Category Archives: Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them

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.

The Poets light but Lamps

Newton, 1795, William Blake
Background Image: Newton, 1795, William Blake

Emily is talking about how “The Poets” even after they have died continue to illuminate the world through the “Suns” (and there’s a son’s pun in here too) of their art. However, the word “Wicks” as defined as “a corner of the mouth or eye” (OED) implies the phenomena of averted vision which is when you have to slightly look away from a star to actually see it (“The Poet’s influence) better.

In “We grow accustomed to the Dark” Emily gives us the image of the neighbor who, after saying good bye to us, extinguishes their lamp and thus we are left to stand out on the street in darkness where we will need to find our own way and travel by our own light, we must “fit our vision for the Dark”. This is what Emily is telling us her profession is, she is like the neighbor who holds the lamp and greets us in the night and who inspires us to continue on in the darkness to the next poet’s lodge in some vast wilderness.

The first line of the poem is both humble and speaks to the mortality of the poet. She describes “The Poets” as mere lamps whose flame will eventually “go out”. “The Poets” are instruments whose function is to cast “vital Light” and thus it is this “vital Light” which is important, not “The Poets” themselves, it was what “The Poets” illuminate which inspires and lights the way. If life were a vast wilderness, then “The Poets” are the residents of that landscape who guide us on our way towards dawn.

Yet though “The Poets” are only “but Lamps” who cast light into the darkness, they also amplify this “Light”, they are a “Lens” that disseminates the “circumference” of the smallest wick of light which allows those of us who are unable to see the light otherwise. “The Poets”, like the great scientists, such as Newton, capture some essence of truth and beauty and amplify it so that the rest of us can see it too. It’s not that “The Poets” invented beauty or the scientist invented gravity for they were there all along, but “The Poets” and the scientist give voice and language to these things, they cast light on what was already there but had been hidden in the wilderness. And once the light has been cast, “Each Age” of sons (and daughters) afterwards will be able to carry this light to each successive age, like a pilgrim carrying a horn of light through the darkest of winter storms so that they will be able to make camp at the next lodge.

Thus the poet sees the universe with inverted vision, they can see the light that escapes us because we only look directly at it, but “The Poets” are able to look slant, to look a little to the side to see the truth hiding in the halo of a distant star. “The Poets” then report back to us and give us the tools we need to see as they have.

I reckon – When I count at all

Sun Rising Over the City - Splendor Solis, 1582, Salomon Trismosin
Background Image: Sun Rising Over the City – Splendor Solis, 1582, Salomon Trismosin

Emily’s confidence as a poet is remarkable as she place the “Poets” higher up her list than “the Heaven of God.” Yet, like Milton, isn’t the poet truly the one responsible for giving us heaven? We know heaven, hell, and Eden so well because the “Poets” have illuminated them for us, therefore we would not know how to “reckon” our way to them without the poet’s “Sun” as guide star.

Emily also seems to be expressing her doubts about “The Others” who could be those people who do not see true beauty in nature, that only think of the “Sun” and the heavens as a “needless Show” that God will destroy one day, as if all of creation is merely a waiting room for something to come later. Emily might be referring to preachers who place no value on the natural world as if there were nothing to gain for our spirits by enjoying the beauty all around us.

Yet isn’t the poet the greatest of all preachers? If God did create the universe, then won’t we more clearly see the path to “Grace” from the shining light of the poet’s “Sun” which hangs high in a year-long “Summer” sky? There are no cold and faithless nights in this poem, all of creation is illuminated whenever we read it, and so when we feel furthest from “Grace” one need only to read the poem again to be assured that ‘the Further Heaven” and all its glory does await each of us.

The most interesting image in the poem is that of ‘The East”. Though the sun rises from this direction she seems to be saying that “The Others” are the residents of that land where the “Sun” has yet to rise, that they live in the darkness of a society who does not value the poet, a race of pre-dawn creatures who “would deem extravagant” the year-round sun of the poet’s “Summer”. Emily believes that only the poet can raise the sun just as the prisoner who returns to Plato’s cave can illuminate the shadowy world of those who have never known such a light. In other words, the poet gives meaning to the world, otherwise the “Sun” and all the heavens are little more than physical objects. The “Dream”, then, is more real than when we are awake, a theme she has explores is “What I see not, I better see“, and to be awake is to be guided by a light not nearly bright enough to lead us to “Grace”.

Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light

Sorrowful Ajax with Termessa and Eurysakes, 1791, Asmus Jakob Carstens
Background Image: Sorrowful Ajax with Termessa and Eurysakes, 1791, Asmus Jakob Carstens

Emily wrote this (letter 868) for a grieving Sue when her son, Gilbert died at around age 8 or 9. However, the poem itself seems to be addressed to Gilbert who she says as passed “Pangless” to the “Light” unlike the rest of us who “slowly ford the” sorrowful river of life which he merely “leaped across”. Yet though she celebrates him you can feel the sorrow at watching him go.

The letter Emily wrote to Sue is worth considering when reading this poem:

Dear Sue –

The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled –
How simply at the last the Fathom comes! The Passenger and not the Sea, we find surprises us –
Gilbert rejoiced in Secrets –
His Life was panting with them – With what menace of Light he cried “Dont tell, Aunt Emily”! Now my ascended Playmate must instruct me. Show us, prattling Preceptor, but the way to thee!
He knew no niggard moment – His Life was full of Boon –
The Playthings of the Dervish were not so wild as his –
No Crescent was this Creature – He traveled from the Full –
Such soar, but never set –
I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies – His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an Echo – his Requiem Ecstacy –
Dawn and Meridian in one.
Wherefore would he wait, wronged only of Night, which he left for us –
Without a speculation, our little Ajax spans the whole –

Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light,
Pangless except for us –
Who slowly ford the Mystery
Which thou hast leaped across!


What stands out, at least at first, is she refers to Gilbert as “our little Ajax”. On my first reading I assumed she meant the great strong-man hero of the Iliad who vies with Odysseus for Achilles armor, however taking into account the words “Fathom” and “sea” as well as her use of “ford” in the poem, I think she could also be making a comparison to the younger Ajax who died at sea, though he had so incurred the wrath of the gods that I doubt his death would have been “Pangless”. Thus Emily could be drawing on the image Ajax the elder’s great strength, or this could even have just been a pet name for the boy whom she describes as full of energy as he leaps across the river the separates mortal life from the next world.

In fact, both the poem and the letter are filled with images of energy and boundless life such as “leaped” (in the poem) as well as “Dervish”, “soar”, “velocity’, “flies”, and “winds” which serves double duty as an image of the wind as well as the sad music of the “Bugle” as the funeral notes “wind” away into the “wind”. Emily converts his energy into music which then is carried on the currents towards heaven which she describes as “an Elegy in Echo” and a “Requiem”.

This is Emily’s brilliance as a poet in that she is able to both celebrate and illustrate the life of someone she loves while also expressing her sadness and grief at the same time. The image of the poem is firmly rooted on the bank of our side of the river as we watch little Gilbert leap across and leave us behind. While he enjoys eternity, we must continue to suffer in the rapids of our sorrowful lives full of pain and grief. Gilbert does not even look back, his final action is one of leaping as if he is like the subject in an ancient Greek fresco which depicts some great hero in mid action and thus his energy is immortalized in a work of art while we can only stand by as a passive and grieving audience to his glory.

This action also has the effect of Gilbert never looking back at life, as if he has left everyone behind and will not spend even a moment considering his previous life. The action of life moves only forward, like a river and so while we grieve the deceased, they do not grieve us, they do not even consider us because soon enough we too will join them when we have forded the great river of sorrows and join them in eternal action on the far shore.

All overgrown by cunning moss

Aeneas meeting with his father in the Elysium, 1597, Sebastiaen Vrancx
Background Image: Aeneas meeting with his father in the Elysium, 1597, Sebastiaen Vrancx

The word “puzzled” is a remarkable adjective to use at the end of this poem because it implies that Charlotte Brontë will continue to be “This bird – observing others”, though who now will be applying her craft as a writer and observer in “Heaven”. Emily is suggesting that Charlotte will live forever and that her works will continue to inspire even though she is no longer with us.

