Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398); Robert Bly, “The Moon”

“A job is not a career,” I remind myself. Do this job well, but do more. How much more? As much as possible, as well as possible.

No wonder anxiety spikes when I think I’ve found calm, as if I were hunted. No wonder I believe I can voice with Dickinson I have no Life but this —

I have no Life but this (1398)
Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —

I have no Life but this — To lead it here. Lead what, where? Life is leading “this,” “here”—well, that’s an incredibly vague beginning. Dickinson doubles down on the vagueness, as Life itself stands between an impersonal “here” and “there.” “Life” and “this” are led “here,” “Death” is “dispelled from there.”

The first stanza, then, holds an overblown, melodramatic joke: if you are getting “here,” reaching your life’s objective or end, then death is merely being thrown from “there.” She’s between “here” and “there” and both are the same point.

You don’t want to be “dispelled” from what you’ve declared as your own endeavor. Now I have a better idea of why building a career feels overwhelming. If I’m not doing what I should to advance myself, am I paying proper attention to myself? Any attention? Any care? It’s tough to articulate exactly, but the panic that sets in, say, when realizing you’ve been doing the wrong thing for years is less about that thing—in the poem’s terms, a “this”—and more about whether you have any sense how to live at all.

II

A life defined by a task can be one of perpetual panic. But what if Dickinson seriously means “nor any death?” If death exists relative to expectations, but expectations are pure artifice, then a crazy point has been created where death is effectively meaningless. This may sound like New Age tripe, but to be unafraid of death was considered the epitome of classical virtue.

Maybe, at least in words, there can be immortality, a step away from the routine of panic, life-in-death. Nor any Death is followed by Nor tie to Earths to come and Nor action new. She still has “no Life but this,” still fixates on her chosen task. This places her apart from the future into an exclusive present (this Earth) laden with the past (no action new). These rhetorical turns have a peculiar grandeur. Why reject the future with “[no] tie to Earths to come?” Why justify all one’s actions with “[no] action new?” Immortality is not the right word for engaging these themes—she’s not trying to bring it about as much as locate it. The notion of immortality points to a further question: What is beyond life?

Except through this extent — The Realm of You. Certainly, one can read “I have no Life but this” as a more typical example of a genre, something that more or less cries “I can’t live without you.” But it begins by tethering one’s life, one’s efforts, to something unknown. In that beginning, Dickinson opens the door to the poem being about devotion to anything we love. If we chafe at “career” or “vocation” being placed on the same level as love of a person, we do so because we’re scared of necessities defining who we are or whether we can be appreciated ourselves. True devotion calls into being different and yet complete types of love—those we love receive love analogous to what we love. Everything, including death, the future, and our actions, is understood through love of another. Maybe one could say that to actualize that love entails a suspended animation, as the opportunity to share it does not always exist. An immortality of sorts, as songs and poems about unrequited love have persisted through the centuries.

III

Let’s go a bit further. What if Dickinson is speaking about writing and creating? Doesn’t writing mean having “no Life but this?” This question is of no immediate use to most of us, but it puts Dickinson in dialogue with others who wonder what it means to do anything in life well:

The Moon (from Poetry 180)
Robert Bly

After writing poems all day,
I go off to see the moon in the pines.
Far in the woods I sit down against a pine.
The moon has her porches turned to face the light,
But the deep part of her house is in the darkness.

Unlike Dickinson, Bly seems to be clear about what he’s doing: After writing poems all day, I go off to see the moon in the pines. This is not the vagueness of “this,” “here,” and “there” which constitutes her first stanza. But what is the exact relation between writing poems during the day and going to see the moon? Dickinson may be short on concrete details, but “I have no Life but this” is direct. Pairing “writing poems” with “see[ing] the moon,” by contrast, feels random.

As poems are an interplay of light and dark, it does make rough sense to go see the moon. The journey Bly presents has some oddly specific features. He says he goes far in the woods to sit down against a pine at day’s end. He trusts us to conceive a series of images: as the light of the sun fades away, he walks, increasingly trusting what he knows as opposed to his sight to guide him. It’s fair to say “I have no Life but this” is about absolute devotion, a narrowing of one’s focus, to achieve “this.” To have “no Life but this” involves knowing a path well enough to navigate it in the dark.

There’s trust in darkness—the unknown, the uncertain—when continuing down a path. Bly, for his part, speaks less of love and instead recalls a specific vision. Against a pine, resting upon nature, he sees the moon as a house, maybe the house he just left. It has porches turned to face the light, and I interpret that to mean he can only see the part of the moon that sees him. Someone on the moon sees the earth as a light. The confirmation of this is his saying the deep part of her house is in the darkness. There are greater truths, celestial one might say, only accessible by means of how they face us. That’s the beginning of poetry, but really of any task, any relationship.

