Called to my full

I ’m ceded, I ’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I ’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a throne.

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Peter de Vink via Pexels.

I’ve always read this as a love poem–specifically a poem about marriage. I’ve never been a huge fan of most love poems, and Dickinson’s make me uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when they extol the glories of being married, as if marriage is the completion of a woman. But rereading this now, I wonder if it really has to be a love poem. Maybe…the metaphors and language certainly work for marriage. But ultimately, if it is a love poem, it’s a weird one. There’s no mention of the beloved. The only man in the poem, the only other individual other than the speaker, is the father, who perhaps is just a father but maybe stands in here, too, for God himself.

If that’s the case–if the “father” is God–then this becomes a very different poem. The speaker is making a break from the religion and conventions with which she’s been raised. The end of childhood here is no cause for nostalgia, but the embrace of freedom.

In the middle of the poem, I’m intrigued by the reference to the moon–“Called to my full, / The crescent dropped.” She is living into her full potential, her true, unobscured state.

As the poem continues, the speakers uses the language of royalty and power–“rank,” “queen,” “throne”–and we get a sense that this is not so much a poem about love as personal power. Maybe, if it’s a love poem at all, it’s a love poem to herself, to the changes that have empowered her, brought her to where she is.

I think I like it a lot better this way.

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.

Words of encouragement

Read, sweet, how others strove,
Till we are stouter;
What they renounced,
Till we are less afraid;
How many times they bore
The faithful witness,
Till we are helped,
As if a kingdom cared!

Read then of faith
That shone above the fagot;
Clear strains of hymn
The river could not drown;
Brave names of men
And celestial women,
Passed out of record
Into renown!

~Emily Dickinson

There is something rather un-Emily like about this poem. I don’t know if it’s that she usually isn’t trying to buck anybody up, or if it’s the more straightforward voice, or the address at the beginning, which sounds somehow more sonnet-y than usual.

Your prompt is to write some words of encouragement, and put them somewhere to be found and read.

A timely reminder

I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

~Emily Dickinson

The world seems so hate-filled lately. The news is full of accusations and phobic people, the internet is full of trolls, and people “unfriend” each other over online spats.

But who has time for that?

Life is short. There’s barely enough time to love anybody, let alone hate. Love is enough to keep anyone busy for a lifetime.

A little love song for summer

Summer for thee grant I may be
When summer days are flown!
Thy music still when whippoorwill
And oriole are done!

For thee to bloom, I ’ll skip the tomb
And sow my blossoms o’er!
Pray gather me, Anemone,
Thy flower forevermore!

~Emily Dickinson

Peak Emily. A lovely little love song for summer, in which the poet cannot resist inserting the inevitability of death. Happy reading!

Heaven below

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson often seems to be dancing on or just over the edge of blasphemy. Heaven on earth? God’s residence here, among us? Yet there’s a lot of food for thought here, and in some ways the thrust of this poem is theologically extremely sound. We must make the world we wish for, and if heaven is our aspiration, well, that means we have our work cut out for us. If we don’t find heaven now, will we ever? And if we don’t recognize the divine in the midst of the profane, how will we ever recognize it at all?

Resurrection

’T WAS a long parting, but the time
For interview had come;
Before the judgment-seat of God,
The last and second time


These fleshless lovers met,
A heaven in a gaze,
A heaven of heavens, the privilege
Of one another’s eyes.


No lifetime set on them,
Apparelled as the new
Unborn, except they had beheld,
Born everlasting now.


Was bridal e’er like this?
A paradise, the host,
And cherubim and seraphim
The most familiar guest.

~Emily dickinson

This one is titled “Resurrection” in my copy of Dickinson’s poems. “Perfect for Easter!” I thought, and then, “Oh, come on, Emily,” when I read it and saw that it is actually a love poem. Just when you think she can only write about death (or orioles) she takes death and turns it into a poem about undying love.

But then, when you think about it, isn’t that what Easter is–a love story?

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.”

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.