Emily is quite bold in making a connection between Charlotte and Jesus, however I would assume that Charlotte was an incredibly important figure in Emily’s life, not just as a writer, but as a successful woman writer. Perhaps this is why Emily includes Charlotte’s pen-name, “Currer Bell” because she wants to recognize the struggle for female writers who work in a field dominated by men. The middle portion of the poem is dominated with the image of “anguish” which she compares to Jesus’ “anguish” in the Garden of “Gethsemane” (a topic Emily has written about in “I like a look of Agony“) to Charlotte’s struggle with her illness but also as a female writer.

In fact, Emily is keen on exploring the notion of “anguish” as it relates to the loss of one’s name and identity. “Currer Bell” was the name chosen so that Charlotte could publish without the public knowing she was a woman, but imagine the pain involved in such a decision, to spend so much of one’s self in the act of creation only to have born into the world as an orphan without its rightful mother. Emily would likely have felt the same way if someone had tried to separate her from her work, but as Christ agonized at “Gethsemane”, so too must have Charlotte who also wanted to be published and to allow her art to take flight but at the same time would most likely have been conflicted about having to change her name to make that happen. Which is the right choice? Allow your child to go of into the world without the protection of your name attached to them, or keep them at home in the nest never to fly? The parallel to Emily’s decision to remain anonymous is thus greatly illuminated.

But Emily is also concerned with transformation. The poem is structured so that by the end “Currer Bell” is rightfully identified as Charlotte “Bronte”; she no longer has to hide behind a false name, yet she is like the “Nightingale” who, though her song can still be heard, she remains hidden from mortal view in the next life at Elysium among the “Asphodel”. And as transformation involves growth, Emily uses the imagery of gardens (Elysium, “Gethsemane”, and “Eden”), and “cunning moss” and the “weed” to infuse the poem with a vitality of life that when cultivated has the potential to grow riot all over not just the mortal earth but also in the afterlife. Barren fields where “When frosts too sharp become” are reseeded the next season by “This bird” who seems to migrate between the gardens of this world where the cages of the dead artists gently fertilize the soil with art’s potential and the next world where the “Asphodel” grows and the dead listen with a “puzzled Ear” at the “soft” “sounds of Eden” for all eternity.

What I see not, I better see

Beatrice Addressing Dante, 1824, William Blake
Background Image: Beatrice Addressing Dante, 1824, William Blake

Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 43, “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”. In his sonnet he describes the paradox of how when our eyes are closed (wink means to dream) that we see best in our dreams, that when it is dark it is actually most light and that in the light is when we can clearly see the absence of what we love. Emily agrees with Bill on this paradox, perhaps because no matter how well a poem can be written it can’t really do justice to the subject of the poem.

Emily begins by playing with the words “I” and ” Eye” and then makes a connection to the “Faith” which is something that can only truly occur when one cannot see; faith occurs in the absence of physical light (evidence) because it is its own source of light that can see past the darkness to reveal a greater truth. And to do so one must see with a different set of eyes, which Emily refers to as “My Hazel Eye” but not because her actual eyes were “Hazel” but because her “I” is “Hazel”, the “I” she truly sees with because the “I” has “Faith”.

However, I don’t believe she is limiting “Faith” to just a religious definition; she does not mention God or angles, rather she seems to be writing about the absolute form of “Grace”, not just any particular God’s “Grace” but pure “Grace”, the fullest expression of a benevolence that does not judge but rather grants an absolute salvation for anyone willing to accept it. And this “Grace” is, unlike the sun in “There came a Day – at Summer’s full” a light that can only be seen with “My Hazel Eye”, that “Eye” of the “I” which can “behold” the world which no physical light can illuminate.

For example, she writes that “my sense [is] obscured” when she is awake rather than when she is asleep during “periods of shutting” when the true “light” falls on “The Features so beloved”. She is saying that our senses are not capable of truly seeing the forms – such as the form of “Grace” – but that in our dreams we can comprehend them. Though she is asleep “in my Dream” she will “arise” which is a wonderful image and paradox of the sleeper arising, of being truly awake when one is asleep. No wonder she gets annoyed with her father when he tries to wake her up to early as in “Sleep is supposed to be” and “Where bells no more affright the morn” because to her the waking world is really when we are most oblivious to the wonder of “Grace”.

The same can also be said for the world of art and poetry. Dante wrote about his perfect love with Beatrice but could only express the pure form of that love by placing her in paradise, in other words by placing her in a work of art. And though he loved her when she was alive and could physically see her by the light of day, it was in his imagination and in art in which the fullest expression of his pure love to her could be expressed. The same holds true for Emily who sees the world must fully in her poetry and when her pen, not the actual sun in the summer’s sky, illuminates the world of the “perfectness” of the forms. Thus art is a form of “Grace” that we can see with both our “Eye” and our “I”, a “lid” which can be opened so that we can glimpse the beauty beyond. And this beauty is something she must “better see”, not just in the sense of it being more clear, but that she “better” do it because it is important, because to truly find one’s way to “Grace” one must learn to see with their “Hazel Eye”, with their “I” and not only their sensual “eye”.

There came a Day – at Summer’s full

Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 17th century, Unknown
Background Image: Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 17th century, Unknown

I’m reminded of Dante’s love for Beatrice whom, though she married another man, he loved her his entire life, even long after she died. Only in poetry is he able to be with her in heaven when she takes over for Virgil and guides him through Paradise (Divine Comedy) as well as when they were both only 9 years old and met her (in real life) and Love spoke to him (La Vita Nuova).

Emily would have been familiar with Dante, and though I don’t know if she ever read La Vita Nuova (The New Life), there does seem to be a parallel to the revelation Dante felt when he first saw Beatrice and the spirit of life spoke to him saying “Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me” with Emily’s experience of catching a glimpse of “that New Marriage”. Unlike Dante, however, Emily’s revelation seems to be directed not at an individual, but rather to “Love” itself, as if she had fallen in love with “Love”. And, like Dante who would only ever to be with Beatrice in poetry (and in death), Emily recognizes that her and Love are “Bound to opposing Lands”, at least for the time being, and that she won’t find Love’s embrace until she too is “Deposed – at length – [in] the Grave”.

Emily seems to have worked on the poem quite a lot; there are multiple copies of it, each with unique revisions, such as the word “Resurrections” being switched to from “Revelations” as well version C of the poem which she uses her signature dash more frequently than in version D. The more fragmented form of version C does have the affect of being almost breathless, as if Emily is trying to capture the revelation she feels at being in love with “Love” and, at least for a moment, was aware of her soul’s place in the infinity of the universe, as if she glimpsed an infinite love and she desperately tries to recreate that sensation in her poem.

Emily describes in the first stanza how on the longest day of the year – the summer “Solstice” – she experiences an event she thought was reserved only for the holiest of people: “the Saints”. Up till this point she had considered herself to be quite ordinary and that the love shown to “Saints” was not the same love she would ever experience, as if God had degrees of love depending on who you were. Dante also refers to the position on the sun when he writes “nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost” as if that particular day was the most important day of the year – in fact of his life – and that the importance of that day would be like a “Solstice” that is never ending in which the sun remains forever at its peak. In other words, the events of this day would be momentous and would forever cast its light on both their lives until the day they die. Perhaps this is why Emily suggested using the word “Revelations” rather than “Resurrections” since what was revealed to her in the light of the longest day would shape her from that day on, yet she is also resurrected in that she is reborn on this day and that she will leave her old life behind.

The second stanza is interesting in that she describes how everything else was quite regular and ordinary. But just as the sleeper whose dreams are full of thunderstorms and marvels, to the observer nothing out of the ordinary seems to be taking place, there is no thunderstorm outside of the sleeper’s dream. Thus “The Sun” goes round as normal, and “The Flowers” sway in the breeze just as they always have, and her “Soul” remains in her body just like normal – in other words, she hasn’t died, but she has experienced something only she (and her “Soul”) is aware of.

