grasped of God

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode

Where hope and he part company,—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.

The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.

But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.

This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.

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.

‘Tis harder knowing…

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

~Emily Dickinson

I don’t know, Emily…

I mean, I can see what she’s saying. We can become used to the idea of something dreaded via long anticipation. It can become familiar, almost comfortable. There is a difference between the shock of sudden calamity and its long, inevitable approach.

But I don’t know. Is this healthy, this getting used to awfulness? There’s something horribly resigned about the idea. The phrase “had almost made it dear” combined with the repetition of “fitting” makes me wonder if the speaker of the poem is one of those people who loves her grief, who clings to it as if it is loss that makes her who she is. We’ve all known them–those people who love their privation, who boast of how awful things are for them. Is this what Dickinson is saying? Is she speaking for herself? I don’t know.

It’s so hard to know anything, really, about this poet. She died nearly a hundred years before I was born. We know her through fragments–the back of a recipe here, an envelope there. How do you reconstruct a life?

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf


The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –


Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –


I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –


And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?


Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace


Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –


They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –


Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise


And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –


And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –


So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?

The stimulus in danger

I LIVED on dread; to those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger, other impetus
Is numb and vital-less.
As ’t were a spur upon the soul,
A fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre’s aid
Were challenging despair.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m finding this poem really intriguing in light of yesterday’s. In that poem, the speaker describes the “splinter” that can throw a person off course. The tone of that poem makes it clear that the splinter is not a good thing. In this poem, however, dread acts in much the same way as the splinter in the previous poem–it intrudes. In this case, however, the intrusion is welcome–and productive.

This could be the procrastinator’s hymn, really. It reminds me of every friend I’ve ever known who swore they couldn’t start a paper until the night before it was due, that they thrived under pressure, that they needed a deadline–and needed it to be imminent–in order to get anything done.

It’s interesting to note that Dickinson couches this observation in the past tense, speaking as if from beyond the grave: “I lived on dread.” She goes on to invoke all the others who understand the efficacy of danger as a motivator. Even more interesting, I think, is the ending–fear urges to soul to go where it could not go otherwise. Without fear, the speaker would be “challenging despair.” Fear as a means of avoiding despair is an intriguing thought. I’m not sure what exactly to make of it. It feels deeply significant that the poem ends on the word “despair,” as if all the speaker’s fear-driven attempts (at what?) have, in the end, still come to naught.