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22 May 2018

The Future never spoke –

The Future never spoke –
Nor will he like the Dumb 
Reveal by sign – a Syllable
Of His Profound To Come – 

But when the News be ripe 
Presents it in the Act – 
Forestalling Preparation –
Escape – or Substitute – 

Indifferent to him – 
The Dower – as the Doom – 
His Office but to execute
Fate's Telegram – to Him –
                 Fr638 (1863)  J672

This poem on the future begins with the straightforward premise that the future is unknowable. It closes, however, with a personified Fate who dictates all that is to come.
        While Fate is not a part of mainstream Christian theology today, Dickinson grew up in a Calvinist home, one accepting Calvinism's tenents that salvation and damnation are predestined. Further, Calvin taught that God pre-ordained everything: "All events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God" (citation on Wikipedia, "Predestination in Calvinism").

Once again Dickinson employs the sort of legal diction that she would have heard from her lawyer father and his friends. The Future, like some loyal factotum, executes his master Fate's instructions upon receipt. The execution is so swift that Future's 'News' is revealed only 'in the Act' itself, which necessarily forestalls 'Preparation – / Escape – or Substitute'. Dickinson's formulation sounds like a legal order for an apprehension of some sort.
The Moirai - Alfred Agache (1843–1915)

The first stanza portrays the essential opaqueness of the future. Despite mindbending relativistic theories of spacetime, in our lived experience, there are no clues, neither spoken nor written, to reveal what will befall. Dickinson refers to this as the Future's "Profound To Come" – a marvelous phrase. The future is certainly profound – it influences us as we prepare for it, as we avert our eyes from it, as we welcome or dread it. Its unfolding lies at the heart of many of humanity's greatest literary and artistic creations. Death and Justice, triumph and defeat are all in the Profound To Come.

The last stanza is slightly chilling. The Future doesn't care about what happens. He is indifferent to our  winnings and our losings. I love the alliteration of Dower and Doom – they drop from Dickinson as a matched pair, intrinsically linked. But of course the Future doesn't care. He has but one responsibility – to carry out the dictates of Fate. Dickinson leaves the contemplation of who or what Fate is to her readers' imaginations – or perhaps to the assumptions of her day.
        It's a fine distinction, that between Future and Fate: the carriage overturns after losing a wheel and a woman dies. That accident was birthed by the Future into the here and now. But it was Fate who decreed the woman's demise. For Calvinists it is all=powerful God who by definition if not revelation preordains the direction of the cosmos, individual salvation or damnation, and whether the carriage falls.

22 March 2018

I went to thank Her –

I went to thank Her –
But She Slept –
Her Bed – a funneled Stone –
With Nosegays at the Head and Foot –
That Travellers – had thrown –

Who went to thank Her –
But She Slept –
'Twas Short – to cross the Sea –
To look upon Her like –  alive –
But turning back – 'twas slow –
                       FR637 (1863)  J363

Dickinson scholars claim this is another poem written in memory of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who died in Florence in 1861, just a couple of years before this poem. While it has some charm, I don't think this poem is nearly as good as the beautiful ode (Fr627Dickinson wrote earlier in 1863 – "I think I was enchanted". I can't say it is better or worse than the other, (Fr600  – "Her – last Poems") because while both have their attractions, neither are among Dickinson's better works.


The repetitions in the first and second lines of both stanzas are lulling but seem a bit flat to me. Both the speaker and other travellers go to Florence to pay tribute to Barrett-Browning's poetry but find only that 'She Slept'. The idea and phrasing seem fairly conventional. I do appreciate, however, the spondee and sibiliant 's' and 'sh' sounds of the line. They are softly, even sadly, ponderous. They remind us that the dead receive no thanks; it is best, then, to make our pilgrimage while the person is alive.
        The nosegays left by admirers are another rather conventional detail. I'd like to say the last three lines redeem the poem with their additional sibilance and the contrast between how much more quickly went the journey to the tomb to stand and visualize the dead poet as if she were alive, than the return journey, but again, the notion is not that novel; the language not that fresh.