And what it is that Emily experiences is described in the third stanza as being “The Wardrobe – of Our Lord” which she means as “Love” itself. This could be read a few ways, most obvious being that perhaps she has discovered Christ and Christ’s love for her and all humanity and that for a moment she shares in this divinely inspired beauty as she walks among the flowers as the sun travels overhead in the second stanza. But she is experiencing something more than a religious, Christian epiphany, she is experiencing “Love” itself, a love that cares for everything from the “Flowers” in the breeze, to “the Saints” and everything in between. She’s experiencing the Platonic form of “Love”. This is why, perhaps, she describes “speech” and the “word” as being profane because if a Platonic Form could be described with language then it wouldn’t actually be the true Form because a “word” is just a “symbol”, it is not the true thing itself. All Emily can say is that she feels it, she knows it is surrounding her the way the light from the summer sun shines on all living things and makes the grow and gives them life. Thus “Love” has been revealed to her and she is, for a moment, like “the Saints” who are resurrected into heaven and like Dante who, upon seeing Beatrice for the first time, though they were both only 9 years old, he experienced an event that would shine on him his entire life.

And though “speech” does not profane this moment (just as Dante does not speak to Beatrice on their first meeting), she is still able to “commune” with this love for a “time”, yet she is also aware that this moment will pass just as Christ’s disciples knew during the last supper that the end was near. This image recalls the “solstice” as once the sun reaches its zenith it will begin its long climb back towards the horizon and will not spend so long in the sky warming the world below until next year. The poem even becomes somewhat frantic as she divides up the fifth stanza with 8 dashes (the most in any stanza), as if she is clinging to what has been revealed to her but it is slipping away so quickly – “The hours slid fast” – that she’s trying to capture and hold onto whatever snatches she can in her poem but “Love” is sailing past her in the other direction. Emily often uses a boat metaphor to describe the voyage of life, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, yet unlike that poem which the pilot guides her to the next life, she is heading in the other direction which is the voyage of our mortal lives.

In the sixth stanza the moment has passed and “time had failed”; the sun has moved onto the horizon and the revelation that was revealed to her is no longer something she can experience first-hand. And since there were no words to describe the experience, the moment has passed by silently – in fact even the exact moment was so brief that it would be impossible to measure the exact moment it occurred since the sun never stops its journey thought the sky, it only travels through the zenith on its never ending journey, there is no exact ‘there’ there, just as there is no way to point to a Platonic Form as say “there it is!” However, the sensation remains inside her, the way the memory of Christ on the cross is depicted on the crucifix when Christ was both mortal and divine, when he was both dead and alive. One could not point to the exact moment when a person passes from one existence to the next, we only know that it does happen, just like the sun passes through its zenith.

When Emily does know, however, is that she too will make the same journey as Christ, she too will pass her zenith and “time” will fail her and she will be able to experience that pure form of Love for eternity in the next life, just as Dante believed he would when Beatrice guided him through Paradise. Yet all she can do for now is try to put her revelation down into a poem and as best she can use language to describe the indescribable, to capture a moment in time that no clock could ever measure because it does not exist in any one point in time, but rather exists outside of time, in a place where “time” fails: eternity and eternal “Love”.

The Soul has Bandaged moments

Portrait of a Demented Woman, 1822, Théodore Géricault
Background Image: Portrait of a Demented Woman, 1822, Théodore Géricault

This is a disturbing poem and it’s hard not to imagine Emily is talking about herself. She uses horrific imagery – “Goblin” and ghost imagery – along with prisoner imagery – “Felon” and “Dungeoned” – to describe “The soul” – her “soul”. There is a sense she is dealing with issues of self esteem, depression, mania – a loss of control of “a Theme – so -fair”.

The first image of the poem is one of wounds, and it’s possible she was thinking of images of wounded soldiers in the US Civil War, but also of her own “Soul” and how there is something lurking deep inside her that terrifies her, as if she is at war with herself and her own mental states the way the United States was also at war with itself. The image that comes to mind with a word like “Bandaged” recalls images of young men being operated on inside the battlefield hospital tents, such as Jonathan Letterman’s introduction of the concept of triage to treat wounded soldiers. Emily introduces a theme of a fragmented whole that heals as it also bleeds.

The second stanza uses outright military terminology as “Fright” gives her a “salute”, yet she seems as if she’s already dead as “Fright” caresses “her freezing hair”. Perhaps Emily saw a picture of a dead soldier in the paper and the imaged frightened her, but she could also be relating the sensation of a “Fright” inside herself which is like an ugly “Goblin” living inside her that is the source of her own negative thoughts. Though she tries to be whole, something insider her whispers “a thought so mean” and this could be her way of explaining how when someone sufferers from depression will think the blackest thoughts, as if a “Goblin” were speaking to us. Thus a combination of the imagery of the battlefield dead along with her dark thoughts might be her way of expressing the darkest of all thoughts: suicide.

The third stanza “swings” in the opposite direction where rather than the lethargy of her “appalled’ “Soul”, there is a mania inside her “like a Bomb” whose length of fuse is entirely unpredictable as it rolls about the battlefield spitting angrily while the terrified soldiers try to run away from it. Again she uses the battle imagery of the “bomb” and “bursting” and the insanity and manic terror of war to also describe her own emotions as she “swings” from one extreme to the other. Her fractured “Soul” knows no peace and perhaps she feels as if she is at a continual war with herself and that like the soldier who tries to run from the “Bomb” she too is running from the bomb inside her which could go off at any moment and wound her.

She introduces the language of a prisoner with the word “escape” in the third stanza which she carries through to the end of the poem with the words “borne”, “Dungeoned”, “Liberty”, “Felon”, and “shackles”. This switch from military imagery to that of a prisoner could be a parallel with soldiers who ran from battle but were captured and probably executed for desertion. In fact, the etymology of the word “Staple” describes how a ‘stapol’ was a block for executions (OED).

Thus she feels trapped by the “Goblin” inside her that whispers “a thought so mean” and she longs to run away from it, but she knows she will be recaptured and “The Horror welcomes her, again” and that this “Horror” is “not brayed of Tongue” and that it will continue to whisper its “thought so mean”. She cannot run away from this “Goblin” whose dark whispers are like a bomb that she longs to run away from but can’t because she will be recaptured, she is a prisoner to her own inner demons the way a deserter is a prisoner for running away from the “Bomb” on the battlefield. She is stuck and fractured, just as the United States was at this time.

We grow accustomed to the Dark

Night on the Dnieper River, 1882 Arkhip Kuindzhi
Background Image: Night on the Dnieper River, 1882 Arkhip Kuindzhi

This poem could be about Emily’s experience as a writer working in relative isolation and having to “grope a little” in the darkness until she can adjust to “Midnight”. She might also be writing about dreams / the imagination, “Those Evenings of the Brain”, and how it’s a difficult process to learn to use one’s dreams / imagination in the act of making art that’s “almost straight”.

In “I found the words to every thought” Emily describes how we live like Plato’s prisoners in the cave and that art can only approximate the real thing, but also when art inspires us the words on the page or the oils on the canvas do seem to have the effect of orientating us in the direction of truth / the exit to the cave – if we let it. Imagine, for a moment, that we are one of Plato’s prisoners and one of our companions escapes then returns with news of the world outside our prison. All our companion can do is use language to approximate their experiences and hope that their skill with language is sufficient to inspire us to see what they see. Poetry is like this. The poet goes out at “Midnight” and explores the world of darkness but because they can adjust their eyes to the “Darkness” they avoid the danger of hitting their head on a low hanging “Tree” limb and then return to us with news of their adventure. And though we have not actually seen what they have seen and experienced, a skilled poet can still inspire us, can enable us to see in the darkness what no other light can illuminate. Though it be “Midnight” and “not a Moon disclose a sign – or Star”, we can still see clearly because our companion – the poet – has scouted on ahead and reports back to us.

The first two words of the poem seems to be the central thesis (as if poems could have a thesis) in that “We grow”. The entire poem is about growth, about finding one’s way, and for Emily perhaps finding one’s way as an artist who can see into the darkness of dreams and imagination and report back to the reader with her findings in such a way as to allow us to see what we have never seen before. Paradoxically, growth in this poem happens in the “Dark”, in the absence of sunlight in which things normally grow. In the first stanza the sun has gone down “As when the Neighbor” takes her “Lamp” inside after waving “Good bye” for the evening. And so when everyone is asleep, when the world is blanketed in darkness, “We grow”.

