Romance of the Ages: On Dickinson’s "I had not minded – Walls…" (398)

“I had not minded – Walls…” (398)
Emily Dickinson

I had not minded – Walls –
Were Universe – one Rock –
And far I heard his silver Call
The other side the Block –

I’d tunnel – till my Groove
Pushed sudden thro’ to his –
Then my face take her Recompense –
The looking in his Eyes –

But ’tis a single Hair –
A filament – a law –
A Cobweb – wove in Adamant –
A Battlement – of Straw –

A limit like the Veil
Unto the Lady’s face –
But every Mesh – a Citadel –
And Dragons – in the Crease –

Comment:

Mark Van Doren’s notes on this poem in his Introduction to Poetry of 1951 were particularly helpful to me; many of his thoughts are repeated below. I think our readings diverge significantly, however. (If the Van Doren name sounds familiar and you can’t quite place it, think Robert Redford’s movie “Quiz Show” – Charles Van Doren was this gentleman’s son.)

Van Doren’s interpretation starts with “walls” vs. “hair”/”filament”/”law” – which is the greater obstacle for a lover, the physical one or the one which approaches the abstract? We can see this is a perfectly good starting point, but it is going to have a severe defect if followed through completely. It alone cannot make sense of “silver Call:” that requires us to step away from the poem a bit.

In the poem, the “silver Call” is ambiguous enough that it could refer to any number of things. It could refer to a beloved calling out for the speaker, and being heard. It could be connected to seeing stars that would be beyond the Universe (a “rock”); maybe such light would gleam silver. “Silver” is a fourth element if one thinks of “hair,” “adamant” and “straw” as elements. “Call,” if vocal, is at a remove from the rest of the poem: the second stanza ends in seeing, the third and fourth move from the sense of touch to that of sight.

The whole poem is visible in contemplating those two words, but let us go back to Van Doren’s thought. Our speaker would not have minded walls even if they were the whole of the Universe. She would dig through and find her beloved, no matter how faint his call – it could be vocal, it could be starlight. It is not clear how much digging the beloved does: maybe he does some, maybe he does none.

We’ve all felt this way in relationships, and it is not an immature feeling. This is the love which begets commitment of the highest sort. This is the love we want to feel. But why would it fall short? Van Doren notes that if the first stanza starts in the past, we’ve shifted to the present subjunctive by the time of the second stanza.

We are in the present simply when discussing the failure of this love. Is such love always doomed to fall short? There is an obstacle, a “hair.” Taking the list of five we get in the third and fourth stanzas – hair, filament, cobweb, battlement, limit – we find “cobweb” in the center of the material list. The “old” certainly connects the ideas of “hair” and “limit.” Looking closer at “filament,” “cobweb,” “battlement,” we find those three to be strictly defined: the filament is a law; the cobweb is of adamant; the battlement is of straw. The old is unbreakable because it consists of laws, of fortresses unlike any other. You could only set them ablaze, and we have noted the conspicuous absence of passion on the beloved’s behalf in the first stanza.

“Limit” is linked by similarity to “Veil:” the speaker’s beloved seems to see something else besides her. Within that veil are many fortresses and many dragons. Our speaker could be seeing that veil too, as it does stand between her and him. Why, all of a sudden, have we moved from the Universe and Earth to a medieval romance?

We can never judge how passionate another is for us in a relationship. Everything is a bloody game. It does not matter if verbal communication is attempted – it might as well be starlight, we’re going to pursue anyway. It would seem pursuit should trump all problems pertaining to communication. Unfortunately, pursuit creates blindness by putting up obstacles we feel we have to conquer.

The speaker’s beloved might feel he has to be a hero. Or maybe he feels she’s being coy and he should hold back. Either way, her perception of the obstacles facing him are the same. She refuses to judge him as courageous or a coward because she doesn’t know what he’s seeing.

The exact same logic holds for how he perceives her situation. Perhaps he perceives her turmoil so well that he has decided to merely stand still. In which case, her love for him makes him a star in the sky.

We’ve moved from the earthly metaphor to mythical romance via the second-best precious metal, silver. Stars and knights gleam as if made of it. This second-best metal seems to be the world as we will it, whether we will to push through rock or create conventions to preserve what we think are gains. I have no doubt Dickinson is taking aim here at the fact “games” in relationships stem from some confusion about what we want vs. what’s expected of us. She’s also struggling with the fact that the guy has to make the first move, just as we are today.

But what if we wanted to contemplate the most precious thing?

If we take a veiled lady to be a symbol of the Church, the bride of Christ, the problem is the same. The Word is not the same as our words. Divine revelation occurs through the narrative of history precisely because we do not understand until it is too late, despite our best efforts. God is forced to reveal Himself through stories which reveal attributes, but confuse us mightily. His love means he has to lower the standard with which he communicates at, and then it becomes unclear to us whether He understands us. Moreover, Dickinson is playing with the idea that He might be alienated from us because of this very arrangement, not merely the other way around.

There is Truth, but it is prelapsarian. The clothes – darkness and the myth – have to go. The only light that can matter is from another’s eyes. It is prelapsarian because it is fully human, with no divine pretensions.

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