Sunday, November 8, 2009

I was the slightest in the House

I was the slightest in the House--
I took the smallest Room--
At night, my little Lamp, and Book--
And one Geranium

So stationed I could catch the mint
That never ceased to fall--
And just my Basket--
Let me think-- I'm sure
That this was all--

I never spoke-- unless addressed--
And then, 'twas brief and low--
I could not bear to live-- aloud--
The Racket shamed me so--

And if it had not been so far--
And any one I knew
Were going-- I had often thought
How noteless-- I could die--
(F 473)

working on my thoughts on this one... back later with commentary.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Future never spoke (pt 2)

This poem is a sharp reminder of the mystery that is the future. It is something that many writers have grappled with, trying to sort through views of the future through a lens like Christianity or other religions which contain a divine order, as some see it, or what others perceive as deism, wherein a God created but then stepped back to no longer intervene and watch what unfolds. Some writers, like some of Shakespeare's plays, reference the wheel of fate and its cruel impulsiveness. Dickinson's speaker seems to take a rather athiestic approach, disregarding anything as mystical as prophecy as he or she declares that no one can know the future. For this speaker, not even the hint of the smallest sign will give away that lies a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, or even a minute ahead.

Life happens unpredictably in this poem. In the second stanza, when the time arrives, what happens simply happens, leaving everyone to scramble to react and adapt. The future careens into the present, "Forestalling Preparation" and leaving man with little choice but to adapt. There is no "substitute" for the future or for the one experiencing. Man does not choose his joys nor his sorrows. And the future, fate or otherwise, remains indifferent to the human condition. The future remains exacting, "His Office but to execute", with no emotion, what fate dictates. There is a stoicism in the poem, an edge that is void of sympathy. In the end, this poem is the ultimate in "open endings" for the poem is left wide for the reader to interpret and to agree or disagree with both Dickinson and the speaker. And at the very literal text level, the poem in itself is wide open, lacking an ending and unknowing what fate awaits it-- to be remembered, to be forgotten among many other poems and pages, to continue, to end.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

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--

(F 638)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How many schemes may die

How many schemes may die
In one short Afternoon
Entirely unknown
To those they most concern--
The man that was not lost
Because by accident
He varied by a Ribbon's width
From his accustomed route--
The Love that would not try
Because beside the Door
Some unsuspecting Horse was tied
Surveying his Despair
(F 1326)

There are so many things that happen, seemingly by chance, that alter lives and expectations. It was Robert Burns who wrote "The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy." In this particular poem, a person may have planned the ruin of another, in the case of the man walking along the road. The death of the man in the road was avoided when the man, ignorant of his danger, changed his normal route by the slightest bit. Certainly the one who schemed against him was thwarted, this person's plans dying in the short afternoon, the failure of the plan to kill another dying unbeknowst to the planner.

The poem reads as if this man, who narrowly missed his death, is the very one whose own route was changed by the appearance of a horse at the doorway. The implication appears to be that this man was visiting his beloved, perhaps wife or sweetheart or lover, to find another's animal tied out front. Seeing this unexpected horse, Dickinson's poem implies that the man would not try to love or pursue his love. In this way, the man's plans were additionally thwarted. Perhaps this beloved was not unfaithful, perhaps the original schemer wished to drive a wedge between the man and his love. The beloved's plans of love and a future or continued future with her lover could equally have been thwarted, all unknown to her.

and... it's entirely possible that I have completely misinterpreted this poem.

Monday, November 2, 2009

That sacred Closet when you sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep--
Entitled "Memory"--
Select a reverential Broom--
And do it silently--

'Twill be a Labor of surprise--
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probablity--

August the Dust of that Domain--
Unchallenged-- let it lie--
You cannot supercede itself,
But it can silence you.
(F 1385)

I believe that Dickinson kept her poems with the intent of publishing them someday, and I believe that she thought that in publication she might be able to continue to live through her work, continue to speak through poetry in a way that only she can. Memory was sacred to Dickinson, and her closeness to her family and the poetry that seems to so closely resemble her personal losses and triumphs only supports this conclusion.

It is no suprise that Dickinson's speaker describes memory as a "sacred closet" in disarray. Certainly our memories have no set order to them. Some things are near the surface, others buried deep, down under piles and piles. Some memories are useful and others are a distraction or impediment. The "labor of surprise" comes when one uncovers that memory that has been allocated to the back corner, dust-covered but not entirely forgotten.

For someone as unafraid of confrontation as Dickinson, it may surprise the reader to reach line ten in which the speaker warns "Unchallenged-- let it die", in reference the dust upon the memories. Perhaps this is because some memories, though briefly recalled and dusted off to be considered again, will only be quickly forgotten once more. On the other hand, the speaker could be implying that disturbing the dust upon these memories will only stir up problems or more work and that some things are better left alone. Again, Dickinson leaves much of the exact interpretation ambiguous, allowing her readers to draw their own conclusions that reflect their own selves and experiences.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Witchcraft was hung, in History,

It was the closests I could find to fit halloween with witches and all that? Okay, arguably "One need not be a chamber to be haunted" might have been more fitting, but I chose this instead...

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, Every Day--
(F 1612)

Likely the allusion to witchcraft refers to the Salem Witch trials in New England. No doubt Dickinson was very familiar with the history of these trials and how many were suspected of witchcraft and, subsequently, hanged for the perceived crime. Many people like to think that such incidents are isolated in history, happening only rarely and then fading out of practice. Through this poem, however, Dickinson's speaker implies a reversal of the meaning of "witchcraft."

The speaker claims that both the speaker and history "find all the witchcraft that we need / Around us, Every Day", but this leaves the conclusion for the reader to draw for him or herself. Many readers might intepret this poem to mean that "witchcraft" continues in many forms, that it never dies out. This interpretation of the word might mean the casting of spells, good or especially bad, or it could refer to trouble-making, spreading of fear, and suspicious acts. Anything dark or mysterious could be included in this interpretation. And yes, no doubt, such things do continue to happen.

And yet another reading could draw an entirely different conclusion. Perhaps what Dickinson was directing her speaker to imply is that maybe those who think they are preventing evil or the dark from this perceived "witchcraft," perhaps they are the very ones who are committing true witchcraft. Perhaps their destructive or suspicious deeds are the ways they go about spreading the fear among neighbors, scaring those around them with their accusations and making everyone fear what lies around the corner or in the next home. Maybe the doubt and rumors are far more destructive than any spell or hex.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What I can do-- I will ... pt2

Continuing an analysis of the poem in the last entry...

The third and fourth lines that compose this very small poem explore the ability of imagination to go beyond limitations or restrictions. Interestingly enough, "that I cannot" is not unknown to the speaker. There is a realism in this statement, in that the speaker understands that he or she may encounter things which may be insurmountable. At the same time, the speaker refuses to let possiblity know that limitations exist. In this poem is an example of self-suggestion, or being conscious of the thoughts and expressions the persona voices.

The speaker is committed to giving everything he or she has, to going as far as humanly possible. He or she will not allow negative comments or thoughts to be voiced or expressed, and in making this decision many obstacles have already been overcome. The speaker builds faith within the self, speaking possiblity and nuturing it in thought before anything can happen in deed. This poem speaks to the abilities that the human mind has to conquer, proving that much that might seem impossible can be accomplished once the decisions is made that it can happen. Failure is "Unknown to possiblity", and the speaker puts himself or herself at a marked advantage before even starting to explore what great or what little is possible.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What I can do-- I will

What I can do-- I will--
Though it be little as a Daffodil--
That I cannot-- must be
Unknown to possiblity--
(F 641)

This poem explores the potenetial that each person posseses. There is a firmness to the persona's affirmation that "What I can do-- I will". The amount of potential is uncertain, but the speaker displays a great amount of determination that, no matter the limitations, he or she will do everything possible. Dickinson's speaker begs the question What is as little as a daffodil? Perhaps the daffodil merely exists to look pretty and smell lovely and inspire a lover or poet. It still has value, even if much of its value might be labelled aesthetic or even trivial. To the beloved, the flower is a symbol of affection and thoughfulness, and that in itself can be greater than even a gem.

Second half of the poem to be continued in the next blog...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.
(F 982)

At the heart of this poem is the longing for purpose, the search for significance. Purpose is not always found in the earth-moving or phenomenal acts of greatness on an epic level. The root of purpose can be found in the most basic, every-day decisions. It begins with the smallest of acts when no one is watching or would care. These silent, otherwise unknown acts are the foundations upon which all the rest of one's character is built.