And our growth begins with those first tentative steps we take into the “newness of the night” as we try to see into the darkness. This is an interesting image in that she is asking us – as well as herself – to look at and into what cannot be seen. She asks us to “fit our Vision for the Dark” and so we must look not with our eyes, but with our minds, our imagination, our ability to dream. She asks us to become like the dreamer in “Many a phrase has the English language” who, though they sleep quietly in the darkness, the canvas of their imagination is illuminated brilliantly in their dreams. Emily describes this “larger – Darkness” in the third stanza as being the expansive landscape of our dreams in which not even the “Moon” or a “star” can shine its brilliance through our closed and sleepy eyes.

In the fourth stanza she describes how when we give ourselves over the the “Darkness” of our imagination we are brave because we must struggle to find our way. One can imagine Emily sitting at her desk struggling to find the right words for this poem, struggling to see into her own imagination what can only be illuminated with her own inner light (for not “Moon” or “star” light can penetrate there) and translate those visions into a language we can understand in the light of the waking world. And she explains how her attempts might be awkward, at least at first, and that she will hit her head on a low-hanging “Tree” branch as she gropes about for the right words, but eventually, with practice and bravery, she – and us – will “learn to see”. “We grow” with each attempt.

And thus in the final stanza she describes this landscape of “Darkness” as an exotic land that not only “alters” us as in how “We grow” from our travels there, but also that the “Darkness” is like an alter that we go to worship at. Emily is suggesting that the act of creating art is an almost religious experience and that to allow oneself to enter that hallowed, darkened cathedral alone will lead one to the light of the imagination in which the “Moon” and “star” shines brighter in the darkness of our imaginations than they do in reality. And at the alter is the poem itself, opened like the gospels for the priest to interpret to the people below, to guide them with the light of art, with the experiences of what they have seen ahead of the congregation who have not yet traveled to that land so that they may be prepared to enter the “Darkness” on their own, to give the people courage to be brave to see the light in even the darkest of nights. For Emily art is prophecy and she the reverent who “holds the Lamp” and wishes us “Good bye”.

Many a phrase has the English language

Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts
Background Image: Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts

As in “I found the words to every thought” where there was “but One” thought she could not put words to, and here there is “but one” phrase she has not “heard”. Yet unlike the previous poem, she seems to actually be describing this phrase and even wants it hear “it again” by the end of the poem.

What is most remarkable about this poem is how you can hear what she is describing – the sounds of nature are embedded in the “phrase” of the “English language”. For example, the ‘lo’, ‘a’ and “la” sounds as they flow through “Low as the laughter” (with that ‘s’ sound in the middle) is reminiscent of the sound of a “Cricket”. She repeats this again in “Thunder’s Tongue” with the sharp ‘t’ sounds and how the two syllables of “Thunder’s” is resolved with the single syllable blast of “Tongue”. The word “Tongue” is also doing double duty in that visually it reminds us is a serpents “Tongue” of lightening during a thunder storm thus she is combining the audible and visual elements into the words of the “English Language”.

The second stanza hints at how we often don’t even notice how language is working on us: it’s a subtle influencer that works more in our subconscious than it does when we are awake. For example, she mentions the “Whippowill” and rhymes this with “a’lull” which alludes to sleep and dreams. The whippoorwill is a nocturnal bird and so as we sleep its language enters our dreams and so Emily might be saying that the language of nature can be heard and understood best when we are asleep as it will influence our dreams, perhaps even a dream of a “Caspian [Chior]” “mummering” like the tide in the middle of the night. This stanza has a dreamlike quality to it and I believe she is suggesting that it is in dreams when we can most clearly hear the langauge of nature.

The third stanza seems to support this hypothesis of nature’s language speaking to us through our own language – just as if we too were like the “Whippowill” and the “English Language” was no different than birdsong. She uses the word “Orthography”, which is “a system of spelling or notation” (OED) and in the second line of this stanza describes her “simple sleep” in which this grammar of nature is “Breaking in bright” into her dreams. She continues with the word “Prosepctive” which is “a device which allows one to see objects or events not immediately present” (OED) thus further suggesting that only when one is dreaming can we truly interpret the language and grammar of nature. And yet, once she wakes, she weeps because she is no longer in a state which will allow her to interpret this language. Even the sound of the word “Prospective” (aside from its relation to the word perspective) has the quality of a distant, rumbling thunder leftover from the first stanza.

Thus the final stanza expresses her wish to hear “it again” and what it is she wants to hear can only be heard either in dreams or obtusely through the sounds of words in the English language. This whole poem is her attempt to mimic the sounds of nature inside her limited Anglo-“Saxon” language and her desire to continue to hear it. Ironically, she ends the poem with the word “Hush” as if she wants silence but is asking to actually hear something. Normally one would say ‘speak up’, not “hush” if you want to hear something clearer, so perhaps she is suggesting that what she wants to hear can only be heard in the silence – perhaps she’s even suggesting that words as they are printed on the page are silent until we speak them and so we are like Emily whom the words speak “Only to me” when we read the poem and thus can hear so much more inside this silence, like a dreamer who when we watch them sleep quietly but inside their mind a thunderstorm rages and the “Whippowil” inspires visions of “Caspian Choirs”.

I found the words to every thought

The Blind, 1879, Nikolai Yaroshenko
Background Image: The Blind, 1879, Nikolai Yaroshenko

There’s a playfulness but also a frustration here in that she never does find the words for that one thought – she’s like a prisoner in Plato’s cave who has no concept of “Cochineal” (red) or “Mazarin” (blue). But what she’s really getting at is how can a word, like “Mazarin” replace the real thing? We can be told it’s “Of a rich deep blue color” (OED) but what does that even mean?

I thought of Saussure’s work with semiotics, a word itself which originally meant “the interpretation of symptoms” (OED), and how, like Plato’s prisoners (“Races – nurtured in the Dark”), we are deprived of the truth of reality because words cannot replace the real thing.

The first stanza deals with her ability as an artist and also her own limitations. She has “found the words to every thought” she’s had so far except for “One”. In one sense she is trying to put into words some single thought which has escaped her, but her use of capitalization could be that the “One” is the ultimate truth, the ultimate beauty, the good, the beautiful: the One; God, perhaps, and who is the ultimate creator who does not lack words, which she might also be referring to in “I died for Beauty – but was scarce”.

Her image of the “Hand” that “did try to chalk the Sun” is a wonderful image as the futility of our own (mortal) efforts to effectively capture reality in art. A painter may paint a beautiful image of a sunset, but no matter how glorious the painting, it can’t replace the real thing, it can only stand in for it. And her use of “chalk” further enforces this futility in that one’s own “Hand” cannot give free travel to the “Sun”: we are not Helios with a chariot dragging the “Sun” across the sky, we can only interpret what goes on in the heavens as best we can – even the mythology is a poor reflection of reality in that it is only a story.

Yet there is a hint of hopefulness here in that she asks “How would your Own – begin?” as in where do we even start, yet the fact remains that we do create art, we do attempt to represent a “Blaze” in “Cochineal” in a painting or a poem, we make the effort to do our best to be like the “One” (the creator) and mimic creation through our own feeble efforts. Ultimately Emily did write this poem – if she had truly been frustrated she never would have written a word, yet here she is fully knowing that she can’t “chalk the Sun” and yet she tries anyway. And we, the reader, do see her “Blaze”, we do feel the deep blue of “Noon” as the “Sun” races across the sky. The “One” may defy us, but it is not totally invisible to us because there is a light illuminating the world and so we can do our best to appreciate it, and our humble efforts to mimic it bring us, in a way, closer to the “One”. We begin to exit the cave, at least a little.

I like a look of Agony

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna
Background Image: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna

I’m going out of order from the book because I’m taking a class on Emily Dickinson and I’m going to follow the syllabus for the next few months.

There is embedded here the image of the passion of Christ. Her use of “Agony” comes from the Latin agonia which refers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the final image of the “Beads” could be an allusion to the “homely” crown of thorns he wore. The question is is she suggesting that this is the one thing (suffering in death) we all have in common with Christ? This poem also shares some similar images with “A throe upon the features“.

