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.

The forest of the dead

OUR journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term.

Our pace took sudden awe, 5
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.

Retreat was out of hope,—
Behind, a sealed route, 10
Eternity’s white flag before,
And God at every gate.

~Emily Dickinson

For someone who often wrote of Death as a courteous gentleman, Dickinson wrote some pretty macabre stuff, too. The line that jumps out at me from this poem is “the forest of the dead.” In the poem, it’s the obstacle between the speaker and the “cities.” The line reminds me of Carrie Ryan’s YA zombie novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is a great read even if, like me, you are squeamish about all things zombie.

As a country-dweller, I’m often bemused by how often in the human imagination cities are associated with goodness, order, intellectualism, etc.; while nature, particularly very rural parts of it, are scary, benighted, chaotic, deadly. I feel safer in the middle of the woods than in any city.

Another NaNo prompt

I HAVE not told my garden yet,
Lest that should conquer me;
I have not quite the strength now
To break it to the bee.

I will not name it in the street, 5
For shops would stare, that I,
So shy, so very ignorant,
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it,
Where I have rambled so, 10
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go,

Nor lisp it at the table,
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the riddle 15
One will walk to-day!

~Emily Dickinson

Today, another prompt inspired by this poem, for all those of you NaNo-ing merrily away out there.

What is your main character’s attitude toward death? Is their attitude toward death in general the same as their attitude toward their own death? How does this attitude affect their actions and interactions with others? What happens when they find themselves in a life-or-death situation?

Happy noveling!

Out of joint

ARCTURUS is his other name,—
I ’d rather call him star!
It ’s so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

I pull a flower from the woods,—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time’s brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I ’m ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven’s changed!
I hope the children there
Won’t be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl,—
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything,—
Over the stile of pearl!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

Let’s do another prompt! Because it’s NaNo season, and that’s how my brain is operating, apparently..

What I love about this poem is the way it articulates a sneaking suspicion that many of us have–that we were born in the wrong time, that our attitudes and priorities are so different from those of the majority that we’re not sure we belong here.

So your prompt is this–pick a character (sure, you could choose your MC, but what if you chose the villain?) and write about their favorite time in history that isn’t their own. Why does it appeal to them? Do they feel like they’d belong better there? What does this out-of-jointness say about them, and how does it affect their actions? dress? attitudes? behaviors? You might unlock something really interesting.

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”