just a drop

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

~Emily Dickinson
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In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.

There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.

Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.

Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.

It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.

from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
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Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

Apparently with no surprise

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird and wonderful little poem! The flower is unsurprised by its own death, the speaker tells us. Yet the flower is happy anyway, at least until the moment of beheading. The frost which kills it is “accidental,” just playing around. Dickinson goes on, however, to refer to the frost as an “assassin” in the second stanza, which does not sound accidental at all. “Unmoved” by all the drama below, the sun continues marking off days, and God approves of all of this.

What if we were more like flowers, happy as much as we could possibly be, knowing and accepting that the assassin will eventually come for us, in season, too? What if we accepted life’s cycles instead of fighting them at every turn? The last stanza of this poem sounds so cold, but it might also read as God’s approval for the rightness of meeting nature where it is, not warring against it. The frost is playing, the flower is happy, and death will be the end of the latter–but this is as it should be.

Pneumonia weather

I know a place where summer strives
With such a practised frost,
She each year leads her daisies back,
Recording briefly, “Lost.”

But when the south wind stirs the pools
And struggles in the lanes,
Her heart misgives her for her vow,
And she pours soft refrains

Into the lap of adamant,
And spices, and the dew,
That stiffens quietly to quartz,
Upon her amber shoe.

~Emily Dickinson

When I was a child, my mother called this “pneumonia weather.” The skies are clear blue, the sunlight warm–and yet there’s a lingering chill behind the glimmer, a reminder that winter hasn’t yet loosed its fingers completely. There will be days in the high seventies, even in the eighties. And there will be mornings when we wake to hard frost.

Only the hardiest blossoms survive this weather. Spring teases them from tight buds to tempt fate. Spring and autumn balance each other on either side of the wheel of the year in a way that summer and winter cannot. Summer and winter are opposites, but spring and autumn are nearly-identical twins. One is redheaded, one has locks of fern-green and forsythia–but they are like the same person seen coming and going.

In the Shenandoah Valley in winter, we exclaim over unseasonably warm days. We grumble about cold summer rains. But the wild swings in spring and autumn do not surprise us. There are a thousand seasons in each one–microseasons, shifting from one to the next as the sun arcs the sky. The daisies won’t arrive till full summer, but the snowy drifts of bloom lacing the apple branches take their chances. They are gamblers all. Maybe they will swell to fruit this summer. Or maybe they are only the ghosts of possibility, beads of quartz frost on amber shoes.