I assumed on my first reading that she was referring to death in both stanzas, and while this reading is certainly possible, the major noun in the first stanza is “Agony” which isn’t necessarily “Death”, but rather the struggle all mortals contend with between good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death. Thus what she could be saying in this first stanza is that she likes “a look of Agony” because it’s a sign that a person is truly struggling to live – it’s not that she likes “a look of” “Death”, she likes “a look of” life, of the “homely” person who must contend with the difficult decisions of life and deal with the consequences of those decisions, be they good or bad.

This is why, I believe, she is alluding to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane whose “Agony” (agonia) was described in Matthew 26:41, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Her poem mirrors Christ’s dilemma in that he is alive (just as the first stanza deals with being alive) but that “Death” is going to come for all of us and thus the second stanza deals with this inevitable outcome.

Yet I don’t believe she is suggesting that “Death” is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something we all fear and struggle with, but like Christ who died to forgive sin, our own struggle with death is the end result of our coming to terms with our own lives and the decisions we’ve made and the struggles we’ve endured and which we may have to answer for in the next life once we cross over.

A throe upon the features

Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death, 16th century, Master of the Chronique scandaleuse
Background Image: Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death, 16th century, Master of the Chronique scandaleuse

The first 4 stanzas are Emily describing the process of death as an observer, but the final 4 stanzas could be describing how the dead “rejoin its own” or how we, the survivors “rejoin” our own after we are parted from the dead and as we go on about our lives. She could also be saying that she’s giving herself “permission” to let the dead go, or that God / “Death” has given the dying “permission” to enter the next life.

The first line of the poem begins with the beginning of the end of life as the subject finds themselves in the spasm of death. There entirety of the life of this person comes before the first line of the poem and their mortal existence ceases in the line break between stanzas. We do not know who this person is – Emily does not describe her feelings for the subject and if she lived them, cared for them, or even knew them. In fact the suddenness in which the poem begins with the spasms of death almost feels as if Emily has stumbled upon this scene, perhaps the way one would when they see the image in a newspaper of a soldier who has died on the battlefield – death is thrust upon is suddenly and we recognize it, even if we don not recognize the person who has died.

Lines 2-4 deal with “breath” in that “An extasy of parting” isn’t just the soul “parting” the body, it’s also the breath “parting” the mouth. This is supported by her use of the word “Denominated” which means “to give a name or appellation to; to call by a name” (OED) and is also a play on the word ‘dominated’, thus the name if death dominates the final breath of the subject.

Emily continues this naming of “Death” with her use of the word “mention” at the beginning of the second stanza. This “anguish” is not only felt by the observer (be it we the reader or Emily) in regard to whom is dying, but it could also refer to the subject themselves who is in “anguish” as they speak the name of “Death” who has complete control over them (dominates them). Her use of the word “grown” is a play on “groan” which could be the only way a person could pronounce the name of death and recalls the “throe” (spasm) of the first line. And perhaps this naming of “Death” is what allows for “permission” to be given for the subject to “rejoin its own” (the other dead) which mirrors the observer who must, with “patience”, allow the person to “rejoin [their] own” by moving on with their own life. In death the dying and the living must both move on with their own kind.

A something in a summer’s Day

L'Aurora, 1614, Guido Reni
Background Image: L’Aurora, 1614, Guido Reni

Beautiful poem! Emily continues her observations of the cycles of the day from sunset (‘If this is “fading”‘) and sunrise (“As Watchers hang upon the East“) to this poem which deals with the entire procession of the day – she even references Helios’ chariot. And all through the poem she plays with an ‘s’ alliteration as if it could be a summer’s breeze blowing through the whole poem, or even perhaps the sound of cicadas.

Twice in this poem she uses the female pronoun “her” not only to refer to the sun and the sun rising, “her flambeaux” and “her amber Flag”, but she is also referring to herself, Emily, the poet watching and writing. This continual act of creation of the day and the night and the new day again mirrors her own act of creation through her poetry in which not only does she observe the day, she creates the day in her own words. Emily is, in fact, playing the role of Helios as she guides the sun across the sky of the poem, a continual act of creation that illuminates the beauty of the world through the written word, specifically through her use of ‘s’ alliteration which not only could be a gentle breeze or cicadas, but the sun itself. In the stanzas where the sun is up (and the moon is bright) she leans heavily on this alliteration, but when the sun and moon are not visible, the alliteration is very slight until the final two lines of the poem which reintroduces the pattern with “dews” and “summer’s”.

In fact, the “something” she keeps referring to “in a summer’s” day or noon or night is this mysterious ‘s’ which combines perhaps sound (a breeze, a cicada) with the visual element of the light. Emily’s synesthesia could be what she is investigating and which she can only refer to as a “something”, and it’s a “something” she can only express in poetry. This is why I believe she is not only writing about the cycles of the day, but also about the very act of creation itself.

Formally, the poem can be read in a loop – the final line reveals a new “summer’s Day” and the first stanza explores the morning before “noon” (she explores “noon” in stanza two, therefore stanza one is likely the morning). Her rhyme scheme is unusual in that at first I transcribed it as AAB CCD EEF GGH IIJ KLML, but when I went back I think it’s actually AAB CCB DDB EEB FFG HHI JKLK because this would connect the first four stanzas in which there is a light visible (the sun and then the moon) which then leads into the dark of the night (stanzas five and six who have their own pattern) and finally stanza 7 which is unique just like every sunrise is unique. This JKLK rhyme seems to mimic a new day being forged as the sun who is the same everyday and is “gay” every “Day” (the K rhyme) creates a unique “summer’s day” each “morn” “coming thro’ the dews” (the J and L). Thus stanza six and seven stream into each other with a HIJKL before we get another repeat of K: “Crag”, “Red”, “morn”, “gay”, and “dews” before we get a repeat of “Day” (which is a not only “Another” day, but also a new day, too.

And Emily refers to the procession of one day into the next not only with her allusion to Helios who “Guides” “His caravan of Red” across the sky, but also with her use of “solemnizes” which means to observe something with “some amount of ceremony” (OED). Emily not only is observing what is going on around her but she is also creating the procession of one day into the next as the poem progresses across the page (and through the sky). She is both observer and creator, hence her use of the pronoun “her” in the poem.

Finally, she refers to “The wizard fingers” which is not only perhaps God’s “fingers” (be it the Christian God or another ancient Greek deity, such as Helios or Apollo or a reference to Book 24 of the Iliad and Homer’s use of Eos’ rosy fingered dawn) but she is describing her own “fingers” that “never rest” as she writes every day. Her acts of creation mimic the act of daily creation, and her poetry is like a summer’s day when the flowers bloom and life and energy and light is abundant. Yet she also concedes that even her poetry cannot fully capture the glory of a summer’s day when she describes how the “purple brook” – which is not only an image of a brook in the predawn darkness but also an image of blood flowing through the body and an allusion to the ink flowing from her pen – cannot truly be contained in its “bed” because its beauty is so great that nothing can capture it. In fact this is something Rilke would write about in his poetry years later when he would describe how the love inside us is larger than the size of our heart and our body – in other words, we carry around something in us that is larger than us and so it “chafes its narrow bed” (with “bed” also being a reference to sleep and dreams).

Her breast is fit for pearls

Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet
Background Image: Es una foto del cuadro musas Urania y Galíope, 1634, Simon Vouet

Emily sets up a series of contrasts between the “I” and the “Her” (which could be Sue, or the Muses) in which the “Her” is “fit” for something that “I” cannot give. “I” lacks material riches and pedigree but can use the “twigs and twine” available to at least build an emotional relationship with “Her”.

There are some people who argue this poem is about her friend Sue while other people argue this poem is about poetry (the muses), but I don’t think it has to be an neither / or situation because both seem appropriate at the same time. Sue could very well be the must for this poem at least – perhaps many more.

The first line seem straightforward enough on first reading in that it Emily is glorifying the “breast” (the character) or this “Her” as being suited to wear expensive finery. However, the word “fit” is doing extra work here in that not only does she mean that these “pearls” “fit” on “Her” (as in they belong; is suited for) but a “fit” is also an obsolete term to describe a part of a poem or a song (OED) but the word was in use in Emily’s time. Thus Emily could also be saying that her poetry is fit for “pearls” just as Sue is.

