thirst

I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching, next to mine,
And summon them to drink.

Crackling with fever, they essay;
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.

The hands still hug the tardy glass;
The lips I would have cooled, alas!
Are so superfluous cold,

I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould.

Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak.

And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake,—

If, haply, any say to me,
“Unto the little, unto me,”
When I at last awake.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This one is challenging to me. I’m not sure what Dickinson is getting at–it’s certainly metaphorical, whatever it is. I can’t imagine she actually wants to go gallivanting all over New England, pushing wine on dying people.

The central image that arises in this poem, and which must be key to understanding it, is that of thirst. In the first stanza, Dickinson describes “lips long parching” to which she offers a drink.

The next few stanzas offer up more subtle references to thirst. In the second stanza, we get a sharp contrast between eyes “Crackling with fever” and the speaker’s own “brimming eyes”–a contrast between heat and liquid, hot and cool. The third stanza gives us hands grasping the glass, the subject of the speaker’s ministrations having died unsated, thirst unslaked despite the proximity of the drink. The fourth stanza offers the image of the frozen dead–moisture locked away in frost. At this point, they are surely beyond the transformative power of wine or any liquid.

With the fifth stanza, we get back to very direct descriptions and mentions of thirst. “Some other thirsty there may be,” the speaker imagines, “And so I always bear the cup.” And then the thirst and liquid language pours out, as the speaker envisions the “drop” that will “slake” someone else’s “thirst.”

She ends with a Biblical reference, which feels a bit strange–it’s very dry in contrast to the liquid language of the rest of the poem. Almost a platitude–except, of course, this is Dickinson, so she is shaping it to her own ends. Exactly what those are, I’m still unsure about. What exactly is the wine she’s offering? And why? She is trying to help the dying–what is the aid she offers? This one is going to need more mulling over, no pun intended, if I’m going to grasp exactly what she’s getting at. What exactly is the thirst she’s talking about? And how would the reclusive Dickinson have thought to address this?

Perhaps the answer is poetry. Whether or not she was shy, as the old myth of the poet proclaims, Dickinson certainly wasn’t out evangelizing to and fro across the Massachusetts countryside. What she was doing was writing. So maybe her poems, her words, are the “unaccustomed wine.” I wonder if she knew they would reach their readers after her death–she must have at least thought of this when she tucked them away in a drawer, tied into neat packets.

Dickinson’s poetry is certainly “unaccustomed”–it definitely would have been to readers at the time. Her attitudes, her style, her unique twist on her subjects–all of these things make her work stand alone, stand out. Maybe this is a poem about her poetry, about a poetic vision of the world that the then-living world wasn’t ready for.

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”

Beyond time

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
The bells at distance called;
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled.

~Emily Dickinson

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.

Fictitious shores

I MANY times thought peace had come,
When peace was far away;
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
At centre of the sea,

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
How many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.

~Emily Dickinson

Let’s do another NaNo prompt! Because why not. If you’re struggling for word count, consider what might be your main character’s “fictitious shores.” What do they see hovering just over the horizon that’s keeping them going? What do they think they want? Now, what happens if that gets taken away?

Happy writing!

Before I got my eye put out-

Before I got my eye put out –
I liked as well to see
As other creatures, that have eyes –
And know no other way –

But were it told to me, Today,
That I might have the Sky
For mine, I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me –

The Meadows – mine –
The Mountains – mine –
All Forests – Stintless stars –
As much of noon, as I could take –
Between my finite eyes –

The Motions of the Dipping Birds –
The Morning’s Amber Road –
For mine – to look at when I liked,
The news would strike me dead –

So safer – guess – with just my soul
Opon the window pane
Where other creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –

~Emily Dickinson

Today you get a video, because this is pretty fantastic: John Green’s literature crash course on Emily Dickinson. Enjoy!

too far!

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!

Emily Dickinson

It’s not just the mention of silence in the first stanza but also the continued metaphor of play and contrast between bliss and pain that calls to mind Robert Browning’s Tempest-inspired “Caliban upon Setebos.” In Browning’s poem Caliban, the monster enslaved by Prospero, muses on his understanding of the divine. It’s a fantastic poem–read it here, and see what you think.

Seeking Neptune

SHE went as quiet as the dew
From a familiar flower.
Not like the dew did she return
At the accustomed hour!

She dropt as softly as a star 5
From out my summer’s eve;
Less skillful than Leverrier
It’s sorer to believe!

~Emily Dickinson
Neptune, via Pixabay.com

Okay, so I fell down a rabbit hole with this one. Obviously we’re talking about someone who’s dead and missed, but I had no idea who Leverrier was. Turns out, he’s the French astronomer who predicted the existence and location of Neptune via its effects on Uranus. His area of expertise was “celestial mechanics,” which is a phrase so rife with possibility it’s going to haunt me for a long time.

This Leverrier reference deepens my whole understanding of this poem. In the first stanza, the departed one is described in earthly terms, as something small and ephemeral and unremarkable–she was “quiet” and “like the dew” “from a familiar flower.” Even the hour is “accustomed.” The scale of this stanza is small and expected.

It’s in the second stanza that we really see the importance of this unnamed woman and the effect of her absence on the speaker. She dropped “as softly as a star”–though still quiet, she is now described in not earthly but celestial terms, and has gone from the scale of a dewdrop to a sun.

I think the speaker is comparing herself to Leverrier here, despite the lack of any kind of subject for this clause. She is less skillful that the astronomer who could predict something unseen by the way it affects something known, but her predicament is more dire. The missing loved one, like the unseen Neptune, will forever shift the speaker’s world in its orbit.