This speaker desperately seeks to make an imprint upon another, to make even the smallest difference. It is the echo of Mother Teresa's famous line: "Kindness is a language we all understand. Even the blind can see it and the deaf can hear it." The smallest gift of kindness can reap exponential rewards, can begin a chain reaction. But that chain must begin somewhere, and the speaker in this poem asserts that it will begin with him or her. Without a purpose, some might argue without a meaningful purpose, life becomes an unbearable burden and loses its meaning.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The words the happy say

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful--
(F 1767)

Again Dickinson demonstrates her ability to invert the reader's expectations and, in doing so, present a stunningly accurate and peculiar paradox of human nature. Many people have the tendency to speak of things that surpass a description. Perhaps they are not comfortable with silence, or perhaps they do not feel the fullness of the moment. No matter the reason, many people are not comfortable with silence-- they do not know how to let it be, that sometimes silence speaks far more than language.

A person witnessing something especially moving might have words that come to his or her mind, and yet when those words are spoken they seem to cheapen the moment. The enchantment of the event or emotions are often broken when the word is said. And yet some can think of the words that come to mind and can feel the words, in their very fullest, experiencing them in a way that surpasses merely mentioning the word. It is the difference between talking about a breath and taking one of those deep breaths that begin at the very bottom of the lungs, feeling the chest fully expand, taking in the wonderousness that is oxygen, the most essential need to continue life.

It is particularly fitting that Dickinson would write a poem about the fullness of silence. For a person who did not socialize much beyond her family and who filled the night hours alone in her room with a pen and paper, she knew silence well. She knew the awe and beauty of it, and she understood it in a way that many cannot grasp.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

This dirty-- little-- Heart

This dirty-- little-- Heart
Is freely mine--
I won it with a Bun--
A freckled shrine

But eligibility fair
To him who sees
The Visage of the Soul
And not the knees.
(F 1378)

There is a child-like simplicity in this poem, one that looks to the imporant things beyond sraped knees and finds beauty and joy. The opening lines of a "dirty-- little-- Heart" surprise the reader by inverting the reader's expectations. There is no pure heart, no courtly love or lofty intentions. The prize of love is not a magnanimous deed or heroic act, but rather is a "bun"-- common place. Dickinson draws out the theme of love found in the everyday, rooted deeper than appearances.

Love is not based upon looks or first impressions. Perhaps the overlooked knees were dirty from time spent in a hothouse tending plants, or perhaps they were scraped from stumbles while wandering through fields. Love looks beyond these things, peering into the very essences-- the soul. The one who loves peers beyond the superficial and lookes out through the perspective of the core of the one who is loved. To borrow a phrase from a friend: We don't love people because they are beautiful; people are beautiful because we love them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not what We did, shall be the test

Not what We did, shall be the test
When Act and Will are done
But what Our Lord infers We would
Had We diviner been--
(F 972)

This poem displays a great deal of mistrust in religion and deity. Much of it can, arguably, stem from Dickinson's frustrations with especially the Calvinists and earlier Puritan influences. This speaker clearly has issues with the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" type of teachings-- the idea that God's eagle eye is ever on the search to spot the slightest slip up and thunder down gloom and doom and despair. There is a strong sense that the speaker feels one can never measure up to God's expectations. He or she believes each person will be held to an impossible standard, namely what they could have achieved if they had been more pious.

All the good and even selfless acts of a lifetime will be, this speaker seems to believe, wiped out in an instant. It is as though he or she sees the scales as hopelessly weighted in such a way that no one can win. Ultimately this speaker feels that goodness must equal perfection, and as perfection is unattainable, God can never be pleased. It is a highly cynical view and could very well reflect Dickinson's personal feelings. At the very least, if this poem is her commentary on the Christian religion and her struggles with it, I feel like I have to give her at least credit for her sheer honesty. She was very frank about her feelings regarding faith and religion, and her struggle was open in her poetry at least.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Luxury to apprehend

When people think about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, they so often think of her as the nature poet or as the flat-out confusing poet. She is not readily associated with love poetry, and certainly her poems are nothing like a Shakespearean or Donne sonnet, nor do they bear much obvious resemblance to something like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems. And yet some of Dickinson's poems are powerful and evocative love poems, though often in an almost obsessive way, fully consumed by the beloved or longing to be consumed by the beloved. Her language is highly charged, highly passionate.

Dickinson scholar Brenda Wineapple writes about Dickinson's relationships, and she makes mention of this intensity that the poet possessed. Relationships were intense and Dickinson took them seriously, from her true friendships through what some speculate might be love relationships, though there is great ambiguity concerning any lovers Dickinson may have had. Her poems are, to borrow phrases from the poem below, of the "epicure" and are fully laden with "sumptuousness supplies". Excess and lavishness are the course, parting from courtly admiration in favor of pure extravagance-- extravagance sharply contrasted with the precise and yet concise lanuage of Dickinson:

The Luxury to apprehend
The Luxury 'twould be
To look at thee a single time
An Epicure of me
In whatsoever presences makes
Till for a further food
I scarcely recollect to starve
So first am I supplied.

The Luxury to meditate
The Luxury it was
To banquet on they Countenance
A sumptuousness supplies
To plainer Days whose Table, far
As Certainty can see
Is laden with a single Crumb--
The Consciousness of thee--
(F 819)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Clouds their Backs together laid

The Clouds their Backs together laid
The North began to push
The Forests galloped till they fell
The Lightening played like mice

The Thunder crumbled like a stuff
How good to be in Tombs
Where nature's Temper cannot reach
Nor missle ever comes
(F 1246)

Started 10/19 and continued 10/20...
This poem vividly depicts the wild forces of nature unleashed upon the earth. There is a sense of opposition as the clouds stand "their backs together laid" and the north "began to push". Immediately Dickinson creates struggle as the powers of nature build and unleash themselves upon the world below. The forests "fell" and the lightening wreaks its danger "like mice." There is a powerful carelessness in the abilities of nature. Nature does not care about damage that might be done, nor about the panic it induces upon anything below. It is self-centered and self-pleasing in its abandon.

And yet, nature cannot touch the speaker. He or she is safe "in Tombs / Where nature's temper cannot reach." There is a large sense of irony in this statement from the speaker, because while he or she is safe from the wild danger of nature and its fury, it remains that the speaker is dead. One theme that can be derived from this poem is that safety has its sacrifices. To be safe from the looming clouds and the pouring rain and careless thunder, one also gives up the chance to see the glory of a sunset or the hallowed morning of fresh fallen snow or the riotous splendor of first spring or the fiery blaze of autumn harvest. There is a sense of give and take, and while there is security from the unpredictable forces above, the tomb is for the dead.

Friday, October 16, 2009

My Wars are laid away in Books

My Wars are laid away in Books--
I have one Battle more--
A Foe whom I have never seen
But oft has scanned me o'er--
And hesitated me between
And others at my side,

But chose the best-- Neglecting me-- till
All the rest have died--
How sweet if I am not forgot
By Chums that passed away--
Since Playmates at threescore and ten
Are such a scarcity--
(F 1578)

This poem is a good example of the unexpected reversals found in Dickinson's work. The poem begins rather vaguely, about wars "laid away in books," using the enigmatic language that either has the reader intrigued or utterly confused (or both). The reader is told that this final war is between the speaker and a foe that chose others while leaving her behind. All signs point to death as this foe, a sort of grim reaper in contrast to other poems which personify death as a gentleman. Death in this poem is random or calculating, a separating force. There is a sense of respect for death, for the speaker claims that death has previously "chose best" in selecting others to take.

The unexpected reversal comes in the second part of this poem, when the persona claims in lines 9-12 that it will be "sweet" if s/he is not forgotten by those who have already passed away because playmates are so hard to find in older age. Typically the reader would think of the person still living, such as the speaker, as the person who would remember those who have passed on. In the second half of this poem Dickinson inverts this expectation. Here, the speaker longs for the dead playmates to remember him or her.

Dickinson, through her speaker, expresses the loneliness of being the survivor. Rather than feeling that the deceased are lonely in their graves or perhaps missing the companionship of a lost friend, this speaker feels personal loneliness and expressed a desire to be united in friendship beyond death again. Perhaps Dickinson is implying that this final war the speaker must face-- the war with death-- is already won because there is no fear or regret in the speaker's mind?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Morning is due to all (cont)

Now that I'm not falling asleep typing and, hopefully, the words are not missing letters, I'm continuing the last entry...

I feel like some of Dickinson's point in writing this poem is to point out that everyone has a beginning, or a morning. We are given hundreds of starts, literally as each day begins and figuratively with each opportunity that comes our way. The night, or completion, only comes to some. There are those who do not see the end of the day-- those who die unexpectedly or who do not see the end of the opportunities they were given. Some see the "night" or conclusion to hopes and dreams. But some do not.

At the end of this poem lies the rare Auroral Light. It is something that a very small percentage of the world gets to see, and I would think that it would be a thing of wonder and even rarer a sight in Dickinson's time. Today there is a large percentage of the world that will never see the aurora, and I believe that Dickinson uses this as a metaphor for those who never see the miraculous or the rare. So many people live ordinary lives, perhaps even content but never aware of what the amazing and unique experiences that lie just beyond them. Some are aware of such things, but some people have no interest in pursuing them. Likewise, others are aware of things like the auroral light but have so convinced themselves that it is an experience they will never have or deserve.

