On this date

GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!
Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
And only the waves reply.

~Emily Dickinson

This poem reminds me of a song sung by William Pint and Felicia Dale, so I’m including the lyrics here in full, though there are rather a lot of them. They recount a true story–the loss of the British lifeboat The Mary Stanford on this date ninety-one years ago. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more tragic by the fact that the vessel which The Mary Stanford was sent out to rescue was already saved by the time the English lifeboat launched. It seems like the kind of story that would have struck a chord in Dickinson’s imagination.

When master John Stanford of London town died
They read out his will and his legacy spied
It said take this bequest for to build me a craft
So that with it my name shouldn’t die
And give it to the R.N.L.I.

So they fashioned a lifeboat of Liverpool class
38 feet from the stem to the aft
With a close reefed mainsail on a 20 foot mast
And to grant the last wish of his life
Named it Mary after his wife

She went into service in 1916
And 63 times from the boathouse she screamed
Cross the shale of Rye Bay
Through the teeth of the storm
And into the mouth of the waves
All sailors lives there to save

Johnny come home they all sing from the pier
On the 15th day of November each year
And one day the sea she will give up her dead
And home will come young Johnny Head
Home will come young Johnny Head

Young Johnny Head
Had just turned seventeen
And to serve on the lifeboat was
Young Johnny’s dream
His father was the coxswain
His brother in the crew
And to serve he was willing to die
On the Mary Stanford of Rye

On November 15th
With the storm at its height
The Alice of Riga was losing her fight
Seven miles from Dungeness
She was drifting and lost
And the crew prayed and cried
To the moon
That’s when they heard the maroon

It was four in the morning
When young Johnny Head
On hearing the signal
He leapt from his bed
With his father and brother
They ran like the wind
That whipped up the furious waves
But there were lives to be saved

To haul out the lifeboat
Took blood, sweat and tears
It took them two hours
Must have seemed like two years
Exhausted and spent, they set her afloat
And into the barbarous waves
Rowed Mary to Alice’s aid

It was 6:45 when the shoremen lost sight
of the Mary
As she pitched out into the night
And at 6:51 the coastguard he rang,
Saying “Stand down your lifeboatmen
brave
For the Alice is already saved.”

Nobody knows from that day to this,
Why the coastguard got word
At eleven past six
But the message he kept forty minutes
or more
While seventeen brave men of Rye
Rowed into the tempest to die

It was almost noon on the terrible morn
And the families and launch crew had
Waited since dawn
When suddenly somebody
Pointed and cried
And there in the surf and the spray
The Mary Stanford she lay

Her body was battered
Her keel was upright
No close-reefed mainsail
No crewman in sight
They hauled her ashore
And they knelt round and prayed
Then gazed out again at the main
And the tears they ran like the rain

Then one by one
The sea gave up her dead
First Willie Clark then young Jimmy Head
Then Albert and Rob, the two Cutting boys
And three from the Pope family
And nine more sons of the sea

But young Johnny Head
He never came home
He lies out somewhere in the ocean alone
His comrades lie buried
In the churchyard at Rye
And they keep him a space for his bed
One day they’ll find Johnny Head

So the next time you sail
Around Hastings and Rye
Look to the distance and keep out an eye
And if you see a young man from the R.N.L.I.
Standing guard over the foam
You’ll know that Johnny’s come home

~Allen Maslen, “The Mary Stanford of Rye”

The errand of the eye

Whether my bark went down at sea,
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails;

By what mystic mooring
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay.

~Emily Dickinson

This whole poem is a sentence–one act of wondering, of uncertainty. The “bark” could represent anything, really–the point of the poem is the questioning. The poem crystallizes a moment of uncertainty.

I love the line “the errand of the eye.” The notion of the eye on a mission, actively searching rather than passively receiving images, is an intriguing one.

May all your isles be enchanted.

सगरमाथा (Sagarmatha)

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet, 5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!

Power is only pain, 10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,— 15
They ’ll carry him!

~Emily Dickinson
Mount Everest image via Pixabay.

Today’s post is going to be a footnote of sorts. I love this poem, and there are all kinds of things to say about it, but I think it also speaks for itself, so I’m going to have fun getting into the weeds a bit instead.

I fell down a rabbit-hole with this one. First I had to Google “Himmaleh.” Turns out it’s Himalaya, but closer to the Sanskrit word. This word is actually two words combined, and they mean “winter house,” which is completely lovely. The Himalayas could very well be winter’s home base.

Then, of course, I had to look up the true name of Mount Everest. It annoys me when people rename places that don’t belong to them, and “Mount Everest” is a prime example. It is decidedly not a “Mount Everest.” Its name is Sagarmatha, which means “Peak of Heaven” and is a vastly preferable and more evocative name.

I think about this kind of thing often–how we call places by the names some white explorer gave them, and not by their true names. I’ve often wondered why we can’t just call countries what the people living in them call them. What is it, this need to rename things in our own image? Does it make them more understandable? More accessible? More easy to fit in a box? Why is Deutschland “Allemagne” in French and “Germany” in English?

Why can’t we just call things by their names? I like that in this poem, Dickinson uses “Himmaleh.”

