GREAT streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.
By clocks ’t was morning, and for night ~Emily Dickinson
The bells at distance called;
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled.
How do you write about nothing? How do you imagine it–how is it even possible to conceive of? Dickinson’s description in this poem reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s depiction of the land of the dead in her Earthsea books.
Both LeGuin and Dickinson conceive of death as a paradoxical place of nowhereness, a thing of nothing.
OUR journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term.
Our pace took sudden awe, 5
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.
Retreat was out of hope,— ~Emily Dickinson
Behind, a sealed route, 10
Eternity’s white flag before,
And God at every gate.
For someone who often wrote of Death as a courteous gentleman, Dickinson wrote some pretty macabre stuff, too. The line that jumps out at me from this poem is “the forest of the dead.” In the poem, it’s the obstacle between the speaker and the “cities.” The line reminds me of Carrie Ryan’s YA zombie novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is a great read even if, like me, you are squeamish about all things zombie.
As a country-dweller, I’m often bemused by how often in the human imagination cities are associated with goodness, order, intellectualism, etc.; while nature, particularly very rural parts of it, are scary, benighted, chaotic, deadly. I feel safer in the middle of the woods than in any city.
Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode
Where hope and he part company,— ~Emily Dickinson
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.
I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.
The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.
But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.
This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.
To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or me
They may take the trifle
To invest existence with a stately air, ~Emily Dickinson
Needs but to remember
That the acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper air!
In the first stanza, Dickinson is speaking once again about death. In order to value our days, our moments, even the least amazing of them, we have but to remember that at any point we could be dead.
The second stanza almost seems at first glance like it belongs to another poem. Not only does it have one less line, but it’s focused now on valuing the world we’re in, the lives we have, because they hold the potential for life beyond this one. If what we have/experience now seems tiny, insignificant, we should remember that the tiny acorn is “the egg of forests” that will one day stretch into “the upper air.”
In a rare Dickinson move, the poet moves from dwelling on how the thought of death should make us value life to the much more optimistic notion that we plant in this life the seeds for the next.
There’s a lot to mull over here. But really, I chose this poem for today because I adore the notion of acorns as little eggs that hatch into entire forests.
Who robbed the woods, ~Emily Dickinson
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please. 5
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say?
In my imagination, this is the beginning of a dark and twisty fairy tale. I assume Dickinson is talking about the change of seasons here, about autumn giving way to winter, but the personification makes me want to read this a bit more literally and think of winter as a sentient entity–like Hades stealing Persephone from the world of sunlight, or like some fey elf-lord bringing down winter on the land. Like the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
It’s wonderful all the places a poem can lead, all the winding avenues of thought it opens up before us.
Whether my bark went down at sea,
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails;
By what mystic mooring ~Emily Dickinson
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay.
This whole poem is a sentence–one act of wondering, of uncertainty. The “bark” could represent anything, really–the point of the poem is the questioning. The poem crystallizes a moment of uncertainty.
I love the line “the errand of the eye.” The notion of the eye on a mission, actively searching rather than passively receiving images, is an intriguing one.
May all your isles be enchanted.
The distance that the dead have gone
Does not at first appear;
Their coming back seems possible
For many an ardent year.
And then, that we have followed them ~Emily Dickinson
We more than half suspect,
So intimate have we become
With their dear retrospect.
This seems an appropriate poem for today, when the Day of the Dead concludes. When someone has died, that they are gone at first seems impossible. As time passes and the loss settles into our bones, we wonder if we have joined them. You can read this on different levels–the pain of grief, the wishing to be with the departed, the fact that they take pieces of us with them…The last two lines are intriguing–“So intimate have we become/With their dear retrospect.” I wonder if Dickinson is talking here about the way we change the dead in our memories–we become familiar with their retrospect rather than hanging onto them exactly as they were. Memory is tricksy, and we alter the dead in our imagination.