woman, 19th century, Carl Holsøe
Background Image: Sleeping Woman, 19th century, Carl Holsøe

Not all of Emily’s poems have to be serious meditations on death, the afterlife, and the soul, they can also be how annoyed the poet is that their father raps on their door at 3am, long before the sun has come up, and seriously disturbs her sleeping. I love her sense of humor here, especially since this is addressed to her friend Susan whom she is sort of venting to.

But there is good poetry here, too.

The first stanza is a declaration of what Emily believes the purpose of sleeping is, and you can feel her slight annoyance with having to even bother to explain this to anyone – her father in this case. Though Emily was 28 when she wrote this, you can still sense the willful, almost teenage attitude here as she explains to her father how things ought to be.

The second stanza drops the attitude and she paints a rather beautiful image of the “hosts” (I assume she is describing the angels who watch over us) down on their hands (and knees) as they keep an eye on us while we sleep. This is a rather lovely image of being watched over when we are vulnerable, but it also carries the tiniest hint of a barb back at her father by implying that his job is to protect her while she sleeps, not wake her up at all hours of the night before the sun has come up.

The third stanza is similar to the first in that it’s a clear declaration of what the morning “Morn” is supposed to be. Again, you can almost image Emily standing before her father and explain in that way only a young woman who is annoyed can do about what things mean and how someone ought to be behaving.

The line “Morning has not occurred!” – here in my edition printed as an individual line separate from the other stanzas – could almost be the empathetic plea to her father to stop waking her up before the sun has risen. This very well could be a direct quote from her confrontation with her father.

The final stanza, as with the second, is another beautiful image which is full of color and light. She uses the word “Aurora” to describe the dawn, and she paints the sky with the “red” clouds in the morning sky (or perhaps this is a wordplay of “array” as in the red rays – ray / array / a ray of the sun). She even describes the morning breeze as the “banner gay” which gives the poem a sense of movement and vitality in the morning when the sun is rising and giving light to the world.

But she makes her point with the final line, much in the way a person stamping their foot on the ground when they try to explain something to someone who is exacerbating them with her use of italics on the word “That” and carries her annoyance further with the word “break” to describe not only the breaking of the dawn, but also the breaking of her peace and quiet of sleep, and the breaking of her patience with her father.

This is wonderful poem, full of Emily’s personality and a glimpse into the daily life of her household. I wonder what Susan must have thought when she read this?

Taken from men — this morning

School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer
Background Image: School Time, 1874, Winslow Homer

I wonder if Emily had heard news of one of the local school children dying and this is the poem she wrote in remembrance of the little girl? What is unusual about this poem is she uses the word “Gods” and “kingdoms” (plural) rather than singular. I wonder if this is her way of expressing that our fate after death is not limited to just one possibility, but an eternity of possibilities?

The first stanza deals with the two sorts of taking that happens when someone dies. In the first line, Death is the one who has “taken” a life from “men” (humanity). The second line deals with the “men” who have “carried” the body to the grave to be buried. We don’t yet know whom has been taken, but we feel the sadness of the “men” when we read the line “in mourning” (mourning) enjambed into the next line “carried by men today” so that it can be read as the “men” carrying their mourning (“morning”). This simple enjambment creates the image of the funeral procession and the emotional quality of the people involved.

The third line is where the poem becomes more complicated because she uses the word “Gods”, not God, to describe who is the one that has “marshalled her away”. Though we now know the person how died is a “her”, it’s curious that we have two plural images: “Gods” and “banners”. The use of “marshalled” is also unusual in that it’s evokes military order as in the phrase marshaling the ranks into order.

While I do not know what Emily’s intent with the plural and militaristic language was, I get the (personal) impression that she is suggesting that this “one little maid” be ushered away from this mortal realm into the afterlife with as much honor as would be given a fallen and famous military hero. This “little [mind’s]” life is just as worthy as a soldier who served on the battlefield and so she should be given the same dignity and respect in death because all lives are precious and worthy of honor.

The other issue of the usage of plurals is that Emily might not be referring to multiple Gods, but that she is inside the minds of the “men” at the funeral and she is imagining how each of us has a different relationship and idea of what God might be. In Christianity there is only one God, but each person has a personal relationship with the God so for each person God is a unique and different being. Thus each person at the funeral is imagining a unique idea of what the afterlife will be like for this “little maid”.

The second stanza describes whom has died: “One little maid”, “One little mind” which describes the little girl, but as with lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza, lines 3 and 4 are unusual in their imagery. Here she describes not heaven, but rather Eden and she describes Eden as a sort of hotel or lodging that has no room left in it because “all the rooms are full”. Is she suggesting this is why humanity can’t go back to Eden because there is no room left? And if so, who then is occupying Eden in all these rooms? Yet she has combined this image with that of the “school” so she alludes to the afterlife as being like a school full of innocent children all sitting at their desks and there not being room for anyone else. Perhaps she is suggesting that humanity, when in Eden, is like a school full of children who are innocent of the reality of mortal life?

The final stanza begins with a play on ‘East of Eden’ (which is the Land of Nod where Cain was exiled to wander forever) and this relates to the image of Eden being full – full with perhaps the souls who deserve to remain in Eden / heaven, unlike Cain who is banished from God’s kingdom. Yet Emily is also describing a scene in which the “East” (morning) is far away from evening (“Even”) – a lot of time and space separates them – which perhaps she means as the gulf between life and death? And “Even” can also mean to make fair (make even) and death is the great leveler / evener of them all.

Finally, and once again, the final two lines of a stanza, shifts the image again, this time describing how when we (the “departed”) die we become “quaint” “Courtiers” in the kingdom of heaven, which she describes as the “Dim” “border star”. And once again she uses the plural “Kingdoms” rather than kingdom, once again suggesting, perhaps, that waiting for each of us is our own unique afterlife relationship with our personal God?

The final line is quite poignant in that she describes the “departed” as still existing by saying the “departed are”. She is suggesting that our loved ones are still vital and fulfilling a purpose (like a courtier), but that they have taken up residence elsewhere because they have crossed the great gulf between “morning” and “Even” (evening).

I admit to struggling with this poem; it’s not clear and obvious what she is suggesting with her word choice, but nothing in the poem feels out of place or poorly written – just obtuse. In fact the usage of plurals regarding the afterlife suggests a hint of uncertainty as to what awaits us after death – many “Kingdoms” and “Gods” can be imagined, and considering how many people and cultures there are in all of human history there are plenty of unique ideas about what awaits us after death.

Whether my bark went down at sea

Ship at Sea, 1895, Ivan Aivazovsky
Background Image: Ship at Sea, 1895, Ivan Aivazovsky

I wonder if Wallace Stevens had this poem in mind for “Fabliau of Florida“? Both deal with magical / “mystic” images that is dreamlike and borders on the edge of reality and (perhaps) the supernatural. Both poems seem to exist near “isles enchanted” where “sultry moon-monsters / are dissolving” (Stevens). Both end with power of the sea: Emily’s “eye” of storm / Stevens’ “droning of the surf”.

Many of Wallace Stevens’ poem deal with the liminal spaces between land and sea, reality and unreality, and this is a theme Emily Dickinson also seems intrigued by. She often writes about being a part of nature, but also the world beyond, a world of perhaps faith, or God, or just somewhere more perfect where death no longer stalks us.

This poem begins with a sinking, perhaps even a drowning, when her ship (a barque, or here she calls it a bark) “went down at sea”. She most likely talking about a storm being responsible since she not only uses the wordplay of “whether” to open each of the first three lines – which has the effect of the poor craft being battered over and over by the bad ‘weather’ – and she also refers to the “eye” at the end of the poem which could refer to the eye of a storm, or a hurricane.

Yet what Emily does here is wonderful because she combines the image of the storm bending the sails of her ship and the reference to “isles enchanted” as that place in the great beyond, with the journey where “docile” sails have previously taken her to “isles enchanted” on her ocean adventures.