I was reading about EBB's famous and rather magnificent tomb as I embarked on the study of this poem, and the story of that is perhaps more interesting than the poem itself. I was initially startled by Dickinson's depiction of the tomb as being a bed of 'funneled Stone' as if it were a simple rock slab rather than the iconic sarcophagus that memorializes Barrett-Browning. But as it turns out, the sarcophagus, designed by Frederick, Lord Leighton, was not finished when Dickinson wrote her poem. So perhaps there was a more simple grave enhanced only by those tossed bouquets.
        There's quite a bit of story involved in the tomb: Leighton's designs were not followed, what should have been a portrait in the central medallion was altered by the contracted sculpture beyond recognition, and people kept taking things from the grave. EBB's name is not there, just 'E+B+B'. Robert Browning never went to visit it.

On this excellent  website you can read all about it –and see the difference between Leighton's sketched portrait and what the sculptor created in its stead – ostensibly to improve it.

21 March 2018

It struck me — every Day —

It struck me — every Day —
The Lightning was as new
As if the Cloud that instant slit
And let the Fire through —

It burned Me — in the Night —
It Blistered to My Dream —
It sickened fresh upon my sight —
With every Morn that came —

I thought that Storm — was brief —
The Maddest — quickest by —
But Nature lost the Date of This —
And left it in the Sky —
                               Fr636 (1863)  J362


We are eased into this intense poem by Dickinson's ambiguous opening lines. "It struck me" is a common way of introducing an insight or new idea. A particularly brilliant insight might come as if by a stroke of lightening. And so we might begin reading the poem in expectation of one of Dickinson's knifing epiphanies or surprising twists on ordinary wisdom. But we soon realize the strokes of lightening as bolts of sheer pain.

http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2008/20080623_lightning.htmlHer technique here impresses me. Through the first stanza I'm excited by the lightening and its Fire. The dash ending the stanza carries suspense across the stanza gap and into 'It burned Me'.  Whatever the lightening might mean, it suddenly seems painfully piercing. We experience a bolt of understanding just as the first line promised and just as the stanza descends into horror. Fire blisters to the speaker's dreams as if they were tangible entities scorched and disfigured. This happens every night. And every Morn her sight is 'sickened', withered, I imagine, as a lightening-struck tree.

The poem ends with no closure. I think it might be read, "I thought that Storm would be brief" and the worst part would be over soonest. Experience and convention lead us to that belief: pain must ebb: the intolerable fade to the tolerable, whether in sickness, love, or war. But Nature is not natural here. Nature 'lost' track of the situation, left it looming in the sky.
        Dickinson leaves no doubt about the source of her pain. It comes from above, it is fire waiting for a slit in the clouds, it is lightening day and night. The realm of sky – heaven – is not one she can control. The gods forge the lightening and Jove hurls it. The Christian god punishes and blinds, perhaps to force a truth, as with Saul of Tarsus (New Testament, Acts 9: 3-16).
        In a somewhat similar poem, '"Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch',  Fr425, written a little over a year earlier, the intense 'Agony' ends 'When God – remembered'. In the current poem God is not there and Nature has forgotten.

In other commentaries, this poem is considered to be about Dickinson's eye problems.  In the same year as this poem, 1863, Dickinson wrote to Thomas Higginson that 'I had a terror since September – I could tell to none' (L261). In 1864, Dickinson stayed in Boston for eight months of therapy with a prominent ophtalmologist. Reflecting on the experience in an 1865 letter to Joseph Lyman (friend of the family and a near-suitor for sister Lavinia) she wrote:
Some years ago I had a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble. It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul – BOOKS. The medical man said 'avaunt ye tormentors.' He also said, 'down, thought, & plunge into her soul.' He mmight as well have said, 'Eyes be blind, heart be still.' So I had eight months of Siberia.
But while the poem might draw upon the pain and dread Dickinson's eye afflictions caused her, I think she intends it more generally. There are piercing pains that never go away. There are also times, glimpsed in other Dickinson poems, when like for Saul, Divine knowledge assaults and flays, as in 'He Fumbles at your Soul (Fr477when God's 'Imperial Thunderbolt' / … scalps your naked soul'.

