the Ice

They won’t frown always — some sweet Day
When I forget to tease —
They’ll recollect how cold I looked
And how I just said “Please.”

Then They will hasten to the Door
To call the little Girl
Who cannot thank Them for the Ice
That filled the lisping full.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

Wow, so this is an “I told you so” poem par excellence. The pathos is dripping from every line. The speaker in this poem is a little child who seems used to being chastised or ignored, and who, as far as we know, has only ever said “please.” I am reminded of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, with his “Could I please have some more?”

The child seems horribly ignored–she imagines a future in which she is gone and the faceless “They” of the poem hurry to the door to call her home. But she is dead and buried, iced over in winter.

Geez. Emo Emily.

Which, sir, are you?

In lands I never saw, they say,
Immortal Alps look down,
Whose bonnets touch the firmament,
Whose sandals touch the town,—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad daisies play.
Which, sir, are you, and which am I,
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson

One of the gorgeous things about poetry is that it often unfolds slowly, like a flower. You have to wait for it. Its meanings unfurl gradually, and you can read a poem several times before the magical reading that suddenly unlocks the final key to its meaning.

That has been my experience of this poem. I’ve read it several times while paging through my copy of Dickinson’s poem. Each time, I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this. It’s just Emily being all Emily in the most annoying way–“Big strong man, I am so small!”

Somehow, though, I read it yet again a few days ago and it fell open, like one of those puzzle boxes that unlatch easily the moment you hit on the right spot to press. This poem is Emily being all Emily, but in the best way.

It initially reads as flirty Emily, which is definitely not the Emily we’re all taught to know in English classes. She starts out sounding very innocent and ignorant: “In lands I never saw,” and follows it up with “they say,” suggesting that she’s getting her information secondhand, that she doesn’t probably really know what she’s talking about. She then proceeds to personify the Alps as if she has seen them, right down to the little daisies playing at their feet.

The Alps are “immortal,” they “look down,” their “bonnets touch the firmament,” their feet are “everlasting.” They stand in stark contrast to the “meek” daisies playing around them. The Alps are eternal, the daisies fleeting.

Dickinson ends her poem with a question to an unnamed man: “Which, sir, are you, and which am I,/ Upon an August day?” It’s this question that truly unlocks the meaning of the poem, like that last little piece you press on the puzzle box when you’ve just about given up.

The tone here is so flirty and coy. Of course she’s the daisies and he’s the immortal Alps. She’s flattering him, setting him up.

But.

She poses the question, and it’s the fact that it is a question that unlocks the wonderful subversiveness of this poem. The man is going to read this and think, “I’m the Alps, duh!” But Dickinson’s ending with the question itself makes us ask. Which one is which? The fact that the end of the poem is a question mark opens it up to interpretation. What if he’s the daisies and she’s the Alps? What if the woman is eternal and powerful and not the man?

But again, she ends with a question, and this to me is the real meaning and genius of the poem. The fact that she does ask, that she does set up a potentially subversive answer, is important. The poem isn’t really about who’s the Alps and who’s the daisies–it’s about the fact that she dares to pose this as a question in the first place.

Le 14 juillet

I never hear the word “Escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation –
A flying attitude!

I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again!

~Emily Dickinson

À mes amis français, bonjour et bonne fête nationale!

If you’re unfamiliar with France’s most important national holiday, you can read more about it here. Joyeux quatorze!

Bereaved acknowledgment

I DREADED that first robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I ’m accustomed to him grown,—
He hurts a little, though.


I thought if I could only live
Till that first shout got by,
Not all pianos in the woods
Had power to mangle me.


I dared not meet the daffodils,
For fear their yellow gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own.


I wished the grass would hurry,
So when ’t was time to see,
He ’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me.


I could not bear the bees should come,
I wished they ’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go:
What word had they for me?


They ’re here, though; not a creature failed,
No blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me,
The Queen of Calvary.


Each one salutes me as he goes,
And I my childish plumes
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking drums.

~emily dickinson

This is a strange one indeed. The speaker is talking about things that Dickinson typically gets excited about–robins, daffodils, bees–but instead of anticipating them, she tells us she has “dreaded” them. The robin “hurts a little,” the “pianos in the wood” can “mangle” her, the daffodils’ yellow can “pierce” her. If it’s aware of her needs, Nature ignores them, showing no deference to her feelings. She is the “Queen of Calvary”–the queen of suffering? The queen of salvation? What exactly does this mean?

Such a strange poem. The speaker describes the beauties of spring as torments and herself as “bereaved.” What is she grieving? Does the freshness and new life of spring remind her of something she can’t have, something she lost? Why does spring hurt?

