from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
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Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

the Ice

They won’t frown always — some sweet Day
When I forget to tease —
They’ll recollect how cold I looked
And how I just said “Please.”

Then They will hasten to the Door
To call the little Girl
Who cannot thank Them for the Ice
That filled the lisping full.

~Emily Dickinson
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Wow, so this is an “I told you so” poem par excellence. The pathos is dripping from every line. The speaker in this poem is a little child who seems used to being chastised or ignored, and who, as far as we know, has only ever said “please.” I am reminded of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, with his “Could I please have some more?”

The child seems horribly ignored–she imagines a future in which she is gone and the faceless “They” of the poem hurry to the door to call her home. But she is dead and buried, iced over in winter.

Geez. Emo Emily.

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?

A dare:

DARE you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door.
Red is the fire’s common tint;
But when the vivid ore


Has sated flame’s conditions,
Its quivering substance plays
Without a color but the light
Of unanointed blaze.


Least village boasts its blacksmith,
Whose anvil’s even din
Stands symbol for the finer forge
That soundless tugs within,


Refining these impatient ores
With hammer and with blaze,
Until the designated light
Repudiate the forge.

~Emily Dickinson

In the thin darkness before dawn, temperatures plummeted to low single digits here in the north of the South. Before sunrise I bundled up and went outside to break the crust of ice from the chickens’ water. The coming sunrise was a yolk-colored watercolor wash along the horizon, brightening against the lightening sky, and the thin fingernail moon hung high, framed by piercing stars. The cold was so violent it burned, the air sere and searing.

I chose this poem for today simply because it seemed pleasant to think about anything white-hot on a day like today. As I read and reread it, I am first reminded of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God” from his Holy Sonnets. Both Donne and Dickinson invoke a creator who makes through violent change, through extreme trial, by pushing the raw material to its limits. The difference is that while Donne begs God to bludgeon him into shape, Dickinson envisions the end of the process as the newly-refined material repudiating the forge.

Here’s where Dickinson gets supremely Dickinsonian. “Repudiate” is a fascinating choice here, with a couple of possible meanings: “to refuse to accept,” or “to reject as untrue or unjust.” Refusing to accept the creator/circumstances of creation is one thing; rejecting them as untrue or unjust is another. They are similar, but there is a significant shade of difference.

As I continue mulling over this poem, the second thing that strikes me is that the current extreme cold is an opposite yet similar metaphor–opposite in temperature, but similar in function. Heat refines in one way, cold in another. I think of how allergists tell people to either wash linens in hot water or seal them in plastic and put them in the freezer to kill dust mites. Heat and cold can both burn. We talk about long-lingering food in freezers as being “freezer-burned.” I think of this line from the poem “Angus McGregor,” by B. D. Pancake: “The hills at thirty below have teeth.” On my drive home this evening, I heard on the news that eight people in the midwest have died from the cold this week. The forge is metaphorical. The forge is real.

It is telling that Dickinson begins the poem with a dare: “Dare you see a soul at the white heat?” Can you handle bearing witness to the process of creation?

the shadow of a flame

“Deadly sweet”

LXIII


TALK with prudence to a beggar
Of “Potosi” and the mines!
Reverently to the hungry
Of your viands and your wines!


Cautious, hint to any captive
You have passed enfranchised feet!
Anecdotes of air in dungeons
Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!

~Emily Dickinson

This is another Dickinson poem that feels sharply prescient. In the age of social media’s many brags, humble and otherwise, we’re periodically reminded by scary stories of stalkers and trolls that we share at our own risk. But we also share at the risk of others. Coming off the holiday season, I am reminded of all the people for whom the holidays are hard, and how much harder our constant oversharing must make the experience. I think of the trendily matte Christmas cards with their professional photographs of smiling families in color-coordinated outfits and wonder what the effect is on people without families, or people whose families make the holidays a torment rather than a joy.

Today the polar vortex blasts in, carving a swath through the continent and plunging the American South to sub-Arctic temperatures. People joke about the cold, shudder in a pleasant mixture of dread and anticipation (freezing outside but warm inside–sweaters, hot chocolate, fireplaces). How many people don’t have anything good to anticipate? How often do we long for cold (it will kill the viruses!), snow (it’s so pretty!), winter storms (a day off from work/school!) without imagining what pain that pleasure will bring for some?

Dickinson uses Potosí, a massive and once highly-productive silver mine run by the Spanish in what is now Bolivia, as an example of vast riches. The mine’s history is also one of exploitation and slavery, and I wonder how much she knew about this. The miners were as much prisoners as the captives she mentions at the end of the poem.

In the thin cold days of winter, this poem is a reminder to think outside ourselves, beyond our own experiences, and consider the impact of our messages on others.