Sometimes I feel that Dickinson hurls poems like bolts across the ages.

10 March 2018

Just to be Rich

Just to be Rich
To waste my Guinea
On so broad a Heart!
Just to be Poor,
For Barefoot pleasure
You, Sir, shut me out!
Fr635 (1863)


A lot hinges on what the word 'just' means here. I can't cram it into the ED Lexicon suggestions of "only', 'nearly', barely', 'almost', or 'precisely'.  Instead, I find it works best as a sort of shorthand to deliver the reader as directly as possible to what is crystal clear: the beloved is just not the type to ever return her devotion.

King George guinea, 1719
The poem is two three-line laments. In the first, the speaker contends that if she had riches to shower on her beloved it would have little effect. One person's love is not enough for this man. Dickinson generously denotes this as his having 'so broad a Heart', but what I see is more of a flirt or Don Juan whose capacity for receiving love is that of a giant purse: plenty of room for more than one Guinea.
        Guineas were not commonly circulated by Dickinson's time but people used the term in regards to luxury items and fees paid to artists and high-status professionals. But spending such a coin on love, at least in this case, is futile. Even metaphorical guineas – love, tenderness, loyalty – would be wasted.

Young Girl, William-Adolphe 
Bouguereau, 1886

        But lest we think the beloved simply rejects the idea of having guineas bestowed on him, what if the speaker were poor? Perhaps, like the country maidens who entranced the English romantic poets, he would be charmed into love. Alas, for want of a shoe, the gentleman is lost.
  This second lament is harsher than the first. While the guinea was wasted on the beloved, we have no reason to believe it was rejected. Perhaps some connection was established, even if it did not rise to the level of reciprocal love. But in the case of poverty (and the ED Lexicon notes that 'barefoot' meant 'poor' rather than the more romanticized figure of a young woman enjoying the feel of grass beneath her feet as she gathers wildflowers), 'Sir' shuts her out.


There may be more to this poem, however. It is nearly the same as the last stanza of a longer poem Dickinson wrote a year earlier. She sent this shorter version to friend (and possible beloved) Samuel Bowles. The longer one, it seems to me, may well have been written with sometimes-beloved friend (and sister-in-law) Sue in mind.

Here is the longer poem, published by Johnson but not Franklin:
Sweet — You forgot — but I remembered
Every time — for Two —
So that the Sum be never hindered
Through Decay of You — 
Say if I erred? Accuse my Farthings —
Blame the little Hand
Happy it be for You — a Beggar's —
Seeking More — to spend — 
Just to be Rich — to waste my Guineas
On so Best a Heart —
Just to be Poor — for Barefoot Vision
You — Sweet — Shut me out —
J523 (1862)

In this version it is 'Sweet' that shuts the speaker out. It is 'Sweet' who forgets some important sentimental event, requiring the speaker to remember it for both of them so that the memory is not diminished. The beloved seems to have felt that the speaker is at fault somehow. And so the speaker defensively accuses the beloved of wanting her, a Beggar, to somehow find more to spend. 'More', I take it, would mean more acts of love, more tokens of endearment.
        Thus, the third stanza builds on that idea: richly spending love in vain to win a heart closed to poverty.

I read Sue in the longer poem because it reminds me of two earlier poems:

Fr542: "For largest Woman's Heart I knew", a poem Dickinson sent to Sue that seems to imply that although such a heart can feel love or pain, there is little that the speaker can do to capture its entirety.

Fr418: "Your Riches – taught me – Poverty": where Sue sweeps into Emily's life "broad as Buenos Ayre – // You drifted your Dominions – / a Different Peru – / And I esteemed all Poverty / For Life's Estate with you – ". Sue here seems in her drenching abundance richer than the mines of Peru and Argentina, whereas the speaker has only the 'names, of Gems' at her disposal. At the end of the poem we see that this treasured woman, this 'Pearl', slipped through the speaker's fingers.

