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.

This pendulum of snow

A clock stopped—not the mantel’s;
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing
That just now dangled still.

An awe came on the trinket!
The figures hunched with pain,
Then quivered out of decimals
Into degreeless noon.

It will not stir for doctors,
This pendulum of snow;
The shopman importunes it,
While cool, concernless No

Nods from the gilded pointers,
Nods from the seconds slim,
Decades of arrogance between
The dial life and him.

~Emily Dickinson
Image credit: Amar Saleem via Pexels.

It always throws me a little when a Dickinson poem seems straightforward, as this one does. The poem is a riddle of sorts–the speaker tells us a clock stopped, but not the mantel’s. Though she never tells us explicitly what the clock actually is, the meaning is clear. This is (gasp!! surprise!!) a Poem About Death.

What’s enticing about this poem, to me, is the gorgeousness of Dickinson’s language. “Quivered out of decimals / Into degreeless noon” is a lush and lovely description, and evokes so much feeling through the poet’s choice of words. Quivering implies so many emotions and states of mind–fear, indecision, trepidation…and “degreeless noon” is equally evocative.

There’s also some wonderfully Dickinsonian contradiction. In the final stanza, the pointers are nodding, the seconds are nodding, but the clock has stopped–motion vs. motionlessness. The stilled clock parts are sending a message via their motionlessness, and Dickinson describes that message as a motion, a nod. And then there’s the contradiction between seconds and decades.

I love it when I feel like I understand one of Dickinson’s poems and can then really dig into the language and fully appreciate it. So often I read her poetry and am left scratching my head. This one is a nice exception.

cold

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
and untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone –

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
and Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges surrender –
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disk of Snow.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Dickinson is so good at cold. This is a wintry poem. The opening image of alabaster chambers conjures images of cool white rooms, devoid of heat and blazing light–of any kind of warmth, for these are the chambers of the dead. The bright times of day cannot touch them. Years, worlds, firmaments pass them by, leaving them unscathed, unwarmed.

From alabaster chambers at the beginning to a “Disk of Snow” at the end, everything about this poem carries for me the feel of rooms in old houses when I was a child–rooms that somehow locked in the chill of night or winter and seemed to radiate it back during the heat of the day. No matter what has changed in the world beyond their walls, old houses have a way of ignoring it all, of remaining untouched somehow by the bright passage of time.

like flakes, like stars

They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers goes.

They perished in the seamless grass,—
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.

I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.

A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.

But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.

I hope you find some magic in the night sky.

Before the ice is in the pools

Before the ice is in the pools,
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow,

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of
On a summer’s day;
What is only walking
Just a bridge away;

That which sings so, speaks so,
When there’s no one here,—
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I love the icy imagery in this poem. As I read through it for the third or fourth time, though, what I’m imagining is an Emily Dickinson blog post-writing bot. It could select from various options, the most common of which would be “this is a poem about death.”

As Emily Dickinson death poems go, however, this is a lovely one. