nothing commoner than snow

Of tribulation these are they
Denoted by the white;
The spangled gowns, a lesser rank
Of victors designate.

All these did conquer; but the ones
Who overcame most times
Wear nothing commoner than snow,
No ornament but palms.

Surrender is a sort unknown
On this superior soil;
Defeat, an outgrown anguish,
Remembered as the mile

Our panting ankle barely gained
When night devoured the road;
But we stood whispering in the house,
And all we said was “Saved!”

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Radu Andrei Razvan via Pexels.

More death. Dickinson must have spent a lot of time thinking about it–so much time that she has a variety of different reactions and attitudes toward it. Sometimes it’s a suitor, welcome, chivalrous. Sometimes it’s an adversary. Sometimes it is longed for as relief from suffering, while other times the act of dying is itself the supreme trial.

There’s a lot of interesting, evocative, and tricksy language in this poem. In the first stanza, those who wear white are the ones who have overcome (or at least endured) tribulation. A lesser rank, presumably of the dead, wear “spangled gowns.” The contrast is interesting–those who are higher wear plain white, while those who are “lesser” are more elaborately adorned. The “lesser” are, however, still “victors.” All here have triumphed.

All of them, she goes on to elaborate in the second stanza, have been victorious, but those in white “overcame most times.” Their reward? Their only ornaments are palms, and the color of their raiment is “nothing commoner than snow.” Dickinson’s use of “commoner” suggests that snow is not common–they don’t wear anything commoner than this. At the same time, snow is fairly common, we know–certainly in New England. So there’s a paradoxical turn of phrase here, which perhaps is meant to underscore the paradox of the highest being clothed the most simply. Heaven, after all, is an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first.

On the “superior soil” of heaven, surrender is unknown, and defeat is merely a memory, like the reminiscence of the last mile of a particularly difficult night journey.

The final stanza brings us out of heaven and back to Earth, back into a mortal, living perspective. Dickinson shifts from the white-clothed and bespangled victors to those they left behind: “But we stood whispering in the house, / And all we said was ‘Saved!'” That is all the living can say, all they can know. They can only guess at the rank and raiment of the deceased in heaven.

This, of course, begs the question–how can the speaker know? She identifies herself in the last stanza with personal pronouns as one of the “we,” one of the living left behind. Yet she is informing us about the status of the dead and saved. More paradox. So I’m left not entirely sure of exactly what she’s getting at, and once again wondering if I’m a bit dull, or if perhaps this was precisely the effect Dickinson was going for.

This pendulum of snow

A clock stopped—not the mantel’s;
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing
That just now dangled still.

An awe came on the trinket!
The figures hunched with pain,
Then quivered out of decimals
Into degreeless noon.

It will not stir for doctors,
This pendulum of snow;
The shopman importunes it,
While cool, concernless No

Nods from the gilded pointers,
Nods from the seconds slim,
Decades of arrogance between
The dial life and him.

~Emily Dickinson
Image credit: Amar Saleem via Pexels.

It always throws me a little when a Dickinson poem seems straightforward, as this one does. The poem is a riddle of sorts–the speaker tells us a clock stopped, but not the mantel’s. Though she never tells us explicitly what the clock actually is, the meaning is clear. This is (gasp!! surprise!!) a Poem About Death.

What’s enticing about this poem, to me, is the gorgeousness of Dickinson’s language. “Quivered out of decimals / Into degreeless noon” is a lush and lovely description, and evokes so much feeling through the poet’s choice of words. Quivering implies so many emotions and states of mind–fear, indecision, trepidation…and “degreeless noon” is equally evocative.

There’s also some wonderfully Dickinsonian contradiction. In the final stanza, the pointers are nodding, the seconds are nodding, but the clock has stopped–motion vs. motionlessness. The stilled clock parts are sending a message via their motionlessness, and Dickinson describes that message as a motion, a nod. And then there’s the contradiction between seconds and decades.

I love it when I feel like I understand one of Dickinson’s poems and can then really dig into the language and fully appreciate it. So often I read her poetry and am left scratching my head. This one is a nice exception.

As stars that drop anonymous

Superfluous were the sun
When excellence is dead;
He were superfluous every day,
For every day is said

That syllable whose faith
Just saves it from despair,
And whose “I ’ll meet you” hesitates—
If love inquire, “Where?”

