Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: dickinson (page 1 of 14)

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” (249)

Wild Nights — Wild Nights! (249)
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Comment:

The previous reflection, on Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vermeer,” might be read as a jeremiad against lust. To produce one was certainly not my intent. I am far more interested in how a pattern of behavior an entire society is built to combat comes to rule that very society. “The Milkmaid,” I am guessing, slyly demonstrates that proposition while pointing to a solution. Without preaching an end to lust, positing some perfect superhuman realm, it quietly shows beauty in work, in everyday living.

In any case, let us move on to another everyday concern, that of physical attraction. We bear witness to Emily Dickinson shouting about “Wild Nights:”

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Well, that wasn’t terribly subtle. The lowercase “thee” signifies an earthly beloved; three successive rhymes (thee / be / luxury) help create a song for him. So this poem’s done, right? Not quite, for he has not deigned to show himself (“were I with thee”):

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

“Futile,” beginning the second stanza, stuns. All the passion, music, desire before may have gone nowhere. So she conflates her beloved’s absence with her certainty of feeling. Because he is not with her, her Heart is in port, the Winds are futile. No need for a compass, no need for a chart. She will not go anywhere. Her declaration of strength in terms of sailing imagery implies, though, that the beloved is going wherever he wishes.

One might think our speaker deludes herself. I’m not sure that is the case. She’s carefully working through what her siren song means. The promise of pleasure for both, “our luxury,” depends on her remaining superhumanly steadfast. She has to embrace futility in order to make a plea. This does mean she has resolved her heart, to a degree (“futile the winds”). However, there is a trade-off: a lack of direction and planning (“compass,” “chart”).

Her attempt at ecstatic music could turn to anguish. Instead, aware of the trade-off, she wants to make the plea as best she can, yet still remains conscious of more:

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Is she or the beloved “rowing in Eden?” Either way, her gaze is now toward the Sea. Because she’s detailed her love and its limits, she understands that being in one place may not be the best thing for her. “Wild Nights,” accordingly, turns to “Tonight:” not necessarily the sexual independence of the one-night stand, but definitely a demand that she be given her proper regard now. She can be steadfast, or she can move away. Under no circumstances will she be untrue to herself. Rowing in Eden is the same as traveling the Sea, for someone willing to risk love. The capitalized “Thee” I take in the sense of searching for Love, Love encompassing both sexuality and her own dignity.

Emily Dickinson, “We do not play on Graves” (467)

“We do not play on Graves” (467)
Emily Dickinson

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn’t Room —
Besides — it isn’t even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —

Comment:

“We do not play on Graves:” well, that’s reassuring. “Because there isn’t Room:” wait, it sounds like you did play on graves at least once, or have far too thoroughly considered doing so. “Besides — it isn’t even — it slants /
And People come:” I’ll take this as an admission of guilt, thank you very much.

This first stanza is most questionable. Why does anyone want to play on graves? They are narrow and uneven. Moving upon them invites the earth to move, pushing us in.

The childlike narration of this scene continues in the second stanza:

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

If you play on a grave, people may come to pay their respects. They probably will find your actions distasteful. Dickinson’s narrator identifies a movement from external, conventional signs of grief to shock and heartbreak. A flower is placed, a face falls, and then when a heart breaks, there lingers no possibility of “pretty play.”

In one way, though, we always play on graves. “The earth belongs to the living” in the most literal, savage way of standing upon the dead. But the dead are not merely defined by death. They lived and are remembered by us. Memory of them defines our lives. How that consciousness turns into respect, though, is an open question.

The poem makes it easy to see the conventional respect of a miffed visitor to a grave. However, can we really deem the childish innocence which doesn’t want to break a heart as leaving the dead to their own devices?

I suspect Dickinson is wondering about a certain absorption with the dead. One that would never let a flower grow naturally if it failed to acknowledge the horror and finality of death, the necessity of grief. A joy that could attend the living, by contrast, has this to say:

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —

Grief and its attendant conventions can be a trap, making us enemies of our own happiness, turning the dead into a perpetual imposition while turning life – including the lives they lived – into an occasion. Often I’ll feel guilty toward those I’ve lost, thinking I didn’t visit or call or support enough in this life. It’s a guilt that dissipates as soon as I resolve to learn more and pay it forward. Gifts can only be given or received with joy, with no sense of obligation attached.