25 December 2017

Had I presumed to hope —

Had I presumed to hope —
The loss had been to Me
A Value — for the Greatness' Sake —
As Giants — gone+ away —                           claimed            

Had I presumed to gain

A Favor so remote —
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite —

'Tis failure — not of Hope —

But Confident+ Despair —                          diligent, resolute
Advancing on Celestial Lists —
With faint — Terrestrial power —

'Tis Honor — though I die —

For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death —
This — is the Second Gain —
                                                       Fr634 (1863)  J522


Although this poem might be read in different ways, I think that Dickinson is rejecting the Puritan-derived belief that salvation is obtained through Grace and that Grace is bestowed not earned. Consequently, the speaker avoids the comparatively passive religious path of hope and faith, opting instead to fight for salvation – or at least for Honor. 

The concept of Grace in Dickinson's time and place was rooted in Calvinist covenant theology, and the Covenant of Grace stipulates that Christians are saved by faith and that grace is necessary for faith. In a very strict form of Calvinism, only the predestined elect will receive God's irresistible grace. Whatever hope and faith the rest can muster up is futile; salvation is out of their grasp. 
        Something Dickinson scholar Cynthia Wolff writes about is relevant to this. She has famously referred to Dickinson as a 'pugilist poet' combating God. The phrase comes from the closing lines of Dickinson's last letter to her mentor T.W. Higgison, 1886: "'Audacity of Bliss,' said Jacob to the Angel 'I will not let thee go except I bless thee' – Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct –"(Letter 1042). This rendering completely reverses the Bible story in which Jacob won't let the angel go until Jacob gets blessed. There is something poignant and proud in Dickinson's version where Jacob is not seeking favors but granting one.
        The important point that Wolff makes is that Jacob did not receive his covenant with God through obedience or  prayer or Grace, but through combat (Emily Dickinson, 142-47).  What is more, this point was explicitly taught to Dickinson: "As a girl at Mount Holyoke," Wolff writes, Dickinson herself had been "instructed to wrestle as Jacob and thus to enjoy the coveted goal of confident faith" (144). But neither Jacob nor Dickinson were fighting for faith but for the blessing – or salvation – itself. Dickinson, in this poem, sees faith (the presumption of obtaining the Favor – the saving Grace) as bound to fail.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,
Leon Bonnat, 1876

In the first two stanzas Dickinson writes with the subjunctive voice ("Had I presumed…"). But she hadn't. She had not presumed to hope, nor had she presumed to gain the remote Favor. If she had, she contends, then although she would have failed she still would have benefitted. The hope would necessarily have been so portentous that even its loss would have been elevating. As for the Favor referred to in the second stanza, her unsuccessful efforts to gain it would have illuminated her sense of ungraspable, infinite grace.
        There is a certain noble fatalism in the stanzas. The speaker has chosen against engaging in futile hope or faith. In earlier poems she rails against a god who does not care about prayers (Fr581) and who hides 'his rare life / From our gross eyes' (Fr365).  And so she has taken Jacob's Pugilist stance. Her failure is not to be of Hope, for she had not hoped, but that of hope's opposite: despair. The seemingly oxymoronic and paradoxical construction of "Confident Despair" is the adult Dickinson's mirror reflection of the Mount Holyoke goal of 'confident faith'. But where faith presumes Grace, Despair, with nothing to lose might indeed venture to wrestle with Heaven, to advance on the Celestial Lists armed with nothing but 'faint – Terrestrial power'.  
        Confident Despair recognizes that to come face to face with the divine is to battle and not give up no matter how undergunned. For as Jacob's brave endurance won blessing and honor, so, too, the speaker believes she will win Honor. This is her gain, and it is contrasted with the second stanza's doomed attempt to gain the Favor of Grace. In addition to the honor of battle, the speaker looks forward to the 'Second Gain' – that of sanctifying Death.

I admit that my reading of the last stanza – and consequently my understanding of the entire poem – is complicated by the troublesome 'That' and 'This'. Sometimes I feel as if Dickinson is the poet of the Ambiguous Antecedent. A reader suggested in an earlier poem that one read Dickinson sort of with eyes closed, letting the meaning marinate at its own pace. It's a sort of faith on its own.