Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.
The flesh surrendered, cancelled, ~Emily Dickinson
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.
At numerous times over the course of this year-long Emily Dickinson project, I have suspected that I am gradually becoming stupider. Some of Dickinson’s poems hit me like a flash of insight, clear and bracing. Others completely befuddle me, to the point that I wonder if I have forgotten how to word.
The first stanza of this poem is very straightforward. Of course it’s about death! The second stanza? Tricksier. Okay, death means the surrendering of the flesh, the beginning of a bodiless state. But what are the “Two worlds” that “disperse” “like audiences”? Has she named two worlds?
Maybe the two worlds are a reference to the “clouds,” representing heaven, and “Creation,” representing this life, in the first stanza. If this is the case, then what is Dickinson saying about death? That the soul after death has nothing to do with either this world or the next? It’s almost like this woman was not raised by a preacher. Or like she’s the stereotypical P.K., pushing allll the boundaries and challenging alll the beliefs.
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants –
At Evening, it is not
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a Spot
As if it tarried always
And yet it’s whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay –
And fleeter than a Tare –
’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler –
The Germ of Alibi –
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie –
I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit –
This surreptitious Scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.
Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn –
Had Nature an Apostate –
That Mushroom – it is Him!
Dickinson is right about so many things. The mushroom really is “the elf of plants” (even though, of course, it is not a plant because Science). It appears overnight as if by magic, erupting silently from the humus. A mushroom has a kind of presence–it is solid, architectural, and where a mushroom springs up, it seems to irrefutably belong.
Yet “it’s whole Career / Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay.” Dickinson tells us that the grass is pleased by the interruption of the mushroom, but then goes on to argue that it is Nature’s unbeliever, that it is the one face Nature could condemn.
I wonder how much Dickinson really understood about mushrooms. Did she know that they spring from decay, that they are the unheimlich little denizens of the forest floor who, like the vulture high overhead, transmogrify death into life, decay into vitality and beauty?
Prayer is the little implement ~Emily Dickinson
Through which men reach
Where presence is denied them.
They fling their speech
By means of it in God’s ear;
If then He hear,
This sums the apparatus
Comprised in prayer.
Prayer can seem like such a small thing.
I have always had a sense of my own prayers as balloons, rising softly only to get stuck bumping around in a corner of the ceiling, never getting where they are supposed to be going. Other people’s prayers, I am certain, find their destination, wing their way right to where they’re supposed to be.
We fling our speech heavenward, hoping for an answer, a cure, absolution, redemption. Where does it go? Where do words go once they are spoken? Where does that sound go?
The “If” in the second and final stanza is so interesting to me. If God hears, then that is prayer. Prayer has been achieved. It isn’t prayer, apparently, if the “little implements” never arrive at their destination.
I wonder what I have been doing all this time.
I know that He exists.–Emily Dickinson
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!
But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!
It’s not just the mention of silence in the first stanza but also the continued metaphor of play and contrast between bliss and pain that calls to mind Robert Browning’s Tempest-inspired “Caliban upon Setebos.” In Browning’s poem Caliban, the monster enslaved by Prospero, muses on his understanding of the divine. It’s a fantastic poem–read it here, and see what you think.
I NEVER saw a moor, ~Emily Dickinson
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God, 5
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
Dickinson is wonderfully confounding. Sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s talking about. Other times, it’s crystal clear. This is one of those clear ones. The diction and syntax are simple, almost childlike. This is a poem a young child could understand, and that fits with her theme of faith.
In this poem, the certainty of rhythm, rhyme, and syntax mirrors the certainty of the speaker. Hers is a childlike faith, which the Bible upholds as the exemplar for everyone. It’s a simple poem, but also masterful in its simplicity.
To lose one’s faith surpasses ~Emily Dickinson
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being ’s beggary.
I’m with the speaker of this poem as far as the first two lines. Faith is more precious than any worldly possession, even the most extravagant inheritance. It’s in the third and fourth lines that she loses me. Her argument is that faith is more precious than earthly goods because it cannot be renewed.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to develop this thought. She argues that faith is “Inherited with life” and that “Belief but once can be.” This seems like a very extreme view. Once faith is lost, it cannot be regained?
One one level, this seems true. It’s certainly difficult to regain lost faith. Yet we do it all the time–we forgive each other. We question, and while some of us take divergent paths, others circle back to where we started.
I suspect Dickinson is talking about religion specifically, but I think the poem applies to all kinds of faith. If we read it as religious faith, there’s a very Puritanical slant to the poem. If we read it as faith in others, it works on a different level. I wonder, too, if we can read it as others’ faith in us–our faith in the sense that it’s something that’s been placed in us by other people.
In any case, lost faith is tricky to regain–but I don’t think that, as the speaker of this poem argues, it’s necessarily gone forever.
The soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend,—
Or the most agonizing spy
An enemy could send.
Secure against its own, ~Emily Dickinson
No treason it can fear;
Itself its sovereign, of itself
The soul should stand in awe.
Oh, Emily. So few words, yet so much to unpack. The soul is “imperial,” sovereign–each of us ultimately has final authority over our own selves. Yet the soul is both “an imperial friend” and “the most agonizing spy.” We are our own worst enemies. This rings true on both the individual and societal levels. The first stanza feels pretty straightforward.
It’s in the second that things get interesting. She’s just said that the sovereign soul is also its own worst enemy, but now she describes it as “Secure against its own,” and says that it cannot fear any treason. Wha??
Maybe the first two lines of the second stanza aren’t meant to describe how the soul actually is, but how it perceives itself. It feels “secure against its own,” and it is incapable of fearing treason–but this doesn’t mean that treason is impossible. After all, it’s when we’re most comfortable that we let our guard down. And if the ultimate enemy is yourself, then your enemy is always closer than you think.
I like the typically Dickinsonian religious rebellion implied here, too. The soul is its own sovereign–not any external power. Each person’s soul is responsible for itself. There’s a sort of blasphemy mixed with New England Puritan emphasis on responsibility here, and somehow it works.
I wonder how often any of us “stand in awe” of our own souls and the power they wield. If we made a regular practice of this, I imagine the world might be a very different place.