Emily Dickinson, “Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)

“Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)
Emily Dickinson

Life, and Death, and Giants —
Such as These — are still —
Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —
Maintain — by Accident that they proclaim —

Comment:

“Life,” “Death,” and “Giants” are motionless? Dickinson proclaims “Such as these – are still.” They are concepts, larger than the everyday life we wake into, move about in, die. “Giants” provide additional color to “Life” and “Death.” These are each literary concepts, essential to our myth-making and self-reflection, and they are purposely inflated. “Giants” implies that they are not the only inflated thing.

What is not inflated involves movement:

Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —

Only the “Beetle at the Candle” is a living organism. A hopper is a minor apparatus, an inverted cone which reduces grain. A “fife’s fame” are musical notes which disappear as soon as they’re sounded. Dickinson brings our attention to the most significant problem with life, death, and giants: their attempt to be bigger than time itself. What’s left of the past has been processed like grain. Grasping the present is like being a beetle both enchanted and wary of a flame. The future, like music, depends on remembrance. Every further note depends on the consciousness of what came before.

These three things “maintain by accident that they proclaim.” Time itself, unlike the constructs life, death, and giants, does not proclaim anything. It does not always allow more serious events and personages to speak. Yet, some of them do, and a thinker more attentive to things in time, a writer who has purposefully made herself small, maintains an actual grasp on living. Whereas to sound off on the largest things without any sense of experience is to tell a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1129)

for Paula Gardner

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1129)
Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Comment:

Cats jumping wildly at a moving laser-pointer: that’s how we are when we first learn to read. It’s so much fun to see that the little squiggles on the page can be said aloud. We’re announcing loudly what’s on signs the car passes by, or priding ourselves on the medal for going through more books than anyone else in class. Later, we make notes on larger texts and difficult essays, trying to remember what they say for the test. Rarely, we may try to relate to a character or interpret a book as a whole. Those few attempts might be a major part of our lives – think of how many people say they wish they had the loyalty of Ruth in the Bible, or are devastated for Anna Karenina – and yet we could have no serious conception of how or why we read. We extract meaning from stories upon which we build our lives while having no clue what we’re doing.

To be sure, there are more conscientious readers of literature. They work to understand the issues an author explores and connect the dots. They put authors and their works in dialogue with one another. Tolstoy’s spirituality can be contrasted with Dostoyevsky’s orthodoxy; Graham Greene’s moral complexity cannot exist in the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves Tolkien inhabits. This is all well and good, but there is a trap. One tends to reconstruct voices which fail utterly at challenging one. We read into authors ideas we’re comfortable with. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” someone once said.

A peculiar phenomenon limited to a small set of texts brings forth a similar situation. It may be the case in less liberal ages – ages far more restrictive of speech – one had to hide one’s more radical opinions. For example, if you endorsed a more secular, representative government against notions of kingship, you might place the word “God” every other sentence when crafting your political writings. Or if you thought the future was a republic of scientists, you might write a strange, apparently incomplete work of fiction where sailors come upon a New Atlantis which wants them to witness their technological marvels and curious religious pluralism. Political esotericism makes perfect sense, now that we have the benefit of hindsight. There are always going to be scholars who doubt its existence, but one does not hide messages for consensus. The goal was to reach the minds who would create the future.

What is much, much stranger is another sort of esoteric writing, a subset of the group above. Jonathan Swift once noted that modern esotericism was like the spider: from the foulest was spun the most beautiful. That characterizes thinkers like Locke and Bacon, who dwell on the reality of power so as to arrange orders where we can live and think freely. Ancient esotericism, though, was like the bee: from the sweetness of flowers flowed ever so much more sweetness. Both Xenophon and Plutarch declare at times that they will not speak of unpleasant things when writing. It’s up to us to imagine those things for ourselves, to reconstruct the pleasures and pains of another world.

I

I cannot say with certainty that Dickinson has a project which encompasses all of her poetry. I do think her themes, her verse, and her life itself are radical enough.  At times, it looks like she has something she wants to say which will force us to reconsider everything. In “This is my letter to the World” (J441), she hints at this larger something:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

“The simple News that Nature told” is what the speaker has put in a letter to the world. This is quite stunning: Nature, which mankind has witnessed and investigated for thousands of years, has news? The speaker continues pleading with her countrymen, whom she obviously distrusts. She hopes they judge tenderly, she implores them to be sweet. But they have not been sweet. They have never written, and their distance from the “tender Majesty” of Nature could not be clearer.