Seeking Neptune

SHE went as quiet as the dew
From a familiar flower.
Not like the dew did she return
At the accustomed hour!

She dropt as softly as a star 5
From out my summer’s eve;
Less skillful than Leverrier
It’s sorer to believe!

~Emily Dickinson
Neptune, via Pixabay.com

Okay, so I fell down a rabbit hole with this one. Obviously we’re talking about someone who’s dead and missed, but I had no idea who Leverrier was. Turns out, he’s the French astronomer who predicted the existence and location of Neptune via its effects on Uranus. His area of expertise was “celestial mechanics,” which is a phrase so rife with possibility it’s going to haunt me for a long time.

This Leverrier reference deepens my whole understanding of this poem. In the first stanza, the departed one is described in earthly terms, as something small and ephemeral and unremarkable–she was “quiet” and “like the dew” “from a familiar flower.” Even the hour is “accustomed.” The scale of this stanza is small and expected.

It’s in the second stanza that we really see the importance of this unnamed woman and the effect of her absence on the speaker. She dropped “as softly as a star”–though still quiet, she is now described in not earthly but celestial terms, and has gone from the scale of a dewdrop to a sun.

I think the speaker is comparing herself to Leverrier here, despite the lack of any kind of subject for this clause. She is less skillful that the astronomer who could predict something unseen by the way it affects something known, but her predicament is more dire. The missing loved one, like the unseen Neptune, will forever shift the speaker’s world in its orbit.

I learned its sweetness right

I had a daily bliss
I half indifferent viewed,
Till sudden I perceived it stir,—
It grew as I pursued,

Till when, around a crag,
It wasted from my sight,
Enlarged beyond my utmost scope,
I learned its sweetness right.

~Emily Dickinson

Yesterday evening, we took a walk around the field and through the woods. The stifling August heat of the past weeks had dissipated suddenly, and though it was still deep summer, the cool tinge in the air foreshadowed autumn. These are precious days, these days of aging summer. The garden pours forth a bounty, the bees cluster in the hive entrances, fanning away the day’s heat, and the leaves have not yet begun to turn, but there is a feeling of waiting that hangs in the air.

Yesterday, for the first time, it felt as if autumn was possible. Suddenly it felt right to be back in school. The year circles back around.

This is the first year in twelve years that I’ve gone back to school full-time. When Thing 1 was born, I finished out the few remaining months of the school year and then quit my full time teaching job to stay home with him. Then Thing 2 came along. I continued tutoring and teaching part time, in addition to stints at other work, but I haven’t gone back to full-time teaching until now.

It’s a mixed bag, for me. I love the students. I love the small school where I teach. My colleagues are wonderful. The energy of school is exciting, stimulating, fun. But I’ve given up my old every-other-day schedule, where I alternated full days of teaching with full days at home to write.

It’s a difficult transition. Full days around lots of people are completely exhausting. Writing time has shrunk from 7:30-4:30 every other day to an hour in the evening. I knew this would be hard. I’m feeling now just how challenging it is. And I’m looking back at those long writing days, those vast swaths of free time–to write, but also to ramble the woods and fields when the ideas wouldn’t come, to indulge in the soul-filling work of daydreaming, to have another cup of tea.

I think part of what’s so rich about autumn, what makes it the season of magic, is its complexity. It’s a season of harvest but also of loss, of richness and of letting go, of bounty and the certainty of future privation. This seems like a fitting poem for a late summer day as I look forward into a new season, a new normal, and allow myself a little grace to mourn what’s left behind.

a permission slip

I held a jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep.
The day was warm, and winds were prosy;
I said: “’T will keep.”


I woke and chid my honest fingers,—
The gem was gone;
And now an amethyst remembrance
Is all I own.

This is yet another straightforward poem in the tradition of many others. The speaker has lost something precious, and is left with a lovely memory.

What strikes me about this poem is the fifth line: “I woke and chid my honest fingers.” The speaker blames herself for her loss, but acknowledges that she is not really to blame. This rings so true for me as a woman–so often I blame myself for something that isn’t my fault because I’ve been taught to capitulate, to be diplomatic, to soothe other’s feelings first while bottling up my own.

So today, in honor of this poem, I’m offering you a permission slip. Today, you get to forgive yourself for all the things you’ve been feeling guilty about that aren’t really your fault. Today, you get to let those go.

Try it. See what happens.

Rouge gagne

’T is so much joy! ’T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!

Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail,
At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat,
No drearier can prevail!

And if I gain,—oh, gun at sea,
Oh, bells that in the steeples be,
At first repeat it slow!
For heaven is a different thing
Conjectured, and waked sudden in,
And might o’erwhelm me so!

~Emily Dickinson

“Rouge et noir” seems aptly titled, but this one is weird. “Red wins”–really? That’s not exactly what I’m getting from this poem. The speaker is imagining red winning, but that win, when envisioned, seems to end as a loss. If she won, heaven “might o’erwhelm me so!” And the whole poem is still conjecture. She hasn’t won yet. She doesn’t know if she will. She’s still waiting for the result, waiting to find out what her fate will be. The word “if” appears in each stanza.

The whole poem sustains, through its dashes and exclamation points and incomplete thoughts, a mood of frenetic anticipation. What will happen? Will I win? And will that win really be a victory?