from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
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Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

Two worlds

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled,
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

~Emily Dickinson

At numerous times over the course of this year-long Emily Dickinson project, I have suspected that I am gradually becoming stupider. Some of Dickinson’s poems hit me like a flash of insight, clear and bracing. Others completely befuddle me, to the point that I wonder if I have forgotten how to word.

The first stanza of this poem is very straightforward. Of course it’s about death! The second stanza? Tricksier. Okay, death means the surrendering of the flesh, the beginning of a bodiless state. But what are the “Two worlds” that “disperse” “like audiences”? Has she named two worlds?

Maybe the two worlds are a reference to the “clouds,” representing heaven, and “Creation,” representing this life, in the first stanza. If this is the case, then what is Dickinson saying about death? That the soul after death has nothing to do with either this world or the next? It’s almost like this woman was not raised by a preacher. Or like she’s the stereotypical P.K., pushing allll the boundaries and challenging alll the beliefs.

Summer’s last rites

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THE GENTIAN weaves her fringes,
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness, 5
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angles are.

It was a short procession,—
The bobolink was there, 10
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing,—
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph, 15
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. Its basic meaning is clear–it’s about the passage of summer into autumn, the beginning of the slow death of the year that somehow creeps up on us every trip around the sun.

The first stanza lays out botanical cues that summer is ending. I had to look up gentian (a flower/herb). I don’t know what to make of the second stanza, with its “below this morning” and being “where the angles are.” Something about the angle of the light, maybe?? No idea on this one.

As a beekeeper, I love the third, middle stanza, with its “aged bee” as the officiant of summer’s funeral. The notion of an aged bee is rich with meaning. At the risk of falling down a bee-geek hole, it’s worth noting that honeybees during the summer live for a matter of weeks, due to the stresses of their constant foraging, but during the winter they can live for months. Ironically, the “harder” time of the year is not their harder time. Still, even a life-span of months hardly seems “aged,” and I suspect Dickinson is using the word ironically to show how quickly summer seems to pass.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expresses a desire to follow summer to wherever it’s gone, rather than remain for the long winter. Relatable. The line “Summer, sister, seraph” echoes the structure and rhythm of her poem that begins, “I never lost as much but twice.” The penultimate line of that one is “Burglar, banker, father,” and I can’t read this one without hearing echoes of that one, which is also about loss–but of a person rather than a season.

The final stanza of this poem is especially effective. The rhyme scheme, which has been mostly slant up to this point, suddenly disappears. Four-line stanzas abruptly give way to a three-line mock liturgy. The poem, like summer itself, is cut short.

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.

Certain

I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God, 5
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is wonderfully confounding. Sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s talking about. Other times, it’s crystal clear. This is one of those clear ones. The diction and syntax are simple, almost childlike. This is a poem a young child could understand, and that fits with her theme of faith.

In this poem, the certainty of rhythm, rhyme, and syntax mirrors the certainty of the speaker. Hers is a childlike faith, which the Bible upholds as the exemplar for everyone. It’s a simple poem, but also masterful in its simplicity.

Lost Faith

To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished,—faith cannot.

Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being ’s beggary.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m with the speaker of this poem as far as the first two lines. Faith is more precious than any worldly possession, even the most extravagant inheritance. It’s in the third and fourth lines that she loses me. Her argument is that faith is more precious than earthly goods because it cannot be renewed.

In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to develop this thought. She argues that faith is “Inherited with life” and that “Belief but once can be.” This seems like a very extreme view. Once faith is lost, it cannot be regained?

One one level, this seems true. It’s certainly difficult to regain lost faith. Yet we do it all the time–we forgive each other. We question, and while some of us take divergent paths, others circle back to where we started.

I suspect Dickinson is talking about religion specifically, but I think the poem applies to all kinds of faith. If we read it as religious faith, there’s a very Puritanical slant to the poem. If we read it as faith in others, it works on a different level. I wonder, too, if we can read it as others’ faith in us–our faith in the sense that it’s something that’s been placed in us by other people.

In any case, lost faith is tricky to regain–but I don’t think that, as the speaker of this poem argues, it’s necessarily gone forever.

Not my favorite

What soft, cherubic creatures
These gentlewomen are!
One would as soon assault a plush
Or violate a star.

Such dimity convictions,
A horror so refined
Of freckled human nature,
Of Deity ashamed,—

It’s such a common glory,
A fisherman’s degree!
Redemption, brittle lady,
Be so, ashamed of thee.

~Emily Dickinson

Oh, Emily. I’m trying to appreciate this one, but it’s hard.

Dickinson is attacking fashionable ladies, and it’s true, there’s not nothing there to critique. It bothers me, though, that she’s specifically going after other women. There’s something that feels very Jane Austen about this, and not in a pretty way. Dickinson isn’t exactly at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and she’s sniping at those above her. It’s a natural human tendency, I suppose, but there’s something disturbing to me about a woman bound by the conventions of her society attacking other women who are similarly bound–in some ways more so.

It’s pretty scathing to end the way she does. Redemption is ashamed of such “brittle” ladies? I think it’s the sweeping nature of the criticism here that troubles me most. Dickinson paints “gentlewomen” with a broad brush, without acknowledging the constraints that society has place upon them to make them the “soft cherubic creatures” they are. It sounds as if everything is the gentlewomen’s fault, and this just irks me.

I wonder what was going on in Dickinson’s head when she wrote this. It feels like a too-easy jab. She’s usually a little more nuanced, a little more subversive than this. Did something happen to make her particularly tetchy with gentlewomen? There’s no way to know. But I’m going to have to put this one down in the books as “not my favorite” and move on.