Stevens refers to this liminal place of imagination as moving “outward into heaven” where “foam and cloud are one”. It’s a magical image and is similar to that “mystic mooring” where Emily’s ship now rests. And we sense her trying to use her imagination to see where her “bark” has gone with the image of the eye not only being that of a storm, but her own eye, as if she is looking down from the sky (what she describes as “the errand of the eye”) into the sea of her imagination to find where her little boat has gone which can again grant her passage to new “isles enchanted”.

Stevens describes his little bark / barque as lit with “phosphor” and filled with “white moonlight”, a dreamy image of a boat that can only sail on the seas of one’s imagination, a boat that travels not of this world, but one between heaven and earth and where the “droning of the surf” never ends. Emily’s bark too is “out upon the Bay”, but not an actual bay, but the bay of her imagination.

Yet for Emily there is more desperation than for Stevens. Stevens gives himself over to the dreamlike quality of the image where the surf drones him to sleep and into the realm of imagination, but Emily’s use of the word “Bark” to open the poem and “Bay” to close it, gives this poem the feeling of someone hunting desperately for what they seek, the way hunting dogs “bark” and “bay” when they are on the trail of their prey. Combined with the image of the “gales” and the “eye” of the storm, Emily seems to be describing the state of her mind. These “isles enchanted” could be the dreams or places in the imagination where she likes to go, but this storm could also be her own mind – perhaps even a depression – that has sunk this craft which had before sailed so peacefully upon the sea. In other words, she could be describing the storm of her mind when it rages and does not give her the peace she previously sailed in when she was in her little boat upon the sea of imagination.

The morns are meeker than they were

Springtime, late 19th - early 20th century, Hugh Bolton Jones
Background Image: Springtime, late 19th – early 20th century, Hugh Bolton Jones

This is a fairly straightforward poem for Emily. She’s writing about how the days are growing more mild and that nature is adorning itself with colorful leaves and so she too has decided to ornament herself, unlike in winter when all a person can do is bundle up in drab, but practical clothes against the cold.

The most interesting line, for me, is “The Rose is out of town”. I admit I had to look up when roses typically bloom (a few weeks into spring) and then I realized that she’s probably plucked a few of these roses and they are sitting in a vase decorating someone’s open window to let the fresh spring air in after a long, dreary winter.

Emily is also writing about how she is transforming in accordance with nature. During the winter the “morns” are harsh, the “maple” wears no scarf, and the “field” is barren or buried under snow. In other words, winter is old fashioned in that it’s the end of the year (think old man winter) and is, from a fashion sense, literally ‘out of season’ once spring comes around. But as the “nuts are getting brown” and the “berry’s cheek” grows more plump, she too is transformed by putting on a colorful bracelet, or perhaps some flowers in her hair, because that is nature’s way. She recognizes that we are natural beings (sexual even) who are part of this mortal realm and so we should act in accordance with nature.

Life doesn’t have to be an endless season of dreary spiritual servitude. God commanded that we be fruitful and multiply, and so Emily is complying with God and with nature.

I often passed the village

Village Cemetery Entrance, 1854, Franz von Lenbach
Background Image: Village Cemetery Entrance, 1854, Franz von Lenbach

When in doubt, always assume Emily is talking about death and a cemetery. But I do love how she describes the cemetery as a Village where the dead must be up to something, though it’s “still” and “cooler than the dawn”. In fact, I was reminded of the brilliant novel, Pedro Páramo in which a whole town’s dead are quite lively and very much want to be remembered but whom are willingly forgotten by the end of the novel.

The first stanza uses the word “often” when describing how many times she passed the “Village” on the way home from school. This use of “often” implies that she didn’t come by this way everyday meaning she could have taken an alternate route but “often” chose to travel past the cemetery. This relates to the end of the poem when she tells “Dollie” that when she is “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” that she too can come by the cemetery, which means that this might be how Emily felt when she was drawn to the grave. Emily earlier used the word “strength” in “I haven’t told my garden yet” to describe how she feels about talking about death and how that could relate to depression sapping her of vitality, and so she is alluding to death slowly taking the life from her.

The second stanza is very odd in that her use of “then” suggests that she eventually became aware of the exact time Death came for her, meaning that at this point in the poem she has died, and has died at a young age, “Earlier, by the Dial / Than the rest have gone”. But I also read it in conjunction with the word “school” in that she has been educated about Death itself and that Death will come at a specific time for her, but she doesn’t necessarily know the exact time. In the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“, she has become aware of Death but is afraid to tell everyone about it for fear they will think she is a crazy person and that her rambling on about the subject will only be upsetting for everyone. So this stanza could be about how she is aware of Death living in its “Village” and that she became aware of Death at a very early age. And this sense of being educated by Death relates to the end of the poem, with its strong rhyming pattern of “cold”, “mould” and “enfold” as you would use to teach a small child about something you need them to remember in “school”, in that this knowledge has enticed her and she is consumed with this knowledge of Death.

Thus, if we read the poem not as Emily being dead, but as being educated about death, then the third stanza can be read not as her describing the “Village” as if she is a permanent resident, but from the point of view as her as a schoolgirl viewing this scene and contemplating existence there with the knowledge of Death but also with being enticed by it. Death is, after all, always with us and will eventually entice us all to the grave, and this chilling description of a cemetery where it’s “stiller than the sundown” (which relates to time and the “Dial” of a clock running out), and it being “cooler than the dawn”, which comes after the long night after a “sundown”, and where the “Daisies dare” and where “birds can flutter” if they also “dare” – this whole image is both enticing in its beauty, but its a macabre beauty full of night, time stopped, and it being a place where flowers must dare to go.

The final stanza then can be read two ways. One is that if Emily is dead in this poem, then “Dollie” (her sister-in-law, Susan) can come to the cemetery when she is also feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold” and cry out to Emily to take her and thus Emily will pull her down into the ground with her. In fact this is both a macabre but also romantic image of two close friends spending all eternity in an embrace, but it’s also sinister in that Emily seems to be the one in charge here and that she is pulling her friend down as one of Homer’s sirens would pull Ulysses into the sea. You can almost see the word “enfold” acting like the roots of the earth reaching up to ensnare “Dollie” and pull her down into the grave as the dirt covers their bodies.

But the other way this final stanza could be read is that Emily is still alive but merely possesses the chilling knowledge of Death and that if they are both feeling “tired”, “perplexed”, or “cold”, that Death should take “Dollie” instead of herself because since she has been educated about Death she is afraid of Death. In the line “it’s I,” “take Dollie” there is a break between the quotes so it’s not exactly clear who is saying either “it’s I,” or “take Dollie”. The common reading is to say it is “Dollie” speaking at Emily’s grave and that she is grief-struck and wants to be with Emily for all eternity in death. But it could also be read that when Death has come for both of them, Emily, recognizing Death because of her education of all those times passing by his “Village”, cries out to Death to recognize her, “It’s I,” (meaning “it’s me, Emily, don’t you remember or recognize me?) and then she tells Death to “take Dollie” instead.

And if we take the more unconventional reading of this poem as Emily telling Death to take her close friend instead of her, then the final word “enfold” could take on many more meanings, such as the usage of the way sheep are put in their pen which could suggest Emily has become Death-like in taking her friend (who is ignorant of Death (if we consider the previous poem, “I haven’t told my garden yet“) to the grave where she is sort of a shepherd who must bury one of her flock. It could allude to the image one enfolded in mourning clothes, wrapped up in grief the way one protects themselves against the cold, or simply to embrace “Dollie” the way one would when paying their final respects at the wake.

Granted, my reading is somewhat unorthodox, but I don’t believe Emily was going for just one image or the other, she is too talented of a writer to not recognize the ambiguity of her writing and thus, I believe, she was open to the possibility of many readings. The idea of Death is typically one that is frightening and is not something we like to think about, so it’s not unreasonable that someone might, in a moment of weakness when faced with a resident of that eternal “Village” to beg that they take someone else and not us. Granted, that sounds cowardly, but it’s easy to sound heroic than actually be heroic.

