love//pain

YOU left me, sweet, two legacies,—
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain 5
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

~Emily Dickinson

On Thursday night, I wound up in the emergency room. I’ve had my share of ER visits, all of which were scarier than this one. This time, my back gave out on me and the pain was so intense I passed out. My G.P.’s after-hours doctor said that I needed to go to the ER, so I went. It’s nothing life-threatening, nothing super-serious–but it’s the most blindingly, breathtakingly awful pain I’ve ever experienced.

I’m doing much better now, out of pain and taking it easy as my back heals. Of course, I’m thinking about pain, and disposed to take Dickinson’s words on the subject quite literally.

My ER diagnosis is sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This is pretty common, apparently, particularly among women. The first cause listed on my discharge instructions? Pregnancy. I cannot think of a more visceral link between pain and love.

I’m about 200% sure that this Emily Dickinson poem is not about having children and the love and pain that are inextricably alchemized through that process, but right now, that’s where I’m at with this poem–that’s what it holds for me in this moment. And I don’t think it really matters–what Dickinson’s getting at is that pain is part of love, that pain and love are equally products of our relationships with one another. There can be no love without the possibility for pain, and I’ve never heard of a pain-free relationship that was worth anything.

The wealthy fly

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey; 5
How easy all can see
What is forbidden utterly
As heaven, unto me!

I envy nests of sparrows
That dot his distant eaves, 10
The wealthy fly upon his pane,
The happy, happy leaves

That just abroad his window
Have summer’s leave to be,
The earrings of Pizarro 15
Could not obtain for me.

I envy light that wakes him,
And bells that boldly ring
To tell him it is noon abroad,—
Myself his noon could bring, 20

Yet interdict my blossom
And abrogate my bee,
Lest noon in everlasting night
Drop Gabriel and me.

~Emily Dickinson

Ah, unrequited love. The first five stanzas follow a distinct pattern–the speaker envies anything and everything that is close to her beloved. There is a definite undertone of Shakespeare’s balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet here, with Romeo’s longing to be a glove on Juliet’s hand so that he could be close to her. Dickinson, of course, gets more extensive and unexpected in her wishes–the fly outside the beloved’s window is “wealthy.”

Unlike Romeo, however, the speaker of this poem ends her expressions of longing with a surprising twist–after suggesting that she could make her beloved happy, she asks in the final stanza that it not be so, “Lest noon in everlasting night/ Drop Gabriel and me.” After stanzas of unrequited longing, she switches gears. There is something very Puritanical about this–don’t let me be happy, because if I am happy then I could become unhappy, and that would be worse. The “noon” of a relationship between them might end in “everlasting night.”

This poem, though it feels very conventional on the surface, seems to be riffing on and playing with older poetic conventions. Dickinson expands the metaphors for love to the prosaic and even slightly distasteful (Oh, that I were a fly upon his windowpane…). She also turns the poem on its head in the final stanza. I’m reminded of the cliché that “it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” Dickinson suggests here that it’s better to have loved but never been requited than to have loved and lost. Or maybe she feels she’s lost before she’s even begun.

A summer love song

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey;
How easy all can see
What is forbidden utterly
As heaven, unto me!

I envy nests of sparrows
That dot his distant eaves,
The wealthy fly upon his pane,
The happy, happy leaves

That just abroad his window
Have summer’s leave to be,
The earrings of Pizarro
Could not obtain for me.

I envy light that wakes him,
And bells that boldly ring
To tell him it is noon abroad,—
Myself his noon could bring,

Yet interdict my blossom
And abrogate my bee,
Lest noon in everlasting night
Drop Gabriel and me.

~Emily Dickinson

Though it’s not a sonnet by any stretch, that’s what this poem reminds me of most–a plaintive love song wherein the speaker envies anything and everything in proximity to the beloved. It’s evocative of Romeo’s wish to be a glove upon Juliet’s hand that he might touch her cheek. Dickinson’s speaker wishes to be the sea beneath the beloved’s ship, the wheels of his carriage, the hills he passes, the nests under his eaves, the fly on his window, the leaves of nearby trees. Even the wealth of Pizarro, in the form of earrings, couldn’t buy her the delights these things enjoy in being close to her beloved.