Morning, night, and the auroral light are possiblities of everyone. There is potential to reach each thing. And how few people actually pursue beyond the morning? I think there is a lesson in greatness found in this poem. Dickinson leaves this poem with an open thought for the reader. Namely, which do we pursue or find: morning, night or auroral light? Are we content with what we experience? And what more could there be, waiting for us to recognize as an opportunity and waiting to be experienced as miraculous?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning is due to all

Morning is due to all--
To some-- the Night--
To an imperial few--
The Auroral Light--
(F 1621)

Dickinson often writes about the theme of exclusivity or society's qualifications for what is exclusive and special. This theme is one that Dickinson carried into many of her poems, typically giving control to the person least expected to have power. Wineapple's book White Heat includes several comments about the feeling of superiority that the Dickinson's family held, and it seems as if some of Dickinson's hesitancy to edit and publish might be tied to the idea that she did not want the other townspeople, or her schoolmates, to have access to the intensely private world of the Dickinson family.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Did We abolish Frost

Did We abolish Frost
The Summer would not cease--
If Seasons perish or prevail
Is optional with Us--
(F 1024)

Yet another of Dickinson's briefest of poems, and one that doesn't really rhyme. This particular poem can be interpreted as the desire to control nature, and by proxy the passage or progression of time. If people were to do away with the cold frost, the summer could linger on. There is a desire for control, to dominate that which people cannot rule-- seasons and time. Dickinson draws on this universal desire, the desire to control what is beyond controlling, to create a point at which her audience can connect with the poem. People do not care about the seasons, they don't care for change. They certainly don't care for the things which the frost represents, namely the archetype of death. The frost may also represent an entombment, isolation and a prison keeping one from contact with the outside world.

Ironically, the endurance or end of a season is not optional for anyone. The poem unveils the fallacy of thinking that control is possible. In the first two lines Dickinson uses the familiar desire to resist change as the familiar point for her reader. In the last lines, however, a careful reading reveals the unexpected reversal-- people have no option but to accept the seasons. The speaker does not overtly state this, but rather uses a fallacy to set up the reader into suddenly remembering that the seaons will never be controlled by humans, and therefore humans are forever subject to its fullness, both in life and light of summer and the dark, death, and isolation of winter.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We never know we go when we are going--

We never know we go when we are going--
We jest and shut the Door--
Fate-- following-- behind us bolts it--
And we accost no more--
(F 1546)

This is one of the poems that I like to view as a "pseudo-gibberish" poem, because at first glance or hasty reading the words seem to talk around each other. Her clever twists of language and logic demand a careful reading, and through several careful readings, the meaning of the poem emerges. It reads much like a form of parable called similitude. Similitude is a short parable consisting of about one line. In the Bible a similitude might read something like "the kingdom of heaven is like a bit of yeast that a woman works into the dough until it is hidden". They are the most concise of parables, and this poem consists of barely two sentences, a meager four lines. In this poem Dickinson compacts language as tightly as possible to create that single moment of intense experience.

Anyone who has had a surprise, particularly a bad surprise, knows that we often live our lives unaware of what is coming in a few days, hours, or minutes. This summer a local principal was walking through a parking lot to grocery shop, only to collapse from a heart attack (thankfully he survived). Loved ones can die suddenly or even instantly, and a single word can undo a person in a second. In a slight deviation, another intepretation, one never knows when a single comment or action can "close the door" to other opportunities. It is so easy to offend or insult, and often some of the gravest injuries given are those that occurred without the insult-er being aware he or she hurt someone. Still, a door can be shut and bolted all the same, preventing any further relationship or experience.

This parable illustrates the universal experience that is common in parable-- there is a familiar experience that the poet draws upon as a point of contact to the audience. In this care there are two points of contact-- 1. going out or going upon one's normal day or routine and 2. fate shutting the door to end an experience or potential experience. The first is the familiar or a stereoptyped action, namely walking out the door. It can mean a literal walk or figuratively represent embarking upon a new decision or direction, venturing into the unknown. This experience is tweaked by the poet, however, and what should have been adventure and good things has twisted into not a beginning but an end. The archetype of the new dissolves into ruin.

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become--
Who had they lived-- had died but when
They died, Vitality begun--
(F 966)

This poem seems to be a paradox in its assertion that death can produce life. At times it is a paradox, and Dickinson weilds this literary technique with great precision. Much of the poem is constructed of parallel statements, ironic and exacting. Not only does life exist in death, but death has existed in life. I feel like this concept-- life in death and death in life-- is one of the easier recurring themes in Dickinson's poetry that is easier for people in the current era to understand. We have seen people who are slaves to their circumstances, who exist merely to exist, who have no purpose or aim, who barely scrape by. The art and music world are full of this theme, including songs like the recently popular country song "Live Like You Were Dying" by Tim McGraw.

And yet, I'm not sure that Dickinson's poem means that until we face the reality of death that we cannot live. Given her frequent use of death in her poetry, as both theme and character, I wonder if this poem doesn't refer to life after death-- one that can be richer and far more extensive than the limited lives she often incorporates into her poetry. Perhaps the eternal soul-- or possibly more accurate to Dickinson would be the written word-- is the "Vitality begun" in the final line. In many ways, Dickinson's life can almost be seen as a death, and her death and its subsequent discovery of her writings as a new "vitality."

Perhaps it could also refer to the life that can grow out the death of other things. In this approach to the poem, one could draw a parallel to T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land" with it's opening lines: "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Down dull roots with spring rain." The spring taunts those who are dead inside, mocking those with no inner life with its vitality. Similarly, in Dickinson's poem the speaker could be trying to make the point that everything is a matter of perspective. Therefore, what is a death blow to one might very well be a life blow to another, shocking the person not into destruction but into new vigor.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pain-- has an Element of Blank--

Pain-- has an Element of Blank--
It cannot recollect
When it begun-- Or if there were
A time when it was not--

It has no Future-- but itself--
It's Infinite contain
It's Past-- enlightened to perceive
New Periods-- Of Pain.
(F 760)

This poem perfectly captures the essence of pain, particularly chronic pain. Whether physical, emotional, or psychological, pain can take on that "element of blank", wherein the person enduring the pain feels lost in the sensation and may feel, for brief or longer periods, as though the pain always has previously existed and could continue to exist indefinitely. Sometimes pain can become so all-encompassing that it is consuming, seeming to stretch itself into all time.

Dickinson's poem parallels this perception of pain, as her poem focuses on the subject of pain but does so in a blank manner. There are no specifics as to what kind of pain this speaker experiences, no context given for the occasion of pain. Although only eight lines, this poem ironically creates a feeling of eternity in its compact language. Despite the lack of memory, as it cannot recall a beginning or end, it is full of the intensity of the feeling in the moment, sharply and achingly aware of the depth and breadth of hurt.

For the readers who may think the pain can be overcome with "mind over matter" or some sort of enlightenment or hope, this hope is squashed in the second stanza. The only enlightenment or perception offered to the reader comes in the final line-- the revelation of "new periods-- of pain". Just as the poem claims pain seemingly has to beginning or end, the poem begins and ends with the word "pain." It is all encompassing in structure, circuitous and another symbol of a self-perpetuating eternity, demonstrating again Dickinson's ability to use language and structure compressed into one another to heighten the emotion to a single moment or experience of intensity.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How ruthless are the gentle--

How ruthless are the gentle--
How cruel are the kind--
God broke his contract to his Lamb
To qualify the Wind--
(F 1465)

This is one of probably dozens of Dickinson's poems that has confuses me. I really don't know what it is "supposed" to be about, and the last line doesn't seem to make much sense at all. That said, the first two lines are intriguing. It makes me think perhaps this is a commentary on society and what is "dignified" and "proper." It seems that so much of what was socially acceptable and the "refined" behavior of the upper class could be truly cruel and brutal. Lives, physically and emotionally and likely mentally, could be pulled apart with one wrong word or move.

Perhaps it could also be a commentary about institutions like slavery. The southern states defended slavery, often claiming the Africans taken as slaves were less intelligent, not human, and that it was for their own good. The "gentle" treatment is revealed in horrifying detail in books like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and even the most well-meaning of those who keeps slaves only perpetuate a system of pain and separations, even death.

I wish I understood the last line.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

An escape

The problem with taking a day or two off from writing, sick or headaches aside, is that it's so hard to get back into the discipline once it's been broken...

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these.
-Emily Dickinson

I found that quote while searching for Dickinson articles and coming across a page of quotations. I wish I knew the source, but more than that-- I wish I could get more of a context for this quote or, better yet, an explanation of it from Dickinson herself.

It reminds me of what Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In one oarticular chapter, L'Engle writes about the discipline of writing and how one can reach the point where he or she moves beyond the acts of writing and the words and steps aside, letting the writing take over and become more than the writer could have ever meant for it to be. Instead of bringing the words to the page, the writer enters into the words as they develop and falls sort of "through the looking glass" into whatever else could be-- things that could not be plotted or planned or contrived.

