to keep the dark away

I sing to use the waiting,
My bonnet but to tie,
And shut the door unto my house;
No more to do have I,

Till, his best step approaching,
We journey to the day,
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Things 1 and 2 are on break, and are clamoring to use my computer, so I’ll keep this one short. This poem calls to mind the English carol “In praise of Christmas,” with its emphasis on the power of music and togetherness to drive away the dark cold of winter. The lyrics are below. May you be warm and safe this winter’s day, surrounded by love.

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all of the rest of the year
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks
Both beauty and youth’s decay
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbors together do meet
To sit by the fire with friendly desire
Each other in love to greet
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot
All sorrows aside they lay
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away

When Christmas tide comes in like a bride
With holly and ivy clad
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away

~“In Praise of Christmas”

November

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.

A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eves,—
Gone Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.

Still is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.

Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a lovely tribute to the days that don’t often receive one. I’m going to put it next to this classic by Keats, because they seem to have much in common. Enjoy these sweet, rare autumn days.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

~John Keats, “To Autumn”

Death vs. Ozymandias

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

~Emily Dickinson

What to say about this one? It’s perhaps the most Emily poem of them all. Death is courtly, measured, unhurried. The speaker seems not unhappy at the prospect of her own earthly demise. And the poem ends on “eternity,” on an open vowel.

Rather than belabor this one, I’m going to set next to it another on a similar subject, with a similar ending tactic, so they can chat. The open vowel on the subject of death and forever calls to mind Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” While Dickinson’s poem is vastly more personal, it seems they have more than a few things in common. I’ll let them talk it out.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Odd secrets of the line

Just lost when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as one returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some sailor, skirting foreign shores,
Some pale reporter from the awful doors
Before the seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by eye.

Next time, to tarry,
While the ages steal,–
Slow tramp the centuries,
And the cycles wheel.

~Emily Dickinson

The phrase “Odd secrets of the line” has snared my imagination. It reminds me of these lyrics, so today’s post is a conversation between two poems. I’ll put them both here and let them talk it out.

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea
Girls they are beauties they dance and they sing
They treat an old tar like a lord or a king
Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where there’s liquor for all and it’s free

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea

There in the snug drinking with me Shipmates return from the seven salt seas Tarry tailed tars, gold buckles shoes
The cream and the dregs of the crew.
Just sailors on shore with a dream in their eyes
Who saw the world’s end where the sea meets the sky
Vision remains, wonders recalled By the trinkets that hang on the walls

Late in the night clouds hurry past
The moon winks and goes, the doors are barred fast
The charts are laid out, the contraband found The crossbones laid out on the ground
The figurehead does it she never gets tired She beckons a breeze from her berth by the fire
Songs roll around, waves hit the bar
Til the bottles wash up on the shore

~”Heaven’s a bar,” via Warham Whalers

too far!

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!

Emily Dickinson

It’s not just the mention of silence in the first stanza but also the continued metaphor of play and contrast between bliss and pain that calls to mind Robert Browning’s Tempest-inspired “Caliban upon Setebos.” In Browning’s poem Caliban, the monster enslaved by Prospero, muses on his understanding of the divine. It’s a fantastic poem–read it here, and see what you think.

“Place was where the presence was”

AT half-past three a single bird
Unto a silent sky
Propounded but a single term
Of cautious melody.

At half-past four, experiment 5
Had subjugated test,
And lo! her silver principle
Supplanted all the rest.

At half-past seven, element
Nor implement was seen, 10
And place was where the presence was,
Circumference between.

~Emily Dickinson

I haven’t yet been able to put my finger on exactly what it is, but ever since I first read this poem, I’ve been feeling that it had something to say to another poem by another poet writing in a different time and situation:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.|

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
|
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

~Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar”

I think it’s because both of these poems seem to me on some level to be describing the way that artifact and experience can create place, can somehow reshape it. I’m not sure…but I’ll leave these two here so you can mull it over, too.

Well…

A solemn thing it was, I said,
A woman white to be,
And wear, if God should count me fit,
Her hallowed mystery.

A timid thing to drop a life
Into the purple well,
Too plummetless that it come back
Eternity until.

~Emily Dickinson

“Solemn,” “hallowed,” “mystery”–all words that seem apt in describing marriage. But “timid,” “drop a life,” “plummetless”? Interesting choices. Today’s post goes along with tomorrow’s. In this one, Dickinson uses a well as a metaphor for marriage. In tomorrow’s, her subject is a well itself. What are these two poems saying to each other? See what you think.