Emily Dickinson, “My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze” (1099)

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze (1099)
Emily Dickinson

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — 
I’m feeling for the Air — 
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear — 

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine

Comment:

Kay Ryan loves the third stanza of this poem, but not much else. In her words, “Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza 
is likely to bottom out.”

We’ve been reading Dickinson a while now, you and I, and I say challenge accepted. You should read Ryan’s powerful, personal remarks about this poem. They concern poetic craft, how one has to blunder with the clue divine. What I take out of them is the rough idea that anything that truly speaks to the truly human has to come from our failures and fallibility. That someone too good with words or too clever has no wisdom nor anything of use to us.

I don’t think the first two stanzas are throwaway, though. “My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — I’m feeling for the Air:” the caterpillar speaker knows or hopes she will be a butterfly. Her mind is mixed, intense states. At the same time she wants to feel for the air, the space around her tightens. She will be colorful, but if she’s in the cocoon, she has not seen any color at all for a while. One could say the phenomenon of her space and vision shrinking makes perfect sense, as it happens to all of us. But Dickinson is nicely showing the contradictory elements in our thought creating such claustrophobia. It isn’t as simple as “reality” vs. “expectation.” It’s more like we grow, learn, and correctly expect a result. We may even get exactly the result we worked for. Why are there any doubts, why are there any gaps, in this process?

“A dim capacity for Wings / Demeans the Dress I wear.” The cocoon, the coming-to-be of a butterfly, could be the dress. Or being a butterfly simply is wearing the dress. Either way, the speaker does not feels she knows enough to do justice to her own growth. She feels she hasn’t experienced anything. A funny thing about knowledge: if you really know something, it shouldn’t feel new, should it?

Now comes the stanza Ryan feels bottoms out – “stanza two just isn’t very strong, essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly:”

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

You can see where I’m going to disagree. “Must be” and “aptitude” are the keys. The knowledge that she must fly, the knowledge she has the capacity, the fact the wings are there and can work: how come the butterfly is still scared of flying? Why isn’t power over earth and sky being exerted? The speaker has completely transformed herself, no?

For me, this is not a throwaway stanza. It advances the precise drama of the poem, which is not necessarily a poem about poetry. What’s more likely happening is that the speaker has a powerful bit of knowledge which is not translating to self-knowledge. Granted, this is an easy theme for me to see, since 99% of my work centers around it. But I also might be really, really good at this reading thing, so I should offer a bit of advice. It’s okay to jump ahead when reading to a theme you find relevant. It’s good to start somewhere. But most authors who are worth reading modify the question they started with as they work. In the case of Plato, the question changes almost entirely. Questions of justice in the Republic turn into a discussion of eros. Figure out why that happens and you too can take 10 years to get a PhD.

The poem concludes with an amazing but baffling third stanza:

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine

Knowledge is not good enough for self-knowledge. In fact, if we start believing that all we do as humans is “progress,” we are far more apt to ignore questions of how we use knowledge or why it is valuable to us. We’re far more apt to actually be ignorant, letting our powers use us. (A similar, just as dangerous blunder is believing we make nothing which can be called progress at all. But more on that later.)

What’s happened to the speaker is this: blessed with an enormous power, emergence from a cocoon, her learning has begun anew. She’s back to making silly mistakes like the rest of us, as she does not know who she is as a butterfly yet. “The clue divine” goes beyond knowledge of self, though. She has a power that is beyond her at the moment and probably will be beyond her when she knows more. In Plato and Nietzsche, there’s this question of whether gods philosophize. I always thought it kind of ridiculous, because “no” is a pretty good answer. However, there’s something to learning about learning that’s more than powerful or enchanting. It’s probably something like seeing a student take an idea of yours, modify it, and better the world, or better yet, watching a child talk or walk for the first time. You wonder how everything came together to produce just that moment, when there’s so much to be anxious about, when tragedy remains the highest account of human life. I’ve said enough.