Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poems - First Series, by Emily Dickinson

Source of book: I own this. One of my favorite books.

Emily Dickinson’s poems were largely unknown during her lifetime, as she avoided the public eye. After her death, her relatives released them in installments, and they eventually came to be regarded as some of the greatest poems of the 19th Century.

I wrote about the first part of the first series a few years ago, before I started this blog. I recently read the second part of the first series, so I have combined the two reviews.

There are three main series of poems, and each is divided into four sections: Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity. These are rather arbitrary divisions, of course.

My original review covered the Life and Love sections of series one, and was posted on Facebook on March 27, 2011.


In my mid teens, I purchased my first new book. Of course, I had been given books, new and used, for all of my life. I had even purchased used books (following my mom’s pattern) since I had disposable income of my own. However, a purchase of a brand new book, at full price, was a major event, not to be entered into lightly.

My choice was a hardcover edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I had taken a fancy to Dickinson in elementary school, after reading “The Bee.” I was drawn to the regular meter combined with unusual use of approximate rhyme, the themes of life and nature, and most of all the striking word pictures that came from a unique imagination. In those pre-internet days, I found a few others in various collections, but never more than one or two at a time. After careful consideration, I laid my hard earned money on the counter and walked out with a purchase I have never regretted.

For my ongoing poetry project, I am systematically reading through my poetry collection (and supplementing from the library). In this case, as with Robert Frost, I am to a large degree re-reading. It is interesting to return to a poet after a break of five years or a decade. I also had not sat down and simply read in sequence. I would tend to browse. Perhaps I would open the book randomly on a rainy evening and read a dozen total from here and there.

In this case, I chose to start at the beginning and read two sections. My book contains three poem entitled Series 1, 2, and 3, plus The Single Hound, a later collection. This is 576 poems (they are conveniently numbered within each section), a fraction of the 1800 or so she wrote. However, I am unclear as to whether the others were published or not, as I cannot find an online reference beyond these four collections.
The first three collections are further subdivided into four parts each, entitled “Life”, “Love”, “Nature”, and “Time and Eternity”. The fourth collection is undivided. I read the poems in the “Life” and “Love” sections of Series One.

Dickinson still speaks to me every bit as much as she did as a child and as a young man. To a certain degree, poets are by their nature introverts. Dickinson was probably the pinnacle of introversion – her entire world was contained within a few miles, and she spent much of her life in the company of a few close friends. Her poems speak to and about this inner life of the soul.
I would be tempted to quote the majority of the poems in this note, but perhaps I can encourage discovery by a small taste.

Life XXI
He ate and drank the precious Words --
His Spirit grew robust --
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust --
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book -- What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings –

Typical for Dickinson, she ignores the rules of punctuation, using dashes for nearly every situation. Another poem with a similar theme begins thus:

Life X
A precious—mouldering pleasure—'tis—
To meet an Antique Book—
In just the Dress his Century wore—
A privilege—I think—

In this selection, the rhyme is approximate at best, with sometimes the even lines rhyming, sometimes the odd lines, but never both. The meter is fairly regular, so, even to a child, it “feels” like poetry.
Most of these poems are written in quatrains, but there are some exceptions.

Life VI
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.

I recall this one from my childhood. At the time, I missed that she used exactly seven lines – the Hebrew number of perfection. Perhaps for the same reason, X, above, has seven stanzas – the perfection perhaps of a book dating to when the author was alive.
Dickinson took the standard poet’s device of using a metaphor from nature to express feelings of love and stood it on its head. No other poet was as fascinated by insects as she. No other would have bracketed a love poem by a fly and a bee.

Love VI
If you were coming in the fall,
I'd brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.

If only centuries delayed,
I'd count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen's land.

If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I'd toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time's uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

A thoroughly delicious poem. I’ll conclude with two of my favorites about the inner life. The first resonates with me as the introvert’s description of pain and grief. Those who naturally are able to gain relief from the sharing of pain with others really do not understand what it is like for those of us that must expend energy to bare our souls to others. Dickinson lost several of her friends to disease at young ages, and this poem is the fruit of that pain.

