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.

The egg of forests

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or me
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

To invest existence with a stately air,
Needs but to remember
That the acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper air!

~Emily Dickinson
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In the first stanza, Dickinson is speaking once again about death. In order to value our days, our moments, even the least amazing of them, we have but to remember that at any point we could be dead.

Thanks, Emily.

The second stanza almost seems at first glance like it belongs to another poem. Not only does it have one less line, but it’s focused now on valuing the world we’re in, the lives we have, because they hold the potential for life beyond this one. If what we have/experience now seems tiny, insignificant, we should remember that the tiny acorn is “the egg of forests” that will one day stretch into “the upper air.”

In a rare Dickinson move, the poet moves from dwelling on how the thought of death should make us value life to the much more optimistic notion that we plant in this life the seeds for the next.

There’s a lot to mull over here. But really, I chose this poem for today because I adore the notion of acorns as little eggs that hatch into entire forests.

Who robbed the woods?

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Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please. 5
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say?

~Emily Dickinson

In my imagination, this is the beginning of a dark and twisty fairy tale. I assume Dickinson is talking about the change of seasons here, about autumn giving way to winter, but the personification makes me want to read this a bit more literally and think of winter as a sentient entity–like Hades stealing Persephone from the world of sunlight, or like some fey elf-lord bringing down winter on the land. Like the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It’s wonderful all the places a poem can lead, all the winding avenues of thought it opens up before us.