13 Emily Dickinson Poems

2005-05-30

Of late I've been writing about various baker's dozens, such as the 13 books that have most influenced me and my 13 favorite Bob Dylan songs. Four years ago I reflected on my first pass through the poetry of Emily Dickinson, so I thought it would be fun (if challenging) to formulate a list of my thirteen favorite Dickinson poems. Here they are in alphabetical order by first line, with a comment or two about each poem:

A solemn thing - it was - I said -
A woman - white - to be -
And wear - if God should count me fit -
Her blameless mystery -

A hallowed thing - to drop a life
Into the purple well -
Too plummetless - that it return -
Eternity - until -

I pondered how the bliss would look -
And would it feel as big -
When I could take it in my hand -
As hovering - seen - through fog -

And then - the size of this "small" life -
The Sages - call it small -
Swelled - like Horizons - in my vest -
And I sneered - softly - "small"!

Emily sneers at those who think this life is small. You can hear the soft but firm contempt as she pronounces that last word.

Better - than Music! For I - who heard it -
I was used - to the Birds - before -
This - was different - 'Twas Translation -
Of all tunes I knew - and more -

'Twasn't contained - like other stanza -
No one could play it - the second time -
But the Composer - perfect Mozart -
Perish with him - that Keyless Rhyme!

So - Children - told how Brooks in Eden -
Bubbled a better - Melody -
Quaintly infer - Eve's great surrender -
Urging the feet - that would - not - fly -

Children - matured - are wiser - mostly -
Eden - a legend - dimly told -
Eve - and the Anguish - Grandame's story -
But - I was telling a tune - I heard

Not such a strain - the Church - baptizes -
When the last Saint - goes up the Aisles -
Not such a stanza splits the silence -
When the Redemption strikes her Bells -

Let me not spill - its smallest cadence -
Humming - for promise - when alone -
Humming - until my faint Rehearsal
Drop into tune - around the Throne -

Emily hears a tune that no one else hears. No Church baptizes it. She is both the composer of the song and the audience for it. She hums it to herself and, like a vessel, strives to hold it all. Does she ever spill it, or is this song purely private? It's not clear -- perhaps we receive only hints of it in her poems.

Bloom - is Result - to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would scarcely cause one to suspect
The minor Circumstance

Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian

To pack the Bud - oppose the Worm -
Obtain its right of Dew -
Adjust the Heat - elude the Wind -
Escape the prowling Bee

Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day -
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility -

Some think it is easy to be a poet or artist. Emily disagrees.

Go thy great way!
The Stars thou meetst
Are even as Thyself -
For what are Stars but Asterisks
To point a human Life?

I picked this one because of its fantastical imagery - meeting stars on one's great way, and treating them as but pointers to further greatness.

God made a little Gentian -
It tried - to be a Rose -
And failed - and all the Summer laughed -
But just before the Snows

There rose a Purple Creature -
That ravished all the Hill -
And Summer hid her Forehead -
And Mockery - was still -

The Frosts were her condition -
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North - invoke it -
Creator - Shall I - bloom?

The small flower (symbolic of the poet or artist, as in the previous poem) is ridiculed by those who rise to prominence in the summer of life, but that mockery is eventually silenced because the artist has simply been waiting to bloom.

I dwell in Possibility -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -

Of Chambers as the Cedars -
Impregnable of Eye -
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky -

Of Visitors - the fairest -
For Occupation - This -
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise -

I like the homely imagery of windows and doors and gambrel roofs (redolent of Dickinson's homebound existence), which opens up in the last two lines to vistas of this-worldly paradise.

It was given to me by the Gods -
When I was a little Girl -
They give us Presents most - you know -
When we are new - and small.
I kept it in my Hand -
I never put it down -
I did not dare to eat - or sleep -
For fear it would be gone -
I heard such words as "Rich" -
When hurrying to school -
From lips at Corners of the Streets -
And wrestled with a smile.
Rich! 'Twas Myself - was rich -
To take the name of Gold -
And Gold to own - in solid Bars -
The Difference - made me bold -

She has known since she was new and small that she is special, gifted, different in a way that makes her interior existence rich beyond the imagination of those who value conventional things.

Many a phrase has the English language -
I have heard but one -
Low as the laughter of a Cricket,
Loud, as the Thunder's Tongue -

Murmuring, like old Caspian Choirs,
When the Tide's a' lull -
Saying itself in new inflection -
Like a Whippoorwill -

Breaking in bright Orthography
On my simple sleep -
Thundering its Prospective -
Till I stir, and weep -

Not for the Sorrow, done me -
But the push of Joy -
Say it again, Saxon!
Hush - Only to me!

Language literally possesses her, taking away her sleep and causing her to cry for joy. But she's jealous that anyone else should hear those special phrases (like words of love) -- she wants that Saxon to whisper only to her!

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying at Home -
With a Bobolink for a Chorister -
And an Orchard, for a Dome -

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice -
I just wear my Wings -
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton - sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman -
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -
I'm going, all along.

Why wait for heaven when you can live it all along? Quite the Gnostic insight if you ask me.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -

She's not avoiding truth, only recognizing that it can be blinding if presented all at once. Be dazzled gradually and you will see.

The Birds begun at Four o'clock -
Their period for Dawn -
A Music numerous as space -
But neighboring as Noon -

I could not count their Force -
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.

Their Witnesses were not -
Except occasional man -
In homely industry arrayed -
To overtake the Morn -

Nor was it for applause -
That I could ascertain -
But independent Ecstasy
Of Deity and Men -

By Six, the Flood had done -
No Tumult there had been
Of Dressing, or Departure -
And yet the Band was gone -

The Sun engrossed the East -
The Day controlled the World -
The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

The birds, too, have their independent ecstasy.

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other contain
With ease - and You - beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets - do -

The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound -

The human mind is co-extensive with divinity. Here Emily produces some fine repetition (each line begins with "the brain is...") and echoes ("side by side", "blue to blue", "pound for pound").

The Mountain sat upon the Plain
In his tremendous Chair -
His observation omnifold,
His inquest, everywhere -

The Seasons played around his knees
Like Children round a sire -
Grandfather of the Days is He
Of Dawn, the Ancestor -

This poem has something of a private or personal meaning for me, because I see it as connected with Mount Monadnock (Emerson's "new Olympus") -- the solitary mountain rising from the plains to inspire poets and artists.


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