Life XIX
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
To counter the bitter taste of that one, here is one to provoke thought.
Life XI
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 straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —

Dickinson’s poems are all in the public domain, and therefore available for free all over the internet. However, I recommend the purchase of a real, tangible book. Believe me, you will not regret it.


More recently, I finished reading through the “Nature” and “Time and Eternity” sections of the first series. Here are my thoughts.

In addition to my introduction to Dickinson, mentioned above, there are numerous poems on the topic of bees. I am not surprised that Dickinson found them fascinating, because I likewise have always found the various members of Hymenoptera to be full of interest. The large carpenter bees that frequent my part of the world, are, in particular, both frightening and fascinating. They are large and therefore scary, but also gentle and tame, to the point that one may touch them without fear. (My brother had the courage to do this, not me.) Dickinson found them to be a remarkably fertile source of philosophical musing. If anything, her poems seem better to me now than they did as a child.

Nature V

The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.

Such a short little thought, but there is so much in it. And what of the poem that first caused me to fall in love with Dickinson?

Nature XV

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee's experience
Of clovers and of noon!                        

Nearly thirty years later, I still thrill when I read it. Or what about this classic?

Nature IX

The Grass so little has to do –
A Sphere of simple Green –
With only Butterflies to brood
And Bees to entertain –

And stir all day to pretty Tunes
The Breezes fetch along –
And hold the Sunshine in its lap
And bow to everything –

And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearls –
And make itself so fine
A Duchess were too common
For such a noticing –

And even when it dies – to pass
In Odors so divine –
Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep –
Or Spikenards, perishing –

And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell –
And dream the Days away,
The Grass so little has to do
I wish I were a Hay –

The attention given to this seemingly insignificant bit of nature - the grass - reminds me of the similar treatment given by Albrecht Durer in one of my favorite paintings. (It graces the wall of my office.)

I might mention a few more that I feel fit my own feelings.

Nature XXI

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—                        

I love to hike to the top of mountains. Because they are there. And because of the great views from the top. Dickinson may not have done much climbing, but I think she understood. And she understood too the way that God speaks to us, not just from the pulpit in church, but from experience out in nature. As my dad put it, when we would spend a Sunday scuba diving, God has an underwater cathedral too.

    Nature VI
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.
There is no doubt of Dickinson’s eye for nature and its glories. But she also had a keen mind when it came to death, that “undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Eternity VII

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?        

It was difficult to pick just one poem on this topic. The entire section is fantastic, and well worth the small amount of time invested.

Dickinson also had an ear for the morbid half-joke. My wife is an ICU nurse, and she deals with death on a daily basis. If you want to hear the worst and best of gallows humor, talk to a nurse. Believe me on this one. (The two favorite suggestions for t-shirts for the ICU were “He’s Only Mostly Dead” and a picture of the defibrillator paddles with “You Say Goodbye, We Say Hello.” Alas, management nixed these excellent ideas…)

Anyway, I really liked this one:

Time and Eternity XII

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.                             

Should one laugh or cry? What about this one, about the banality of death?

Time and Eternity XX

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different

We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as 'twere.

As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame

That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite—

We waited while She passed—
It was a narrow time—
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

She mentioned, and forgot—
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce—
Consented, and was dead—

And We—We placed the Hair—
And drew the Head erect—
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate—

I wrote last summer about the death of a couple of my friends. Reading through this one was a bit rough. Because those days were ordinary. Except for death. Dickinson was a genius.

But she also had hope. Here are two of my favorites on that theme:

Time and Eternity XXIX

I shall know why, when time is over,
And I have ceased to wonder why;
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky.

He will tell me what Peter promised,
And I, for wonder at his woe,
I shall forget the drop of anguish
That scalds me now, that scalds me now.

And this one:

Time and Eternity XVII

I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the checks were given.                            

And there are more, whether contemplations of death or observations of the truth found in nature. Dickinson remains one of my all time favorite poets, and one which I always find to be a rewarding read.                

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