I have not finished reading all of Dickinson, but I suspect her larger concern starts with a proposition such as this: Perhaps the world is eros. That desire and beauty, as Yeats says, put “the young in one another’s arms” – that’s the easy problem, the easy confrontation. More complex is when desire and beauty involve religion, where “safe in their alabaster chambers… sleep the meek members of the resurrection” (J216). Some pride themselves on the afterlife, thinking they have devoted all their desires to earning it. In the end, they can be said to have a portion of eternity in this life, as all else moves and eventually perishes while they sleep. The irony lies in how what happens while they are in the grave too literally is the Biblical promise. Their entombment has meaning when contrasted with dropping Diadems and surrendering Doges; their coffins are just as royal, with “rafter of satin.” However, the wisdom of justice as we understand it, the justice we pray for, does not impress the natural, perhaps created, world: “Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — Ah, what sagacity perished here!”

One might counter Dickinson’s suggestiveness by saying that eternity is not had in the grave, but only after the Second Coming. One might go further and argue that justice as we understand it cannot be the issue, only justice as God understands it. In any case, it seems to me that Dickinson is concerned with the orientation and intensity of our desires. The world is erotic in her telling, but she is alone. Her loneliness emerges emphatically in her poetry, over and over. I have yet to fix my interpretation of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288), but I always took it to be the speaker talking to herself.

At least in my own thinking, I hold that for Dickinson this question remains most prominent: What does it mean to be alone in a completely erotic world?

II

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant:” Christ Himself says to be wise as serpents, but surely this command of Dickinson’s cannot be applied to preaching the Gospel. What, exactly, is “all the truth?” Dickinson avoids answering this, continuing instead with geometric imagery. The “slant” we are to tell is completed by “Success in Circuit.” If we are careful in telling the truth, if we avoid hammering at certain issues, we will communicate truly without offense. Our audience might even consider something differently.

“Slant” and “Circuit” turn from geometric shapes into nothing less than the sun. The allusion is as Platonic as one could possibly get: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Dickinson herself says she has read widely in English poetry, but I cannot tell if she has spent much time with Plato’s Republic. Still, the idea there is this: there are unseen forms which are the truth of our world. “The form of red” is the truth of red, the answer to “what is red?”, in the same way that mathematics determines its objects. The quest for the forms is undertaken by the philosopher, who in the story immediately following the introduction of forms, ascends from a cave of artificial light and shadow puppetry to the surface, where the sun makes things visible.

Whatever the truth is, it has a “superb surprise.” One is telling “all the truth” in order to do some good, not to hurt anyone. Whatever that surprise is, it is “too bright for our infirm Delight.” “Infirm” is key: we’re inflexible. We’ve made a decision on what makes us happy. We want to work with the illusions that are useful and sometimes meaningful. The whole history of ideas, as I see it, is taking care to respect other people’s opinions about justice while bringing them to realize something more. “Infirm” carries a darkness upon which the truth all too easily focuses. To be a completely conventional human being is to be dictated completely by the dead.

III

“All the truth” remains the fundamental issue. It is our liberation from opinions we hold as true simply because they are old. But that liberation does not imply having the absolute truth oneself. If one knows that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, one does not necessarily know it happens to be precisely the opposite unless one knows a lot about physics and astronomy. There may be universal laws of which we remain purposefully ignorant, but to be more knowledgeable does not entail realizing those laws.

So in one sense, “all the truth” isn’t really “all the truth.” It’s the truth about oneself – it’s self-knowledge – which we want others to have. This brings about a further complication. Is it actually knowledge to know how many ways we can delude ourselves, or what rhetoric can entrance us? Is knowledge of our lack of self-knowledge a science? In Plato’s Gorgias, where Gorgias declares that rhetoric enables men to rule and makes them free, Socrates ends up calling rhetoric a pseudoscience, the false art of punitive justice. To put it cynically, self-knowledge can consist somewhat in our declaring ourselves not to be something while spewing hate toward that something. Xenophon understands the figure of Socrates by comparing and contrasting him with the figures of the best political leader (Cyrus), the gentleman (Ischomachus), and the purely ambitious (Xenophon himself).

There is a deeper sort of self-knowledge, where others’ choices do not have to punished for one’s own sake. The “truth’s superb surprise,” on this reading, consists precisely in telling the truth slant and completing the circuit. The risk is that even such subtlety will be too bright:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One must treat one’s audience like children scared of lightning. It seems pretty awful to imply people do not have the moral maturity to hear what they consider blasphemy. To be fair, I never thought books that hide a message to be terribly elitist, nor do I think this poem such. The problem is the risk of making “every man” blind.