As in a sonnet, there’s a shift toward the end of this poem, beginning with the telling Yet. In the final stanza, she asks that her blossom be prohibited, her bee done away with (presumably these are forms she might take in order to be close to him, and of course they carry their own romantic/sexual imagery). The “noon” she longs for, the fully developed connection to her beloved, might drop her into “everlasting night,” and that would be worse than her current longing.

Love Letters

XLIX


We outgrow love like other things
And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
Like costumes grandsires wore.

~Emily Dickinson

What does she mean? That we outgrow individual loves for specific people? Or that we outgrow love itself? Whatever the answer, this poem seems like a fitting farewell to our month of Emily Dickinson love poems. We haven’t outgrown them–we’ve scarcely begun to grow into them–but it’s been a rich and interesting month for the Emily Project.

Again and again I’m struck by how breathlessly I can adore one Emily Dickinson poem, and how much I can chafe at another. Despite the similarities between her poem in terms of length, syntax, and style, they form a fascinatingly diverse body of work.

This poem seems especially fitting because of its multiplicity of possible interpretations. Four lines should be straightforward, but they aren’t. How do we “put love in the drawer”? If it’s “in the drawer,” doesn’t it still exist? Don’t you still have it, albeit hidden? If we “put it in the drawer” until it looks outdated, are we putting it away before we should? As has become par for the course, Dickinson raises more questions than she answers. Perhaps that’s really what poetry is for.

I suppose this project, this blog, is our love letter to Emily Dickinson. No relationship is without its ups and downs, or its moments of transcendence. Good ones include tears, frustrations, challenges ,and laughter. I have found all of these in Dickinson’s poetry.

This is our letter to the poet who didn’t write to us–and yet somehow did.

Stop now!

APOCALYPSE

I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.


How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.


This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Pam. We already did this one. SIGH

Wait, no. We did not.

Pam: lol

Brenna: I did the one AFTER it.

Pam: Well, I still have no idea what is happening.

Brenna: Okay. “Apocalypse.” !! That’s not ominous.

Pam: END of the WorLd

Brenna: Who the hell titled this poem??

Pam: That is a wonderful question. If she’s wife, what has she finished?

Brenna: Being a little girl. And it’s weird that she finds being a wife “safer.” RUN, EMILY. IT IS NOT SAFE. DANGER, WILL ROBINSON.

Pam: We know that she was not a wife. Am I meant to assume some other narrator? Is she being obscure for the heck of it? Is she a nun? Is she married to God? What is HAPPENING I seriously do not know.

Brenna: She likes to write as if she’s a wife. From a wife’s perspective.

Pam: Why? Please school me.

Brenna: I guess for the reason any poet writes from any other perspective?Also it could be a God poem. Or a dude poem. Either one. I think she must have liked imagining she was married. Imagining is for sure safer.

Pam: Okay, so: she’s wife now. She’s Czar, so she gets to be in charge, unlike in her unwedded state.

Brenna: I think she’s writing from the perspective of a married woman. She’s left behind childhood, girlhood. Where it gets weird for me is her assertion that being a wife is safer.

Pam: Yes! How is this safer?

Brenna: Wives die in childbirth. It’s not safer, Emily!!

Pam: I was just typing that!! Safer economically, perhaps, assuming the husband is a decent provider?

Brenna: Maybe it’s safer because now she’s in a relationship? Now she’s married and no longer searching. She’s a “heart in port,” safe from the tempestuous passion of “wild nights” and from temptation? And then she reflects on how strange childhood looks from her womanly perspective, and that makes sense to me. It’s surreal to take on an adult role. I wonder how many of us ever really feel fully adult. I remember my mom telling me that when she was married with young children, she used to sometimes look around in a daze and wonder where the grownups were.

Pam: The way she describes the two states is very interesting to me. We have wife, czar, woman, and safer vs. that and that other state.

Brenna: Yes! super interesting and weird. And “czar” is a male role. So by becoming a wife she’s become a man? Because she’s joined with a man?

Pam: And that last rhyming couplet is such a childlike thing to say!

Brenna: It is! It’s like she reverts at the end.

Pam: There’s this image of the grownup married woman saying these ridiculously simple rhymes.

Brenna: And I think that’s telling.

