Love Letters

XLIX


We outgrow love like other things
And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
Like costumes grandsires wore.

~Emily Dickinson

What does she mean? That we outgrow individual loves for specific people? Or that we outgrow love itself? Whatever the answer, this poem seems like a fitting farewell to our month of Emily Dickinson love poems. We haven’t outgrown them–we’ve scarcely begun to grow into them–but it’s been a rich and interesting month for the Emily Project.

Again and again I’m struck by how breathlessly I can adore one Emily Dickinson poem, and how much I can chafe at another. Despite the similarities between her poem in terms of length, syntax, and style, they form a fascinatingly diverse body of work.

This poem seems especially fitting because of its multiplicity of possible interpretations. Four lines should be straightforward, but they aren’t. How do we “put love in the drawer”? If it’s “in the drawer,” doesn’t it still exist? Don’t you still have it, albeit hidden? If we “put it in the drawer” until it looks outdated, are we putting it away before we should? As has become par for the course, Dickinson raises more questions than she answers. Perhaps that’s really what poetry is for.

I suppose this project, this blog, is our love letter to Emily Dickinson. No relationship is without its ups and downs, or its moments of transcendence. Good ones include tears, frustrations, challenges ,and laughter. I have found all of these in Dickinson’s poetry.

This is our letter to the poet who didn’t write to us–and yet somehow did.

A love-letter to letters

XXIII


“Going to him! Happy letter! Tell him—
Tell him the page I did n’t write;
Tell him I only said the syntax,
And left the verb and the pronoun out.
Tell him just how the fingers hurried,
Then how they waded, slow, slow, slow;
And then you wished you had eyes in your pages,
So you could see what moved them so.


“Tell him it was n’t a practised writer,
You guessed, from the way the sentence toiled;
You could hear the bodice tug, behind you,
As if it held but the might of a child;
You almost pitied it, you, it worked so.
Tell him—No, you may quibble there,
For it would split his heart to know it,
And then you and I were silenter.


“Tell him night finished before we finished,
And the old clock kept neighing ‘day!’
And you got sleepy and begged to be ended—
What could it hinder so, to say?
Tell him just how she sealed you, cautious,
But if he ask where you are hid
Until to-morrow,—happy letter!
Gesture, coquette, and shake your head!”

~Emily Dickinson

There are many strange and interesting things happening in this often-anthologized poem. Why is the entire thing in quotation marks? The speaker is addressing the letter she’s just written, which is fascinating. She’s essentially written a letter to the letter she just wrote, telling it about all the things she hasn’t written.

According to the speaker, the letter she’s just written omits verb and pronoun. In this short poem, she uses forty-four verbs and forty pronouns. I cannot think of another poem that makes such enthusiastic use of the word “it.” Interestingly, the speaker repeatedly refers to herself as “it,” while the letter is always “you.”

This entire poem is about all the things a letter doesn’t say: “the page I didn’t write,” “I only said the syntax,” “Tell him–No.” But the third stanza is where things get especially strange. She has already asked the letter to tell its recipient about the circumstances of its writing. But now she implores the letter to not tell him where it is hidden. How can it tell him where it’s hidden if it’s hidden and he doesn’t know where it is?

I think that what’s happening here over the course of the poem is the gradual conflation of the speaker with the letter–of the writer with her writing. We talk about how writers pour their hearts into their work, and in this case the act seems literal. In writing the letter, the speaker has poured herself out into it, become it. They have almost switched places–she has become “it,” while the letter is a human “you” that can tell, wish, get sleepy, flirt.

There’s something lovely in this notion that the writer becomes the writing, particularly when it comes to letters. It’s an oft-repeated platitude that handwritten letters are more personal, more intimate–and it’s true. We touch them, impart to them warmth, scent, energy, intent. We touch something that someone else then touches. We make something with our naked hands rather than by machine. We make it for one person, and one only. In writing a letter, we send a little fragment of ourselves.

We do not know how our letters will be received (on rare occasions they aren’t). To write them, to send them, to pour ourselves into the creation of them, is an act of trust. The nervousness Dickinson describes is palpable, and it reminds me of the little flip in my stomach every time I slip a letter into that irrevocable brass slot in the post office wall. A little piece of me has gone out into the world, never to return. As soon as the envelope, slim and svelte or bulging with scribbled words and glitter, falls from my fingers, I can no longer control its destiny. Often, as soon as it’s beyond my control, I think of all the things I didn’t say, the things I forgot, the things I wasn’t sure how to articulate in the moment. It’s tempting to want to call the letter back, to explain, to contextualize, to add on and flesh out.