There is something in these early days of spring–some underlying coldness on the sunniest days, some lingering frost–that reminds us that spring is not forever. Of all the beauties of the year, spring’s somehow seem the most fleeting, the most fragile. Blossoms are easily crushed, and bees may live for only weeks or days. Perhaps it’s this ephemerality that pains Dickinson–the knowledge that all this beauty, from the moment it bursts forth, is already passing into memory.

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.

Take your power in your hand!

LIX
I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
’T was not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.


I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?

~Emily dickinson

Pam: April is making me feel like the speaker in this poem.

Brenna: SAME. April is already kicking my tail and it’s only ten days old.

Pam: Trying to do big things, being thwarted because in the end, I am too small. Remember when we thought March would be better than February??

Brenna: We were so young and innocent….

Pam: It makes me wonder if I’ll look as these months as Goliaths later in life.

Brenna: They feel like Goliaths to me now. But maybe the actual Goliath is lurking around the corner. That’s a depressing thought.

Pam: No no no, we’re only looking at current Goliaths!

Brenna: Ok, good! So. What are we to make of this poem? Is it a cautionary tale? I know it ends with her failure, but I’m kind of in love with those first couple lines. I want to take my power in my hand. That sounds like some serious magical badassery.

Pam: I think we can look at it two ways. Sure, it’s a failure. But do you stop at failure? Why write the poem, then? Maybe the speaker is trying to dissect this failure so that next time, they’ll have a different result.

Brenna: Ah, I like that! Why tell the tale of your failure if not for some greater purpose?

Pam: It’s too bold in the beginning for me to think that this is just about failure. Somebody who is taking power in their hand is not going to give up. Or at least, that’s my hope.

Brenna: So maybe she’s encouraging us. Even someone as small as herself (there’s Lil’ Emily again….) can defy a giant, so we can too!

Pam: Why is she always diminutive, do you think?

Brenna: It strikes me as a little weird. Did women value being small back then? I thought the ideal was statuesque. Is she being purposefully different? Going against the grain? Or highlighting how small she feels?

Pam: It seems like the kind of petty thing I would do if someone called me small. “You think I’m small? I’ll show you what small can do!” You knew this was coming, but the rhymes in this poem are interesting!

Brenna: Tell me more!

Pam: They’re close, but a little bit slanty, in stanza one. Hand/had, world/bold. And then stanza two blows it up a little bit! fell/small, sure. It’s slant, but it works. But myself/large? In no way does this even begin to rhyme! Is this meant to show us how very large she is not? The rhyme in that stanza is disjointed, and I’m wondering what, if anything, it has to tell us.

Brenna: She is feeling disjointed/small in comparison to the world?

Pam: Her rhyme is tighter when she’s about to act. She’s gathering power, slinging it. The rhyme comes undone after, when she’s lost

Brenna: Ooooh, that’s good! Yes! Just like the slingshot!

Pam: Yes! We are on it today. This is what I love about poetry. Everybody brings life experience to the table, and you can still choose to not accept the poem at face value. We choose to read this poem not about failure, but about talking yourself up for another try!

Just a crumb

LIII
God gave a loaf to every bird,
But just a crumb to me;
I dare not eat it, though I starve,—
My poignant luxury
To own it, touch it, prove the feat
That made the pellet mine,—
Too happy in my sparrow chance
For ampler coveting.


It might be famine all around,
I could not miss an ear,
Such plenty smiles upon my board,
My garner shows so fair.
I wonder how the rich may feel,—
An Indiaman—an Earl?
I deem that I with but a crumb
Am sovereign of them all.

~Emily Dickinson

In terms of rhyme and rhythm, this seems like a typical Emily Dickinson poem. The meter is consistent, the rhyming very, very slanty. The content is also classic Emily, with its allusions to birds and to her own smallness.

The first stanza makes the speaker sound piteous–God has given more to everyone else than to her. Even the danger of starvation couldn’t bring her to eat her lone crumb, and the luxury of having it is “poignant.” Hers is a “sparrow chance.” Sparrows seem to be everywhere, small and dull-colored, subsisting on what everybody else deigns to drop.

Ye the second stanza switches things up. She wouldn’t be bothered by famine. In fact, she feels herself the superior–not equal, but superior–to even the wealthiest.

I find this a tricksy poem. What does she want us to take away? What does she want to say? How does she feel about the God who gave everyone else more than enough while she was given only the smallest amount imaginable? Is this a Robert Burns moment at the end–is she saying that the poor are in some ways wealthier than the rich? Maybe she’s saying that she’s richer because she actually values her single crumb, while those with a loaf don’t know how to appreciate it because they have never lacked. Does she want us to pity her? Admire her? Both? Neither.

What do you think?