I haven’t told my garden yet

French Landscape with Dirt Road and Cottages on a Gloomy Day, 20th century, Bernard Gantner
Background Image: French Landscape with Dirt Road and Cottages on a Gloomy Day, 20th century, Bernard Gantner

Looking back at “New feet within my garden go“, she writes that the “garden” is the cemetery where the dead live (and are at least a little annoyed with the carefree living walking about above). And here, once again, she alludes to her grave as a “garden”, but in this poem she is the carrier of death, the way a contagious person carries a disease, which is a way to think about death that nobody likes to consider since it forces us to face the fact that all of us carry this terminal condition.

When I first read the opening stanza, I wondered if perhaps she was talking about depression. She wouldn’t have had a word or medical diagnosis for this condition, but the disease existed then (and all through history) just as it does now. Here she seems to be struggling with a depression in that she is afraid to really face it for fear it should “conquer me”. The third line describes how she doesn’t “quite [have] the strength” which is a common feeling among people who are suffering from depression, but it also speaks to the even more terrifying condition of death which is present in all of us; death is continually inside us and robs us of life (our “strength”). The final line of the first stanza is truly heartbreaking because the “Bee” is an innocent creature that does not have the capacity to contemplate death (or suffer from depression), and it would be a shame to inflict such knowledge on such a simple, beautiful creature who is content to live in the moment.

The second stanza is particularly wonderful because the imagery evokes shame and a sort of emotional nakedness, as well as an honest admission of her own weaknesses. The “street” on which she will not name this disease of death is lined with the “shops” that “stare at me”. We can see the people looking out at Emily from inside their shops as she, in this imagined scene, announces death’s presence to the innocent townspeople the way she couldn’t do for the “Bee”. Yet she is on the outside here and everyone else is watching her out there alone acting totally out of character for someone usually “so shy – so ignorant”. She is exposed, both physically and emotionally, and the whole scene is frightening. And for someone who is suffering from depression, having people stare at you as (you imagine) they wonder what the hell is wrong with you, only adds to the anxiety and fear which deepens the depression. She ends the stanza with “have the face to die” which not only refers to her announcing the terrible news that death comes for us all, but is also the image of the face of shame on someone who is embarrassed and totally uncomfortable being so exposed.

The third stanza continues the theme of her possessing this knowledge of death but not revealing it to others because nobody wants to think about death all the time (the way a very depressed person might), but it also hints at a time when she was happier when she “rambled so” in the “loving forests”. She’s implying that there was a time that she too was ignorant of death – the way the people in the shops are, as well as the Bee – but the final line resting at the bottom of the stanza like a grave under the “hillside” and “forests” alludes to her death, and even possible a suicide: “The day that I shall go”.

The final stanza reveals the difficulty she has in talking about this subject. She writes that if she were to try she would only “lisp” the words – in other words they would come out all wrong – or otherwise she would be acting “heedless” towards the other people “at the table” by even bringing up such a depressing subject as each person’s inevitable and impending death. Yet the final two lines do give some hope because the “Riddle” is tied to the action of walking in the final line which implies that the act of living, despite death being ever present, is a sort of enigma. We carry on each day going about our business (as in our “shops”) with death inside of us every moment, yet we do have the strength to continue walking, to continue going on about our day, everyday. We do not give up and we persist in the “face” of that terrible truth that one day we all “shall go”. Where does this strength come from? Well, that’s the “Riddle” with a capital “R”.

I never lost as much but twice

Job, 1880, Léon Bonnat
Background Image: Job, 1880, Léon Bonnat

The most interesting aspect of this poem is in the second stanza where the “Angels” reimburse her “store” but then in the end she is “poor once more”. What is it that the “Angels” replenished but that has still caused her to be poor? Perhaps it is faith itself.

Overall she is writing (and recounting her own experience) about the death of two people who she has seen buried “in the sod”. Her use of the word “sod” as the rhyme she uses with “God” reveals her anger in that we sense that she is connecting and accusing God as the one responsible for putting her loved ones in the ground. She reinforces this imagery with the “door of God” because, visually, the open grave does resemble a doorway, one that leads to the next life. This doorway image coupled with her image of the “beggar” is poignant because it illustrates her grief and her powerlessness to actually do anything other than beg to God.

What is unusual is how she has focused on economics in this poem. The previous poem, “I never told the buried gold” also dealt with money and faith in that Kidd’s hidden gold was used as the bargaining tool for his clemency, but, like the illusion of gold on the sea (as in her image of the sun glinting off the waves which has the appearance of gold pieces), it is an image of poverty and that money and faith do not mix. Kidd was betrayed by someone who was also fearing they would be harshly punished over piracy (which ties into the “Burglar” image here), and in this poem the economics of faith reveal her frustration with God who can give and take at will and so she is left standing as a “beggar” at God’s “door” hoping that he will offer her a few golden coins of faith or solace / peace.

In the second stanza she does reveal that the “Angels” have twice restored her by bringing into the world two new lives for her to cherish, but the stanza is divided with competing factions – on the one side are the “Angels” who restore, and on the other is “God” who takes away. She presents a complicated relationship with God who she accuses of being a “Burglar” and a “Banker” and she is clearly angry with him for acting as like a thief (just as Kidd was in the previous poem).

But she is also expressing the frustration of mortality in how life can be granted and then taken away and that we can only stand as beggars before God’s “door” hoping for a handout but never being in the position of a “banker” who makes the decisions. We are forever at the mercy of a higher power, and this is a complicated image because it does seem unfair that we must go begging outside in the rain as we stare at the rich man’s door who, on the other side, lives a mysterious life we can’t see when we are alive. And this emotion is never more profound than when standing at someone’s grave looking into that door shaped hole in the ground that is a portal to the ultimate mystery of life – death itself and what lay beyond.

I never told the buried gold

Bas relief of Atropos cutting the thread of life
Background Image: Bas relief of Atropos cutting the thread of life

Unusual poem in that it has a narrative and she even addresses the reader – or at least whomever is listening to this tale of Captain Kidd. Her use of the image of the setting sun mixed with the buried treasure as well as the thread of fate being cut is very clever and she even manages to hint at the Berg Adder, whose taxonomic name is taken from Atropos, as well as a brake which, according to the OED is a name for a type of bark trimming shears used when making baskets.

My favorite stanza is the first one in how the setting sun is compared to gold – you can feel the warm tropical air, smell the ocean salt, hear the waves against the ship, and see the golden sun glinting off the water like so many thousands of pieces of scattered gold. Yet there is an ethereal quality to this image, an unreal aspect which ties into this legend of buried treasure just being a myth. This dreaminess also ties into the final stanza where a “shrewd” person (probably the Earl of Bellomont) lures Kidd back to civilization with the promise of clemency, but this too was an illusion and Kidd was arrested.

The second stanza is odd in that she speaks of how close Kidd is to the storyteller and the listener of the poem, “He stood as near / As stood you here”, and the repetition of “stood” feels a little awkward. She again speaks of closeness with her describing there being only a “pace” “between”, but I don’t feel it’s clear what she is referring to. However, the image of the snake as a trickster is a nice image and this snake stands in for the shears of “Atropos” who will cut his thread and end his life. The snake could also refer to Kidd himself who has turned pirate and thus perhaps what Emily is trying to say is that even if someone is close to you they could easily turn to evil or have evil come between you and them.

The third stanza pretty much just mentions the buried treasure, but her use of the word “honest” seems almost funny because we know he stole all this “wondrous booty”.

The fourth stanza refers to if he will or won’t “reveal” “the secret” of the treasure and it can also perhaps refer to Bellomont’s deception since he was luring Kidd back with the false promise of his being cleared of charges. The final line of if he will “sudden sail” illustrates the possibility that Kidd will “sudden sail” off at the slightest hint of treachery.

