to keep the dark away

I sing to use the waiting,
My bonnet but to tie,
And shut the door unto my house;
No more to do have I,

Till, his best step approaching,
We journey to the day,
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Things 1 and 2 are on break, and are clamoring to use my computer, so I’ll keep this one short. This poem calls to mind the English carol “In praise of Christmas,” with its emphasis on the power of music and togetherness to drive away the dark cold of winter. The lyrics are below. May you be warm and safe this winter’s day, surrounded by love.

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all of the rest of the year
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks
Both beauty and youth’s decay
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbors together do meet
To sit by the fire with friendly desire
Each other in love to greet
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot
All sorrows aside they lay
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away

When Christmas tide comes in like a bride
With holly and ivy clad
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away

~“In Praise of Christmas”

Enough is one

FEW get enough,—enough is one;
To that ethereal throng
Have not each one of us the right
To stealthily belong?

~Emily Dickinson

A small one, but a good one. Few do get enough-but of what? If “enough is one,” then is “enough” referring to people? If we have one true friend, are we among the lucky few? But what, then, is “that ethereal throng”? Is the throng ethereal because it is actually small–a pair rather than a throng? Is Dickinson being tongue-in-cheek here? This poem reminds me of the following one:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

~Emily Dickinson

In both of these poems, though in different ways, Dickinson seems to be arguing for the “select society” of the soul. I love her perspective on friendship, which is utterly refreshing in the age of social media–you don’t need many friends, as long as you have one true one.

So here’s to the real friendships, the unfiltered ones, the ones that last and grow and evolve and make us better than we were before.

On this date

GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!
Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
And only the waves reply.

~Emily Dickinson

This poem reminds me of a song sung by William Pint and Felicia Dale, so I’m including the lyrics here in full, though there are rather a lot of them. They recount a true story–the loss of the British lifeboat The Mary Stanford on this date ninety-one years ago. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more tragic by the fact that the vessel which The Mary Stanford was sent out to rescue was already saved by the time the English lifeboat launched. It seems like the kind of story that would have struck a chord in Dickinson’s imagination.

When master John Stanford of London town died
They read out his will and his legacy spied
It said take this bequest for to build me a craft
So that with it my name shouldn’t die
And give it to the R.N.L.I.

So they fashioned a lifeboat of Liverpool class
38 feet from the stem to the aft
With a close reefed mainsail on a 20 foot mast
And to grant the last wish of his life
Named it Mary after his wife

She went into service in 1916
And 63 times from the boathouse she screamed
Cross the shale of Rye Bay
Through the teeth of the storm
And into the mouth of the waves
All sailors lives there to save

Johnny come home they all sing from the pier
On the 15th day of November each year
And one day the sea she will give up her dead
And home will come young Johnny Head
Home will come young Johnny Head

Young Johnny Head
Had just turned seventeen
And to serve on the lifeboat was
Young Johnny’s dream
His father was the coxswain
His brother in the crew
And to serve he was willing to die
On the Mary Stanford of Rye

On November 15th
With the storm at its height
The Alice of Riga was losing her fight
Seven miles from Dungeness
She was drifting and lost
And the crew prayed and cried
To the moon
That’s when they heard the maroon

It was four in the morning
When young Johnny Head
On hearing the signal
He leapt from his bed
With his father and brother
They ran like the wind
That whipped up the furious waves
But there were lives to be saved

To haul out the lifeboat
Took blood, sweat and tears
It took them two hours
Must have seemed like two years
Exhausted and spent, they set her afloat
And into the barbarous waves
Rowed Mary to Alice’s aid

It was 6:45 when the shoremen lost sight
of the Mary
As she pitched out into the night
And at 6:51 the coastguard he rang,
Saying “Stand down your lifeboatmen
brave
For the Alice is already saved.”

Nobody knows from that day to this,
Why the coastguard got word
At eleven past six
But the message he kept forty minutes
or more
While seventeen brave men of Rye
Rowed into the tempest to die

It was almost noon on the terrible morn
And the families and launch crew had
Waited since dawn
When suddenly somebody
Pointed and cried
And there in the surf and the spray
The Mary Stanford she lay

Her body was battered
Her keel was upright
No close-reefed mainsail
No crewman in sight
They hauled her ashore
And they knelt round and prayed
Then gazed out again at the main
And the tears they ran like the rain

Then one by one
The sea gave up her dead
First Willie Clark then young Jimmy Head
Then Albert and Rob, the two Cutting boys
And three from the Pope family
And nine more sons of the sea

But young Johnny Head
He never came home
He lies out somewhere in the ocean alone
His comrades lie buried
In the churchyard at Rye
And they keep him a space for his bed
One day they’ll find Johnny Head

So the next time you sail
Around Hastings and Rye
Look to the distance and keep out an eye
And if you see a young man from the R.N.L.I.
Standing guard over the foam
You’ll know that Johnny’s come home

~Allen Maslen, “The Mary Stanford of Rye”

November

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.

A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eves,—
Gone Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.

Still is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.

Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a lovely tribute to the days that don’t often receive one. I’m going to put it next to this classic by Keats, because they seem to have much in common. Enjoy these sweet, rare autumn days.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

~John Keats, “To Autumn”

Though pyramids decay

’T is an honorable thought,
And makes one lift one’s hat,
As one encountered gentlefolk
Upon a daily street,

That we ’ve immortal place,
Though pyramids decay,
And kingdoms, like the orchard,
Flit russetly away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

This poem has some things to say to this other poem, so I’ll just put them both here and let them talk it out. The following poem has chatted with Dickinson’s work here before, but I need pretty much no excuse to reread “Ozymandias” for the gazillionth time.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Death vs. Ozymandias

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

~Emily Dickinson

What to say about this one? It’s perhaps the most Emily poem of them all. Death is courtly, measured, unhurried. The speaker seems not unhappy at the prospect of her own earthly demise. And the poem ends on “eternity,” on an open vowel.

Rather than belabor this one, I’m going to set next to it another on a similar subject, with a similar ending tactic, so they can chat. The open vowel on the subject of death and forever calls to mind Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” While Dickinson’s poem is vastly more personal, it seems they have more than a few things in common. I’ll let them talk it out.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

truth // beauty

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed? 5
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms, 10
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

~Emily Dickinson

This is another of my favorites. There’s something beautifully macabre about the notion of two dead people striking up a conversation, finding in death a kinship. This poem is ultimately about my favorite subject of all, which is connection. The dead characters in the poem recognize their likeness, and proceed to converse as long as possible, “Until the moss had reached our lips / And covered up our names.” The similarity between the two continues through death into oblivion–both are alike in the reason they died, and they simultaneously become forgotten.

There is so, so much going on here–whole papers on death, obscurity, connection, the nature of truth and beauty…..I could ponder and write about this one for days. However, this poem very obviously would like to have a conversation with John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” so I’m going to leave them alone to talk it out.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

~John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”