That risk comes about this way. On an individual level, we can correct each other. We can be hurt and forgive and improve, or choose to walk away entirely. Moral communication occurs at a personal level, and it is risky there, but the stakes need not be life or death. When we’re talking about works that will reach a mass audience, there cannot be that sort of communication visibly. What results on a mass scale is a reaction, and crowds will be provoked one way or another, because there are certain things we must believe in, or civilization is doomed. It sounds almost like conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that mobs have existed and still exist, and that the power of the mob comes directly from the power of conventionality. Once something is declared “our way,” a perceived attack on it is an attack on us. This cannot be discarded as easily as one would like. Without a sense of a larger identity, without knowing who are friends or who are enemies, no one can fight on behalf of another.

It still is remarkable, in my opinion, that so many have been able to contribute to this indefinite, indeterminate thing called “humanity” over the years. Oftentimes, they don’t do it by fighting, but through sacrifice, even the sacrifice of measured speech. The hope is that the truth will dazzle gradually, whatever it is. “Whatever,” to be sure, is the wrong word. For “all the truth,” in the last analysis, is simply “all.” To speak carefully is to stress one’s own voice, one’s own sensitivity. Personal knowledge is the only knowledge we have.

Emily Dickinson, “I never saw a Moor” (1052)

I never saw a Moor (1052) (from the Emily Dickinson Archive)
Emily Dickinson

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Comment:

On the surface, a simple statement of faith. There are many things I mean; I take for granted I can mean them. God is one of things.

As always, the devil is in the details. The first stanza presents two analogies. Neither a moor (a marshland) nor the sea has been seen. Despite a lack of direct experience, in both cases it is known how aspects of them look. The moor has heather, which are purple flowers. The sea is composed of billows.

The first stanza actually raises the question of “common sense” in a specific way. We use words to signify wholes that define our experience. We are not of the moor, nor of the sea. It sounds strange to talk like this, as it feels like one has no idea what was just said. Wholes depend on parts of which we do have more specific knowledge. However, there are at least two problems with the way the poem depicts those parts. First, it isn’t clear the speaker has experience with either heather or billows. Second, the knowledge transmitted is that of nature. The second stanza advances supernatural claims:

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Initially, it looks like there will be two analogies paralleling the previous stanza. But stating that one has neither spoken with God nor visited in heaven does not produce any further reasoning. Instead, it yields to certainty of a place to which one has a ticket (“checks” was a word popularly used for railroad tickets). Before, what seemed to be proclaimed knowledge of a whole demanded some sort of accounting of its parts.

However, Dickinson’s speaker never claimed to know a moor or the sea! This poem doesn’t reduce to a simple statement of theism or atheism. What it does instead is force the question of what the parts of the kingdom of God are on Earth. One could say it answers that question cynically: death is a pretty certain “spot” for which we have tickets. Still, the first two lines of the second stanza are specific about something. Speaking to God or visiting in Heaven might reinforce her certainty about that “spot,” whatever it is.

The funny thing is how our preoccupation with death makes the mythic central and in an ironic way certain. To recapitulate the poem’s theme: we mean at least two things by belief. First, there’s belief in terms of the knowledge which humans gather and preserve and give to each other. Our shared experience comes to us through conventionality; we possess an image of nature. Then, there’s belief in terms of the risk we take for the sake of the divine. Knowing we will die, we hope and pray to be saved by what is supernatural. Benardete once said that belief and knowledge are of different orders, and I think this is an illustration of what he means. This little poem keeps reasoning by analogy limited to the natural world while advancing a mock ontological proof (the certainty of God is dependent on the most certain thing that will happen to me). Belief and knowledge talk past each other, but as venturers, we engage, use, and want to have both.

Emily Dickinson, “A Bird came down the Walk” (328)

A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Comment:

Human and animal souls correspond, perhaps too closely. The bird is encountered much like another person would be, coming down the walk. In what he regards as his privacy, he does something grotesque and horrible. He finishes his meal with the nearest drink, then shows either fear or politeness to a passing bug. So far, this bird sounds like a better dining companion than most people. We can relate to him, at least.

Of course, now that he’s done his meal, he glances rapidly around, his eyes acting like “frightened Beads.” Is he aware he’s being watched? Or is he really bored with this date?

Our speaker steps forth at this point. She feels like she’s in danger; she does not want to lose or aggravate this bird. Cautiously, she offers a crumb to him, and he flies away. Dickinson devotes a stanza and a half to the departure:

And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Not an abrupt, scared motion, but an unrolling of feathers, a rowing softly home. It is as if the bird was made for this moment; it journeys with an elegance we aspire to have when we travel. The anthropomorphizing brings out the felt, primal unity. As we row to an unknown land that is our ultimate home, the bird also rows. Only, there is this difference. However the bird travels is peculiar to it. It does not disturb nature in the slightest, whether nature is related to the chaos prior to Creation (“Ocean / Too silver for a seam”) or seamless, perfectly adapted change (“Butterflies… leap, plashless”).

Recognition of the correspondence almost yields a primal unity. However, it may not be the most important thing to say we’re alienated from the bird or the Nature of which it is part. What struck me on a first reading was how we can so easily anthropomorphize the bird’s actions to make too much sense, as if the bird were going through a morning routine much like ours. Just as easily, we could deny that the bird’s actions make any real sense, that even if it is going through a morning routine, it is nothing but appetite and whim. In the latter case, how different is the bird from any of us? One does not really want to compare human and animal souls. At best, “rational” only describes “animal.” The bird knows that much better than we do, and accordingly leaves.

Emily Dickinson, “Count not that far that can be had” (1074)

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“Count not that far that can be had” (1074)
Emily Dickinson

Count not that far that can be had,
Though sunset lie between —
Nor that adjacent, that beside,
Is further than the sun.

Comment:

Given an imperative, “count not,” we wonder: Is this advice? A warning?

“Count not that far that can be had” – there is a “far” that can be had? Dickinson clarifies in her peculiar way. Between the “far” and “us,” sunset lies between. Whatever “far” we can possess has something to do with night. I suspect she’s talking about love. The stars are beautiful, distant, uncountable. But in a way, we can have them. We possess them by beholding them.

The first two lines, on my reading, bring together hopes, loves, and heartbreak. “Count not” is a warning. Something about love has to stay mysterious; in the most ardent longing, there is an element of moderation. The poem hints that this might have to do with our beholding the stars. We possess them at the same time we do not possess them. Just as we love, we make them what they are because we see, not touch.

So what if we want to touch? What about the “adjacent,” the “beside?” Dickinson contrasts these with “far” through her use of “that:” “that far,” “that adjacent,” “that beside.” That far can be had, can be possessed. Why is what is “adjacent,” “beside,” further than the sun?  (I am reading the last two lines as “Nor that adjacent, that beside, [which] is further than the sun.”)

I guess that could be read as a simple warning against sensuality as fulfillment, but that’s not true. The first two lines introduced a very sensual love. The issue, again, is counting. Try to count what is earthly, what is right next to you, and you’ll find yourself going crazy. It’s not the amount of distance that’s the problem, it’s the fact of any distance. The funny thing is that we try to count that which we don’t really want to count. Our end is something else, to be sure.

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.

Emily Dickinson, “Faith” is a fine invention (185)

“Faith” is a fine invention (185)
Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Comment:

Gentlemen, secure with their wealth and virtue, know they have to take charge. They have to see, or more properly, have to proclaim they are seeing. Maybe that is why “faith” is in scare quotes and “see” is italicized. That they say they can see necessitates faith: it is both found and made. Whether or not anything is actually seen, well, that’s another question. As is the sort of faith, which pertains to society more than an individual.

On a first reading of this poem, one might be tempted to say “microscopes,” the active seeking of scientific, empirical knowledge, decisively counters the so-called seeing of faith and tradition. But that’s crazy. When are microscopes prudent in an emergency, excepting movies about contagion? The only thing prudent in an emergency is a clear head and clear vision, i.e. parts of prudence itself. Prudence comes from people like “Gentlemen,” who have an ability to keep steady because of “faith.” It isn’t enough to know; one must be able to act based on knowledge; an emergency calls for the best response possible, which does not necessarily stem from knowledge alone. Looking at the littlest details could cost one everything. Still, Dickinson moves us to the littlest details, the smallest part of the whole.

The tension between faith and knowledge with regard to one’s own affairs is sharp, to say the least. In a way, they can be reconciled. The Gentlemen who see, having faith, only need the microscopes in case of emergency. Their “faith” takes care of most issues, but it is precisely their faith that will not prove adaptive enough. Microscopes needed in case of emergency have less to do with the knowledge they actually yield, knowledge of an empirical character that might be said to be reality-based. They have more to do with the vision of the Gentleman, who in a certain sense takes the world for granted.

