In which Emily is not G-rated and there is a whole lot going on

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen,—
As laces just reveal the surge,
Or mists the Apennine.

~Emily Dickinson

So much going on in this tiny poem. It’s just a simile, really, but there is all sorts of stuff to unpack. First, Emily Dickinson talking about boobs. !! Definitely not one I ever saw in a middle school English textbook. Then there’s the comparing of the “surge” to mountains, which is a pretty clichéd metaphor for breasts, but still lovely with the correspondence between lace and mist.

But the real gist of the poem is that thoughts are clearer when slightly clouded, and this is a fascinating idea. I wonder what the “film” is that she’s talking about. She seems to be thinking of something specific–“so slight a film”–but the reader has no real clue as to what that film is. Is she talking about language? tone? something else?

I don’t know…but I do know I’ve already expended many more words in trying to unpack this poem than Dickinson ever needed to write it, and that is as good a definition of what poetry is as anything else I can think of.

Seeking Neptune

SHE went as quiet as the dew
From a familiar flower.
Not like the dew did she return
At the accustomed hour!

She dropt as softly as a star 5
From out my summer’s eve;
Less skillful than Leverrier
It’s sorer to believe!

~Emily Dickinson
Neptune, via Pixabay.com

Okay, so I fell down a rabbit hole with this one. Obviously we’re talking about someone who’s dead and missed, but I had no idea who Leverrier was. Turns out, he’s the French astronomer who predicted the existence and location of Neptune via its effects on Uranus. His area of expertise was “celestial mechanics,” which is a phrase so rife with possibility it’s going to haunt me for a long time.

This Leverrier reference deepens my whole understanding of this poem. In the first stanza, the departed one is described in earthly terms, as something small and ephemeral and unremarkable–she was “quiet” and “like the dew” “from a familiar flower.” Even the hour is “accustomed.” The scale of this stanza is small and expected.

It’s in the second stanza that we really see the importance of this unnamed woman and the effect of her absence on the speaker. She dropped “as softly as a star”–though still quiet, she is now described in not earthly but celestial terms, and has gone from the scale of a dewdrop to a sun.

I think the speaker is comparing herself to Leverrier here, despite the lack of any kind of subject for this clause. She is less skillful that the astronomer who could predict something unseen by the way it affects something known, but her predicament is more dire. The missing loved one, like the unseen Neptune, will forever shift the speaker’s world in its orbit.

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.”

Clouds like listless elephants

On this long storm the rainbow rose,
On this late morn the sun;
The clouds, like listless elephants,
Horizons straggled down.

The birds rose smiling in their nests, 5
The gales indeed were done;
Alas! how heedless were the eyes
On whom the summer shone!

The quiet nonchalance of death
No daybreak can bestir; 10
The slow archangel’s syllables
Must awaken her.

~Emily Dickinson

Surprise! It’s an Emily Dickinson poem about…death!

This poem follows the same sensibility of many of Dickinson’s poems on the subject. Either a man or a woman has died, while all around them, life goes on as usual. There is a sense of bereavement from those left behind, but in the grave, all is quiet, accepted.

What strikes me as particularly marvelous about this Dickinson poem about death is the simile of the elephants in the first stanza. Exactly halfway through the poem, there is a very clear shift from images of beauty in nature and a sense of relief at coming through the storm to a sense of loss–a shift from life to death.

The elephantine clouds in the first stanza, however, are the foreshadowing. While the rest of nature is bright and vibrant, the clouds are “listless” and straggle down the horizon. It sounds like these elephants are on their last legs. There’s a sense of heaviness, too, in the choice of elephants, which is wonderfully paradoxical–clouds are light, floating.

Dickinson goes on to mention birds, a gale, and an archangel–all light things, flying things. The elephants in the sky, listlessly straggling down the horizon, stand in stark contrast. It’s a wonderful simile, and an excellent example of Dickinson on her A-game–offering up a view of the world from a surprising and challenging perspective.