Pam: Yes! It subverts the idea that marriage = adult, grownup, more wise. It’s like the person who tells you how incredibly humble they are.

Brenna: “This being comfort, then/ That other kind was pain”. This is a weird thought. “Because marriage is comfort, then it logically follows that childhood was NOT comfort.” It’s like she’s trying to convince herself with bad logic. So there’s this reversal. The wife doth protest too much. She opens with “It’s so great to be a wife!” but then flip flops at the end. “It MUST be great to be a wife because everybody says so and I’m supposed to want this.”

Pam: Yes! We have to wonder who the audience is, if it’s not just the speaker saying these things to convince herself.

Brenna: “But why compare?/ I’m wife! Stop there!” It’s as if, looking back at childhood from her current reality of marriage, which is supposed to be better, she’s trying to tell us that it’s not better. But as a wife, she’s not allowed to say that. She has to make it sound good, but she has serious reservations. She has to shut herself up so she doesn’t say what she’s really thinking. I wonder…is this Emily trying to convince herself that it’s better to remain single??

Pam: Or, at least, to show us that being a wife doesn’t mean that your problems go away.

Brenna: Hell no they do not go away. You just end up with kids who get the plague and then you are stuck at home cleaning things and cooking soup and going out of your mind. Of course it is possible that my current mental state is coloring my reading of this poem… Maybe the speaker is imagining what it’s like to be a wife. She wonders if she’s missing anything. She thinks at first that she is–comfort, stability, a steady relationship to depend on. But as she thinks about it, she realizes what she’s losing.

Pam: Yes! I think this is why the rhyme scheme switches in the last stanza, too.

Brenna: I love reversals in poems. I geek out about this kind of thing.

Pam: She’s exploring in the first two stanzas, and in the last she’s come to a decision–but it’s not the one she expected. This may be why she reverts to this more childlike rhyme scheme; the first two stanzas are still AABB, but they are very, very loose rhymes. You can’t tell me that anybody, even in the 1800s, actually thought that that/state was anything other than a slant rhyme. But we have perfect rhyme in compare/there. Your current mental state is RELEVANT to this poem.

Brenna: I love how you always bring it back to the rhyme scheme. I forget to do that.

Pam: I can’t help but to check the rhyme scheme first every time.
What do you think? Have we done it justice?

Brenna: I think we have done it all the justice we can possibly do it at this moment. Stop there!

Nobody dies in this one!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!


Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!


Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

~Emily Dickinson

I love this one. It’s breathless and brim-full of emotion, and unlike many of the poems we’ve discussed this month, this is actually, irrefutably, undeniably a love poem! She can do it! She can write love poems that are about love!

This is a gorgeous jewel of a poem, and I don’t want to belabor it with a long meditation. I just want to point out what I think is the genius of this poem–it manages to capture both the headiness and the deep, calm comfort of love.

Sentence fragments, syntax, exclamation marks, and Dickinson’s ubiquitous dashes all contribute to the breathless feel. This love is exciting, passionate. The speaker opens with the image of “wild nights,” which sets the tone for the entire poem.

But the love she’s talking about is also profoundly comfortable. A “heart in port” is one at rest. To be “done with the compass” and “done with the chart” further underscores that notion. This speaker is no longer searching. She has found exactly what she wants.

By the end of the poem, the tempest seems to have passed. You can’t row very effectively in the middle of a storm–the waters are calm now. And Eden isn’t likely to be a storm-tossed place. It’s a place where the speaker can moor, drop anchor, rest. The implication is that she’s here to stay.

Of course, this is a Dickinson love poem, so this is all imagined: the “might” is important. She hasn’t achieved this ideal state, she’s only imagining it. Still, she doesn’t throw in anything else to disrupt the envisioned tranquility. Nobody dies! This alone makes “Wild Nights” a strong contender for “Best Dickinson Love Poem that Is Actually a Love Poem.”

Consecration

PROUD of my broken heart since thou didst break it,
Proud of the pain I did not feel till thee,
Proud of my night since thou with moons dost slake it,
Not to partake thy passion, my humility.

Emily Dickinson

Another day, another love poem that may not really be a love poem. The first thing that strikes me about this poem is the repetition: three of the four lines begin with “proud.” Given that this poem is one long sentence, that’s a lot of pride to display in such a short punch of a poem. So what’s the speaker proud of?