The second line stands out because she puts the word “Diver” in quotes. The meaning of this line would not seem to be lost without the word in quotes, but I believe she’s using the word to also do double-duty. At first reading she is referring to the image of pearl divers and that she is unable to diver for pearls to give to “Her”, but a “Diver” also refers to a pickpocket (OED) so Emily could be implying that she isn’t someone who can pluck beautiful words / pearls from their home to “fit” into a poem. I’m not suggesting she alluding to thievery, but the word choice might be referring to how she might think about inspiration and where the right words / pearls come from in that she has to be like a pickpocket to find the perfect ones. In other words, she’s possibly alluding to a deftness and nimbleness to choosing the right words.

The third line is unusual in that Emily does not write that “Her brow is fit for” crowns, she says “thrones” instead. How can a “brow” be “fit” for a thrown when crowns are what sit on brows? I think the answer to this question is that because Emily is a talented poet she does not dive for the obvious word choice. Let’s say she had used the word crown – we would have the image of “Her” wearing a crown, perhaps one trimmed with “pearls” from the first line. Yet when Emily uses “thrones” she expands the image to paint a picture of a royal figure sitting on a thrown who is also wearing a crown. We imagine a queen and all her glory, but if Emily had just used the word “crown” we actually would have not imaged someone so glorious since we would have only been focused on her physical characteristics and not her entire persona as a queen. By being unexpected, she uses a word associated with a crown to enlarge the importance of “Her” and it creates a more detailed image in our imagination.

The fourth line build off the royal persona and majesty of the previous line by suggesting that Emily does not have the pedigree (“crest” as in family crest) to stand before the queen in her court. Not only is she not adept at finding “pearls”, she lacks the lineage to even stand in “Her” presence. And Emily could be referring to her situation as a woman writer in New England in the 19th century as someone who does not have the pedigree of someone like the famous poets of her time or the social standing to allow her to find her own way as a poet.

Yet in the next line, “Her heart is fit for rest” (though in other drafts the word “rest” is switched to “home”) she is saying that regardless of one’s pedigree, “Her” heart is willing to accept anyone to “rest” there. And there might be some subtle wordplay going on in this line too with not only the use of “fit” to refer to a section of poetry, but “for rest” could be read as forest, meaning the wilderness in which Emily lives as a poet outside of the cultivated lands of the poets who have the pedigree to stand before the queen, and it also sets up the image of the following lines in which a “sparrow” builds its “nest” in “Her heart”. In other words, “Her heart” is a part of a poem in which there is a wild place inside of it. And this could tie back to Emily’s feelings towards Sue in that Emily has a wild place in her heart for Sue, but Emily also wants to use the word “home” as a place away from the forest (the wild place) where she can be safe. Thus home and “rest” seem to be at odds with each other in points to a conflict within Emily’s own “heart” about her feeling towards Sue and towards poetry.

Thus the home that is built in the final three lines of the poem incorporates a wildness and the domestic. Emily compares herself to a “sparrow” and in the next line she might be referring to Sue as “sweet” (as in darling, beloved) and not just that Emily’s “nest” is made of “sweet” (pleasing) “twigs and twine”. And the use of the word “twine” seems to allude to the entire poem in that she not only referring to something string-like with which a bird uses to build a “nest”, but also to “a fold; a coil; a convolution; a twist or turn in the course of anything” (OED). The poem does feel coiled, as if it has multiple, interlocking pieces that when unraveled (like the fit of a poem) might seem convoluted, but when put together creates a unified whole; she’s taking something wild and making it domestic and she can do this all year round.

Emily might say that she is not a “Diver” but I believe she is well aware at just how adept she is plucking “pearls” from their oyster. She knows how to build a queen out of a throne and she knows how to “fit” a poem out of “twine” into a “nest”. In fact, this is Emily showing off how good she is.

As Watchers hang upon the East

Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen
Background Image: Colorado Landscape, 1931, Birger Sandzen

While the previous poem, ‘If this is “fading”‘ dealt with the sun setting, this poem is an image of the sun rising. Here she equates waiting for the sun to come up with a “Beggar” – and not just poor economically, but perhaps a spiritual beggar too – with the hope that there is a “Heaven” to come. She replaces the darkness with “the lid of Amethyst” as light satisfies faith.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty about heaven in this poem. The most unusual line is the final line of the first stanza, “Heaven beguiles the tired”. When I first read this I passed over it quickly assuming she meant that “Heaven” is given respite to the tired, but there is an odd paradox in this line in that how can “Heaven” deceive (“beguile”) and why is “Heaven” deceiving the tired? Is she referring to “the tired” as an apostrophe which needs to be driven out of the “Beggar”, or are “the tired” the same people who are the “Watchers” who are up before dawn as they “hang upon the East” (stand waiting for the sun to rise) and heaven is deceiving them? She describes the “Watchers” as being “Beggars” who are “too far for the delight” of the “brooks” which are the oasis in the “Deserts”. Thus while there is the image of people waiting for the relief of dawn, she introduces an uncertainty that “Heaven” will actually appear.

The second stanza seems at first to resolve this issue of waiting as “the East / Opens the lid of Amethyst / And lets the morning go” – which, by the way, is a remarkable image of a sunrise – but she ends the stanza with the question “if true”, as if “Heaven” really can satisfy the needs of the “Beggar”. Emily has no doubt the sun will rise in the astronomical heavens, but even as she looks at this glorious sunrise, she still seems to doubt if there is a spiritual heaven after all. She leaves us wondering if the need each of us (might) have for an afterlife will actually be satisfied and will we beggars be presented with the jewel (“Amethyst”) of heaven to cure our hunger? She has the hunger and desire for faith, but she also has her doubts if “Heaven” is “true”.

Yet there is another way to read the final line of the poem this is not as doubtful. She could be suggesting that “Heaven” exists for us “if true”, meaning if WE are true. A true person (an honest, good person) will be presented with the jewel of “Heaven” if they have enough faith. And this dual meaning could be her way of describing how we are all spiritual beggars full of needs and doubts and how easily we can be beguiled by the possibility that there could be a brook somewhere in our desert but which is too “far off” for us in our own lifetimes. The image of wandering in a desert is right out of Exodus and Moses never did enter the promised land, but he believed it existed and he was able to at least see his “Heaven” because he remained “true”.

This is a very clever poem which can be read as someone who has a tremendous amount of faith or as someone who has doubts which makes this a very human and honest poem because who doesn’t have doubts? Even when we are presented with a feast or a beautiful sunrise, we can still find a way to doubt, and on the other hand even when we are wandering in a desert, we can still be filled with faith that there is a brook to satisfy our thirst. It’s odd how when presented with evidence we doubt and yet we believe more strongly when we lack any evidence at all.

If this is “fading”

Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness
Background Image: Sunset on the Passaic, 1891, George Inness

Instead of describing a sunset – which is what a lesser poet would do – here she almost seems to become the sunset itself. She also mimics the slowness of the sun setting as it first fades, then dies, then sleeps, and in the final two lines she travels into the world of sleep where she both says good night to her “Fellow men” but also greets the world of “Fellow men” in dreams.

I wonder what the first humans thought was happening the first time they got tired and went to sleep – did they think they were dying? Did the first humans watch the sun setting and think the world was coming to an end? Scientifically speaking, they didn’t since all life on earth would have been accustomed to the setting sun and our evolutionary ancestors were falling asleep long before we left the trees to walk about the savanna. Yet the first humans were also the first living creatures to have (as far as we know) the capacity for poetry and this poem does seem to tap into a sort of ancient and mythic territory where the body journeys into a realm of spirits at nighttime.

The first verb of the poem is “fading” as she watches the light slowly “fade” from the day sky. This is a peaceful image and if you’ve ever really sat and watched a sunset it almost seems as if the process only takes place in hindsight since the actual changes are nearly imperceptible. Thus, for Emily, if life is fade from the body, then let it be like this, let it be gradual, painless, and serene.

