grasped of God

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode

Where hope and he part company,—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.

The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.

But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.

This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.

Anticipation

Who never wanted,—maddest joy
Remains to him unknown;
The banquet of abstemiousness
Surpasses that of wine.

Within its hope, though yet ungrasped Desire’s perfect goal,
No nearer, lest reality
Should disenthrall thy soul.

~Emily Dickinson

I am firmly in the Emily Dickinson camp on this issue–anticipation is better than actuality. The maddest joy comes not in the moment of realizing a happiness, but in the hope for it. What do you think?

Will there really be a morning?

WILL there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?


Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?


Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!

~Emily dickinson

Of course there will be a morning. We know this, logically. Sometimes, though, the heart needs the reminder. So here it is. Yes, there will really be a morning. Light will come again. The darkness is not forever.

The thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –


I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

~Emily dickinson
Today I met a thing with feathers…….

This is one of the eternally-anthologized ones, and with good reason. Dickinson’s metaphor of hope as a small bird is perfect. It works on every level.

As I read and re-read the poem, I’m struck by the shift in tense in line 8 in the second stanza. Suddenly the verb shifts to past tense–kept–and I wonder why. Is Dickinson simply referring to the fact that hope has helped people in the past? Why not say “keeps,” though? It still works rhythmically. It still makes sense.

For the remainder of the poem, Dickinson remains in the past–she recounts how she has heard the bird, and how it has never asked anything of her. Why the switch to past tense? In a poem about hope, this feels a little ominous. It’s as if she’s suggesting that, while hope still exists, it exists for her in the past.

This switch in tense never struck me before this reading. I’d always viewed this poem as an ode to hope. In reading it more closely, I’m not so sure. It’s still about hope, and it’s still praising hope, but the tense shift seems to color the whole poem somehow. It’s as if the speaker still believes in hope in general, but isn’t finding it in this particular moment. Or maybe she’s in need of hope, and is looking back on the times when it has come to her aid in the faith that it will do so again.

Hope.

Altered

AN altered look about the hills;
A Tyrian light the village fills;
A wider sunrise in the dawn;
A deeper twilight on the lawn;
A print of a vermilion foot;
A purple finger on the slope;
A flippant fly upon the pane;
A spider at his trade again;
An added strut in chanticleer;
A flower expected everywhere;
An axe shrill singing in the woods;
Fern-odors on untravelled roads,—
All this, and more I cannot tell,
A furtive look you know as well,
And Nicodemus’ mystery
Receives its annual reply.

~Emily Dickinson

April is here at last, bearing with it all the telltale signs. The light looks different in spring, as if the whole world is breathing in deeply yet quietly. The redbud trees are beginning to flush with a faint haze of purple. Flies are making their way in, somehow. Spiders have been plying the corners all year long, of course, but now that the flies are back, there’s cause for much celebratory and anticipatory web-construction. My chanticleer definitely has an added strut, though here we call him Louis XIV, and he does his best to live up to the name, loudly greeting the sun well before it appears and shepherding the hens around the yard, fussing them to safety when a red-tailed hawk soars by overhead. Around here, there aren’t so many axes ringing out–the sharp echoes here are from distant neighbors testing the sights on shotguns, preparing to scare crows and groundhogs away from spring plantings. The smell of spring is lush, wet, mineral. It smells at once like rain, pollen, and groundwater, like sunshine and sap and hope. It’s difficult to adequately describe–it’s a sight glimpsed briefly, a faint scent, a fleeting sound.

What does spring look, smell, taste, sound, feel like in your corner of the world?

Benediction and Badinage

XCIV
High from the earth I heard a bird;
He trod upon the trees
As he esteemed them trifles,
And then he spied a breeze,
And situated softly
Upon a pile of wind
Which in a perturbation
Nature had left behind.
A joyous-going fellow
I gathered from his talk,
Which both of benediction
And badinage partook,
Without apparent burden,
I learned, in leafy wood
He was the faithful father
Of a dependent brood;
And this untoward transport
His remedy for care,—
A contrast to our respites.
How different we are!

~Emily Dickinson

It finally feels like spring is about to visit the Shenandoah Valley. The world still looks groggy and half-asleep, the grass dead, the leaves mulch on the forest floor. It doesn’t look like spring, but the air is beginning to carry that lightness that means flowers will soon be blooming, bees buzzing. Soon the world will come alive again, resurrecting from the muck of winter.

The birds’ songs have shifted, too. They sound different in the spring. There are new visitors, of course, swinging by on their northern migrations, but the birds that remain here through the winter sound different, too, as if they’re unleashing their most golden notes to meet the newly gilded light that pours across the mountain ridges as the sun sets blessedly later.

I had never come across this poem before, but I love it. It came just when I needed it. Life has been hectic lately–one kid in a regional competition, the other working on not one but two major projects at school within days of each other, animals due for vet appointments, humans due for dental appointments, no hope of a haircut in sight, fruit trees and grapevines in need of pruning before the temperatures set their sap flowing.

Life has felt overly crammed. It’s all good stuff, but there’s a heck of a lot of it. There’s a lot of racing around, not a lot of sleeping. I need to channel the outlook of the bird in this poem, his jaunty attitude, his ability to at once engage in benediction and badinage. He’s a parent, too, and of an entire brood. If he can do it–if he can sing despite his cares–then maybe I can, too.

Maybe we are not so different, after all.

Afterwards–day!

II
Our share of night to bear,
Our share of morning,
Our blank in bliss to fill,
Our blank in scorning.


Here a star, and there a star,
Some lose their way.
Here a mist, and there a mist,
Afterwards—day!

~Emily Dickinson

This is for everyone who, after struggling through February, emerged hopefully into March to discover that it’s actually February in disguise. It’s below freezing here in what is supposed to be the South. The daffodils are having second thoughts. Sometimes things are not what they ought to be, or what we want them to be. Here’s to making our way through the mist into the light of day, of spring, of fresh hopes and dreams realized.