I believe that there are moments in writing where, as a writer, it is possible to move beyond the here and now, beyond emotions and personality. Yes, some of the writer's personality is inherent and will possibly always be found in traces in the work. But the conscious and deliberate aspects of writing fall away in these moments, and the inner truths and beauty of the writing come out and develop whole new lives of their own.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Hour is a Sea

An Hour is a Sea
Between a few, and me--
With them would Harbor be--
(F 898)

Emily Dickinson never fails in her ability to capture in a few words, even in about a sentence and a half or three small lines-- to capture an experience. It's not quite a miniature experience, because the full impact of emotion lies in these lines, rich and overwhelming. Her compression of language is superb, and I feel like I'm gushing as I write this, but her poetry is so rich in expression.

This speaker is full of longing and fear, isolation and maybe even a tinge of depression, yet there is an underlying hope. This "hour of sea" may seem unending. One could liken it to the experience of Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, when the giant fish has dragged Santiago out into the waves, much farther than he ever expected. There is no land in sight, only the swell of waves and the stars as a guide at night. In ways, the speaker in this poem seems to use the hope of the friends as a map to guide into the harbor, much as Santiago used the starts to navigate until he could see the lights of Havannah.

The moment of safety is not played out in the poem, however. And this lack of a real conclusion casts a little shadow of uncertainty upon the poem. The speaker is aware the harbor exists, but whether he or she will make whatever effort is necessary to reach the harbor-- that is another matter that Dickinson does not answer. Will the persona fall short of the harbor and sink or die at sea? Will he or she even try to reach the harbor? The answer must come from the reader, and the reader's answer will reveal far more about himself or herself than it will reveal about the speaker or the poet.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Color-- Caste-- Denomination

I took a break to do more reading/research, and yet I haven't really done very much. That said, I don't want to get out of the discipline of writing, so here I go writing with or without research...

Color-- Caste-- Denomination--
These-- are Time's Affair--
Death's diviner Classifying
Does not know they are--

As in sleep-- all Hue forgotten--
Tenets-- put behind--
Death's large-- Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand--

If Circassian-- He is careless--
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde-- or Umber--
Equal Butterfly--

They emerge from His Obscuring--
What Death-- knows so well--
Our minuter intuitions--
Deem unplasusible
(F 836)

In this poem Dickinson captures not only the universal-ness of death, who misses none, but she also captures and portrays the leveling of death. In death there is no regard for class, race, religion, gender, or any other distinguishing feature that we living are so tedious to create and maintain. Often I wonder if this is why Dickinson writes so much about death and seems to fascinated by death-- because it is the humbling experience everyone faces, and no one is exempt from it. There are no kinder deaths for the rich or refined, there are no chances to name one's own death (save suicide, which is not guaranteed to be successful as some survived the attempt, often a with devastating aftermath).

Death truly has "democratic fingers," and the only ones that may have escaped death would be found in the biblical accounts of Elijah, Enoch, and Jesus. I would be curious to see a poem of Dickinson's regarding those three. Disregarding those three men and disregarding myths of similar people escaping the actual death experience, it is clear that death is fixed. We are all dying someday, and we will all die someday. Whether the coffin is fancy or plain, whether it is made of crude planks or mahogany, we cannot forever avoid death. I think Dickinson took some comfort and possibly some satisfaction in that fact. It's surprising how morbid a wren-like poet perpetually in white can be. And yet, I think she embraced death as a natural part of the life-cycle, and I don't believe this poem is necessarily dark or twisted. She understood that there is purpose in endings and in even death.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

They'll have to remember me

"I have a horror of death; the dead are so soon forgotten. But when I die, they'll have to remember me." -Emily Dickinson

taken from National Women's Hall of Fame website:

Time and time again in Dickinson's poetry she refers to the lasting power of poetry, which was, afterall, the "fairer house than prose." For the speakers of her poetry, it poetry was a home, eternity, and life. I think it says a lot about Dickinson's faith and confidence in her writing abilities that she could make such a statement. Maybe some people see it as arrogant, but either way, Dickinson was right. When she died, we did remember her.

She was not immediately remembered beyond her family, but to this day thousands of students continue to read and learn about her work. Her impact on form and structure in poetry, or rather her deconstruction of both, were revolutionary and make her a true trailblazer. It is a little disappointing that Dickinson was not inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame until the late 70s, but even if she had never been named, her contributions to the universal body of poetry is still phenomenal and would still be remembered.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I lost a World-- the other day!

I lost a World-- the other day!
Has Anybody found?
You'll know it by the Row of Stars
Around it's forehead bound!

A Rich man-- might not notice it--
Yet-- to my frugal Eye,
Of more Esteem than Ducats--
Oh find it-- Sir-- for me!
(F 209)

One of Emily Dickinson's many remarkable gifts is her ability to see worlds and find value in what is unseen or not valued by others. She could see entire worlds in a snowflake or feel the oppression of millions in a beam of light. She found value in the things that society did not, and I think she reveled in that and probably felt at least a bit of superiority over it.

It is interesting to note that in this poem the speaker is unable to find the lost world alone. Built into this poem is a dependence or at least the inability to be independent. Also there is the iconic Dickinson polarity evident. The "rich man" the persona speaks of contrasts directly with the frugal Eye" of the persona. And while the reader would expect the rich man to be quick to spot the valuable world, the speaker is sure that such a person "would not notice" the lost world. While the lost world may be overlooked, the persona is convinced of its dear value of "more esteem than ducats." It is beyond price and holds great intrinsic value. It is of the mind and imagination, beyond the restrictions and attempts at set worth, often materialistic worth, set by society.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In many respects a genius 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd first recorded her impressions of her mysterious Amherst neighbor. Emily Dickinson always wore white and had her hair arranged "as was the fashion fifteen years ago." "She writes the strangest poems, and very remarkable ones," Mrs. Todd noted in her journal, adding, "She is in many respects a genius." Few scholars would disagree. Emily Dickinson was a genius and her poems were remarkable, indeed. Although she lived the majority of her adult life in seclusion, she wrote some of the most potent poems in the English language. When she died in 1886, her sister asked Mabel Todd to copy and edit the poems. In 1890 the first volume was published. Only then did the world discover Emily Dickinson.

-taken from

I still can't make up my mind about Mabel Loomis Todd. It's impossible not to appreciate her, on some basic level, as one of the people who published Dickinson's work. Clearly she had an understanding of the incredible talent evident in Dickinson's poetry, and yet it spawned a huge war over the editing of the poetry-- to the point that I have heard rumors that the fight over editing and publication is still in existence through the ancestors of Mabel Loomis Todd and Susan Dickinson.

I also still take issue with the "editing" liberties taken by both Mabel Loomis Todd and Sue Dickinson. At least some of their attempts at editing and publication of Dickinson's work seem to be more a reflection of their own selves, their senses of propriety and need for control, rather than Dickinson's work.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Over the fence

Over the fence--
Strawberries-- grow--
Over the fence--
I could climb-- if I tried, I know--
Berries are nice!

But-- if I stained my Apron--
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear,-- I guess if He were a Boy--
He'd-- climb-- if He could!
(F 271)

This is one of those poems that I chanced upon, finding it only when I opened my anthology and looked at the first poem I saw. It seems to me that I find some of my favorite Dickinson poems this way, and today was not an exception.

I love when Dickinson writes about the limitations that we put on ourselves-- the impositions of society and our own guilt and self-made obligations to conformity. The possiblity of a stain upon the apron can be symbolic of the potential stain upon one's reputation. As one critic wrote, much of Dickinson's poetry hinges on the balance between the actual and the hoped for.

There are gender issues here, and it is open for feminist criticism. I suppose Freudian interpretation would make it that way, emphasizing the erotic in the berry and desire to act upon the suppressed desire. And feminist criticism could take issue with the Eve complex. The boy can hop the fence of propriety, sow his wild oats, and hop back into the good graces of all. Again the societal limitations become the theme of this poem, trapping the speaker in her corseted traditional role-- stifled and suppressed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Death is a Dialogue between

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.
(F 973)

Much of Dickinson's poetry casts the religion of Amherst and her family into doubt. She never made peace with the Christian view of her family, although through her poetry she struggles time and time again with issues of faith and belief. Specific answers as to what Dickinson believed or put her faith in is unknown-- she took that secret to the grave with her. It does seem, through her poetry, that she did believe in an afterlife or some existence beyond death. She also has a firm trust in the idea that people consist of body and soul and that the soul is eternal.

This poem is one of the closer hints that readers have at a profession of belief or assurance of some sort of faith. It's mystical, unclear and sort of like a statement a deist or even agnostic might make. If Dickinsons belongs in any specific "belief" category I would be tempted to put her in the "agnostic" column, because she seems to think that God might exist but really doubts that a personal relationship with him is possible.