The final stanza refers back to the first with the image of time having run out for Kidd. As the sun is setting in the first stanza we get the impression that the day (life) is ending for Kidd. The use of the word “divide” is particularly well used because it relates to how the thread of life may be “bisect” (cut) and this his life ends, but it also refers to the dividing up of the buried treasure with Bellomont in exchange for his freedom (additional life). Thus Atropos will “decide” which fate will play out and, as we know, Kidd was betrayed and his thread was cut.

I hide myself within my flower

Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade
Background Image: Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade

I imagine Emily having carefully picked a flower for a friend, a friend whose friendship is incredibly important to her but that she might not be able to express how much so in words and so she gives this flower – which is pregnant with significance – to her friend, but her friend is unaware just how important this gesture is to Emily. Only the “angels know” her secret.

Proust writes on multiple occasions in Swann’s Way how the narrator (Marcel) assumes there is significant meaning behind even the slightest gestures another character is making. Odette may look at Swann in a particular way that is interpreted to be a sign of her innermost thoughts and feelings, but in reality may have just been caused by the sun in her eyes. And for Odette there may have been nothing significant at all in any of her actions, but to an observer – and especially for Swann – everything she does is meaningful. In fact, the cattleya flower Odette wears becomes a symbol of sexuality for Swann to the point of total obsession. “To do a cattleya” becomes his way of making love to her and Odette may even be aware of this, but she never presses the issue and so the flower quietly stands in for their relationship.

Meaning is hidden in everything and for many of us it remains a secret. Swann’s passion for one phrase during the (fictional) Vinteuil Sonata is the catalyst for sparking involuntary memory. While the rest of the audience quietly enjoys the piece of music, Swann is thrown into an ecstasy and he recalls every moment with Odette, even the moments that might be wholly insignificant to any outside observer. As he sits among the audience as the music plays, he is mentally transported to another realm but nobody looking at him (other than the narrator of Swann’s Way, Marcel) would have any idea that he was experiencing anything unusual.

This poem seems to be operating in the same way. This flower – let’s call it a cattleya for fun; it will be our secret – is loaded with significance for Emily, yet what exactly that significance is her friend (and us) do not know – only the “angels” are not “unsuspecting” because they know the secret, they are like Proust’s narrator who knows everyone’s secrets.

Her friend wears the flower all day long and thus Emily too rides along with her friend, but she must do so through the flower; the flower is the avatar for a secret Emily is unable or unwilling to share. In fact, a good poem, like any good work of art (such as Vinteuil’s “little phrase”), does have meaning inside of it that can be uncovered if one chooses to look closer, yet Emily’s trick here is to not tell us what her secret is, she leaves it up to us to discover meaning because in doing so we not only grow closer to her, but become more aware of ourselves. Besides, the meaning we choose to see says more about us than it does about anyone else.

We don’t know everyone’s secrets and thus we should be more empathetic towards each other because what might not seem meaningful to us may be cosmically important to someone else. Even for someone like Emily who, as a poet, can express herself beautifully, even she is unable to express exactly what her secret is and she must remain hidden in her flower. Shusaku Endo writes in his novel “Silence” that “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Emily is expressing a similar sentiment in that her flower is delicate, but to her all of her feelings and emotion are wrapped up inside it and it is up to us to respect her secret and to take a moment to look a little deeper into each other in the hopes that we may see how important even the slightest gesture is to someone else.

New feet within my garden go

Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet
Background Image: Morning on the Seine in the Rain, 1898, Claude Monet

Being ‘wrong’ about a poem has its own rewards and I always keep my notes to remind me of my initial inspiration. For example, at first I thought she might be talking about Eve in the garden, but then “new fingers” made me think of newborns and childbirth and I wondered if she was writing about pregnancy, but I was confused my the bird “upon the Elm”. But it was a cemetery all along.

The first three lines deal with the living going about their business such as walking through the “garden” as they “stir the sod” while the “Troubadour” chirps happily – perhaps hoping for a mate to answer the call – in the “Elm”. Yet the final line reveals that the peace has been broken – she refers to this as a betrayal of “the solitude”. The word “Betrays” gives a strong emotional quality to the poem’s speaker in that we get the sense they are annoyed by all these “new feet” and stirring “fingers”. And formally, this last line resting below the living first three matches the visuals of someone who is laying in their grave (and is annoyed with the living).

The first two lines of the second stanza continue this tension between living and dead as she alternates between “Children” (living youth) with “Weary” (old death), and again with where the “Children” “play upon” as opposed to the dead who “sleep below”. Finally the closing lines of the poem deal with the passage of time and the speaker’s weariness continues with the line “pensive Spring” as if springtime in this particular garden was a gloomy affair when the life above is restless as it walks and stirs and sings – better for it to be winter when the “punctual snow” returns right on time to cover the earth in “solitude”. Her use of the word “still” in both lines reveals not only the speaker who is “weary” of, once more, Spring’s return, but also in how the ‘stillness’ returns when the snows come. In fact, this final line reminds me of Joyce’s “The Dead” when he writes:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

One thing I want to note is that my initial inspiration about this perhaps being a poem about a pregnancy is that in the final two lines a period of about nine months does pass between the start of “pensive Spring” and the return of “punctual snow”. This passage of time coupled with “new feet” and “new children” as well as her use of “punctual” reminds me of the cycle of life not only of the earth but also within each of us. One day we walk in the sunshine as the birds sing in the “Elm” while the next we lay underground and become the energy source which will fuel next year’s growth in the garden. The whole earth is pregnant in this poem, and even in death there is still life that grows from what came before.

I think it’s her use of the word “garden” that could be read slightly cynically as if the speaker is annoyed that their body is now the source of nutrient that the “new fingers stir”, but it could also be read as something rather beautiful in that it recognizes this cycle and our place within it and how even in death there is a memory of all that came before and that the dead want to be remembered.

As by the dead we love to sit

The Vale of Rest, 1858, John Everett Millais
Background Image: The Vale of Rest, 1858, John Everett Millais

As with “There’s something quieter than sleep“, she is confronted with the body of a deceased loved one and is contemplating the grief she feels with the possibility of a joy in the afterlife no living person can comprehend because nobody can comprehend infinite bliss which she describes as “our prize” but seen with “penurious eyes”.

The first line is remarkable in how she manages to show how attached we are to the ones we love with the image of sitting at a wake (“to sit”) as the body lies in repose. If we break the line up we can read it as “the dead we love” and she is saying that love does not stop once someone passes on, but also that there is that feeling of loving that they are dead because they now live in the glorious afterlife.

The second line can work not only as her explaining how the dead “become so wondrous” in that they live in that supernatural realm of infinity. But the use of ‘wonder’ introduces an element of her contemplation of what exactly happens when a person passes on which she sees as a “wondrous” event. Finally she is called back to this life with “wondrous dear” in that not only are the dead still “dear” to us, but you can hear how these might be words of comfort at a wake when someone might be trying to comfort Emily by calling her “dear” as they try to console her which again recalls the moment in “There’s something quieter than sleep” when the “simple-hearted neighbors” try to comfort each other.

Her use of the word “grapple” in the third line is the perfect word because it illustrates her wanting to grasp onto the “lost” – and here “lost” refers both to the dead and those of us left behind (fantastic wordplay) – but to “grapple” is also to struggle, and the line ends unresolved “we grapple” but she does not say with what and it remains a mystery that we cannot comprehend. Hence why we are also the “lost”.

In the fourth line she again uses clever wordplay in her use of “rest” in that the “rest” can refer to the rest of us that “are [still] here” on this mortal realm, but it also paints a picture of the dead resting in their grave – their bodies remain behind while their spirits have moved on.

She then uses a line break to demonstrate the vast and unfathomable gulf between the living and the dead which no words can describe (something she alludes to in “The rainbow never tells me“).