Letter writing seems to be having a bit of a resurgence. Like the slow-food movement, it’s an attempt to be more mindful, more intentional, to slow down and appreciate–above all, to connect. This renaissance is due at least in part to the overwhelm of the internet, with its impersonal emails (Gmail now offers to finish your sentences for you with canned phrases) and shiny social media posts with premade filters that can give your restaurant meal the perfect lighting and your face the perfect makeup. A handwritten letter is not like these things. It is by definition imperfect because it is by definition human. Letters are deeply personal. We touch them, leave skin cells behind on them, lick envelopes. There is something visceral about them. In an age of filters and facebrags, letters are authentic. We send them out into the world, imperfect, and we cannot take them down, take them back, tweak them or revise them once they’ve left our hands.

There is a huge vulnerability in this irrevocability. It’s a vulnerability that modern technology discourages. It’s old-school, like the souls who still write letters. The beauty of Dickinson’s poem is that it’s still as true as the day she wrote it–maybe even truer. When we write a letter, we become that letter. We transform ourselves into words, speak ourselves into being, and then send our minds, hearts, souls, selves winging out across time and distance.

Stop now!

APOCALYPSE

I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.


How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.


This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Pam. We already did this one. SIGH

Wait, no. We did not.

Pam: lol

Brenna: I did the one AFTER it.

Pam: Well, I still have no idea what is happening.

Brenna: Okay. “Apocalypse.” !! That’s not ominous.

Pam: END of the WorLd

Brenna: Who the hell titled this poem??

Pam: That is a wonderful question. If she’s wife, what has she finished?

Brenna: Being a little girl. And it’s weird that she finds being a wife “safer.” RUN, EMILY. IT IS NOT SAFE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON.

Pam: We know that she was not a wife. Am I meant to assume some other narrator? Is she being obscure for the heck of it? Is she a nun? Is she married to God? What is HAPPENING I seriously do not know.

Brenna: She likes to write as if she’s a wife. From a wife’s perspective.

Pam: Why? Please school me.

Brenna: I guess for the reason any poet writes from any other perspective?Also it could be a God poem. Or a dude poem. Either one. I think she must have liked imagining she was married. Imagining is for sure safer.

Pam: Okay, so: she’s wife now. She’s Czar, so she gets to be in charge, unlike in her unwedded state.

Brenna: I think she’s writing from the perspective of a married woman. She’s left behind childhood, girlhood. Where it gets weird for me is her assertion that being a wife is safer.

Pam: Yes! How is this safer?

Brenna: Wives die in childbirth. It’s not safer, Emily!!

Pam: I was just typing that!! Safer economically, perhaps, assuming the husband is a decent provider?

Brenna: Maybe it’s safer because now she’s in a relationship? Now she’s married and no longer searching. She’s a “heart in port,” safe from the tempestuous passion of “wild nights” and from temptation? And then she reflects on how strange childhood looks from her womanly perspective, and that makes sense to me. It’s surreal to take on an adult role. I wonder how many of us ever really feel fully adult. I remember my mom telling me that when she was married with young children, she used to sometimes look around in a daze and wonder where the grownups were.

Pam: The way she describes the two states is very interesting to me. We have wife, czar, woman, and safer vs. that and that other state.

Brenna: Yes! super interesting and weird. And “czar” is a male role. So by becoming a wife she’s become a man? Because she’s joined with a man?

Pam: And that last rhyming couplet is such a childlike thing to say!

Brenna: It is! It’s like she reverts at the end.

Pam: There’s this image of the grownup married woman saying these ridiculously simple rhymes.

Brenna: And I think that’s telling.

Pam: Yes! It subverts the idea that marriage = adult, grownup, more wise. It’s like the person who tells you how incredibly humble they are.

Brenna: “This being comfort, then/ That other kind was pain”. This is a weird thought. “Because marriage is comfort, then it logically follows that childhood was NOT comfort.” It’s like she’s trying to convince herself with bad logic. So there’s this reversal. The wife doth protest too much. She opens with “It’s so great to be a wife!” but then flip flops at the end. “It MUST be great to be a wife because everybody says so and I’m supposed to want this.”

Pam: Yes! We have to wonder who the audience is, if it’s not just the speaker saying these things to convince herself.

Brenna: “But why compare?/ I’m wife! Stop there!” It’s as if, looking back at childhood from her current reality of marriage, which is supposed to be better, she’s trying to tell us that it’s not better. But as a wife, she’s not allowed to say that. She has to make it sound good, but she has serious reservations. She has to shut herself up so she doesn’t say what she’s really thinking. I wonder…is this Emily trying to convince herself that it’s better to remain single??

Pam: Or, at least, to show us that being a wife doesn’t mean that your problems go away.