Firstly, she’s proud of her broken heart, “since” the unnamed lover broke it. Curious, here, is the double meaning of “since”: is the speaker proud because the lover broke her heart, or is she proud from the period of time since it has been broken?

Secondly, she’s “proud of the pain I did not feel till thee.” Sure, this is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s interesting that this is a new pain. Is she proud because this is the first time her heart has been broken, or because she’s loved deeply enough to have been deeply affected?

Thirdly, the speaker becomes entirely to attached to her rhyme scheme. “Proud of my night since thou with moons dost slake it” is a line that practically shouts STOP RHYMING THIS POEM. It also requires some unpacking, because the narrator is doing literary gymnastics to fit this line in her scheme. She’s proud of her night, since you, Mr. Ex, are feeding it with moons. Hold up. What?

Not only does this make little sense on first read, it also breaks the scheme set up in the first two lines. You broke my heart – past tense. You hurt my feelings – past tense. “Thou dost slake” – present tense. If the narrator is heartbroken, how is she also being slaked? The idea of being slaked means not just having something to eat or drink, but to have that foodstuff to satisfy a hunger.

But what else could night be hungry for, than light? Here the speaker is telling us that, yes, she might be in the dark, but she’s not bothered. Even though Mr. Ex–or Mr. Never Was–isn’t with her, he’s still giving off enough light to satisfy her thirst. I hate to say it, and perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but here the narrator seems like nothing more than a moth, battering herself against a light that pays her no notice.

The fourth and final line gives us our last break from repetition. No longer is the speaker proud: now, she’s professing her humility! She is entirely too humble to have any hope of passion with this person; perhaps it is her humility which is holding her at length.

The One Where I Get to Quote Tori Amos

“you sign Prince of Darkness/try squire of dimness”

~Tori Amos, “She’s Your Cocaine”

Part 3: LOVE

V

DOUBT me, my dim companion!
Why, God would be content
With but a fraction of the love
Poured thee without a stint.
The whole of me, forever,
What more the woman can,—
Say quick, that I may dower thee
With last delight I own!


It cannot be my spirit,
For that was thine before;
I ceded all of dust I knew,—
What opulence the more
Had I, a humble maiden,
Whose farthest of degree
Was that she might
Some distant heaven,
Dwell timidly with thee!

~Emily Dickinson

Sometimes Emily Dickinson gets downright sassy with the love poems. As Pam and I were tossing around possibilities for today’s poem a couple of days ago, we realized that there is a whole other category of Dickinsonian love poems we hadn’t yet considered: the insulting ones.

The second stanza of this poem reads like any other sweet love poem: “I am yours, all of me, I’m not worthy of you but I love you forever,” etc. etc. etc. Even the second half of the first stanza is fairly typical. There’s nothing especially notable about the sentiment, nothing to make it stand out among a saccharine sea of love poetry. It’s the first few lines–notably the very first one–that set the tone, that color the rest and make them something they wouldn’t be without that damning preamble.

“Doubt me, my dim companion!” The tone sounds at once affronted and, frankly, insulting. It sounds like an astonished interjection, a “how dare you!” from the speaker to her beloved. And “dim.” Dim. That is not flattering. The beloved is too dense to see or understand or appreciate exactly how much he is loved. It’s this first line that makes this a love poem in a rather nontraditional sense. Sure, there are poems about unrequited love, but this one strikes a very particular tone from the get-go. “Doubt” as the very first word in a love poem is telling.

There’s something about “dim companion” that really feels like a zing. The speaker is being condescending. This isn’t the kind of insult you throw out in a blaze of temper without thinking at all. It’s carefully constructed to chip away at its object. “You think you’re so smart. Well, let me tell you, my dim companion.” For a woman confined to as exceptionally narrow a sphere as Dickinson’s, this feels especially significant. “You, you man of the world, you traveler, you educated one, it’s you who’s the unobservant one, you who can’t see what’s right in front of you.” He may think he’s the Prince of Darkness, but really he’s just another squire of dimness who can’t recognize the obvious and can’t appreciate what he’s got.