The second stanza is wonderfully complex in how she uses the language of math (logic) to contemplate that which is beyond logic (God / the afterlife). She calls this paradox “broken mathematics” and she uses the words “estimate” and “ratio” (which not only means a proportion, but also refers to pure reason) to describe how we “grapple” with comprehending the “prize” which is the afterlife (which she describes simply as “Vast” after continuing the enjambment of the previous word “prize” thus demonstrating our inability to bring reason into contemplating what this prize might look like) but how “penurious” (poor / lacking) we all are in our ability to actually comprehend “the dead” with our eyes.

Thus we cannot see what lies in store for us in the afterlife because our eyes are too poor in that not only are they filled with tears as we sit at the wake and attend the funeral, but also because we do not possess the ability to comprehend the afterlife; our reason and “mathematics” are too poor an “estimate”.

One dignity delays for all

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

On one level she is observing how in life we are all part of the same procession which ultimately leads to death, but she is also making an observation about class in that even the most “purple” (royal) and “ermine” trimmed nobility are headed to the same fate as “simple You and I” and that a poor person’s “escutcheon” (which she spells “escutscheon”) is as valid as the king’s.

I love the image of “One mitred afternoon” because not only is she using afternoon as the time of life when our own sun will begin its dip below the horizon of mortality, but you can almost see the sun shining through the clouds, lighting them up like a golden ‘mitre’ in the air. It’s a wonderful image. Her use of “purple” enforces this imagery by adding more color to the scene while also building up the image of royalty and wealth.

The second stanza is remarkable in how on the one had she describes a procession of a royal dignitary processing through a city as the crowd cheers and strains to get a better look at them, but she also has put all of humanity into that “Coach” and “we ride grand along” together. She’s showing that we’re all on the same ride, we’re all passangers in the same coach and she enforces this solidarity with the line “Chamber, and state, and throng” to make the connection between the king in his “chamber” who leads the “state” which is made up of the “throng” of people.

The third stanza is about duty and she uses the words “attendants”, “service”, and “loyally” to describe that all of us are in the service of only king which she described in the first stanza as the one whom “none [can] evade this crown”. Yet she is not saying that there is such a massive gulf between God and humanity because she continues her hat metaphor to describe how even the lower classes raise their “hundred hats” – the poor also wear a hat like the bishop (who wears the mitre) and the poor (the “simple You and I”) even have their own “meek escutcheon” (coat of arms / family crest) just as an earthly king does. We all wear a hat: the King, the poor, and even God with his “crown” and so we all have that in common.

In the end we all come to the same fate, but she isn’t necessarily making a case against being rich in favor of being poor, rather she paints a picture of life as a parade and celebration in the afternoon under a blazing sun in which we all come together as best we can and “claim the rank to die”. She is not judging class, she is merely inviting everyone to the same party regardless of their circumstances.

The rainbow never tells me

Landschaft mit dem Dankopfer Noahs, 1803, Joseph Anton Koch
Background Image: Landschaft mit dem Dankopfer Noahs, 1803, Joseph Anton Koch

The poem begins and ends with an omen. The first is one of hope: the rainbow, the other is more ominous: the birds, as in augury which, while she often uses birds as a sign of faith, here she mixes it with the the violent fates of Roman leaders – you can almost see the vultures circling overhead. She is also talking about how nature (feeling) communicates better than words / philosophy.

Her use of the word “gust” is interesting because she’s not just referring to a “storm” after which the rainbow will appear to signal God’s promise, but “gust” can also mean to express one’s enjoyment through speech. Yet what she is trying to say is that words and logic fall short of the signs of nature / God. Philosophy, of which Cato was a stoic and a lover of logic as the greatest virtue (think Spock from Star Trek), she is relating to just a bunch of spoken bluster. Chaucer compared speech to farts in The House of Fame when the professor / eagle says:

‘Soun is noght but air y-broken,
And every speche that is spoken,
Loud or privee, foul or fair,
In his substaunce is but air;
For as flaumbe is but lighted smoke,
Right so soun is air y-broke.

The House of Fame, 765-770

Furthermore, the Eagle in Chaucer’s poem is a representation of Rome, and this bird is a stuffy, boring professor who loves to hear himself talk but doesn’t manage to say very much. Emily is making a similar comparison to speech and worldly learning in that it’s all a bunch of blustery words, but even a bird can tell when a storm is coming without the need for a weather report and thus will fly away to a safer location. In this way she mixes the portent of augury in which she relates to Rome and Cato’s “eloquent” struggles with Caesar.

In the previous poem, “Sexton! My Master’s sleeping here“, the “Daisies point the way there”, yet in this poem the “flowers turn from Forums”. She is saying that the institutions of humanity are not infallible, and that faith in God (“rainbow”) is the only sign of truth and knowledge that can be trusted because even a “bird” knows how to read it.

There is a subtle irony here in that Emily can only express her ideas with words, the very things that can’t be trusted, and so the poem demonstrates the problem all humans run into in interpreting the world in that we’re always going to be imperfect and that our words, unlike God’s words , such as in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” which explains that the only true words / language is God’s, not humanity’s. Thus words will always fall short and fail to really say anything, which is why she uses “Cato” as her example because even as “eloquent” as he was, his fate was no better than Caesar’s or anyone else who has ever lived.

In other words, we live in a world of language and words, but this world we’ve constructed is false, no matter how well we speak, and eventually it will all end in our passing from this world with the possibility of a greater world beyond. In this way our world is the “storm” and the rainbow / omen is a sign that things will get better, but first we must navigate this treacherous world.

Sexton! My Master’s sleeping here

Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton
Background Image: Le bedeau de Kerlaz, 1868, Jules Breton

The footnote posits that she is writing about Mary Magdalene and the empty tomb of Jesus which seems highly plausible. She repeats navigational language with “lead”, “point”, and if you speak Sexton and Sextant they are very similar and she is playing off the idea of being led (by faith) with her ocean metaphors, and the tomb / relic imagery of a Sexton’s responsibility.

The Sexton is most likely referring to the angel Mary sees in the tomb since a Sexton is the person in the church who is responsible for the relics and holy vessels. This angel’s responsibility is unusual however in that the tomb is empty – there is no physical relic to maintain (other than the tomb itself, I suppose), he is only there to tell Mary that “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16: 1-8, Matthew 28: 1-10, Luke 24 :1-8) so he is a keeper of information and points the way towards faith. There are no relics of Jesus, all that remains are people’s faith in him as God and this imagery mixed up with a sextant which navigates by the stars (which could be read as angels who reside in the kingdom of heaven) gives the impression of being pointed in a particular direction.

The second line which begins with “Pray lead” is not just literal as in a command to someone such as ‘pray tell, please lead me’, but also in the act of praying being the way to be led to a destination (towards God). Praying thus is related to the sonic similarity to Sexton / sextant in that one is being led (navigation: sextant) to the holy place (Sexton).

Lines 3 and 4 are nurturing in that the poet / Mary explains that she “came to build the Bird’s nest – And so the early seed”. This image of preparing the “nest” (which recalls the “bed” of the “Master”) combines the domestic with the idea of nurturing the faith in that “pray” is like building a nest which helps grow one’s faith. The bird imagery is something she has used multiple times before in reference to a bird being the symbol of faith and searching for faith (see “My nosegays are for Captives“). Interestingly “sow” is not just a term for farming and tending seeds, but the second verb definition (OED) can also mean ‘to grieve’ which gives an emotional quality to the scene and how Mary must have felt after Jesus had been crucified and was going to prepare his body with oils, but also relates to those of us left behind on mortal earth who must toil miserably in laboring with the land – built into the very act of farming ‘to sow’ is the notion of grief and misery, an image she has alluded to multiple times as well.

The image of “snow creeps” is such a beautiful image! With just two words she is able to paint a picture of the actual movement of snow falling slowly, but the word “creeps” also gives it a sense of forboding which could be her way of describing the slow creeping of death which is coming for all of us anyway (think of her later poem “I could not stop for death”) as well as “Delayed till she had ceased to know“.