All that aside, the speaker's description of the "overcoat of clay" and shedding that coat for a "another trust" is one of the most beautiful metaphors for the end of mortality and the eternal state of the soul found in poetry. Interestingly enough, death is never fearful or the winner in Dickinson's poetry. Death is personified as a gentleman at times, sneaky and sometimes even spiteful. But death never wins in Dickinson's poetry. Memory and the eternity of the soul always trump death.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I taste a liquor never brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed--
From Tankards scooped in Pearl--
Not all the Frankfort Berries
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--
Whe 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!
(F 207)

This poem is often mistaken as one of Dickinson's nice little poems about nature, lauding the joy and finding inebriation and sheer pleasure in the sky and the spring. Worse yet, it is often taken as a sort of transcendentalist approach, one of the few times Dickinson's work is ever supposedly meshed with the likes of Emerson or Whitman.

What a close reading of this poem reveals, however, is the exact opposite. Dickinson rejects the transcendentalist idea of embracing nature and becoming one with it and with all life. There is no union with a higher power and transformation through union. This "drunken" speaker takes in the liquor of the skies and the air, when he or she passes by the bee drunk on pollen, it is not enough. There is none of the transcedentalist "urge to merge" as Dr Smokewood would call it. Because all of the natural world the speaker has taken in is not enough, and at the end of the third stanza the speaker still is not sated.

Resting and peace for the speaker comes only in this final stanza when he or she rests against the sun, but in that moment the persona has not found unity. Rather, the angels have rushed to the sides of heaven and are overcome with the need to see the speaker for themselves. The speaker has effectively upset the balance of man and deity, completely distracting even the angels from the glory of God and taking it upon himself or herself. There is not a deification of man through union with God, but rather a side-step of God. In the end, the drunkeness is with power and influence and recognition. It will remain possibly insatiable. There are the parable elements here of an unexpected reversal or the subversion of stereotypes-- the nature transcendence poem veers sharply from the expected route. And the conclusion is left open. The reader does not know what happens next-- if the recognition of the angels is enough or if more is required.

Friday, September 18, 2009

That nature poetry lady

While the stereotype of Dickinson as a recluse spinster and/or town nut is probably my biggest irritation when people start talking about Dickinson, here goes another...

I find myself frustrated when people talk about Dickinson like she's just "that nature poetry lady." High school (and middle school and college) anthologies like to publish poems like "A narrow fellow in the grass" or "I taste a liquor never brewed" and throw in something like "Hope is a thing with feathers" and "I dwell in possiblity" for good measure and call the Dickinson section done. Alright, usually the college anthologies are a little broader in their selections, but the perception of Dickinson as "just that nature poetry lady" persists.

Limiting Dickinson to such a narrow description is as bad as remembering Melville as "that whale story guy" or Jane Austen as "that lady with the love stories with the poor girls and rich guys." I'm sure that comment about Melville probably got a cringe from my grad school American lit prof. The point, however, is that all these writers did the things described, but they are much more than just that one thing and their work far exceeds such a narrow perception. It would be like talking to an IT worker and calling Bill Gates "that computer guy" or talking to a business man and referring to Donald Trump as "the rich dude with weird hair."

In my next entry I'm going to look at "I taste a liquor never brewed" and analyze several ways in which Dickinson goes faaaaaarrrrr beyond nature in that poem. Most people read it as a celebration of nature and the skies and clouds and "oh isn't it all pretty and free" and completely miss the point of the poem. To be continued...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Much Madness is divinest Sense

Much Madness is divinest sense--
To a discerning Eye--
Much Sense-- the starkest madness--
'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail--
Assent-- and you are sane--
Demur-- you're straightaway dangerous--
And handled with a Chain--
(F 620)

I have so many favorite Dickinson poems that it's hard to choose just one (although if pressed, I'd have to choose I dwell in possibility), but this poem is definitely on the favorite list. In "Much Madness", Dickinson plays with the tension between sanity and insanity. It's a very fine line, and this poem reads almost like a decent-- or maybe it's an ascent-- into madness. The first and third lines utilize chiasmus to heighten the arbitrary shifts between the poles.

Reading this poem is confusing at times, and the reader may feel lost in the switches between sanity and madness. This was intentional, I believe, on Dickinson's part to further illustrate that what we perceive as crazy and what we deem normal may, in fact, be just the opposite. It's highly parable, full of reversals of meaning and language, and yet so very compact in its language. This poem is an illustration of Dickinson at her sharpest.

There's a certain Slant of light

One of Dickinson's great gifts in writing poetry is her ability to find language to recreate an experience for the reader. Through word choice and metaphor she creates not merely a description of emotion and the human condition, but she forces the reader to remember-- very literally the reader re-members. Breaking down remember to its elements: "re", as in doing again like repeating or retrail; combined with "member" or actively involving in something. Thus, the audience is transported from reader to actor as Dickinson uses words to cause the audience to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the very core of emotions-- often at their most raw:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons--
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes--

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
But internal difference--
Where the Meanings, are--

None may teach it-- Any--
'Tis the Seal Despair--
An imperial affliction
Sent of us the Air--

When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows-- hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death
(F 320)

Through this poem, Dickinson creates the experience of depression (and argueably of Seasonal Affective Disorder). She uses strong verbs like "oppresses" and nouns like 'heft", "hurt", "scar" "Despair" and "affliction" to create a stark picture of the soul-wearying, exhausting trial of depression. In this case, the depression renders the speaker incapacitated, which Dickinson describes through synesthesia in the first stanza: "There's a certain slant of light, / ... That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes" (1, 3-4). This is yet another example of Dickinson's skill in bending language as mere light, ironically which one would expect to be physically light or not wearying, oppresses like the weight of a pipe organ, or the "Cathedral Tunes". Dickinson blends nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs through metaphor into a super-charged metaphor of crushing power, and all this in just the first stanza.

I'll probably take up this poem again later, too. I know I'm saying that a lot, but I will get back to it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Victory comes late

Victory comes late--
And is held low to freezing lips--
Too rapt with frost
To take it--
How sweet it would have tasted--
Just a Drop--
Was God so economical?
His Table's spread too high for Us--
Unless We dine on Tiptoe--
Crumbs-- fit such little mouths--
Cherries-- suit Robins--
The Eagle's Golden Breakfast strangles-- Them--
God keep His Oath to Sparrows--
Who of little Love-- know how to starve--
(F 195)

This poem is yet another of Dickinson's that directly challenges the all-loving nature of God, and it has many phrases and themes in common with Dickinson's poems "Success is Counted Sweetest" -- written before this poem-- and "I had been hungry, all the years"- written after this poem. The speaker in "Victory comes late" questions the provision of God, who in the first lines seems to finally offer rescue to one past saving.

Much of Dickinson's language emphasizes the mercy or providence just out of reach. The table remains "spread too high for Us" and the speaker strains "on Tiptoe" to reach what seems to be spread so liberally for the taking. Everything is inches beyond reach, within sight and smell but not accessible. Dickinson famously struggled with the faith or religion of her family and peers, and I believe that she had the sights and scents of faith and religion within her range of senses, but a true feeling of God or a real experience seemed to elude her. Then again, this borders on making the poem autobiographical. That said, I think that the tone of frustration and accusation is at least a slight reflection of the poet's attitude toward deity.

The most twisted part of the poem lies in the inversion of values or stereotypes-- an element of parable-- which are found in the last two lines. The speaker scoffs that "God keeps His Oath to Sparrows-- / Who of little Love-- know how to starve", playing off of a biblical passage from the gospel of Luke. The passage reads "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7, NIV). Dickinson's poem, when analyzed through the allusion to the biblical passage, reads all the more haunting and brings the poem from a tone of disappointment to that of betrayal. The dying are analagous to the sparrows, and the sparrows die of "little love", meaning God and his economy are-- to the speaker-- beyond "economical" into downright calloused and deceptive.

Interestingly enough, parallels can be drawn between the concept of the sparrow choking on the eagle's meal and the idea of growing ill from partaking of a banquet feast in "I had been hungry all the years". I might return to this at some point.

The trouble with Emily Dickinson

So many people look at Emily Dickinson's poetry as challenging and downright confusing. They feel she is a difficult poet, and as one scholar put it, they transfer their own feelings of frustration and confusion with her writing to the poet, believing that Dickinson was confused or frustrated. It's not easy to understand a poet who makes so much use of enigma and who requires a lot out of her reader, requiring the reader to spend time with the poetry.

Dickinson's poems are not iambic pentameter, they are not trite, sometimes subjects and verbs are nebulous, her lines are typically enjambed, and few people really know what to make of the artillery of dashes. Her images are startling and confrontational. They synthesize multiple senses at once, and often the aural or auditory richness of her poetry is completely overlooked because no one really knows exactly how she meant her poems to be read.

Furthermore, much of her poetry cannot be understood until it is experienced. Without spending time in the world of society and its rules-- written and unwritten-- one cannot appreciate the truth of a poem such as "I like a look of Agony," which praises agony as the only emotion that cannot be contrived. Her poem "Pain has an element of blank" cannot be fully understood or appreciated until one has experienced deep pain that has that "blankness" where one forgets, if even for a few moments, that such a time existed when pain was not part of one's life.

