I always enjoyed teaching poetry. It was such a fun exploration of style and meaning mixed in with relevant biographical information. And one of those people I most enjoyed was Emily Dickinson. She wrote traditionally, she wrote untraditionally; she wrote intensely personal poetry, she wrote universally. She was a sort of bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries. In her non-conforming punctuation and word usage, she anticipated e. e. cummings and others. In her occasional ambiguity, she anticipated almost all modern poets. One of the problems is that only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime, and of the approximately 1700 poems her sister discovered after Dickinson’s death, it wasn’t always apparent if a poem was or wasn’t finished. There were often different versions of the same poem. And early publishers of her poetry helped the poor “little tippler” by cleaning up her punctuation and giving all her poems titles. She often used personas that some mistook as her voice. She was reclusive to such an extent that an event like the Civil War was never mentioned or referred to in her poems. She wrote love poems that drove biographers crazy trying to figure out who she might have been referring to. Stylistically, she used four-line stanzas for the most part, in iambic rhythms, rhyming ABCB, sometimes ABAB. She loved to use dashes instead of commas and periods, one of the things her editors “fixed” for her. She seems to have used capital letters for words she felt were important to her meaning. She experimented with rhyme, often using approximate rhymes instead of exact rhymes, rhymes that shock or surprise the reader.
Okay, that’s enough background. Let’s look at some poems. Here’s one of the love poems that drove biographers crazy:
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass,
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
They kept wondering whom she wanted to moor within or spend those wild nights with. But apparently her lover was purely imaginary.
Her Puritan heritage caused her to question God and His purpose, to consider death from all angles, from a sinister pale figure who woos her, then carries her away, to the ominous buzzing of a fly.
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last—
It is a stealthy Wooing
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
But brave at last with Bugles
And a bisected Coach
It bears away in triumph
To Troth unknown
And Kindred as responsive
I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--
The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset, when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--
I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly--
With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--
A nice paradox in that last line, and the image of the sound of a fly physically coming between the speaker and the light is unusual enough to be attractive. And, like the image of the “supple suitor,” there’s something sinister about the buzzing of this fly. In contrast, in another view of death, she compares it to the soul, or spirit, stepping away from “an overcoat of clay.”
Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death--The Spirit, “Sir
I have another trust”--
Death doubts it--Argues from the Ground--
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.
Then there’s her attitude about grief, that the death of someone dear causes her to question the love of God, “boots of lead,” a mental pounding that causes the speaker to go “numb,” leaving her to feel totally alone, “Wrecked, solitary,” and then senseless.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
She tries to describe this feeling of emptiness from grief, the “Hour of Lead,” in quite a few poems. Here’s another:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
And from her dark studies of death and grief, we see her joy in the nature she experienced in her garden, the intensity of this love like an alcohol that makes her drunk.
I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling—thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue—
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door—
When Butterflies—renounce their “drams”—
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints—to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the—Sun—
Then she can also see the dark side of nature, a woman without her crown.
The Sky is low—the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go—
A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.
She also questions God’s plan or even if God is aware of us, as well as nature’s indifference to human suffering.
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blonde Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an approving God.
Most of her poems, though often difficult, are accessible to modern readers, but some are so condensed or abstract the meaning eludes us. But that, according to Dickinson, is part of the joy.
The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise—
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise—
She says in another poem that sometimes truth can be too painful, and gives us this lesson:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too Bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
I hope I haven’t bored anyone with all this Dickinson stuff. I’ve really only brushed the surface of her work. One could do worse than be a reader of Dickinson. And she’s so quotable: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” “I can wade grief, whole pools of it,” “Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn,” “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me,” “Pain has an element of blank.” I could go on and on. But that’s enough. Next time I’ll tackle e. e. cummings.