nothing commoner than snow

Of tribulation these are they
Denoted by the white;
The spangled gowns, a lesser rank
Of victors designate.

All these did conquer; but the ones
Who overcame most times
Wear nothing commoner than snow,
No ornament but palms.

Surrender is a sort unknown
On this superior soil;
Defeat, an outgrown anguish,
Remembered as the mile

Our panting ankle barely gained
When night devoured the road;
But we stood whispering in the house,
And all we said was “Saved!”

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Radu Andrei Razvan via Pexels.

More death. Dickinson must have spent a lot of time thinking about it–so much time that she has a variety of different reactions and attitudes toward it. Sometimes it’s a suitor, welcome, chivalrous. Sometimes it’s an adversary. Sometimes it is longed for as relief from suffering, while other times the act of dying is itself the supreme trial.

There’s a lot of interesting, evocative, and tricksy language in this poem. In the first stanza, those who wear white are the ones who have overcome (or at least endured) tribulation. A lesser rank, presumably of the dead, wear “spangled gowns.” The contrast is interesting–those who are higher wear plain white, while those who are “lesser” are more elaborately adorned. The “lesser” are, however, still “victors.” All here have triumphed.

All of them, she goes on to elaborate in the second stanza, have been victorious, but those in white “overcame most times.” Their reward? Their only ornaments are palms, and the color of their raiment is “nothing commoner than snow.” Dickinson’s use of “commoner” suggests that snow is not common–they don’t wear anything commoner than this. At the same time, snow is fairly common, we know–certainly in New England. So there’s a paradoxical turn of phrase here, which perhaps is meant to underscore the paradox of the highest being clothed the most simply. Heaven, after all, is an upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first.

On the “superior soil” of heaven, surrender is unknown, and defeat is merely a memory, like the reminiscence of the last mile of a particularly difficult night journey.

The final stanza brings us out of heaven and back to Earth, back into a mortal, living perspective. Dickinson shifts from the white-clothed and bespangled victors to those they left behind: “But we stood whispering in the house, / And all we said was ‘Saved!'” That is all the living can say, all they can know. They can only guess at the rank and raiment of the deceased in heaven.

This, of course, begs the question–how can the speaker know? She identifies herself in the last stanza with personal pronouns as one of the “we,” one of the living left behind. Yet she is informing us about the status of the dead and saved. More paradox. So I’m left not entirely sure of exactly what she’s getting at, and once again wondering if I’m a bit dull, or if perhaps this was precisely the effect Dickinson was going for.

White Martyrdom

To learn the transport by the pain,
As blind men learn the sun;
To die of thirst, suspecting
That brooks in meadows run;

To stay the homesick, homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore
Haunted by native lands, the while,
And blue, beloved air—

This is the sovereign anguish,
This, the signal woe!
These are the patient laureates
Whose voices, trained below,

Ascend in ceaseless carol,
Inaudible, indeed,
To us, the duller scholars
Of the mysterious bard!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem is an interesting contrast to yesterday’s, in which the poet argues that something attained is worth less than it was before–that when a starving man finally gets food, that food loses its deliciousness simply by being available. This poem, on the other hand, argues that to never be able to reach something longed for is torment–“the sovereign anguish,” “the signal woe!”

Which one is it, Emily?

She is a study in contradictions. I’ve read I don’t know how many mentions and discussions of the paradoxes within Dickinson’s poems, but her whole body of work is rife with contradiction between one poem and the next, too.

I don’t know what to do with this poem, but I know that, aside from the infernal paradoxes, what intrigues me most is the second stanza. The speaker gives the example of someone far from home, longing for familiar places. She repeats the word “homesick” for emphasis, an interesting choice in a short poem that makes me wonder if this is really what this poem, at its heart, is all about.

Of course, because this is Dickinson, this is all liable to be heavily metaphorical and probably has a lot to do with death. But what it reminds me of is the concept of white martyrdom.

It seems that there is some disagreement over whether it is properly labeled “green” or “white,” but I’m going with “white” since that’s how I first encountered the term. In the lives of saints, martyrdom is typically bloody–“red martyrdom.” People die for their faith in spectacularly gory ways. But the desert hermits and many of the Irish monks pursued a different kind of holiness-through-suffering. They left behind the familiar, the beloved, and struck out for new and forbidding terrains, where landscape itself served as a reminder that this world is only temporary. Giving up your life and ascending to everlasting reward is one thing. Giving up your homeland and living out your days in separation from home is another. There is pain and privation in both, and while death is the ultimate sacrifice one can make in this world, the giving-up of home is a more prolonged suffering.

When Columcille and his monks set out in their curraghs for what would come to be called Skellig Michael, they were pursuing white martyrdom, leaving behind the green hills of Ireland for an existence eked out on a barren rock in the sea. Their experience must have been nearly identical to what Dickinson describes in this poem–except that they chose their lot, while the tone of the poem seems to suggest otherwise.