I’ve been wondering the last few weeks about communication, wondering about my own standards for friendship or relationships (right now: it’d be nice not to be ghosted). A not insignificant amount of talking I’ve participated in has felt deeply unsatisfying, despite some moments I felt were worth treasuring. It’s been hard to understand what’s happening. There have been moments which created curiosity about another, where we’re not just real about our goings-on, but authentically ourselves. I can’t attempt to realize the value of those moments and not feel awkward—is trying to love just a delusion if there isn’t a beloved? Do I know anything or am I just a sappy romantic? It’s hard to see moments of beauty and grace as fulfilling when there is a greater camaraderie and love to be shared, but in themselves alone, they mark a complete life.

Marie Ponsot, “Bliss and Grief”

No one, I mutter, No one is.

I tried to prove myself a few minutes ago, as if I hadn’t accomplished anything today or recently or ever. I rambled and forced jokes and tried too hard to be accepted. Was I taken over by a ghost?

Are ghosts made of insecurities? If so, they’re really lame–I mean, they should cause a scare, make someone go AAAAA. They should be able to do cool stuff like make a room cry blood or fracture glass with their own reflection. My dumb ghost is a bunch of stupid memories that make me act badly. It lacks power probably because I lack power. No one is, No one is here:

Bliss and Grief (from poets.org)
Marie Ponsot

No one
is here
right now.

Ponsot titles her poem “Bliss and Grief,” both of which seem far beyond my petty concerns. I guess you could say bliss and grief each create a sensation where the self for a time is lost and hard to find. Immense sadness has made me feel disembodied on more than one occasion. If I’ve come close to an all-consuming happiness, I believe I was absorbed in a role, like a character from a movie. No one is here right now comes from trying to talk to oneself—it isn’t just said to others asking how we are.

Still, there are no right answers regarding interpretation. Maybe, at best, better ones. And what really matters is how a poem speaks to you. The original “speak between” of interpretation is a higher priority than some mystical truth which makes for beautiful prose but proves to be little use in life.

So I find myself staring at the form of this thing. It’s like two mounds of words jammed next to each other for the sake of a larger mound. “No is right” is one half, “one here now” the other. There’s some sort of self, a “one here now,” but it’s absorbed in negation. Strictly speaking, it isn’t exactly absorbed, as it lets “no is right” have equal height and breadth.

I imagine “bliss” would be an end to second-guessing myself, but now I’m looking at the literal shape words take. There is no end to second-guessing, as matters great and small make can cause one to feel lost. It’s weird to think it natural to not be yourself, but it seems to be perfectly natural, the only response to overwhelming events or a world which insists the consistent practice of a public face.

Sappho, “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”

A failed date here, a denied opportunity there—rejection has compounded lately, becoming more than incidental. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Misery, especially lonely misery, demands company, and I believe I found fellowship with Sappho, who perhaps scratched the following after a walk meant to give her thoughts space to breathe:

 “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

That afternoon

Girls ripe to marry
wove the flower-
heads into necklaces

That afternoon, as if the morning itself strolled by. There were other meanderings, other anxieties. But then she witnessed girls ripe to marry, who wove… flower-heads into necklaces. Girls who blossomed took blossoms and created still further beauty. The Greek kosmos, from which we get “cosmic” and “cosmetic,” seems to say ornaments work best when they show how everything fits into a natural order. An order which those of us who don’t fit—who are single and bitter—are forced to see, whether through Arcady or Instagram.

Eros is self-reinforcing in the extreme. Sappho’s hopes are the trap, the expectations written into the world. It feels while we read like a wedding should happen, as she feels a wedding should happen.

I

It is natural for us to ask, seek, and perhaps find. Rejection is natural for a social creature, a human being.

But how to process rejection? Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills. He found happiness, but was what he saw very different from Sappho? Not girls making necklaces out of flowers, but flowers themselves dancing in the breeze beside a lake:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (from Poetry)
William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

What I find off-putting about this poem may actually contain the poem’s strengths. I believe the imagery too simple—e.g. I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils. There’s the matter of the singsong rhythm and the couplets—beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. A glorification of naiveté results, as if experience could be had without reflection or perspective. If we didn’t think too much, maybe we would see a wholeness in nature, a providential order linking the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way with ten thousand [flowers]… tossing their heads in sprightly dance. Maybe that wholeness would be healing, as the last couplet attests: And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.

I am tempted not to give this poem a second glance, but then I realize the very tropes making it a childlike song mean that it can speak to children. In other words, if children feel lonely, alienated, or depressed, Wordsworth can recognize those feelings and speak to them directly. He helps give voice to those who don’t have the vocabulary or sophistication to say, for example, that they are trapped in a state of mind where they can only see the world but not control it or themselves in it. Instead, they can say they feel distant or floating—you know, like a cloud.