Brenna: Hell no they do not go away. You just end up with kids who get the plague and then you are stuck at home cleaning things and cooking soup and going out of your mind. Of course it is possible that my current mental state is coloring my reading of this poem… Maybe the speaker is imagining what it’s like to be a wife. She wonders if she’s missing anything. She thinks at first that she is–comfort, stability, a steady relationship to depend on. But as she thinks about it, she realizes what she’s losing.

Pam: Yes! I think this is why the rhyme scheme switches in the last stanza, too.

Brenna: I love reversals in poems. I geek out about this kind of thing.

Pam: She’s exploring in the first two stanzas, and in the last she’s come to a decision–but it’s not the one she expected. This may be why she reverts to this more childlike rhyme scheme; the first two stanzas are still AABB, but they are very, very loose rhymes. You can’t tell me that anybody, even in the 1800s, actually thought that that/state was anything other than a slant rhyme. But we have perfect rhyme in compare/there. Your current mental state is RELEVANT to this poem.

Brenna: I love how you always bring it back to the rhyme scheme. I forget to do that.

Pam: I can’t help but to check the rhyme scheme first every time.
What do you think? Have we done it justice?

Brenna: I think we have done it all the justice we can possibly do it at this moment. Stop there!

Nobody dies in this one!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!


Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!


Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

~Emily Dickinson

I love this one. It’s breathless and brim-full of emotion, and unlike many of the poems we’ve discussed this month, this is actually, irrefutably, undeniably a love poem! She can do it! She can write love poems that are about love!

This is a gorgeous jewel of a poem, and I don’t want to belabor it with a long meditation. I just want to point out what I think is the genius of this poem–it manages to capture both the headiness and the deep, calm comfort of love.

Sentence fragments, syntax, exclamation marks, and Dickinson’s ubiquitous dashes all contribute to the breathless feel. This love is exciting, passionate. The speaker opens with the image of “wild nights,” which sets the tone for the entire poem.

But the love she’s talking about is also profoundly comfortable. A “heart in port” is one at rest. To be “done with the compass” and “done with the chart” further underscores that notion. This speaker is no longer searching. She has found exactly what she wants.

By the end of the poem, the tempest seems to have passed. You can’t row very effectively in the middle of a storm–the waters are calm now. And Eden isn’t likely to be a storm-tossed place. It’s a place where the speaker can moor, drop anchor, rest. The implication is that she’s here to stay.

Of course, this is a Dickinson love poem, so this is all imagined: the “might” is important. She hasn’t achieved this ideal state, she’s only imagining it. Still, she doesn’t throw in anything else to disrupt the envisioned tranquility. Nobody dies! This alone makes “Wild Nights” a strong contender for “Best Dickinson Love Poem that Is Actually a Love Poem.”

The One Where I Get to Quote Tori Amos

“you sign Prince of Darkness/try squire of dimness”

~Tori Amos, “She’s Your Cocaine”

Part 3: LOVE

V

DOUBT me, my dim companion!
Why, God would be content
With but a fraction of the love
Poured thee without a stint.
The whole of me, forever,
What more the woman can,—
Say quick, that I may dower thee
With last delight I own!


It cannot be my spirit,
For that was thine before;
I ceded all of dust I knew,—
What opulence the more
Had I, a humble maiden,
Whose farthest of degree
Was that she might
Some distant heaven,
Dwell timidly with thee!

~Emily Dickinson

Sometimes Emily Dickinson gets downright sassy with the love poems. As Pam and I were tossing around possibilities for today’s poem a couple of days ago, we realized that there is a whole other category of Dickinsonian love poems we hadn’t yet considered: the insulting ones.

The second stanza of this poem reads like any other sweet love poem: “I am yours, all of me, I’m not worthy of you but I love you forever,” etc. etc. etc. Even the second half of the first stanza is fairly typical. There’s nothing especially notable about the sentiment, nothing to make it stand out among a saccharine sea of love poetry. It’s the first few lines–notably the very first one–that set the tone, that color the rest and make them something they wouldn’t be without that damning preamble.

“Doubt me, my dim companion!” The tone sounds at once affronted and, frankly, insulting. It sounds like an astonished interjection, a “how dare you!” from the speaker to her beloved. And “dim.” Dim. That is not flattering. The beloved is too dense to see or understand or appreciate exactly how much he is loved. It’s this first line that makes this a love poem in a rather nontraditional sense. Sure, there are poems about unrequited love, but this one strikes a very particular tone from the get-go. “Doubt” as the very first word in a love poem is telling.

There’s something about “dim companion” that really feels like a zing. The speaker is being condescending. This isn’t the kind of insult you throw out in a blaze of temper without thinking at all. It’s carefully constructed to chip away at its object. “You think you’re so smart. Well, let me tell you, my dim companion.” For a woman confined to as exceptionally narrow a sphere as Dickinson’s, this feels especially significant. “You, you man of the world, you traveler, you educated one, it’s you who’s the unobservant one, you who can’t see what’s right in front of you.” He may think he’s the Prince of Darkness, but really he’s just another squire of dimness who can’t recognize the obvious and can’t appreciate what he’s got.