Most importantly this second stanza has a strong musical component but it’s cleverly hidden in plain sight much like faith for the faithful is hidden in plain sight. The final word of the poem is “Troubadour” which is a lyric poet. Music and verse are combined in this word, but it also shares a rhyme with “door” from “his chamber door”. The door is the stone which God had moved so that Jesus could begin his rise from the dead and so it is like the beginning of a new piece of music which could be read as ‘chamber music’ since the first notes have been played to a small, select audience (Mary and the other women present). Finally the image of “snow creeps” is not just visual but audible too in that once you start listening to this stanza you can almost hear the snow falling outside the tomb.

Finally, the image of the “Daisies” pointing is a breathtaking image in that flowers do not have finger with which to point, yet you can feel that this is what the flowers are doing – we can almost see the white pedals bending in the direction of Galilee (or more importantly to heaven) but it is also a highly feminine image of the women who may be holding flowers as they came to the tomb, and at a deeper level, be an allusion of how even the most humble of earthly creatures knows where heaven is. This pointing also refers back to the angel / “Sexton” who keeps the tomb and tells Mary where to find Jesus.

My nosegays are for Captives

Bosporus, 1878, Ivan Aivazovsky
Background Image: Bosporus, 1878, Ivan Aivazovsky

Her use of the word “moor” is brilliant.

One definition could be straightforward in that a “moor” is marshland / poor soil where the “Captives” are “denied the plucking” of something beautiful (the flowers in the bouquet). This alludes to the labor humanity is burdened with after the fall out of Eden which she write about in the previous poem, “Angels, in the early morning” where the morning plenty turns to sand. Here she is talking about how this world, though it can be beautiful, it’s mostly a swamp and paradise is in the next life.

“Moor” can also be as in a ship being secured which references her images of a boat sailing to paradise. Multiple times she has used this image, such as with Noah in “Once more, my now bewildered Dove” where the ship has survived the voyage and the faithful search for dry land (hence the swamp imagery in today’s poem used as a metaphor for the poor soil of mortal land). She also uses the boat metaphor in “Went up a year this evening” where she watched her friend sailing off to a new land, which recalls her earlier poem “Could live – did live” of the spectators watching Jesus. Yet here the spectators are not joyous, but rather compared to “Captives”, prisoners to this mortal world until they are set free and must, until then, stand on the shore and watch their friends make the journey one by one and alone. Thus her “Nosegays” could also be a funeral bouquet.

“Moor” can mean outsider (think Othello who was Shakespeare’s ultimate outsider), and this alludes to the sense of humanity being out of place within this mortal realm, as if our true home is somewhere beyond, and not here (in Venice, nor in Cyprus where they sailed to).

Finally, “moor” can also mean ‘More’ as in wanting more which alludes to the point of a “prayer” in that the “Captives” are wanting for something better, they have no other “errand” than to be like the dove in “Could live, did live” who fly out with hope and faith that there will be dry land where the flowers grow all day.

Angels, in the early morning

Garten Eden, 2012, Adi Holzer
Background Image: Garten Eden, 2012, Adi Holzer

This reminds me of Oppen’s “Psalm” when he describes the small beauty of the deer in the wood, “That they are there!” Nature and beauty existing in a moment and he in that moment too. Dickinson is doing something similar by putting herself in a moment of (what Oppen calls “small beauty”): she smiles then sighs when it is too hot, yet the animals must persist in that environment.

Interesting how she describes the animals as “Angels”, but she could also literally be referring to angels too. She has written many times about the separation of humanity from nature and how Eden is closed off for us, yet for the animals Eden does exist in that eternally present moment that animals seem to live in. Yet because of biblical original sin, Eden is barred shut and so it is too for the animals who, once the morning dew evaporates, the sun grows hot and the landscape turns to sand. Eden then may have been an eternal morning of “Dews” and our fall is the “sighing” of the hot sun that parches the flowers.

Her addition of emotion into the description of the animals / angels is clever too. She describes them as “Stooping – plucking – smiling – flying” Which I read, in order, as the deer “stooping” to, as Oppen describes, “tear at the grass” with their “small teeth”, then “plucking” which might be the rabbits, then skipping to the end with the “flying” of the birds. Yet in each stanza, though she repeats this line, the third word changes. First there is “smiling” and this evokes not only a happy contented scene, but is also the emotion of the poet who is watching the “Angels”. Yet in the second stanza she uses “sighing” which not only describes the animals laboring to breath in the heat, but also her own feelings about how the beauty of the Eden-like morning has turned to sand (could read that word as dust, too). In both stanzas she is in the middle of the picture and equates her emotion to that of how nature feels and relates to her ongoing exploration of humanity’s relationship with nature vs. where the soul goes after death (as in leaving nature behind, which for Emily seems to be a tough decision).

Went up a year this evening!

Barbarians from the South, 1600, Kano Naizen
Background Image: Barbarians from the South, 1600, Kano Naizen

My initial / quick thoughts: I had to read and reread the poem multiple times to get a sense of what she’s writing about. She starts off with memory, remembering the past year, and the she talks about leaving on a journey of some kind, like a hero (Homer – ish) who the people will not know how long they will be gone. And then the crowd watches them leave (“ascended”) and never came back.

I got the impression she was writing about a friend who has left on an ocean voyage and may never return and this poem is her remembering the day she watched his ship sailing off over the horizon.

The first two lines speak of the memory (she “recollect[s]”) of a year ago, “a year this evening!” But the next two lines have an odd tinge of sadness in that there is no fanfare to recollect the subject of this poem, “no bells nor bravos”, but perhaps there is some gossip from “The bystanders will tell” – so maybe the town is also recalling this event?

The lines “Cheerful”, “Tranquil”, and “Chastened” describe the village where the speaker lives (perhaps) and from where this traveler came from, “this humble Tourist rose”. The wordplay here is nice in that rose not only could mean ‘to rise’ but also the flower, as in the rose is a tourist which brings beauty and love to wherever it goes. In fact, if you think about how a ‘rose is a rose’ (which Gertrude Stein so beautifully played with) but also of how wherever you go in the world there will be roses waiting for you there as if it’s the same rose all over the earth travelling around waiting for you.

The speaker then writes about time and fate (“propitious” meaning the merciful fates of the Gods / God willing) and of if the “Tourist” will ever be seen in this village again (and I recall Homer setting out). And again the poem mentions Roses, this time the flower, and how the “Tourist” will pick new flowers in a new land in a new time.

The final few lines speak of the crowd that watches the “Tourist” leave, and at first I recalled her poem “Could live – did live” where the bystanders – who she describes beautifully as “The wonderous”) watched “the launching” (alluding to Christ ascending into heaven and whose return is certain but the time unknown and this poem could also be an allusion to Christ), and here she builds on that image but mixes it with when you watch a ship sailing out towards the horizon and how it seems to ascend “from our vision”, as if the ship and horizon are above us (I miss watching ships on the ocean). And that ship is headed off to new lands (“A Difference”) and will pick new flowers (“A Daisy”).

Finally, since it’s been a year as the speaker recalls this moment, then we are brought back to the present time because the “Tourist” has not yet returned and thus “Is all the rest I knew” because she has had no new news.

Beautiful poem.

My friend must be a Bird

The Goldfinch, 1654, Carel Fabritius
Background Image: The Goldfinch, 1654, Carel Fabritius

Again she explores the relationship with things that fly with death (moving on to heaven / faith) and here she calls this her friend, but a friend with “Barbs” that could sting her (and wind up sacrificing itself in the process). She’s intrigued with the dual nature of things, how the friendly bee carries a weapon with it so as nobody can get too close to it.