Moreover, I’m not entirely sure that the sight of flowers simply overwhelmed Wordsworth and he achieved happiness as well as a basis for future happiness. The poem seems to depict his memory of an incident, but it is an incident which he recalls on a regular basis—For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They [the flowers] flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude. That “inward eye” is not just recollection. It is also the imagination, the image-making faculty. Wordsworth draws our attention to this by explicitly calling himself a “poet” in the third stanza.

It stands to reason that this little scene of daffodils dancing by a lake in the breeze has been built over time. The moment of transformation itself he shows a peculiar reserve toward: A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company. He was drawn to happiness, we could say, more than overwhelmed with it. I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought—the moment itself was glorious, but it was his gazing—a gazing he repeats often, with his “inward eye”—that generates “wealth” for him. He is explicit he did not know this when he first encountered the flowers. There was no miracle of the natural world which changed his attitude. He makes the effort to build to happiness from the material of his own life and dreams, returning to one seemingly simple joy as a touchstone.

II

One might say, not unrightly, that Wordsworth embraces a providence which Sappho’s fragment shows potentially painful. Wordsworth is emphatic about “solitude” above, as if his inward eye, left to itself, can access a power beyond this world. But last I checked, I don’t want to be lonely. I’d really like it if the “ghosting” would stop and I didn’t walk around thinking everyone else had love and bliss.

Do I have any choice in the matter? Recently, I finished Donald Hall’s Essays after Eighty, where Hall depicts unsparingly what it’s like to be disabled and aged. In an essay entitled “Out the Window,” he talks at length about what he sees outside his window from his armchair before switching to remembrances of his family, long gone. I’ll let him introduce himself:

Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody….

I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

Hall demonstrates an incredible optimism in this passage, but if you were wondering, he has lost many close to him, his physical frailty means he is incredibly dependent on other people, and yes, he can be stuck for extraordinarily long periods with nothing to do but look out the window.

The break with Sappho and Wordsworth is the break with beauty. The absence of beauty is the absence of providence, and for our purposes, this is a good thing. It is “preferable” to survive in the best shape one can possibly hold than to die young, although this is itself contingent. Hall obviously has the full use of his mental faculties, and his collection of essays does not forget to mention how many people are in his life at the time of his writing, helping him survive. It is “better” to sit at the window all day, as opposed to think about what has been lost. That doesn’t mean the losses are insignificant.

Hall’s happiness stands relative to his circumstances. He is at the mercy of any number of forces, but he’ll take what he can get. His happiness builds from necessity. I find it superior to Wordsworth’s, despite a similar process attending both their reflections. Meeting the daffodils is the same as looking out the window, no? Not quite—what if you have no choice but to look out the window, a prisoner of your own body?

I don’t know how I feel about a comparison to what I get from Sappho. Beauty piled upon beauty, as in the fragment, screams absurdity. The opposite of loneliness, though, isn’t a perfect world where lovers hold hands all the time and one feels accepted and valued at all moments. I’ve been alone enough to know that being loved has a value entirely its own. It’s so hard to communicate that we exaggerate it, as if it were a reflection of the cosmic order or something we could will for ourselves. To be sure, this doesn’t mean being unloved means one is somehow inferior. It does mean the hope of being loved, the ability to appreciate it, stands all the greater, and one’s embrace of solitude or necessity is not an absence of love but a demonstration of its potential.

References

Hall, Donald. “Out the Window.” In Essays after Eighty. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 4.

Emily Dickinson, “When I have seen the Sun emerge” (888)

Only a few times have I been able to appreciate the enormity of the rising sun, I confess. Usually I’m out the door to work in the dark of early morning. The one time I can recall a sunrise most clearly I was reeling after a breakup. I hadn’t slept all night and I started to take a walk when the dark was receding. I was caught by surprise not much later, as yellow light broke open the sky by giving it an increasing number of hues and textures. It was a new day, and the emergence of the Sun was a full field of possibilities:

When I have seen the Sun emerge (888)
Emily Dickinson

When I have seen the Sun emerge
From His amazing House –
And leave a Day at every Door
A Deed, in every place –

Without the incident of Fame
Or accident of Noise –
The Earth has seemed to me a Drum,
Pursued of little Boys

Dickinson also confesses awe before the power of a sunrise—When I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House. Her excitement differs from mine, though. The Sun, as part of the cosmos, was somewhere amazing before morning occurred. The Sun shining upon the Earth is still an incredible happening, of course. The Sun leaves a Day at every Door / A Deed, in every place. It provides opportunity, allows for action, enables life as we know it. Yet where it was before it appeared to us—”His amazing House”—may be far greater than we ordinarily imagine.