The “dim companion” epithet also feels to me like it’s really modifying the speaker’s description of herself toward the end of the poem. She’s just a “woman” and a “humble maiden,” and this makes her companion’s dimness even more embarrassing for him. Here’s the speaker, merely a humble maid, and yet she sees so much more than her beloved man of the world.

Then there are the second, third, and fourth lines. “I have lavished so much love on you that God himself would be content with even a little bit of it.” Here’s that classic Dickinson blasphemy–loving the beloved more than God–with a new edge. “You are more demanding than God,” with the implication “but you’re not God, so you have no right to be so demanding. Yet I love you anyway.”

It’s not a happy love poem. This relationship does not seem like it’s on completely solid footing at the moment. Yet there’s something poignantly real about the speaker’s frustration. We’ve all been there–we’ve all loved someone who seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge or appreciate our affection in the way we wanted them to, whether romantically or otherwise.

There’s a lot to unpack in this poem, but the way the first few lines color the entire thing is fascinating to me. It’s almost as if Dickinson is deconstructing a love poem. Take off the first four lines and it’s just a love poem. With those first four lines, however, it’s something more–a poem that acknowledges both the ecstasy and the utter frustration of love.

“The Moon is distant from the Sea”

The Moon is distant from the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –


He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward the Town –
Just so far – goes away –


Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand –
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this poem in honor of February’s full moon, the Snow Moon. Last night the clouds hung heavy with snow and the light of the moon, amber or otherwise, didn’t touch my little patch of earth. But the moon is still there, irrevocable as the tides, pulling and tugging at consciousness even when invisible.

This is yet another in the category of “Is It a Love Poem??” It easily could be, but the “Signor” could be God as easily as the beloved. Rather than comment on that, I want to focus instead on the gender reversal in this poem.

Dickinson begins with the Moon as “She” and the sea as “Him.” The moon has for thousands of years been associated with the feminine, so there’s nothing surprising her. The interesting thing happens in the third stanza–the female speaker takes the place of the masculine sea, and “Signor,” whoever he is, takes on the feminine role of the moon. I love this kind of gender-bending; it happens occasionally in Dickinson’s poems, and while I don’t know what exactly it means, I find it fascinating.

If we go with a religious reading, there’s precedent for this, of course, in descriptions of God as not only a masculine force, but also a mother bird gathering her chicks under the nurturing shelter of her wings. But why the gender reversal partway through the poem?

Maybe it’s because, in any sustained relationship, socially-constructed notions of gender have to blur from time to time. No one can be the sole nurturer; no one can be the sole protector. Our roles wax and wane over the cycles of time like the phases of the moon. Roles that are stereotypically “feminine” can and should be played by both partners in a relationship, and so should the stereotypically “masculine” ones. I can’t know if Dickinson was thinking anything along these lines, but the fact that she so easily compares the influence of the masculine (God, the beloved) to a feminine power (the moon) is suggestive.

There are so many interesting features in this poem–the gorgeous evocations of the moon’s amber light, the poignancy of the repeated emphasis on the impossible distance between the speaker and the object of her devotion, the sheer beauty of Dickinson’s language. No matter how you read it, it’s a lovely poem to read under the light of the full moon.

XI: I’ve got an arrow here

I’VE got an arrow here;
Loving the hand that sent it,
I the dart revere.

Fell, they will say, in “skirmish”!
Vanquished, my soul will know,
By but a simple arrow
Sped by an archer’s bow.

Emily Dickinson

Easy allusions to Cupid aside, the thing that strikes me first about this poem is the action: somebody has shot an arrow, right? So why is the person who shot it relegated to only one line?

In the first stanza, the speaker has an arrow, she loves the hand that sent it, and she reveres the dart. In the second stanza, she imagines that other people will say that she has died in battle; her soul will be vanquished.

That’s a lot of time to spend on somebody who received Cupid’s arrow, and very little time spent on Cupid himself. Who shot this arrow? Why? We have to imagine that the narrator is responsive, because she’s already imagining falling (actually, literally) for the person who shot it. But she tells us nothing at all about this person.

If this doesn’t scream one-sided-romance, I don’t know what does. I’m imagining the narrator peeking out a window, furiously scribbling, “You don’t know what you do to me!” And, of course, Cupid has no idea. The speaker doesn’t tell us that he took careful aim, or that he even hit his target.