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.

heaven!

Going to heaven!
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!

Perhaps you ’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I ’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Min An, Pexels.

There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.

Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.

The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.

But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.

There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.

Adrift!

Adrift! A little boat adrift!
And night is coming down!
Will no one guide a little boat
Unto the nearest town?

So sailors say, on yesterday,
Just as the dusk was brown,
One little boat gave up its strife,
And gurgled down and down.

But angels say, on yesterday,
Just as the dawn was red,
One little boat o’erspent with gales
Retrimmed its masts, redecked its sails
Exultant, onward sped!

~Emily Dickinson

Another shipwreck poem for November, month of hurricanes. This one is ultimately a poem about perspective. To the sailors who discuss the shipwreck after the fact, it was a disaster, all souls lost. But to the angels who welcomed the crew to heaven, the ship’s final voyage was triumphant. It’s all in who’s looking at it.

The pantomime

I breathed enough to learn the trick,
And now, removed from air,
I simulate the breath so well,
That one, to be quite sure

The lungs are stirless, must descend Among the cunning cells,
And touch the pantomime himself.
How cool the bellows feels!

~Emily Dickinson

In this poem, the speaker describes herself as lifeless, though of course she is alive. Dickinson seems to be describing a deep depression, the kind that makes one feel dead while still technically living.

This, I think, is the official take on this poem. What’s interesting to me, though, obsessed as I am at the moment with all things spooky and eerie, is all the details that suggest that she really is not alive–that we’re listening to a ghost.

She tells us that she did breathe, once, but is now “removed from air.” In the second stanza she insists that she looks so alive that one “must descend” into the cells of her lungs to realize that she is not, in fact, actually breathing. She is a pantomime of human life, her “bellows” “cool” to the touch.

Sounds like a ghost to me.

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!

Ghost

THE ONLY ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin,—so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 5
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

His conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze 10
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient,—
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind 15
Since that appalling day!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinatingly spooky little poem. The first line is fantastic–“The only ghost I ever saw,” the speaker says, as if she might be expected to have seen many more–or as if she is recounting a shared experience. You’ve seen ghosts; I’ve seen one, too. This ghost, she tells us, “was dressed in mechlin,” a kind of lace. This seems to be the ghost of one long-dead–she identifies it as “he” but tells us additionally that not only is he quiet and fast, he is “quaint.”

In the second stanza, we get more information about the ghost’s behavior. He speaks seldom, but interestingly, he also laughs. The speaker tells us that the encounter was “transient,” as one might expect from a ghost.

There’s nothing about this particular ghost that seems disturbing, other than, of course, the obvious fact that he is a ghost. He converses, laughs a little, apparently goes on his way after a brief encounter. The speaker even tells us that the ghost was shy of her.

So the final two lines come as a bit of a twist: “God forbid I look behind/Since that appalling day!” Other than the fact of the ghost’s existence, there’s nothing about him that seems creepy or particularly threatening. The ghost himself appears afraid of the living. So why does the speaker suddenly do an about-face at the end, describing the meeting as “appalling,” and painting a picture of herself as terrified from that day forward to look behind her?

Perhaps it is precisely the ghost’s ordinariness that is distressing. This ghost is not anything more than the spirit of an ordinary human being–a person not unlike the speaker. He is a reminder of the speaker’s own mortality–an insistence that she, too, is never far from her own death, that death is something that waits for us all.