Source of book: I own this.
Although I have been a used book shopper since childhood (it runs in the family), I didn’t spend my hard-earned money on a new book until my teens.
The very first new book I purchased myself was this one - a Courage Classics hardback edition of Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems. Dickinson was my first poetic love (followed immediately thereafter by Christina Rossetti.) I can even remember the first poem that spoke to me in that way - my first time, so to speak. It was Dickinson’s “The Bee,” contained in the poetry volume of The Junior Classics - a collection I still own. (Okay, I basically stole it from my parents…) That opening line, “Like trains of cars on tracks of plush” is still amazing. I believe I wrote something for a school assignment about it at one point. But anyway, I knew the moment I read it that I loved Dickinson and always would.
While I have read from this book many times before, I didn’t really start to sit down and systematically read through my poetry collection until 2010, when I started writing about my reading. I decided that the occasional browsing was nice enough, but too sporadic and unfocused to really plumb the depths of the poetic tradition. Since that time, my book pile on the nightstand has contained a volume of poetry, and most nights when I read, I start off with a few pages of poetry. Best of all are the evenings when the kids are in bed, and Amanda is either working, reading in the library, or knitting while streaming something. Because then I can read aloud and hear the cadence of the language roll off of me.
My particular collection of Dickinson is perhaps not the best. It follows the pattern of the early publications, and contains “the first four” of her collections as they were released. (First Series, Second Series, Third Series, and The Single Hound, plus her essays.) Unfortunately, it also follows the original editions in “fixing” her punctuation to match 19th Century standards. Thus, the dashes are replaced by boring commas and periods. I am not certain if the book contains all her poems or not, or how many are missing. But, it is a hardback, and must contain at least 500 or so poems - I haven’t yet found a poem that isn’t in there, so it may be complete. Also, it was affordable to a teen, and was in stock at the local independent bookstore. So I definitely do not regret getting it.
Each of the first three books are subdivided into sections: Life, Love, Nature, and Time and Eternity. Not all poems fit cleanly into these categories, of course, and I found a few that I thought would have fit better in other places. But blame Dickinson’s sister and later editors for the groupings. You can read my thoughts on the First Series of poems here.
Here are the poems which stood out to me most this time. It was difficult to narrow it down to this few, because so many are profound and meaningful to me. Throughout, I have used the numbering in my collection. Dickinson did not give her poems titles - those were supplied later. I have attempted to find versions online with the correct dashes wherever possible.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I have to wonder if Dr. Seuss had this in mind with Yertle the Turtle. While I am not quite as introverted as Dickinson, I share her dislike of celebrity.
This one is a bit of a gem. Every time I read it, I am struck with a renewed wonder at its depth of perception.
We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Or how about this one:
I can wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet,
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!
Power is only pain,
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
They ’ll carry him!
This one bears a bit of pondering. I’m not sure whether I agree or not - for me. Dickinson’s own experience is another thing altogether. But the idea that we can move impossible mountains - but not handle joy - has a certain deeper truth in it.
EACH life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
Admitted scarcely to itself, it may be,
For credibility’s temerity
Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,
Were hopeless as the rainbow’s raiment
Yet persevered toward, surer for the distance;
Unto the saints’ slow diligence
Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture,
Eternity enables the endeavoring
There are so many good things going on in this poem. The message, of course, is amazing. The language is evocative. But notice too the form. The odd lines all end with a feminine rhyme. The even lines (except for the second) consist of a single iamb. These lines are therefore emphasized, drawing out the key meaning from each couplet. The poet also chooses either four or five feet for the longer lines, and as far as I can tell, there is no specific pattern intended. The length, though, does dictate exactly how contrasting the short lines are, and thus how much emphasis they get when read aloud.
Moving on to the poems in the “Love” section, here is one which imagines marriage as a shockingly mutual transaction. Dickinson uses the language of commerce to describe what is so obviously not transactional. This is metaphor that rises to the level of a paradox.
I gave myself to him,
And took himself for pay.
The solemn contract of a life
Was ratified this way.
The wealth might disappoint,
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great purchaser suspect,
The daily own of Love
Depreciate the vision;
But, till the merchant buy,
Still fable, in the isles of spice,
The subtle cargoes lie.
