Emily Dickinson, “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” (1487); Twila Newey, “In the Plum”

Often I think about doing. It is a form of procrastination but potentially more. When Dickinson wonders about a man who trekked “so far so cold… / For little Fellowmen,” she speaks of a bold action packed with symbolism. What does such a deed mean? I’m tempted to think the one who made the journey a reverend tending to his following. He’s trying to emulate Christ, but his own ministry can’t quite compare, despite his kindness, despite their need.

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman (1487)
Emily Dickinson

The Savior must have been 
A docile Gentleman— 
To come so far so cold a Day 
For little Fellowmen— 

The Road to Bethlehem 
Since He and I were Boys 
Was leveled, but for that 'twould be 
A rugged Billion Miles—

The problem: it is simply untrue the “Savior” was “a docile gentleman.” Luke 12:51–“Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? Nay, but rather division.” Dickinson knows the radical nature of Scripture, the fields of bodies of the Civil War. Justice does not necessitate kind deeds, especially not deeds which reinforce one’s status (note the diminutive accompanying “Fellowmen”).

Her first stanza sarcastically dismisses actions we’d ordinarily consider noble. But her second, musing on “The Road to Bethlehem,” suggests a larger source for a number of actions. She changes her gender and places herself alongside Christ in time: “The Road to Bethlehem / Since He and I were Boys / Was leveled.” Just as one man looks to Christ to serve others in the cold, she also sees Christ as contemporary. This stanza drips with sarcasm, too, as apparently anyone can become the center of the Holy Nativity. The way to being Christlike has smoothed with time. The difficulties, the ruggedness, that made Him no less than a prophet have vanished.

Dickinson’s cynicism about the power of religion doesn’t mean her poem is wrong in how it situates the moral imagination. Often, good deeds of varying shapes and sizes trace back to someone we wish to emulate. But what thoughts exactly help build goodness? It makes no sense to try to replicate a specific moment in time just so we can act. But it also makes no sense to immediately equate one’s small contributions with the salvation of mankind.

*

Thought meets action, one may say, in the matter of value. How to see value when it’s hard to distinguish anything at all? Consider Twila Newey’s “In the Plum,” where birds in swift motion are confused for dead leaves:

In the Plum (h/t Guesthouse)
Twila Newey

What do I call
these small

               brown birds
               tumbling past

whose flight
I mistook

               for wind-
               blown leaves?

Life moves, non-life moves. “Small brown birds tumbling” are almost remembered as “wind-blown leaves.” This might be a tragic mistake, but the poem is “in the plum,” which sounds more like delight than anything else. What does one call the discovery of life?

The small brown birds do not care if they’re seen. They are committed to the motion, their way of being. They delight in doing as they please. No consideration of value, simply an embrace of value. I want to be like these birds—just write and write, enjoy what there is, and eventually be seen.

But I have to wonder if human life works like that. It does to a degree. Newey’s poem recalls Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, with its “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Sonnet 73 presents a mind on display ransacking itself for justification. The birds of “In the Plum” are practitioners of Zen compared to that.

For myself, I think I can make a resolution. I can be like the person Dickinson seems to mock. Maybe a bit more bird-like than pretentious. Though there is a wrinkle to Dickinson’s poem still outstanding. She places herself alongside Christ not to praise herself but to show how dependent her own craft is on magical thinking. There may be no way to prevent overthinking, unless one can literally fly.

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