The “dim companion” epithet also feels to me like it’s really modifying the speaker’s description of herself toward the end of the poem. She’s just a “woman” and a “humble maiden,” and this makes her companion’s dimness even more embarrassing for him. Here’s the speaker, merely a humble maid, and yet she sees so much more than her beloved man of the world.

Then there are the second, third, and fourth lines. “I have lavished so much love on you that God himself would be content with even a little bit of it.” Here’s that classic Dickinson blasphemy–loving the beloved more than God–with a new edge. “You are more demanding than God,” with the implication “but you’re not God, so you have no right to be so demanding. Yet I love you anyway.”

It’s not a happy love poem. This relationship does not seem like it’s on completely solid footing at the moment. Yet there’s something poignantly real about the speaker’s frustration. We’ve all been there–we’ve all loved someone who seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge or appreciate our affection in the way we wanted them to, whether romantically or otherwise.

There’s a lot to unpack in this poem, but the way the first few lines color the entire thing is fascinating to me. It’s almost as if Dickinson is deconstructing a love poem. Take off the first four lines and it’s just a love poem. With those first four lines, however, it’s something more–a poem that acknowledges both the ecstasy and the utter frustration of love.

SNAP

XXXII


HE put the belt around my life,—
I heard the buckle snap,
And turned away, imperial,
My lifetime folding up
Deliberate, as a duke would do
A kingdom’s title-deed,—
Henceforth a dedicated sort,
A member of the cloud.


Yet not too far to come at call,
And do the little toils
That make the circuit of the rest,
And deal occasional smiles
To lives that stoop to notice mine
And kindly ask it in,—
Whose invitation, knew you not
For whom I must decline?

~Emily Dickinson

In a cursory search for information on this poem, what I’ve discovered is that, though it’s included among Dickinson’s love poems, interpretations seem to identify it as a poem about either the speaker’s devotion to God, or her devotion to her poetic calling. If it’s not a love poem, what is it doing with the other love poems?

This is an interesting example of the significance of context. Because I was thinking of it as a love poem, surrounded as it is in my text by love poems under the heading “LOVE,” I assumed this was a love poem and proceeded accordingly in my reading of it.

It’s a pretty terrible love poem.

The images are of constraint, ignoring, condescension. My 21st-century sensibility protests, “Nobody puts Emily in a corner–or in a belt–whatever!!” It’s not a love poem, I suppose, so much as a poem of devotion. But that devotion is enforced rather than chosen, and no matter how you read it, the “he” doesn’t come out looking so good.

It’s hard to separate my own knowledge and cultural context from this poem. Frankly, “he” sounds like an abuser. The speaker gets snapped into a belt, constrained, controlled. Her lifetime is folded up, she does little toils, she declines invitations because of “him.”

There is a strange sort of elitism in the speaker’s role, however constrained. She is “a member of the cloud.” This sense of a rarefied role–how sincere is it? How tongue-in-cheek? She declines a specific identity in the first stanza, identifying herself as “a dedicated sort.”

This is a strange, strange poem, and the more I read it and delve into it, the stranger it becomes. No matter how I read it, it feels deeply problematic. This one is definitely in the category of “love poems that probably aren’t actually love poems.”

A taxonomy of love poems

~Emily Dickinson

For some reason I could not get this poem to format no matter what I tried; thus, the picture. It seems appropriate–this poem seems to defy conventional formatting in a number of ways.

It’s a strange little poem, but then, that seems to be par for the course here. I’m not sure what’s going on with the sudden use of Scots dialect in the third line. Like many (most?) of Dickinson’s poems, though, it ends with an image of decay/death, so that’s not unexpected.

The poem seems pretty straightforward, as many of her love poems do. As we work our way through this month of love poems, I’m starting to think that all Emily Dickinson love poems fall into one or more of several categories:

  • love poems that address her little heart;
  • love poems about being married that sound vaguely ominous;
  • love poems that depict passion in terms of cold rather than heat;
  • love poems that rely on some pretty obvious metaphorical language about bees and flowers;
  • love poems that end in death;
  • love poems with a rhythm/rhyme scheme that somehow feels vaguely embarrassing to read;
  • love poems about the inaccessibility of the beloved; and
  • love poems that may or may not be love poems, but somebody decided to anthologize them as such.

We’re almost halfway through this short month of Emily Dickinson love poems, and there’s much more to read, so we’ll see if we need to add to this list as we go along. Perhaps we can create a taxonomy of Dickinsonian love poetry…