Good-by to men

A TRAIN went through a burial gate,
A bird broke forth and sang,
And trilled, and quivered, and shook his throat
Till all the churchyard rang;

And then adjusted his little notes,
And bowed and sang again.
Doubtless, he thought it meet of him
To say good-by to men.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Here’s the first of our October graveyard poems. There will be quite a lot of them because, you know, Emily Dickinson and all. This one is really more charming than spooky, though–the little bird, proud of his song, singing off the departed human. Leave it to Emily Dickinson to write an adorable poem on the subject of death.

“Place was where the presence was”

AT half-past three a single bird
Unto a silent sky
Propounded but a single term
Of cautious melody.

At half-past four, experiment 5
Had subjugated test,
And lo! her silver principle
Supplanted all the rest.

At half-past seven, element
Nor implement was seen, 10
And place was where the presence was,
Circumference between.

~Emily Dickinson

I haven’t yet been able to put my finger on exactly what it is, but ever since I first read this poem, I’ve been feeling that it had something to say to another poem by another poet writing in a different time and situation:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.|

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

~Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar”

I think it’s because both of these poems seem to me on some level to be describing the way that artifact and experience can create place, can somehow reshape it. I’m not sure…but I’ll leave these two here so you can mull it over, too.

A Sunday poem

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church, Our little sexton sings.

God preaches,—a noted clergyman,—
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I’m going all along!

~Emily Dickinson

In deep summer, evenings in the woods behind my house are punctuated by the liquid silver songs of wood thrushes. It’s impossible to do justice to the sound; the best I can do is to say that if you had been trudging across a desert without water for hours under the heat of a burning sun and suddenly a pitcher of water miraculously appeared in front of you–if that experience was a sound, it would be the song of a wood thrush.

It is impossible not to be awed by this music. It’s unearthly, beyond perfect–divine. The notes tumble down on you from the branches of an ancient oak or the fierce straight column of a walnut tree, bathing you in sound. You do not see the thrush–you only believe it is there. And it is. For a moment, it is everything, every sense, feeling, thought, desire. Nothing else remains. The seconds of the thrush’s song are rare moments of perfection in a glaringly imperfect world.

Bereaved acknowledgment

I DREADED that first robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I ’m accustomed to him grown,—
He hurts a little, though.

I thought if I could only live
Till that first shout got by,
Not all pianos in the woods
Had power to mangle me.

I dared not meet the daffodils,
For fear their yellow gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own.

I wished the grass would hurry,
So when ’t was time to see,
He ’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me.

I could not bear the bees should come,
I wished they ’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go:
What word had they for me?

They ’re here, though; not a creature failed,
No blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me,
The Queen of Calvary.

Each one salutes me as he goes,
And I my childish plumes
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking drums.

~emily dickinson

This is a strange one indeed. The speaker is talking about things that Dickinson typically gets excited about–robins, daffodils, bees–but instead of anticipating them, she tells us she has “dreaded” them. The robin “hurts a little,” the “pianos in the wood” can “mangle” her, the daffodils’ yellow can “pierce” her. If it’s aware of her needs, Nature ignores them, showing no deference to her feelings. She is the “Queen of Calvary”–the queen of suffering? The queen of salvation? What exactly does this mean?

Such a strange poem. The speaker describes the beauties of spring as torments and herself as “bereaved.” What is she grieving? Does the freshness and new life of spring remind her of something she can’t have, something she lost? Why does spring hurt?

There is something in these early days of spring–some underlying coldness on the sunniest days, some lingering frost–that reminds us that spring is not forever. Of all the beauties of the year, spring’s somehow seem the most fleeting, the most fragile. Blossoms are easily crushed, and bees may live for only weeks or days. Perhaps it’s this ephemerality that pains Dickinson–the knowledge that all this beauty, from the moment it bursts forth, is already passing into memory.

Oriole, Part 2

ONE of the ones that Midas touched,
Who failed to touch us all,
Was that confiding prodigal,
The blissful oriole.

