Our lives are Swiss,–

Our lives are Swiss,—
So still, so cool,
Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
And we look farther on.

Italy stands the other side,
While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps,
The siren Alps,
Forever intervene!

~Emily Dickinson
The intervening Alps. Image via Pexels.com

Not technically a poem about winter, but it feels wintry to me, with its mention of the snow-capped Alps and our still, cool lives. Based on prior experience, I’m suspicious that Dickinson is talking about death (surprise!!), but I think there are other ways to read this poem.

She could be referring to the moment of death, at which we “look farther on.” But if this is the case, then something, represented by the Alps, prevents us from ever getting there. So what I think this poem is about, really, is our rare and beautiful moments of transcendence in this mortal life–the moments when we get a glimpse of the divine, when the Alps’ curtains fall and for an instant, we have an experience of something beyond this mortal coil.

Two worlds

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled,
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

~Emily Dickinson

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.

Spirit

’T IS whiter than an Indian pipe,
’T is dimmer than a lace;
No stature has it, like a fog,
When you approach the place.

Not any voice denotes it here,
Or intimates it there;
A spirit, how doth it accost?
What customs hath the air?

This limitless hyperbole
Each one of us shall be:
‘T is drama, if (hypothesis)
It be not tragedy!

~Emily Dickinson
An “Indian pipe” in the woods behind my house.

I just got back from a conference in New York and am struggling to keep my head above water both at work and at home, so today you get a poem and a picture. Enjoy!

Though pyramids decay

’T is an honorable thought,
And makes one lift one’s hat,
As one encountered gentlefolk
Upon a daily street,

That we ’ve immortal place,
Though pyramids decay,
And kingdoms, like the orchard,
Flit russetly away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

This poem has some things to say to this other poem, so I’ll just put them both here and let them talk it out. The following poem has chatted with Dickinson’s work here before, but I need pretty much no excuse to reread “Ozymandias” for the gazillionth time.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

A spider

A spider sewed at night
Without a light
Upon an arc of white.
If ruff it was of dame
Or shroud of gnome,
Himself, himself inform.
Of immortality
His strategy
Was physiognomy.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I just want to take a moment to appreciate the quirkiness of this poem. I love the notion that a spider might be weaving a garment of some kind–a ruff for a dame, a shroud for a gnome. I incline to the latter. What kind of dame is going to wear a spiderweb ruff? A gnome, on the other hand–this is totally plausible.

I love these little moments when Dickinson’s sense of whimsy triumphs. It makes me wonder how she experienced the world every day. I had this notion of her, when I was a student, as this incredibly depressed, tortured soul. That’s what we were taught to think. But she also had a fantastically quirky view of the world. She saw magic in the ordinary. I don’t think we can celebrate that too much.

An overcoat of clay

DEATH is a dialogue between
The spirit and the dust.
“Dissolve,” says Death. The Spirit, “Sir,
I have another trust.”

Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay.

~Emily Dickinson

As the death-poems go, this one is pretty hopeful. The notion of death as a dialogue is an evocative one, though the metaphor quickly gets mixed in the third line. In the first two lines, death is the dialogue between spirit and flesh. In the third line, however, Death is a participant in the dialogue, and is talking with the Spirit. There is an implicit equation between Death and dust, death and body, as opposed to Spirit.

The dialogue begins with an imperious command from Death to the Spirit to “Dissolve,” and the dialogue quickly becomes an argument. The Spirit refuses the order, Death doubts this, and argues “from the ground,” implying that Death now inhabits the “dust” of flesh and that Spirit is already ascending to “another trust.”

The Spirit refuses to be drawn into the argument. Death is arrogant and bossy, but the Spirit finds expression in actions rather than words. It turns away, and lays off the trappings of the flesh.

It’s a very Puritan reading, this notion of the body as dust. It’s the reading many of us have been taught to accept—that flesh is somehow other than us, that our bodies are just shells for our souls. The body in this poem feels superfluous—while we’re told initially that Death is a conversation between flesh and soul, we quickly learn that the body here is silent—it’s Death and the Spirit that get to speak. The physical is almost extraneous, not really a part of the deceased, but merely “An overcoat of clay.”

Monument

She laid her docile crescent down,
And this mechanic stone
Still states, to dates that have forgot,
The news that she is gone.

So constant to its stolid trust,
The shaft that never knew,
It shames the constancy that fled
Before its emblem flew.

~Emily Dickinson

During my family’s vacation, we visited the Wright Brothers Memorial in North Carolina. It’s a well-designed monument–it sweeps upward from the crest of a hill, evoking the idea of flight–but I’m still struck by our human need to memorialize that which is fleeting in nearly immortal stone. There is a strange contrast between the seeming weightlessness of flight and the tons of rock we use to commemorate it, the weightlessness of the human soul and the stones we erect when it has fled. Heaviness in an attempt to pin down something that won’t be pinned down, that will not stay. Permanence to mark the passing of something that could never last forever. We find ways to ensure the remembrance of our own mortality.

The monument I visited is a different thing from the tombstone Dickinson evokes, but they have this in common–their underscoring of the ways in which we humans try to immortalize the mortal, to make permanent that which cannot last.