Actual knowledge of the world is necessary to act prudently, but not sufficient. But what is sufficient isn’t really seeing the world itself in order to act in it, but the addition of a “fine invention” that is as far away from knowledge as one can get. No wonder “faith” is in scare quotes. Belief has the character of infinite regress. The second you believe as zealots do, without doubting anything, you’re acting like you have knowledge. That’s not really belief. What belief is: you start with a “fine invention” that gives what looks like insight, at first. Then something happens that doesn’t test it directly – emergencies are not the character of everyday life – but still calls the whole character of it into question. An existence between faith and knowledge, where one can only hope for a greater knowledge, is the individual.

Emily Dickinson, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” (997)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (997)
Emily Dickinson

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

Comment:

This poem seems to spend a lot of words prolonging our agony. “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” “a borer in the axis,” “ruin is formal,” “fail in an instant, no man did:” our completely falling apart is our own fault, pure and simple. We put in play a principle doomed to decay, if it wasn’t a fatal enterprise in its very inception.

However, I’ve been driving myself crazy the last month wondering what I can do to make my prose and speech sharper. My reaction to this poem was not to wallow in more self-pity, but wonder what Dickinson was up to. Surely she knows that people undergo incredible traumas that break the strongest wills. That even if one wants to blame oneself for faulty reasoning and indulging delusions, there are still others getting hit by disasters which are “an instant’s act.” It would be beyond cruel, not to mention unreasonable, to expect they would have the resources to deal with everything brought upon them.

Her poem starts with a speaker musing on crumbling nearly abstractly, as if it were a mere dimension of time:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

“Instant’s Act,” “fundamental pause,” “processes,” “organized decays” – the subject of the language she employs is Time itself. “Crumbling” and “Dilapidation” bring to mind the image of a building, but “Dilapidation” merely describes “processes.” “Organized Decays” feels like it augurs the introduction of something natural, but nothing living or organic has been introduced in this stanza.

From Time the speaker moves to the Soul, but while she provides organic imagery, almost nothing living is given:

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

She moves from a “cobweb” on the soul to a “Cuticle of Dust.” The dust might as well be our skin. Suddenly, the imagery changes to the mechanical. There is an axis and it is rusting, perhaps because of the very elements of which it is composed.

What stands out is “Borer” – that is either a worm or insect. It is something living, only metaphorically some kind of mechanical malfunction. All a “Borer” does is wreck an attempted motion. Up to this point, there has been no mention of motion other than “crumbling.”

Before we close read the third stanza, we should summarize where we’ve come. The speaker started with Time, then mused about the Soul. Not once did she engage the prospect of something being alive, except obliquely. This may be a clue that the principle she stands upon was fatal from its inception, moreso than most principles. Something was overwhelmingly self-defeating in her logic. It sounds like she wanted to build a sure foundation upon which to act; what’s crumbling is her house upon the sand. “Cobweb on the Soul” is very strange: don’t people who build use their souls? They are usually described as spirited. Also peculiar is that a layer of dust is one’s skin. It’s like the speaker wanted to trade her mortal coil for something more lasting, but in the process ignored what she can do with her own body.

One could say traditions inspire us and make us want to be like the great figures of yesteryear. But that can be flipped on its head, as we do pursue false idols.

The speaker, I think, has too strong a sense of sin. She wants immortality in this life, and still thinks the principles she holds can obtain that. The problem is that she’s watching herself fall apart every second she insists on this. She seems to be blaming herself for not being spirited enough, for not being physically resilient enough. She continues by citing the Devil as the problem:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

The movement has been from “Time” to the “Soul” to “Man.” But again, except for a man slipping, the organic, natural world is completely missing. “Ruin is formal:” there are principles she holds that she has not purged. She lacks purity and so is doing the “Devil’s work” unknowingly. “Slipping – is Crashe’s law:” there is no such man as Crashe. Dickinson’s speaker made a name up from the concept of “crashing.” That tells you all you need to know about how the speaker engages humanity.

All that being said, this is not Dickinson simply ranting against theism. There’s a degree to which the speaker is an aspect of her, of all of us. If you insist that what you do must last, then yes, you are going to crumble. All of us need to take the world as is, the one we were born into and remains in front of us, seriously. We need to keep in mind that we create and recreate structures of belief that we treat as one-size-fits-all solutions. The solution sounds simpler than it is, of course. The world comes with its share of sticks and stones that break bones, as well as words that hurt worse. Many times, the search for an unshakeable foundation emerges from that pain.

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