Yet she is uncertain exactly who (or what) this friend is. She uses the words “must be” (twice) and the simile “like a Bee” – as well as the word “puzzlest” which gives the Bee a sonic quality with the ‘zz” sound – but what exactly is she referring to? The difference between a “Bird” and a “Bee” is an interesting question because at what point is one animal different from another? For example they both fly, they both die, and while one has a stinger, aren’t we just classifying things based on appearances? If you were to explain to someone who had no concept of what a bird is, then all things that fly (and die) would be birds, so then you’d have to explain that a bee is different because of some smaller unique characteristic. Yet (in evolution) when does one thing become a unique new thing? When does the bird become the bee (I know that they don’t, it’s a philosophical, not biological question I’m asking).

Perhaps then she is observing how alike things are in spirit, even though their outward appearances are different where the bird does not have a barb like the bee.

I think I need to spend the rest of today contemplating this poem more because I feel like there is a lot more going on here, but I need to dig deeper.

So bashful when I spied her!

Hades Abduction of Persephone, 18th century, Unkown
Background Image: Hades Abduction of Persephone, 18th century, Unkown

This continues yesterday’s poem “Within my reach!” as a possible allusion to Hades’ rape of Persephone. This is all from Hades’ point of view or at least from the point of view of the sinner who has stolen or defiled something that was beautiful just to have it for themselves (“I shall never tell”). It has a childish feeling of selfishness / deviousness to the motivation.

The first stanza puts us in the point of view of whomever is spying and their conflicted feelings about the act they are to commit: she’s “pretty” and he (I’m assuming gender here) is “ashamed”. There is also a slight sexual allusion being made with “hidden in her leaflets” to mean perhaps her sexual organs. This idea of the beauty but also the shame of sexuality is not uncommon (even to this day, especially in America).

The second stanza seems to have almost a dual point of view as it could be the rapist who is “breathless” as they try to sneak up on her, but it could also be she who is “breathless” because she suspects she is being watched as her body is exposed (her “hidden” “leaflets” are visible). But then she is captured (rape is also a raptus in that in the medieval sense, such as with Chaucer and Malory, it also means abduction, not necessarily a forced sexual assault) and the use of “haunts” again gives strength to the argument this could be read as Hades dragging her down to the underworld and the idea that sexuality and sin are mixed images and the possibility that sexuality, especially elicit sexuality, leads to damnation. But it could also be the idea of a blossoming sexuality (or she’s just getting horny and writing a poem about that) and the duality of the “struggling” to not give in to that temptation is commingled with her “blushing” in that it’s possibly very enjoyable.

The final stanza has two very interesting words. “Dingle” is a deep, dark forest where she is hidden, but there is a sexuality to this word too in that the forest could be the pubic hair and the dingle could be the fun way of referring to the clitoris, the way someone who is sexually inexperienced might refer to their sexual organs (previous described as “leaflets”). There is also the meaning of “Dingle” as a ringing bell and this combines the sexual energy of this word with that of a church bell ringing out and reminding her of her sin. In the first two lines of this stanza there are the sins “robbed” and “betrayed” and the final two lines deal with confession (“ask me” and “I shall never tell”).

“Dell” is another interesting word in that this is also a forest but the obsolete usage of the word in the OED also means “a young girl (of the vagrant class), wench” which was last used by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1834 in his novel Rookwood so the word was still being used around Emily’s time, at least in literature. This idea of a wench, a girl whose morality is in question could refer to the girl in this poems’ conflicted sexuality.

All in all these two poems are a wonderful exploration of sexuality, myth, repression, and elicit excitement.

Within my reach!

Greek fresco depicting the goddess Demeter, 1st century AD, Unknown
Background Image: Greek fresco depicting the goddess Demeter, 1st century AD, Unknown

I wonder if she is writing about Demeter? Looking ahead to tomorrow’s poem “So bashful when I spied her!” I thought perhaps she is writing about Hades and thus today’s poem deals with the rape of Persephone. The goddess was picking “Violets” (and Narcissus) when she was abducted and so I feel like Emily is combining Demeter’s search and Persephone’s abduction in one image.

The first three lines could be from Demeter’s point of view as she searches for her daughter “could have”, “might have chanced”. Even if it’s not, there is a longing here, a lost opportunity that seems to have gotten away.

The next three lines have a very unusual ‘s’ alliteration that could allude to Persephone as she and her friends pick flowers – the image of softness and a floating gentleness dominates these lines. However, even without the Greek allusion, there is a gentleness to this section that is calming and pretty and delicate broken only by the tension of “unsuspected” which hints at the possibility of something coming to shatter this calm.

The final three lines (especially the last two) commingles the image of the delicate fingers picking the flowers with the greedier hands of Hades as he abducts Persephone “striving fingers”. These lines could also be recalling the first three where again an opportunity is lost, but the image is unusual in that it feels as if the “Violets” have bloomed only an hour after the “striving fingers” have come through – as if something beautiful has gone unnoticed. This could be how Dickinson might feel about a lover who has just missed her acquaintance (she blooms but nobody sees her) and her desire is mixed in with Persephone who was greatly desired and carried off. Not that I’m suggesting Dickinson wanted a violent encounter, but the classical myth of the gods desiring each other is a powerful image.

Some things that fly there be

Two Swallows Aiming for Bee, 1912, Koson
Background Image: Two Swallows Aiming for Bee, 1912, Koson

Beautiful and cunningly constructed.

She begins with the dumb things that fly – and she has a small pun here with “Hours” that fly past. And I call them dumb in the sense that there is no “Elegy” for them when they die, unlike the final stanza which implies that she is wondering if there will be an Elegy (a place in “the skies” for her soul); this is the “Riddle” that she lies under looking up at. Once again she is equating nature imagery with things of this world as opposed to what lies beyond – which might seem like an obvious thing to say, but she has a strong attachment to this world and the beauty in it, and you can feel her appreciation of this world as the “Hours” fly past as she is lost in contemplating / appreciating them.

This leads into what they fly over (the earthly things on the ground). What’s interesting is her movement from “Hours” moving to “Eternity” which does not move but rather “stay[s]”. The unusual word choice of “behoove” made me think that she is recognizing that these images represent, for her, what the physical universe will require from all of us, but this also implies the separation of body (nature) from soul (spiritual) which happens at death, but in life the two are commingled, which she seems to question as being part of the “Riddle” she is trying to “expound”. How can a person be both physical AND spiritual? How can time be both made up of hours AND be eternal?

Up to this point I was curious about the word “Elegy”. She ties this into “Grief”, but and elegy is musical (usually at a funeral – and she alludes to the mound of a fresh grave with her use of “Hills” between “Grief” and “Eternity”). This musical component makes the line “These are that resting, rise” take on a musical note where upon death the body rests just as in music a rest is a pause, but the next word is “rise” which implies the music will begin anew, as well as alluding to Christ rising from the dead. This rising / flying also recalls “Once more, my now bewildered Dove” when Noah tossed the Dove to find land – we can imagine her soul rising heavenward as a bird would fly, only her bird is not a simple animal but is her spiritual being taking flight like a bird searching for home (dry land).

Finally she tries to reconcile the two states of the first two stanzas but it remains a “Riddle” to her because she hasn’t figured out how one makes the leap from “rest” to “rise”, though the key might be in the punctuation because she uses a comma between “rest” and “rise” which basically means ‘and’ thus they are two states of the chain of being – they are not different things, but are the same and thus connected.

Delayed till she had ceased to know

The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529, Albrecht Altdorfer
Background Image: The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529, Albrecht Altdorfer

This is a complex poem so I’ll go through it stanza by stanza to attempt to better understand what her images are doing.

Stanza 1 is the image of a body whose spirit has left (at least) an hour before. The odd thing here is the first word of each of the first two lines, “Delayed”. What is delayed is Death who was “lagging” behind the body just a day before but has now caught up to the victim.

Stanza 2 is unclear but I love the line “a crier of joy” – this is her being clever with the image of crying and grief but also announcing (crier / town crier) joy from the hilltop. So there is joy here and mourning – the images are combined which could speak to the survivor’s grief but also the Christian joy they should feel for leaving to the next world. However, there is also the curious image of the slowness of death – “bliss so slow a pace” – which could mean how slow death moves towards us, but also how slow we move through life (bliss) with death always “lagging” behind. Perhaps that’s why she combines the “crier” and “joy” image since they are so woven together.

