Emily Dickinson, “A Cloud withdrew from the Sky” (895)

“A Cloud withdrew from the Sky…” (895)
Emily Dickinson

A Cloud withdrew from the Sky
Superior Glory be
But that Cloud and its Auxiliaries
Are forever lost to me

Had I but further scanned
Had I secured the Glow
In an Hermetic Memory
It had availed me now.

Never to pass the Angel
With a glance and a Bow
Till I am firm in Heaven
Is my intention now.

Comment:

The martial language intrigues: “withdrew,” “Superior,” “Auxiliaries,” “scanned,” “secured,” “Bow,” even “availed” (from Latin valere, “to be strong”). Yet the action of the poem is simply that the speaker saw a cloud withdraw, and has forgotten “that Cloud and its Auxiliaries.”

What does it mean a cloud withdrew? Whatever it means, the incident demands “Superior glory,” perhaps honor more divine than human. Was the cloud withdrawing a miracle? “Had I but further scanned” – one gets the impression the cloud floated by; the sky, by implication, is the speaker’s field of vision. “Had I secured the Glow” – that cloud was tinged with light, and the sky wasn’t merely clear and blue. Perhaps the speaker witnessed a sunset, with the cloud moving toward the sun, while darkness descended. The completeness of the way darkness seals would fit with “Hermetic,” but also suggests a separation between the speaker’s mind (“Memory”) and something else.

The sky does not itself have an “Hermetic Memory,” but in a way it could serve as (the content of) one for the speaker, even as it is something else that is an “Hermetic Memory.” The heavens are Heaven in the poem – the clouds are angels passing by, the martial imagery makes us reflect on the order of Heaven. Secure in their faith and guided by omniscience, the angels need only do, need only guard. Heaven is ready for war, but will never war with Earth. It allows glimpses, then seals itself off. The first stanza describes the past (“lost”), the second a counterfactual present (“had”), the final a resolved future.

Life is a struggle with the fact of Heaven. One focuses on a cloud – one may just be a cloud oneself – and through that obtains a narrative, some kind of grasp on the whole (“auxiliaries,” “further,” “Glow”). That grasp gets less concrete as it progresses: the sky becomes our mind, if that (“it had availed me now”). But to want memory, to try to know what has been, brings us to the present.

The miraculous seems to have become the natural. “Till I am firm in Heaven” – this is attentiveness for the sake of truly standing firm, not being a passive observer. The finiteness of mind is not limited to mere glances (inattentiveness), nor bows (obedience). The question is how one responds to awe; our speaker is firm, with intent.

2 Comments

  1. In your explanation you said that “Life is a strug­gle with the fact of Heaven”. This is very interestin. Many people struggle with being “good enough” to enter Heaven one day. Just live peacefully and give to those who are in need and you shant worry.

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