The next verb, “dying” is her equating the dying light of the day with the death of the “fading” body. And this image is nothing new in poetry – countless poets good and bad have made the connection with the setting sun and death, but she puts an unusual twist on the image by asking for her “dying” body to be wrapped in “such a shroud of red”. This creates the image of her body somehow being aloft in the reddening sky as the sunset envelopes her. This image is what made me think she was tapping into something very ancient, almost shamanistic where the spirit is carried into the heavens as the “dying” light consumes the body and the two become one. It’s a striking image.

The next verb is of “sleep”. Again, equating sleep and death is nothing new, but here she is mimicking her action of watching the sun go down with her own eyes closing. In effect we are falling asleep with her “On such a night” and she has prepared us for the dreams to come with her image of being buried “in such a shroud of red”.

And she completes the image of sleep with “Good evening” which is actually a cute pun in that she’s saying this “evening” has been “good”, but also the word “evening” does not just mean nighttime, it also means a leveling – to even something out – which completes the image of the body and the sunset becoming one. And it is at this point where we are in the dream because not only does she say the usual “Good evening” to those we wish a pleasant sleep, but this “Good evening” can also be a greeting that she announces to her “gentle Fellow men”. And who are these “men”? Well, the image of the “Peacock” and all its eyes could be the eyes of all the “gentle Fellow men” who are also falling asleep at the same time and as the “Peacock” closes its feathers as the sun sets under the horizon, all the eyes close together and journey into the land of dreams as everyone “presumes to die”. And thus the poem ends when we are fully asleep.

Talk with prudence to a Beggar

The Beggar Maid, 19th century
Background Image: The Beggar Maid, 19th century

As in the previous poem, ‘“Arcturus’ is his other name‘, this is also a poem about empathy, about understanding the situation of another human being but this poem is also asking the reader to be aware of how your own situation, while perhaps more favorable (at the moment, anyway), is not something you should gloat about or lord over somebody with. This is one of those poems politicians would do well to read and take to heart.

It’s hard not to wonder if Emily was thinking about the situation in the American South, particularly slavery when she wrote this. The final line, “Have sometime proved deadly sweet” has an ominous tone to it, as if the person who has to listen about someone’s silver mines in “Potosi” Bolivia, and their collection of “wines” and good food (“viands”) is on the verge of becoming violent and will use violence to improve their own situation.

Another unusual aspect of this poem is that it is not religious, there is no mention of about the riches a person will find in the next life. How many biblical stories are about the meek inheriting the earth, about the glory and riches they will find in heaven as long as they remain obedient in poverty while alive? Emily seems to be challenging this message by saying that you will only make someone more miserable – violent even – if you preach to them about how they should live when they have so little. One wonders if Emily had in mind preachers who were wealthy but taught the virtue of poverty while at the same time taking what little money the poor had before moving on. I don’t know what experience she may have had with such people, but she probably was at least aware that there were scam artists working under the guise of religion.

“Arcturus” is his other name

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby
Background Image: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby

Gertrude Stein wrote on her 1935 essay Poetry & Grammar that “a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known”. And at the end of Emily’s poem she hopes that God will be like Stein and see past all the nouns and adjectives used to classify her and still allow her into heaven because he loves her.

Before I get into ‘classifying’ this poem I believe I should be self-aware enough to realize that the more we pull apart a poem the more we’re likely to kill it or at least leave it in a state wholly unrecognizable from what its author intended. What Emily is asking in this poem is that we look beyond classifications and judgments and rather see into the heart of a person no matter how “Old fashioned” or “naughty” or “everything” else they are and “lift” them over the threshold and into our hearts. And so it’s with a leaky bucket of irony that I dig into this poem.

The poem can be divided up into two halves. The first half is, I believe, not only examples of things that are harmed when we classify them, but she is also referring to herself with each example.

For example, “Arcturus” comes from the myth of Arcas and his mother Callisto. Callisto had been turned into a bear and when Arcas was out hunting he almost killed her but Zues intervened and also turned Arcas into a bear and placed them both in the sky as stars. Emily empathizes with “Arcturus” because though he was once a great king, he is now just a bright star in the constellation Boötes. The key here is that, like the final stanza, Zeus (God) recognizes that the bear is actually Callisto and so he prevents a tragedy – Zeus sees past the classification of a bear and can peer into the heart inside to know its true essence the same way Emily hopes God will see past her sins and still allow her into heaven.

In the second stanza she is not only describing a scene in which she is corrected by a passing savant (“Savan”) when she misidentifies a centipede as a worm, but she is also identifying with the worm as an allusion to Job 25: 6, “how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” In other words, humanity can be vile and wicked like a maggot – even the first man (Adam) was little better than a “worm” in that he was born of the earth and dirt. However, her use of Resurgam”, which means “I shall rise again”, speaks to how we shall be transformed from lowly dirt-based creatures into something greater. Thus sinners that we are (like maggots) we can still be allowed into heaven. However, she is also commenting on how the scientist – the “Savan” (savant / genius / smart person) does not see the value of the worm / centipede because they are only interested in classifying the object and is not able or willing to see the spirit of the creature. This is what Stein means when she says in her essay that:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing, and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about whatever is the object about which he writes.

Emily has the “intensity of emotion” about her subject (the worm) even though she doesn’t know the noun (“centipede”) that some smart person has given it – she sees past the noun and into the spirit.

The third stanza is interesting in that she is very self-aware about her own actions. Emily loves to pick flowers and give them to friends, but she also identifies herself (and her poetry) with flowers. Here she compares her actions to that of being a “monster” which, like being a “worm” or being “naughty” might prevent her from being accepted into heaven. In fact, if admission into heaven were up to other humans, nobody would get in because we’re so busy classifying and judging each other as monsters and sinners – we rarely look into the soul of a person, we only see their noun-quality and their adjectives such as ‘Emily is a wicked monster’. Gertrude Stein would never say this because she looks beyond the noun (Emily – and also monster) and discards the adjective (wicked). She transforms Emily – “Resurgam” – as Callisto and Arcas were transformed because she is like Zeus who can see into a person’s heart / spirit.

The fourth stanza is easy to read as just being about a “Butterfly” because butterflies have transformed just like Arcas and Callisto, but Emily is instead pushing the action of the “Savan” and alludes to how an etymologist pins butterflies to a base so that they can be studied. Emily here is concerned with being judges, with being put on display, but not in a way that people will see into her heart, but are only concerned with surface details, with her biology and physical attributes and is classified as a “centipede” and not in the way Stein would see Emily as an artist. This image also plays on stanza three in which she is only on display and could be a reference to her own poetry in which someone might read her poem and think it’s pretty but without actually taking it to heart. She’s worried that her poetry might just be used as decoration, like a flower in a vase or a butterfly broach on a dress, and not see the meaning of why the flower was given to someone or why the butterfly broach was given as a gift.

Thus the four nouns of the opening stanzas: the bear, the worm, the flower, and the butterfly deal with transformation and also her anxiety over being misidentified and classified as something that she isn’t. She worried that Arcas will not recognize her and will only see the bear and shoot her.

The final four stanzas thus pose the questions to the reader as to what if we do the work as Zeus (and Gertrude Stein) did and look at each other with new eyes. She asks in stanza five what heaven is like now since scientists have classified it as just a “Zenith” – does it still exist? Is Zeus still up there looking down on us? In other words, is there any magic left in heaven now that we think we understand what the heavens are? Or, to put it another way, do we truly see the beauty of a poem after we’ve classified it and pulled it apart and put it on display? Do we have the ability, like Zeus, to truly see into the spirit of another human being or a poem, to look beyond a simple classification and see the beating heart and vital spirit within?

This is the twist inside this poem in that she is asking if we have the power of the Gods to look beyond mere appearances and use our tools of inquiry to find the truth inside the human heart. In other words, can our predisposition to classify everything the way science does, actually lead to truth?

In stanza six she asks us to look at the world in the way a child does when they stand on their head and look at everything upside down. We adults don’t often do this because we are accustomed to not goofing around and sticking our butts in the air – we see it only as a childish “prank” – but a child hasn’t been indoctrinated into the adult language of classifying the universe and thus they are more likely to see past a bear and imagine it as a goddess – Callisto – the way Zeus can.