Stanza 3 speaks of none who are ever victorious over death and how this “thing” (a body devoid of spirit) will die before it can conquer death because it is frail (hence being “doubtful”). Not even a “king” can outrun death, an image she introduces with the image of the “imperial round” as if it were a king laying in state (the capital rotunda / body on display of a great leader who is dead nonetheless).

She also uses military / war language with “surrendered”, “undefeated”, and “Victory” which has the effect of our lives being a battlefield against death, but it’s a battle with the same outcome every time.

Baffled for just a day or two

God Judging Adam, 1795, William Blake
Background Image: God Judging Adam, 1795, William Blake

The line “An unexpected Maid” made me think she was writing from Adam’s point of view waking up and discovering Eve in “my garden”. And when she “beckons” him it’s the image of her telling him to come to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and when she “nods” it’s her telling him it’s ok to eat the fruit. I love how she says the “woods start” – you can almost feel he trees and creatures gasp as these humans are about to eat the fruit.

The last two lines are him still “baffled” for not remembering Eden and these lines work as a sort of couplet (as in a sonnet which is supposed to ‘resolve’ the poem) but here instead of a resolution it’s the transformation from child of Eden to mortal man who can possess all knowledge of good and evil yet still be”baffled” because he no longer has that intimate connection to the divine and has forgotten (how to find) Eden. The use of “baffled” also follows the previous poem’s use of “bewildered” in another biblical story from Genesis. Is she struggling with coming to some sort of understanding with the nature of faith and love?

She’s dealt with a similar theme three poems ago in “I keep my pledge” where she equates a distance from coming home to God with being still a part of the natural world of the “Rose”, “Bee”, “Daisy”, “hillside”, “Bobolink”, and “Blossom” and thus with death not coming it’s a Eden since death did not exist before the fall. And so “such a country” that she (or Adam) is “surely” a place they were “never in” (as in forgetting which also recalls the river Lethe from “Lethe” in my flower) is that place where humanity can never go back to until death comes with it’s “simple gravity“.

I might need to start looking at each of her fascicles as part of a larger work of interconnected poems and images.

Once more, my now bewildered Dove

The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829, Thomas Cole
Background Image: The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829, Thomas Cole

She seems concerned with “Bewildered”, “puzzled”, and “troubled”, perhaps using Noah’s “Dove” as a metaphor for her own faith looking for “Land”? From the bird’s (and Noah’s) perspective it isn’t certain there is yet any land yet so she’s playing with uncertainty but also hopefulness in the act (she uses the word “Courage!”) of finding one’s faith.

I love her shifts in perspective; first it’s from the Dove’s POV, but the use of the word “flings” also paints a picture of Noah flinging the bird skyward – you can almost see the old “Patriarch” standing on the wet deck of the ark (“casement” “on the deep”) holding his arm skyward as he launches the bird off to look for land. It shifts again with “Columba” as if the Dove were like the Irish Evangelist who spread the gospel through Ireland and so the bird in motion searching for land is like Columba searching for a soul to land on and save.

Heart! We will forget him!

Soul carried to Heaven, 1878, William Bouguereau
Background Image: Soul carried to Heaven, 1878, William Bouguereau

I think back to “There’s something quieter than sleep” where she sees the dead body, and I’m imagining her writing about the heart and the spirit leaving the body here. The spirit (in this poem represented as “I”) is eager to move on yet the heart lags behind and the spirit is worried it will be called back to “the natural warmth he gave” of the body. For me the key word here is “pray” in that when the heart is done (as the body dies) it engages in prayer with the spirit so that the spirit can move on.

The previous poem, “I keep my pledge“, speaks of Death not coming for her and so she remains in the natural world of experience (I guess I’m thinking Blake here), and so these three poems form a sort of unity of thought and image where death is a calling to a new world, but there is a pull, a “simple gravity” to remain alive and experience the “light” and “warmth” of this world.

I keep my pledge

Old Woman Dozing, 1656, Nicolaes Maes
Background Image: Old Woman Dozing, 1656, Nicolaes Maes

She uses three related words: pledge, plight, and oath. Each (can) mean a pledge (perhaps her devotion to God), and the repetition (though each time a different word) speaks to her continually needing to reaffirm it, either out of devotion or perhaps desperation? The last line “Will surely come again -” is not exactly a reassuring statement with the open ended punctuation.

Another unusual feature is in lines 2 and 3 when Death does not come for her (she is not called) – is this perhaps a punishment for not keeping the pledge? To go to the glory of heaven is seen as a reward because life is full of sin, yet she equates her continued existence with natural / nature imagery: “sainted Bee” (sainted be wordplay), “Daisy”, “hillside”, “Bobolink”, and “Blossom” (b alliteration: to be, I be, I continue to be as I am?).

And she ends with a reference to “Her”, perhaps the Blossom, but perhaps someone else, such as her spirit or the previous poem’s quiet fairy of the soul? Christian imagery would usually refer to the oath to Christ as being male: He, however she could be playing with the idea of the female quality of nature which reconciles her oath to Christ (male) with her current state of living (female).

There’s something quieter than sleep

Θρήνος στο σπίτι του δασοφύλακα, 1880, Nikolaos Gyzis
Background Image: Θρήνος στο σπίτι του δασοφύλακα, 1880, Nikolaos Gyzis

I admit to having a little trouble with this poem at first but I came across a wonderful analysis of it on a blog called The Prowling Bee. This helped me center the image as her speaking about being witness to a young person’s corpse whom the “simple-hearted neighbors” are watching over and trying to make sense of someone who is too “Early dead” (taken before their time).

It’s remarkable how she equates death with something that is a living spirit. She refers to (perhaps the soul) as “the quiet fairy” who would be scared off if it saw us crying over the body of even a young person taken too soon. The image of death as birds fleeing still has the image of life and movement in it, a transition from one sort of movement to another.

I like that she refers to her neighbors as “simple-hearted” and then uses the word periphrasis to describe how they use so many words to try and make sense of this tragedy, as if words are the only thing keeping us grounded to this side of death and that the more we speak the more likely we might be to keep away the possibility of death coming for us. Yet she also explores reality and death with words, but as a poet she has the eye and ear to give art to this scene by describing the young person’s soul leaving the body as the “Birds have fled”.

Emily’s whole world seems to consist of words, but she’s aware how all of our lives are made up of words – often too many of them – but the great artist is the one who can make best use of those words to give us an image that is simple and free from complication.

My Wheel is in the dark!

Hataori, 1832, Yanagawa Shigenobu
Background Image: Hataori, 1832, Yanagawa Shigenobu

A lot of wordplay here, specifically with Loom and foot imagery. Loom meaning as in weaving and the foot imagery of the foot treadle working it, but there is the laborer’s “dripping” foot and the factory owners “stately” foot. Bu there is also the meaning of Loom as a nautical term to mean something indistinct coming into view, a promised land referring back to the poem from 2 days ago (Could love – did live).

The word “Wheel” also could be read in the way Boethius might have meant it (fate / time) and this fits well with the idea of weaving and a loom. Finally, the word “Tide” also recalls yesterday’s poem of the people standing on the shore, but also has the imagery of movement (back and forth) similar to the weaver’s Loom (threading in and out and back and forth).

She’s equating the industrial ownership of the “stately” with the poorer folks who work the loom and are caught up in the Wheel of Fate, but she’s also alluding to the proverb of the rich man passing through the eye of the needle.

This one was a lot of fun!

If she had been the Mistletoe

This is in reference to the Longfellow poem, Evangeline, which I have not read, and also was addressed to her friend Samuel Bowles. I’m not sure what the context is supposed to be here, but there is one line I enjoy, “My velvet life to close”. This is a very domestic image (the velvet on the table) and perhaps she is hoping to share this with him as the Mistletoe and Rose?