What's worse, we're never really sure where we stand with Emily Dickinson. She likes to confuse and invert things, leaving us doubting what is truth and what is made up. A poem like "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" looks at the experience of trying to sort out truth with its seeming ambiguity. Dickinson tests the boundaries of truth, challenging the reader's paradigm and questioning the solidity of the line between black and white. Her speakers are slippery and her intents throw us right and left.

That said, it's never a dull ride with Dickinson. Yes, I still find a great deal of her poetry utterly confusing. There are poems that I read and try to reflect upon, only to feel more and more confused and impatient. At times I want to throw down the collection of poetry and wish I could give her a piece of my mind for making it so hard. But I come back. Because it's challenge, because if it was easy and familiar, I would not find it so fascinating. And I love those moments when I come across a poem that so succinctly voices exactly the situation and/or emotions that I have been wrestling with. And I love those moments when a poem I previously skipped suddenly makes perfect sense. She is unexpected, her work is hard, but I like a puzzle and I like a troublemaker.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom

There have been a lot of theories concerning Emily Dickinson's reclusive tendencies. Traditionally, many people have believed her to be a recluse or hermit. This stereotype, unfortunately, is very pervasive and is still sometimes taught in schools. Those who hold to this view of Dickinson, however, discount the intense relationship that she had with her family members, and it also ignores the large amount of writing she did. She wrote prolifically to her sister-in-law before Sue and Austin Dickinson settled next door, she wrote to extended family, and she wrote to a small, tightly-knit group of close friends.

Others have theorized that perhaps Dickinson had some sort of phobia of people and, therefore, shut herself inside the homestead. This could be a plausible explanation in part, but I don't think it's accurate. One on hand, Dickinson seemed to be famous for ducking out of the room when strangers visited. The reason for avoiding people could not be because of her literary skills or literary fame, since only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime and all anonymously. Sometimes I truly think she enjoyed messing with the minds of Amherst and provoking, on some level, the gossip. I wonder if she didn't mention, on the sly, to her sister Lavinia that she was going to don a white dress yet again and let herself be seen in the garden for a moment or two then disappear for a week or so inside and have laught with Lavinia later over what fantastic stories the townspeople made up in the subsequent days.

Honestly, I feel like she was simply bored by most people. Upon a visit to Washington, DC in her twenties, Dickinson is said to have reported that in DC society "everybody knows everybody and the nobodies are the most clamorous of all" (Wineapple 64). She seems to have had little regard for the games that society plays, and her poems such as "Much Madness is divinest Sense" and "I'm nobody! Who are you" seem to reinforce this. I don't think that Dickinson was afraid of society-- but I think she saw little point in the rules, games, and structures of "polite" society.

Having said all of that, I do partly blame her family for some of her strong attachments to home and growing reticence to leave. Habegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars are Laid Away in Books, goes into great detail about Dickinson's childhood. He discusses the high child mortality rate, as well as Edward Dickinson's firm belief (that seems rather unfounded) that young Emily Dickinson was frail and his insistence that Emily remain at home, rather than going to school, any time she showed the slightest sign of sickness. Dickinson was strongly attached to both siblings-- older brother, Austin, and her younger sister, Lavinia. After one year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, Edward Dickinson decided that Emily would not stay at the school for a second. Dickinson wrote "Home was always dearer to me & dearer still the friends around it" (Wineapple 54).

Family was vital to the Dickinsons, and often they seemed to reject nearly all others in favor of one another. Much of Emily Dickinson's letters to her family reinforce this tenacious bond, as in her letter to Austin in which she claimed "We're unlike most everyone and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight" (Wineapple 61). Neither Emily nor Lavinia Dickinson ever married, and both lived their entire lives with their family. Much of these years were spent in the Dickinson homestead, which had been Edward Dickinson's home as a child. Lavinia Dickinson best characterizes the Dickinsons' need for privacy and the unity of family when she remarked that the Dickinsons "loved with greedy ardor, each in his or her own individual way, each an absolute monarch overseeing an intensely private kingdom" (Wineapple 60).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This World is not conclusion

This is where it gets a little personal... An old friend of mine, in every sense of the word, passed away earlier this week. I was surprised, because I had not heard news of her in a while. Lucy was like another grandmother to me as a child, and she was always so sweet and hilariously funny. Tomorrow is her funeral, but I'm glad she passed. She was 91, and although it seemed like she had been around for forever and would always be there, her health had very rapidly declined in the last month or two. It was her time, and I believe she was at peace with death and eternity.

I have no idea if Lucy ever read Dickinson's poetry, but I think she would have liked the poem "This World is not conclusion." Lucy had very definite feelings about eternity, and I think she would have liked the poem. So in memory of my good friend Lucy, I dedicate this:

This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond--
Invisible, as Music--
But positive, as Sound--
It beckons, and it baffles--
Philosophy, dont know--
And through a Ridde, at the last--
Sagacity, must go--
To guess it, puzzles scholars--
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown--
Faith slips-- and laughs, and rallies--
Blushes, if any see--
Plucks at twigs of Evidence--
And asks a Vane, the way--
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit--
Strong Hallelujahs roll--
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth--
That nibbles at the soul--
(F 373)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Nobody knows this little Rose

Nobody knows this little Rose--
It might a pilgrim be

Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a Bee will miss it--
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey--

On it's breast to lie--
Only a Bird will wonder-
Only a Breeze will sigh--
Ah Little Rose-- how easy
For such as thee to die!
(F 11)

This is yet another of the many poems Dickinson writes that seems sweet in tone and in the objects mentioned, while the poem actually contains a darker content. It reads much like William Blake's poem "The Lamb", while containing echoes of the "The Tyger". Dickinson chooses for her subject the "little rose," a seeming young bud just coming into bloom and picked before its time.

The speaker in this poem seeks to assure the rose through a recounting of the supposedly few that will actually miss this young rose. Dickinson's use of "only" in lines five, six, nine, and ten are meant by the speaker to smooth over the many that will miss the rose. The repetition, however, is Dickinson's way of illustrating just how much this seemingly expendible rose will be missed. The repetition of "only" follows a pattern of three, an extremely common number of repetitions in writing, plus an additional echo of "only" that greater magnifies the loss of the rose.

Dickinson draws out the theme of expendibility in this poem, and the reader can't help but wonder if the real subject of death is a rose or a person. Certainly the metaphor can be drawn to include all life. The final lines conclude "Ah Little Rose-- how easy / For such as thee to die!", which begs the question: is any death easy? Even the most benign small roselet clearly has a place in the world and is missed by bee, butterfly, bird, and breeze (the alliteration Dickinson employs also heightens the impact of the repetition and enforces the ties the rose has to more than itself). Isn't all life interconnected? And therefore, each small loss would affect life on a much larger scale.

more on this poem and the theme of control in the future...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Surgeons must be very careful

Maybe I'm particularly interested in it because I've been reading a lot of fiction lately that involves medical drama, or maybe I've just watched too many television episodes, but I can't help but find this Dickinson poem to be highly ironic:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit-- Life!
(F 156)

This poem is an excellent example of Dickinson's earlier work and its signature paradox written with great irony. The first two lines seem rather ridiculous, for what surgeon would take up the knife without great care? Certainly the Hippocratic Oath has been around for thousands of years, and no good surgeon would take up the delicate and potential lethal tools of the trade without caution. It's a typical Dickinson ploy-- lull the reader into a sense of something common or make the reader feel superior, wondering why on earth a poet or her speaker would bother with such an obvious caution.

Dickinson's strike comes in the last two lines, though. Too quick of a reading could cause one to miss the vital word "culprit" in the fourth line, which would render the second half of the poem as seemingly pointless as the first line-- for of course life exists underneath the incisions. Dickinson's poetry demands careful readings, and skipping that single word in line four completely derails any paradox or irony.

What the poet is pointing out, in her own witty way, is the paradox of the relationship between injury and healing, between disease and restoration. There are at least two paradoxes in the final lines, possibly more: the incision the surgeon makes will cause minor injury but is necessary to enable a true restoration of life; and while the surgeon's attentions might help the body to eventually recover, the body has been restores only to face yet another injury or disease yet again. The life of a virus can cause the death of a person, and the life of one person can plot the downfall and death of another.

The poem seems so innocuous at first glance, but peeling back layers of meaning only compounds the list of paradoxes. All is never as it seems in Dickinson's poetry.


I want to keep this blog for at least a solid year. My goal is to write every single day-- at least to post something. That's probably almost impossible, but it's a goal at least. Some of what I write will be like today's entry, which is mostly reflection.

By the end of this year I hope to have 365 entries to draw on, which will be a lot of writing and reflect a lot of reading about Emily Dickinson. In the past I have been drawn to other celebrities, but never blogged about it and never read so extensively. So far, I've only read more biographies of Katharine Hepburn than I have of Dickinson, but that will soon change.