Upon his dateless fame
Our periods may lie,
As stars that drop anonymous
From an abundant sky.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

If excellence is dead, then the sun itself is superfluous, the speaker posits in the first stanza. In fact, excellence is dead, so the sun is superfluous, she argues.

The dense middle stanza touches on faith and doubt–a faith just barely pried from the jaws of doubt, it seems. Is it excellence itself the speaker doubts? Or the excellence of a particular person or being or power? We cannot know for sure.

The final stanza exchanges the famous fallen excellence and the sun for anonymous yet numberless stars, a different kind of light salvaged from the darkness.

a perished sun

We learn in the retreating
How vast an one
Was recently among us.
A perished sun

Endears in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the golden presence
It was before!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Today is the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice. This seems like a fitting poem for the day. May you be warm and loved, and may you find light even in the longest night.

This World is not Conclusion

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

The mystery of what comes after–this seems like a very Emily sort of poem, of wondering. The bulk of the poem seems to be contemplating the riddle of what follows this life–but the final lines throw it a bit up in the air. What is “the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul”? Through the rest of the poem, Dickinson seems to be expressing faith, if imperfect. But the last lines throw it all into question. Does she mean that the life after this one plucks at the soul, calling it? Or does she mean, by nibbling, that something is consuming the soul?

Ultimately, the poem, like its subject, is a sort of riddle. Dickinson is describing a mystery, and the point, perhaps, is not for us to know what that mystery is, but through her language to feel the wondering, the doubt, the confusion, the mystery itself.

thirst

I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching, next to mine,
And summon them to drink.

Crackling with fever, they essay;
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.

The hands still hug the tardy glass;
The lips I would have cooled, alas!
Are so superfluous cold,

I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould.

Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak.

And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake,—

If, haply, any say to me,
“Unto the little, unto me,”
When I at last awake.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This one is challenging to me. I’m not sure what Dickinson is getting at–it’s certainly metaphorical, whatever it is. I can’t imagine she actually wants to go gallivanting all over New England, pushing wine on dying people.

The central image that arises in this poem, and which must be key to understanding it, is that of thirst. In the first stanza, Dickinson describes “lips long parching” to which she offers a drink.

The next few stanzas offer up more subtle references to thirst. In the second stanza, we get a sharp contrast between eyes “Crackling with fever” and the speaker’s own “brimming eyes”–a contrast between heat and liquid, hot and cool. The third stanza gives us hands grasping the glass, the subject of the speaker’s ministrations having died unsated, thirst unslaked despite the proximity of the drink. The fourth stanza offers the image of the frozen dead–moisture locked away in frost. At this point, they are surely beyond the transformative power of wine or any liquid.

With the fifth stanza, we get back to very direct descriptions and mentions of thirst. “Some other thirsty there may be,” the speaker imagines, “And so I always bear the cup.” And then the thirst and liquid language pours out, as the speaker envisions the “drop” that will “slake” someone else’s “thirst.”

She ends with a Biblical reference, which feels a bit strange–it’s very dry in contrast to the liquid language of the rest of the poem. Almost a platitude–except, of course, this is Dickinson, so she is shaping it to her own ends. Exactly what those are, I’m still unsure about. What exactly is the wine she’s offering? And why? She is trying to help the dying–what is the aid she offers? This one is going to need more mulling over, no pun intended, if I’m going to grasp exactly what she’s getting at. What exactly is the thirst she’s talking about? And how would the reclusive Dickinson have thought to address this?

Perhaps the answer is poetry. Whether or not she was shy, as the old myth of the poet proclaims, Dickinson certainly wasn’t out evangelizing to and fro across the Massachusetts countryside. What she was doing was writing. So maybe her poems, her words, are the “unaccustomed wine.” I wonder if she knew they would reach their readers after her death–she must have at least thought of this when she tucked them away in a drawer, tied into neat packets.

Dickinson’s poetry is certainly “unaccustomed”–it definitely would have been to readers at the time. Her attitudes, her style, her unique twist on her subjects–all of these things make her work stand alone, stand out. Maybe this is a poem about her poetry, about a poetic vision of the world that the then-living world wasn’t ready for.

aurora

Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?