So drunk, he disavows it
With badinage divine;
So dazzling, we mistake him
For an alighting mine.

A pleader, a dissembler,
An epicure, a thief,—
Betimes an oratorio,
An ecstasy in chief;

The Jesuit of orchards,
He cheats as he enchants
Of an entire attar
For his decamping wants.

The splendor of a Burmah,
The meteor of birds,
Departing like a pageant
Of ballads and of bards.

I never thought that Jason sought
For any golden fleece;
But then I am a rural man,
With thoughts that make for peace.

But if there were a Jason,
Tradition suffer me
Behold his lost emolument
Upon the apple-tree.

~Emily dickinson

There is a lot happening in this poem–so much that I don’t know where to begin. I chose it to follow up yesterday’s oriole poem–it seemed like a good idea at the time. But I don’t know what to do with this one. It’s crammed with classical allusions, bizarre and gorgeous metaphors and similes, maybe a zing aimed at Jesuits, and Emily writing as a “rural man.”

Did Midas touch the oriole? Is it Midas or the oriole who failed to touch us all? What the heck is “an alighting mine”? “The meteor of birds,/Departing like a pageant” is a shimmeringly lovely description. But then what’s up with the golden fleece business, and what does that have to do with being “a rural man,/With thoughts that make for peace?” And the word “emolument” is one I can’t read without a certain modern cringing at current events.

I think she’s saying that the oriole’s music is like gold, but that’s about all I’ve got. I wonder if Dickinson is throwing words at paper in a sort of poetic stream of consciousness and seeing what sticks. I like the poem, but I don’t know exactly what to make of it. What do you think?

Oriole, Part 1

TO hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The “tune is in the tree,”
The sceptic showeth me;
“No, sir! In thee!”

~emily dickinson

This is a weird and wonderful poem. Structurally it’s very different from most Dickinson poems, with its three-line stanzas. The last line of each is markedly shorter than the first two. There is an abrupt, revelatory feel to these short lines, as if Dickinson is demanding that we sit up straight and pay attention because something important is about to be unfolded. The whole thing reads like some obscure ancient riddle.

I think what she’s saying is that the music of birdsong is within each of us–that is, the perception of the song as music. The “only” in the first stanza is interesting. “Or only a divine” sounded to me on the first few readings as if the poet was saying “only” in the sense of “merely,” which feels odd and yet somehow perfectly Dickinsonian, minimizing the divine for some kind of effect. But on about the third reading I wonder if she means “only” in the sense of “purely” or “exclusively.”

This whole poem is like a riddle, the answer of which is different for each person because it is buried deep within ourselves, like our perception of the oriole’s song.


Before you thought of spring,
Except as a surmise,
You see, God bless his suddenness,
A fellow in the skies
Of independent hues,
A little weather-worn,
Inspiriting habiliments
Of indigo and brown.

With specimens of song,
As if for you to choose,
Discretion in the interval,
With gay delays he goes
To some superior tree
Without a single leaf,
And shouts for joy to nobody
But his seraphic self!

~emily dickinson

Yesterday my dad was cleaning out birdhouses. He hadn’t seen a bluebird yet, he said. The tree swallows had come and gone suddenly, and he seemed certain it was because the birdhouses needed clearing out. Birds have a way of making their opinions known. Last summer, hummingbirds would hover outside my kitchen window, staring in at me as if to say “Get a move on!!” while I cleaned and refilled their feeder. So I suspect Dad was not wrong about the tree swallows.

This afternoon, while my husband and I walked the dog in the field behind our house, a bird burst from one of the newly-cleaned houses–probably a mockingbird or catbird, judging from its size and the flash of grey. Not a bluebird.

Then, suddenly, wings blazed blue across the winter-brown field. A bird perched on top of another birdhouse and sat there, watching us. I stared against the sun, trying to discern its exact color. A bluebird. They are back, and with them, hope and warmth and light, and permission, for those of us who needed it, to shout for joy to no one but ourselves.