Hepburn, though, wrote her own autobiography and granted some rare interviews, and she also spent an extensive amount of time in her later years with writer A. Scott Berg, helping him to write a final biography, which was posted after her death, called Kate Remembered. Dickinson did no such thing. Absolutely none of her writings were to written as biography. Her letters give us hints, and the recollections of her family and writings of other friends and family give small hints at who the poet might have been. These are only peeks at a personality that cannot really be captured, and all of these stories and reflections of others are given with layers of opinion and bias.

By the end of this year I will not know Dickinson personally, nor will I really have more of a handle on her poetry. But I hope to discover new insights into her poems, maybe find some new approaches toward understanding her world as I read biographies and articles. And I think that, above all, I'll learn a lot about myself. This year definitely holds a lot of possibility, and I look forward to the challenges of time and mystery that I will face when learning more about the poet. I may not know who she was, but I hope to have a more rounded or faceted view of how Dickinson is perceived and the impact of her work.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Supposedly the obituary of Emily Dickinson. I have no idea how reliable the site is, but it's from and it is said to have been written by Dickinson's sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

From The Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886 -- on the editorial page, an unsigned obituary (written by Susan Dickinson, Emily's sister-in-law):

Very few in the village, except among the older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions. There are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those evidences of her unselfish consideration, and mourn afresh that she screened herself from close acquaintance.... Not disappointed with the world, not an invalid until within the past two years, not from any lack of sympathy, not because she was insufficient for any mental work or social career -- her endowments being so exceptional -- but the "mesh of her soul," as Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the sacred quiet of her own house proved the fit atmosphere for her worth and work. All that must be inviolate....

Her talk and her writings were like no one's else, and although she never published a line, now and then some enthusiastic literary friend would turn love to larceny, and cause a few verses surreptitiously obtained to be printed. Thus, and through other natural ways, many saw and admired her verses.... A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see. Like a magician she caught the shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends, who charmed with their simplicity and homeliness as well as profundity, fretted that she so easily made palpable the tantalizing fancies forever eluding their bungling, fettered grasp. So intimate and passionate was her love of Nature, she seemed herself a part of the high March sky, the summer day and bird-call. Quick as the electric spark in her intuitions and analyses, she seized the kernal instantly, almost impatient of the fewest words, by which she must make her revelation. To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulate faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

New feet within my garden go

New feet within my garden go--
New fingers stir the sod--
A Troubadour opon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.

New Children play opon the green--
New Weary sleep below--
And still the pensive Spring returns--
And still the punctual snow!
(F 79)

It's really so strange how we can suffer a loss or even a long series of changes in our personal life, and it seems like the whole world should stop moving. And yet everyone else's life goes on the same as ever, as though nothing happened. The season continue, and the earth still turns. Life doesn't stop, even when we think that it should.

It's interesting, to me, how Dickinson personifies spring and snow as "pensive" and "punctual", respectively. Spring is full of thought and consideration as it returns, heavily weighing the decision to bring new life again. Curious enough, while spring considers its return carefully, snow arrives promptly. As with so many of these poems, I'm not sure what this means in the overall context of the poem, but I know Dickinson had a deliberate point in writing it this way.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I'm sorry for the Dead-- Today

Emily Dickinson has so much amazing empathy, and her seemingly limitless imagination allows her to reach into ideas that other writers could never begin to consider. Many writers might miss the dead or think of how a coffin might seem during the afterlife. And yet few can craft a poem like Dickinson who not only imagines what the coffin and eternity therein might be like, but she goes a step further to the idea of living dead or conscious thoughts of the dead, aware of a world above that they have no way of reaching.

On some level, I also wonder if this poem might be intended, at least subconsciously, to be a commentary on Dickinson's mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her mother spent a great deal of time sick and Dickinson was frequently the one to care for her. Or perhaps this could be hint of reflection on Dickinson's own isolation, though she did warn not to mistake her poetry for autobiography. At any rate, this poem displays Dickinsons craft with language, her use of voice, and her vast empathetic abilities. Interestingly enough, I wonder if Robert Frost's poem about fences makes me curious if he might have been influenced to write it from reading Dickinson's poetry.

I'm sorry for the Dead-- Today--
It's such congenial times
Old neighbors have at fences--
It's time o' year for Hay,

And Broad-- Sunburned Acquiantance
Discourse between the Toil--
And laugh, a homely species
That makes the Fences smile--

It seems so straight to lie away
From all the noise of Fields--
The Busy Carts-- the fragrant Cocks--
The Mower's metre--Steals

A Trouble lest they're homesick--
Those Farmers-- and their Wives--
Set spearate from the Farming--
And all the Neighbor's lives--

A Wonder if the Sepulchre
Dont feel a lonesome way--
When Men-- and Boys-- and Cars-- and June,
Go down the Fields to "Hay"--
(F 582)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Now I lay thee down to Sleep

Now I lay thee down to Sleep--
I pray the Lord thy Dust to keep--
And if thou live before thou wake--
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make--
(F 1575)

This poem strikes me as rather sordid-- an example of Dickinson's ability to take the familiar and twist it. It seems to have gothic overtones, though it is not overtly gothic, and it reminds me strongly of something that William Blake might have penned.

She plays off of the children's prayer, which evidently must date back to at least the 1800s and is still used widely today:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It's a simple prayer to memorize, though no doubt the archaic language leave many children mindlessly reciting something of which they have no understanding. The simplistic and highly consistent rhyme give it a sort of deceptive effect. It seems to soothe and lull in tone, but the language derails and leaves the reader in a far different place than he or she expected. Rather than going to sleep for the night, it opens with what the reader infers must be a death. The first line is only altered from the children's rhyme by the pronoun "thee," making the reader suspect something is amiss but likely thinking little of it until reaching the next line with the strange "dust to keep."

It's interesting that Dickinson inverts the language of the original prayer. The child in the original "Now I lay me down to sleep" willingly offers up the mortal part, formed of the dust of the earth in the biblical tradition, in exchange for safekeeping of the immortal soul. In this strange new version of the prayer, the speaker begs for the preservation of the mortal body and an incarnation of the soul. I still am not sure what to make of the final line and what conclusion Dickinson or the speaker lead the reader to draw. It's something I hope to return to.

We learn in the Retreating

We learn in the Retreating
How vast a one
Was recently among us--
A Perished Sun

Endear in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the Golden presence
It was-- before--
(F 1045)

This poem is yet another of Dickinson's that I have never read until I just happened to turn the page and find it. So much of her 1789+ poems have never really been discussed or read beyond those who actually created the anthology or transcribed her scrawlings from original writing to print.

Anyway... there is a distinct play on words here, and Dickinsons thrives on bending language, as my lit professor, Dr Smokewood, likes to call Dickinson's ability to reform language and test its limits. On a very literal level, this poem could be read as a speaker reflecting upon the suddenness of a sunset and how quickly the light passes below the horizon, another day ending abruptly. By extended metaphor, it also describes the sudden loss of one very dear.

It is strange to think that Dickinson wrote this poem in 1865, according to Franklin's dating, which was a full five years before the birth of her beloved nephew, Gib, and thirteen years before his death of typhoid fever at the age of 8 (Wineapple 243-244). In light of the tragedy and suddeness of Gib's death, this poem seems a particularly macabre portent. For Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, Gib was his dearest child, the "Golden presence" of line seven. Certainly there was a great sense of shock when the child passed, who had been perfectly well and playing in a mud hole with a friend just days before (Wineapple 244).

Dickinson's language describes the acute and stunning weight of grief. There is the perpetual question of "why?", particularly when dealing with unexpected deaths. And certainly, too, sudden death leaves a strong impression of the goodness that does seem to "endear in the departure." This poem represents a strong example of Dickinson's ability to connect with the deeper and often darker human experiences-- her ability not only to put these experiences into words but to recreate, through language, the experience itself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

They say that "Time assuages"

They say that "Time assuages"--
Time never did assuage--
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, wih Age--

Time is a Test of Trouble--
But not a Remedy--
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady-
(F 861)

This poem carries a lot of parable elements to it. It plays upon the familiar adage "Time heals all wounds," but changing the saying perceptibly. Rather than time healing, it instead strengthens the body to stand against the wound. There is a subtle distinction in the phrase "an actual suffering", and I think this was Dickinson toying with double or layered meanings.

On one hand, the speaker could be implying that any injury that is inflicted is only significant if time cannot heal it. In other words, pain that one quickly recovers from is perhaps not truly pain. And perhaps "an actual suffering strengthens" can mean that pain can continue to grow and build throughout life, possibly that pain can even be nourished by those who suffer it. Certainly both interpretations could be equally valid.

The final stanza is intriguing because it lacks any real conclusion. The reader must decide for him or herself what to make of the parting words. In this stanza the speaker seems to say that time is the ultimate test, but the test does not conclude or cure the suffering or pain. And the final lines seem to imply that if a cure is found, then there was no real hurt to begin with.