At least, ’t is mutual risk,—
Some found it mutual gain;
Sweet debt of Life,—each night to owe,
Insolvent, every noon.
Not too bad for a woman who appears to have never had a romantic relationship - and indeed seemed ill at ease around other humans.
Dickinson’s nature poems have always thrilled me. She spent hours in her garden, and clearly had a keen eye for detail. Many of these struck me as quotable, but I had to pick just my favorites of this reading.
ONE of the ones that Midas touched,
Who failed to touch us all,
Was that confiding prodigal,
The blissful oriole.
So drunk, he disavows it
With badinage divine;
So dazzling, we mistake him
For an alighting mine.
A pleader, a dissembler,
An epicure, a thief,—
Betimes an oratorio,
An ecstasy in chief;
The Jesuit of orchards,
He cheats as he enchants
Of an entire attar
For his decamping wants.
The splendor of a Burmah,
The meteor of birds,
Departing like a pageant
Of ballads and of bards.
I never thought that Jason sought
For any golden fleece;
But then I am a rural man,
With thoughts that make for peace.
But if there were a Jason,
Tradition suffer me
Behold his lost emolument
Upon the apple-tree.
I don’t know exactly which species of oriole inspired this poem, but it fits both of the common species in my part of the world. Such as this Hooded Oriole I captured at Cesar Chavez National Monument.
“A Narrow Fellow In The Grass” is definitely one of Dickinson’s best known poems. For good reason, as it captures a moment so memorably.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is -
The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on -
He likes a Boggy Acre -
A Floor too cool for Corn -
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone -
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
One of the most memorable moments of my own life is the solar eclipse of 2017 - which the kids and I traveled to eastern Oregon to view. There is absolutely nothing like it, and I highly recommend seeing one if you possibly can. Dickinson wrote a total of four poems that mention eclipses. I was unable to determine if she ever saw one in person, but I did turn up an interesting connection. Mabel Loomis Todd is best known for editing and publishing Dickinson’s poems. But she was also a skilled science writer. Married to a philandering astronomer, she was well versed (and experienced) in eclipses - she wrote an entire book on them. (She also had a long affair with Dickinson’s brother, so that was how they came to know each other…) So, it is possible that Dickinson based her eclipse poems not on her own experience, but that of her friend. Whatever the case, I think that she captured something of the feel of an eclipse in this poem.
It sounded as if the Streets were running
And then - the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window
And Awe - was all we could feel.
By and by - the boldest stole out of his Covert
To see if Time was there -
Nature was in an Opal Apron,
Mixing fresher Air.
The next poem describes a storm - I quote it here mostly for the fantastic description of lightning as a beak and a claw.
The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low,--
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.
The leaves unhooked themselves from trees
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.
The wagons quickened on the streets,
The thunder hurried slow;
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw.
The birds put up the bars to nests,
The cattle fled to barns;
There came one drop of giant rain,
And then, as if the hands
That held the dams had parted hold,
The waters wrecked the sky
But overlooked my father's house,
Just quartering a tree.
I want to end with a couple of the “Time and Eternity” poems. These too are usually excellent. Dickinson thought about death a lot, and had a rather agnostic view of eternity. I have heard the term used “The Big Perhaps,” which might be a less poetic version of “The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” but is a pretty good description nonetheless. Even for those of us who believe in an afterlife, those of us who think carefully and deeply have to admit that we have less certainty about this than we often pretend. Dickinson likewise left things pretty ambiguous in her poems. Which is one reason they feel so timeless. While she often alludes to eternity, more of her poems on death focus on those left behind, as in this gem.
Time and Eternity XIII.
DEATH sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly
To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then ’t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.
A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,—
At rest his fingers are.
Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.
This last one is just fantastic. It is sure a vast distance from the pleasant and accessible nature poems. Between the unorthodox meter and the gothic language and the insight into our darkest selves, this is one reason that I keep returning to Dickinson. I almost don’t even want to comment further on it, so I will just leave it here. Enjoy.
Time and Eternity XXIX.
One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—
Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.
The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
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