Emily is also asking us to stop looking at the stars (the “poles”) as if they are just a specific named star such as “Arcturus” and rather slew our understanding in the opposite direction to look at the universe with fresh eyes.

Stanza seven plays with the childlike playfulness and “prank” of stanza six and expresses her anxiety that perhaps the “Children” have all grown up and will “laugh at me” for being so foolish. She’s worried that even the children will not see past her exterior and will judge her only her on some of her “naughty” actions. She’s worried that they will only see her sins and not her virtues which are often buried deep inside the heart. If we recall the image of the flower in the vase then to a passerby they would not know that such a flower had been a gift of friendship between people who care about each other, they only see a pretty flower in a vase, but to the people involved they do understand the significance of that flower – in fact they may even have a special name for that flower, a noun that nobody else knows and is significant to only the parties concerned.

Thus Emily hopes that God too will know the truth of the flower as she flips the “poles” of this poem to mirror the beginning in which Zeus saw the truth and placed his children in heaven. Here she hopes God will do the same and see past her sins and “lift his little girl” into the heavens as well and place her among the stars the way Arcas and Callisto were. Emily literally transforms the poem from a classical allusion to ancient myth to her own desire for God to do the same when it is her time.

My friend attacks my friend!

The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme
Background Image: The Duel After the Masquerade, 1859, Jean-Léon Gérôme

You can feel Emily’s frustration at getting involved between the argument of two friends, one of which turns on her for interfering, and which ultimately leads to her wanting to just shoot everyone, herself included, to be done with this nonsense. We never learn what the friends are quarreling about, but it must be something petty – which is interesting because it escalates into tragedy.

The difference between tragedy and comedy is that in a comedy the characters are usually unaware that their actions (their shortcomings) are the cause of their failures, while in a tragedy the characters are painfully aware (at least by the end of the story) that their shortcomings are leading to their failure yet they are unwilling to do anything to prevent the tragic outcome.

In this poem Emily sees both the comedic and the tragic qualities of getting involved in an argument between friends. At first she is more than happy to just watch this “Battle picturesque” as one “friend attacks” the other “friend”. The word “picturesque” is worth digging into because it doesn’t just mean a pretty scene that is “pleasing or striking in appearance; scenic” (OED), it can also be used figuratively to describe something “strikingly graphic or vivid, colorful; (ironically) careless of the truth, esp. for effect”, such as a line Jack London writes in Sea Wolf, “For the first time in my life I experienced the desire to murder—‘saw red’, as some of our picturesque writers phrase it” (emphasis mine). Thus the use of this word hints at the possibility that the friends are bickering over something trivial or are having a simple misunderstanding.

However, Emily gets involved by line three, “Then I turn Soldier too”. We don’t know why she has jumped in, but perhaps she has because she thought the issue could be easily solved since it seemed so petty to her as an observer. There isn’t a line break or a dash leading into line three (in fact the poem is devoid of her unusual punctuation), rather she just jumps right in assuming she will find a solution to the issue. Yet in line four one of her friends – and she carefully chooses not to say which one because it could as well be either of them – turns on her and mocks her for getting involved. It might also be worth noting that she uses then pronoun “he”, not ‘she’ or ‘her’ so she might be writing about her frustrations at dealing with pig headed men who refuse to back down from an argument with each other and will turn on anyone who tries to get in the way. Not that women aren’t equally guilty of being stubborn in an argument, but she is equating this poem’s military and war imagery (“attack”, “Battle”, “Soldier”, “martial”, “gun”, “shoot”m and “glory”) with a male pronoun.

The final four lines of the poem are pure frustration with the situation she finds herself in which she expresses nicely with hyperbolic image of a gin so large she could shoot everyone, including herself, and just be done with it all. Thus in the end she combines the comic aspects of the poem with a tragic ending in which everyone dies. And I think this is important because I wonder if we think of the argument between her two friends as a political argument between the situation going on in the United States at the time. Many people in the north, especially in New England, believed they had the moral high ground concerning the issue with the South, but there were many people in the North who benefited from the South’s exploitation of slaves. Arguments over what to do in the lead up to the US Civil War would eventually become brother fighting brother on the battlefield during the war. Thus this poem seems to predict the tragedy and the comedy of the political situation in America at the time, especially the ending which sees the issue resolved with extreme violence.

In fact, if she did perhaps have the political climate in mind when she wrote this, we can feel her exasperation with the situation in that she feels totally powerless to bring about a resolution to an argument she sees as about to turn tragic in a comically awful way. And I’m not saying there is anything funny about the US Civil War or that she was making light of it, I’m using comedy in the darker sense like the way the film Dr. Strangelove looks at the tragedy of impending doom through the lens of a comedy in which everyone involved is an idiot – a dangerous and armed idiot.

In rags mysterious as these

Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens
Background Image: Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis, 1625, Peter Paul Rubens

I wonder if by “these” “rags” she means the words of a poem? Words are only a signifier, not the thing signified, and so they are like “shining Courtiers” asking for the wealthy recipient to pay them attention – in other words, words can only transmit an idea, but it’s up to the person receiving the idea (or the poem) to turn it into action (“alms”).

Emily collected many of her poem in a series of fascicles which were hand sewn and which represented the work she believed should be part of a collection of her best (or perhaps favorite) work. Thus it’s possible “these” “rags” could be referring to her fascicles and that “In” them her poems are the “shining Courtiers” that she hopes will be good enough to be read – perhaps even celebrated one day – by someone of importance (who lives behind “some imposing door”).

So many of Emily’s poem contain words which can be read multiple ways – for example in “Low at my problem bending” – and while she often reveled in this wordplay, I wonder if she was also somewhat skeptical about words and how they sometimes fail to get across what she meant. Some of her poems seem to hint at an insecurity as to the quality of her work, such as in “Ambition cannot find him” and “For every Bird a Nest“. And given her secretive nature she seems to me to be someone who was concerned that while on the one hand she must have known how talented she was, she also might have worried that nobody else would understand what she was trying to say in her art. How many times have each of us said something that the other person took in completely the opposite way in which we meant to the point that it might have caused an argument?

This is the problem with words. A word is like a beggar dressed in “rags” that goes about asking for “alms”. And these beggar words can fill multiple roles as they wander about looking for a home because they are eager for work and can do multiple jobs of they’re allowed to. Take, for example, to word “imposing” in this poem. At first glance it seems as if she is using the word only to refer to the “door” and how it elicits a sense of fear or at least skepticism as to what lay behind it. When a beggar goes to the door of a rich person that beggar will be fearful of the door being slammed in their face. However, the word “imposing” also a term used in the printing process and means “The arrangement of pages of type in a ‘forme’” (OED). Emily has cleverly hidden (in plain sight) an allusion to the act of writing and, more importantly, publishing. Thus she could be saying that the “imposing door” belongs to an editor or publisher and that she is concerned that her “rags” will not be accepted for publication.

In other words, she is not sure her words are good enough. She very much wants her words to connect to the reader, to have an image such as a “golden floor” come to life in the imagination of the reader, but she seems to intuit the fragile relationship between what a word signifies and how it is acts as a signifier – a relationship which the modernists, such as Gertrude Stein, will explore nearly half a century after Emily’s death. After all, a “golden floor” does not necessarily one inlaid with rare metals of enormous value because “golden” can also refer to something being “superficially or misleadingly attractive” (OED) and thus she again hides in plain sight her apprehension and insecurity as to the worth and value of her words. She worries we won’t “get it” – and perhaps nobody really would, at least until the modernists.

Yet there also seems to be an element within the poem in which she is hoping that her beggar words will be treated the way the ancient Greeks treated the stranger as a possible God in disguise. A word might show up at your door and if you turn it away you might incur the wrath of Zeus, but if you let it in then a humble word which seemed to only be so poor as to have only one small meaning, could turn out to be a “golden” and “imposing” deity whose “purple” and “plumes” and “ermine” had been veiled under “rags”.

In other words, this poem celebrates reading into a poem, while also keeping intact the insecurity we feel when we’re not sure what we are saying is being received as intended.