Overall, the poem could be much like a description of broken bones. In time, the break never goes away. It heals over, stronger than before, reinforced better than the bone originally was. And yet the little extra calcium will always be there. Without that bit of extra bone where the break healed, a broken bone would never have existed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet is the swamp with it's secrets

Sweet is the swamp with it's secrets,
Until we meet a snake;
'Tis then we sigh for houses,
And our departure take
At that enthralling gallop
That only childhood knows.
A snake is nature's treason,
And awe is where it goes.
(F 1780)

I hate snakes with a passion, and in fact am extremely afraid of them. And yet Dickinson's poem makes me almost consider giving them a second chance. They are unknown, the exotic, and the dangerous but fascinating possiblities in this poem. There is something terrifying about coming across a snake, especially among the great wild beauty of a swamp. And in the midst of that heart-stopping flight from the swamp, there is something about the utter panic that can bring a sordid sense of euphoria. Something about those moments of sheer terror can bring a little shiver of delight in their wake, for isn't that why we read ghost stories and scare ourselves silly with horror movies? It's the gothic mind-twist that entices us to read, even as we long to cover our eyes or plug up our ears and turn away.

I think that Dickinson and her speaker understand that without a little risk, without the snakes, the swamp wouldn't hold the half-forbidden lure. What is the point of exploration and adventure if the outcome is safely delivered as neatly as it could have been within the familiar confines of home? For all of the over protective nature of her childhood and the secluded nature of her adulthood, the inner part of Dickinson freely roamed the woods and swamps-- if only in her imagination. Her own imagination held its own allure, beautiful and terrifying, filled with not only those mossy landscapes and muddy waters but with what lies beneath. She eases her toes into the waters of the gothic and stirs those hints of the haunted self and the fallen humanity within.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some say good night-- at night--

Some say good night-- at night--
I say good night by day
Good bye-- the Going utter me--
Good night, I still reply--

For parting, that is night,
And presence, simply dawn--
Itself, the purple on the hight
Denominated morn.
(F 586)

This poem fascinates me, and I was surprised to find it hiding so impishly among the other poems in Franklin's anthology of Dickinson. Yes, there is a speaker or persona in this poem who narrates it-- an other who is not the poet herself. And yet, I think it shows the depth of feeling and love that Dickinson had for those closest to her.

While she did not have a huge range of friends and people to whom she spoke or even wrote, she was prolific in what letter writing she did. Her language in her letters is practically poetry instead of prose, in its highly charged language and abundance of imagery and exacting phrases. Perhaps all of her poems truly were letters. At any rate, there is a deep connection to others. "Presence, simply dawn" expresses the glorious joy and eagerness that friends brought to Dickinson, as well as the speaker.

I think it is a bit interesting that Dickinson chose night and sunrise as the metaphors in this poem. Humans have no control over nightfall or sunrise, and it implies that Dickinson or at least the speaker has little or no control over the comings and goings of those beloved. Perhaps this could serve as an extended metaphor for death, as though each goodbye could be a literal and not just metaphoric death. Certainly death was not predictable and could strike far too suddenly. This may have enhanced the feeling of "goodbye" as a death and every "hello" as not only a sunrise but as its archetypal plot motif dictates, it could be a rebirth or resurrection. Again, hope tries to eke out some space in this poem, and I think Dickinson and her speaker ardently wish for the next "hello" of a sunrise and its revival of all things new and fresh.

The largest Fire ever known

The largest Fire ever known
Occurs each Afternoon--
Discovered is without surprise
Proceeds without concern--
Consumes and no report to men
An Occidental Town,
Rebuilt another morning
To be burned down again
(F 974)

Dickinson's sunset is a fire, wild and yet steady. Opposites war within this poem, as is typical in her writing. The town is burned completely, and yet it will rise again like the phoenix. Or perhaps the fire will rise again like the phoenix. There is a free license this fire has to burn, and yet it burns within its parameters, so predictable that it is of little concern to men.

She has the gift of the poet to make the reader look at the next sunset and marvel at its intensity and its audacity to ignite the sky so. Her language arrests the reader's attention, mixing clinical words like "discovers", "occurs" and "report" with the highly charged words like "largest fire" and "burned down". Language in the poem follows the progression, using inciting words when describing the fiery sunset, then cooling to a clinical description of the lack of awareness in the middle of this poem, only to flare again in the final lines. Her word choice guides the emotion of the poem, plotting its progression.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fame is a bee

I'm not sure what Dickinson's thing with bees was. I think I saw an article about it, possibly entitled "In the name of the Bee," which is the title of one of her poems. At any rate, bees are a common theme, symbolizing in today's poem the nature of the insect as industrious, menacing, and fleeting:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song--
It has a sting--
Ah, too, it has a wing.
(F 1788)

Just the other day I read an article on AOL news about one of the American Idols, and the article suggested this former idol was trying to escape the fall from interest that former contestants like Fantasia Barion and Rueben Studdard have endured. Overall, our interest in celebs tends to follow trends. I doubt that in more than a few years that quasi-celebs like Octomom or Jon and Kate Gosselin will be much heard from.

Dickinson's poem is ardently true in both the cases of Nadya Suleman and the Gosselins. All found fame under what seemed a song. In Suleman's case, this was the birth of surviving octuplets. In the case of the Gosselins, it was their family of eight-- twins and then sextuplets-- and their struggles and successes in raising the children. And quickly with Suleman, the sting of fame made itself known as the circumstances around the conception of the children, all invitro including her six previous children, were made known. Recently the sting of fame has hit the Gosselin family, too, as Jon and Kate are seeking divorce. Both Suleman and the Gosselins have become almost daily fodder for gossip magazines, and neither they nor any of their children seem to be able to find any privacy from the constant attention from paparazzi.

It seems perfectly logical that the "wing" of fame may soon make itself known. As soon as Suleman and the Gosselins fail to make the photogs and writers money, their five minutes of fame will end. They will be relegated to the history pages, the scandal or intrigue long gone.

Perhaps this is again why Dickinson so shyed away from public life. Part of me wants to believe that she knew how brilliant she was, that she understood she had a great gift. And maybe she chose her life of semi-isolation as her own buffer, to protect herself against the sting and the wing of fame. If left alone, the bee will produce something exceptionally better than a sting-- namely honey. By stepping back from fame and letting it flitter past, Dickinson achieved far greater rewards, a longer lasting and sweeter legacy (even if her poems can still often contain sting that would rival the bee's).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The going from a world we know

Death is a common topic in Dickinson's poetry. In his Dickinson biography My Wars are Laid Away in Books Alfred Habegger recounts many incidents of Dickinson's childhood where death was prominent. Child mortality rates were much higher, and the Dickinsons were often cautioned to keep careful watch over their children, often keeping a young Emily and at times their youngest child, Lavinia, from school for fear of the slightest illness. It is known that Emily Dickinson witnessed the death of a child when she was still young, and it seems to have made a strong imprint upon her mind.

The mystery of the journey between life and what lies beyond seems to fascinate the poet, and much of her writing muses upon possibilities. Sometimes it is a carriage ride, sometimes darker. But always it is a trek into the unknown and unfamiliar, and the poems pose far more questions than any solace they seek to create:

The going from a world we know
To one a wonder still
Is like a child's adversity
Whose vista is a hill,
Behind the hill is sorcery
And everything unknown,
But will the secret compensate
For climbing it alone?
(F 1662)

"Sorcery" is a loaded image in this poem, indicating that the appearance of the world might not match reality. It implies there is misleading, possibly with malicious intent. Again, I can't help but wonder if this is Dickinson's way of snubbing religion, suggesting that "heaven" might to be all that the Bible leads the reader to believe. There are tones of doubt that are cleverly disguised with one of Dickinson's most stable and most interlocking rhyme schemes (ABCBCDED). A consistent and more direct rhyme lend the poem and sing-song rhythm that puts the reader at ease and lowers his or her guard.

In fact, it should only amplify the reader's suspicions that perhaps the final two lines really indicate that nothing in this manipulated and illusory world that exists over the hill or just beyond life is really worth the pain of separation and isolation in climbing the hill alone. What started as a similie that seems to be offered in comfort-- facing death is like spying the hill and wondering what lies beyond-- has terminated in distrust and uncertainty. Are the risks of deception worth the separation? Dickinson's tone indicates that the risks are not worth it, but she and the unknown speaker leave this final conclusion for the reader to decide.

I do wonder, though, if this poem could also be viewed as the soul considering entering the world, pre-birth. Looking at the poem as a soul pre-incarnate it could be viewed as a play off of William Blake's The Book of Thel, considering whether it is good to remain as is, in heaven and innocent, or whether to risk the toils and pains of earth and to be born into a human body. I wish I could discuss this with Dickinson. Possibly she meant the poem to read as I have previously interpreted it-- as the person considering death and what might lie beyond-- but I still wonder if maybe she was aiming for the pre-incarnate soul as well.