The Sun came from an amazing place, gave each and all a day and more, and did this Without the incident of Fame / Or accident of Noise. Dickinson invokes the themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare initially seems to conceive his life and legacy as akin to a mighty tree. That tree meets ruination, to be sure: yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. But one can see in the dark comedy of those lines what was intended—a blossoming, healthy tree that was a noisy world unto itself. Likewise, Sonnet 18 is not shy about promising immortality caused by poetic fame:

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

No “incident of Fame” or “accident of Noise” was involved in giving the world everything. What is the “amazing House” where the Sun rests? We don’t really know, as it is beyond us—strangely enough, like knowledge itself. The Earth has seemed to me a Drum, / Pursued of little Boys—so many, not just poets, are seeking nothing but validation. They’re crafting what they believe perfection for the most self-serving purposes. They’re employing all their technical skills, all their knowledge, to do this. Contrast this with the Sun, which simply lights and warms the Earth. It is universal in the sense that it is there for everyone, but its giving conceals a greater mystery. What are cosmic purposes? Where does knowledge lead? Perhaps more importantly, where does it rest?

Lorine Niedecker, “Linnaeus in Lapland”

Linnaeus, not yet known as one who could categorize all life, is out there. He’s in Lapland, enduring the bitter cold in order to study lichens (which sustain the native reindeer), mosses, rocks, and the few plants Lapland has. One flower in particular commands his attention—he calls it Andromeda. It finds a place in his journal:

Carolus Linnaeus’ comparison of Andromeda and the plant he named after her. 1732.

Nothing worth noting, sighs the poem, except. In his drawing, her feet bound to a mound more rock than earth; her arms flail, begging for help while a monster looks quizzically on. Before his eyes, the myth unfolds—the arms, the quadrangular shoots. The shackles, the boots. Historically, his words:

This plant is always fixed on some turfy little hillock in the midst of swamps, as Andromeda herself was chained to a rock in the sea…. Dragons and venomous serpents surrounded her, as toads and other reptiles frequent the abode of her vegetable prototype…. As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

An excess of imagination, we are prone to diagnose the naturalist with. But let the fullness of his and Niedecker’s imagination speak. Combined, they voice an understanding of an epoch:

Linnaeus in Lapland (from Poetry)
Lorine Niedecker

Nothing worth noting
except an Andromeda
with quadrangular shoots—
the boots
of the people

wet inside: they must swim
to church thru the floods
or be taxed—the blossoms
from the bosoms
of the leaves

*

Fog-thick morning—
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
my clarity
with me.

*

Hear
where her snow-grave is
the You
ah you

of mourning doves

This same Andromeda, reaching up with quadrangular shoots, contains the aspirations of many. On the one hand, she and they are both prisoners—they must swim to church thru the floods or be taxed. Niedecker’s scenario is so ridiculous one can’t help but picture it. A congregation in wet boots that swam to church through a flood in order to avoid taxes. The superhuman services the painfully petty ordinary. The life of a plant stands an unwitting alternative to what nominally rules men.

On the other hand, this little plant, filled with misguided aspirations, is life itself. The blossoms from the bosoms of the leaves. In Andromeda, not just the myth, but the constellation.

Linnaeus recognizes how life can be radically unfree, but then assumes a power. Fog-thick morning—I see only where I now walk. I carry my clarity with me. One might think this the statement of a scientist, which it certainly could be. He lets limits craft his vision into truth. But I could also see it as one of a jilted lover, one trying not to let his expectations best him. If the latter, is Linnaeus reproaching himself for indulging the juxtaposition of the plant and the woman? Again, his own words, not the poem: As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

There is another possibility—embracing one’s desires and imagination while understanding one’s limits. Hear, he says to apparently no one. Hear / where her snow grave is / the You / ah You / of mourning doves. His vision becomes sound, as he understands that he has been speaking to himself. Love is lost, but that doesn’t mean seeing it in the world is any less real.

To understand the limits of one’s desire while embracing the whole world is a fantastic task. Linnaeus found at least 100 more species in Lapland than had previously been recorded. His acquisition of knowledge is literal enlightenment; his belief in his efforts heralded another age, another way of living life. Eros, by implication, is not strictly hierarchical, commanding allegiance to a greater beauty or merely standing above the worst sort of punishment. Wet boots are not the only way to furnish blossoming.

When I first read this poem, I thought of Linnaeus as having the power of Adam and naming everything. It looks like he names an absent Eve, but this poem only touches that to bring Linnaeus into focus. The power to name comes from God, and if one could name everything correctly, it would not be blasphemous or the mark of hubris to take note of a Supreme Being. What stands out is Linnaeus’ overripe imagination, his gentleness, his regret and communion. This is his universe, his Eden, and we are lucky to be witnesses.

Notes and References

The excerpt from Linnaeus’ journal is from Jonathan Skinner’s “Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker’s Natural Histories.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis. University of Iowa Press, 2008. 47.

My thanks to the Wikipedia page on Linnaeus, accessed March 4-5, 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus