How to be forgotten

AFTER a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,—
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged, 5
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,— 10
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s simple, really. Just let a hundred years pass. In a hundred years, the scenes of our suffering will be sanded down by time, glossed over, our traces removed. No one will know, remember. A few may guess, but certainty ended a long time ago.

The places that marked the unforgettable moments of our lives become overgrown, naturalized to their former wildernesses. The last vestiges of our existences, if such remain, are curiosities merely, a line to be idly wondered at, a few lost grave goods.

The wind, perhaps, carries a sense of what went before. Now, when we pass a place where great joy, great sorrow, great intensity of emotion has occurred, we hesitate, a few of us. There is a tinge of something on the breeze, a suggestion. A prickling at the back of the neck. A sudden incalculable rush of feeling. Signs that someone was here, once.

In a hundred years, someone else will perhaps wonder the same thing.

memory awake

Remorse is memory awake,
Her companies astir,—
A presence of departed acts
At window and at door.

Its past set down before the soul,
And lighted with a match,
Perusal to facilitate
Of its condensed despatch.

Remorse is cureless,—the disease
Not even God can heal;
For ’t is His institution,—
The complement of hell.

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. The notion that “Remorse is memory awake” rings very true–it’s when we remember that we regret, repent. Remorse sounds like an army in the first stanza, “Her companies astir,” and is also the “presence” of that which we thought was “departed.”

This all seems pretty straightforward and apt. It’s in the final stanza that things get really interesting. The speaker claims first that “Remorse is cureless,” which may be, but then goes on to argue that even God cannot heal it. This questioning of God’s omnipotence is very Dickinson. She then goes on to say that God cannot heal it because it is his own creation and “The complement of hell.”

There is so much going on here. God is powerless against remorse. God created remorse. Remorse is God’s, and is the complement of hell. A complement, according to Merriam-Webster, is ” something that fills up, completes, or makes better or perfect.” So remorse is the perfection of hell, completing it.

The fathoms of remembrance

Remembrance has a rear and front,—
’T is something like a house;
It has a garret also
For refuse and the mouse,

Besides, the deepest cellar
That ever mason hewed;
Look to it, by its fathoms
Ourselves be not pursued.

~Emily Dickinson

I’d never encountered this poem before, and I really like it. I love how Dickinson begins with the mundane–a house, an attic with space for the unwanted and uninvited. In the second stanza, she moves to a grander and more dire tone–“deepest,” “fathoms,” “pursued.”

There’s so much truth in this small poem. It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes’s explanation of memory to Watson:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

~ Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Both Holmes and the speaker in Dickinson’s poem note the perils of an unselective memory, and both caution against them. Though Holmes’s is clearly an approach driven by professional need, both these descriptions of memory strike me as stemming from similar worldviews. The difference is that if Holmes clutters his brain-attic, he’ll have a hard time doing his work, while if the speaker in Dickinson’s poem allows unwanted memories to clutter hers, she will be forever “pursued.”

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.

Rusty ammunition

The past is such a curious creature,
To look her in the face
A transport may reward us,
Or a disgrace.

Unarmed if any meet her,
I charge him, fly!
Her rusty ammunition
Might yet reply!

~emily dickinson

What a weird little poem! The meter is what strikes me first–it’s mixed-up, the last lines of both stanzas coming short and abrupt on the heels of the more typical longer lines before. The first line of the poem is noticeably, awkwardly longer than any of the rest, too, giving the whole poem a choppy feel.

Is this what Dickinson is going for? She’s delving into the past–into our experience of it from the present, and the ways in which it can either affirm or negate us. Perhaps she’s set up this awkward pacing to echo the hesitance with which the speaker approaches the idea of the past, or her own past in particular.

In the first stanza, the speaker begins with the positive–past memories may reward us with happiness. But in the last line of the stanza, she presents an alternative–the past may be a disgrace. It’s the second notion she sticks with for the entirety of the second stanza, elaborating that the past is dangerous. You must approach it with caution, armed against whatever you may find. The past may be gone, but it’s still potent–it still has the power to wound via “rusty ammunition.”

The description of the past in this poem makes it sound like an adversary–it’s described in militant terms. The past is not necessarily our ally. The poem’s final image calls to mind, for me, a grizzled, at least slightly mad old Civil War veteran sitting on his porch, yelling at kids to get off his lawn while balancing an ancient firearm across his knees. Is it loaded? Maybe not. Maybe. Does it work? Do you want to find out?