November left

The night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single star,
That often as a cloud it met
Blew out itself for fear.

The wind pursued the little bush,
And drove away the leaves
November left; then clambered up
And fretted in the eaves.

No squirrel went abroad;
A dog’s belated feet
Like intermittent plush were heard
Adown the empty street.

To feel if blinds be fast,
And closer to the fire
Her little rocking-chair to draw,
And shiver for the poor,

The housewife’s gentle task.
“How pleasanter,” said she
Unto the sofa opposite,
“The sleet than May—no thee!”

~Emily Dickinson
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This is a perfect poem for the start of December, in so many ways. Dickinson begins with the image of a vast night whose darkness is interrupted only by a lone star–and that star is frequently obscured by scudding clouds. With the personification of the star as fearfully extinguishing itself, the poet captures the very human sense of apprehension many of us feel as we approach the darkest day of the year.

November in this poem is like a small, disgruntled creature–it leaves, but then doesn’t, climbing up into the eaves to linger and fret. Just as there is but a lone star in the sky, there is a single living creature out on this dark, cold night–a dog, returning home late, padding almost silently along. Does plush make a sound? The speaker says it does–but it must be a sound that is all but silent. With the wind blowing, how could anyone hear that plush?

In the last two stanzas, the speaker brings us inside a home, where a houswife’s duties are to make sure the blinds are fastened against the night and weather, and to “shiver for the poor.” In the final stanza, the woman addresses “the sofa opposite”–presumably there is someone there? Her spouse? A child? A friend? Maybe a cat or dog?? She remarks that the inclement weather is more pleasant than May. It’s an interesting comment–on one hand, it’s unexpected. Of course May is more pleasant. But for the housewife, May likely means all manner of chores, while the sleet affords her the opportunity to sit, cozy by the fire.

The last line, however–or rather, the last two words–are perplexing. The housewife says that the sleet is more pleasant than May, and then adds, “no thee!” She’s addressing the sofa opposite, and if there’s someone on it, what do we make of this remark? Is she saying, “No, you are more pleasant than May,” or is she saying that sleet is more pleasant than May because there is now “no thee”? She could either be complimenting or issuing a Dickinson-style burn. I really can’t tell which one. What do you think?

Some perfect year

‘Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms —
It had the Tassels on —

I thought how yellow it would look —
When Richard went to mill —
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.

I thought just how Red — Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between —
And the Carts stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in —

I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates —
To make an even Sum —

And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me —

But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year —
Themself, should come to me —

~Emily Dickinson

We’re in the thick of National Novel Writing Month, so let’s do a prompt! If you’re stuck and not sure what to write, imagine your main character speaking from beyond the grave. What would they say? What would they care about–and whom? Or, if that’s way too far outside the bounds of your story, imagine what they would think about when they think about having died. Do they believe in an afterlife? What kind? How does this impact the way they behave and believe in this life?

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”

The egg of forests

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or me
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

To invest existence with a stately air,
Needs but to remember
That the acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper air!

~Emily Dickinson
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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.

Thanks, Emily.

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?

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Who robbed the woods,
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?

~Emily Dickinson

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.

not Death

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.

~Emily Dickinson

This is the Poe poem of Dickinson poems. So many fantastic details: hot breezes that “crawl” across the flesh, cold feet, bodies laid out for burial, a claustrophobic framing of a life, “grisly frosts,” the silence of a midnight when “everything that ticked – has stopped,” and space staring back at us.

The speaker insists that she’s not dead, but details all the parallels between her own state and death, while also outlining the differences. She is in a moment of existential crisis–a moment of perfect silence when she is left utterly alone with herself in the universe. What is the crisis, precisely? It’s not until the final stanza that she breaks from describing the symptoms to identify the disease, the dis – ease. She is “Without a Chance, or spar – Or even a Report of Land.” In the final line, the final word, of the poem, she names the answer to the riddle.

Gentian

GOD made a little gentian;
It tired to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature 5
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come 10
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

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Emily Dickinson apparently really liked gentians. I have only just learned of them this week. That’s about all I’ve got for today, because life has gotten zooey and I do not have time to contemplate gentians at the moment. Here’s hoping you’ve got a little more wiggle room!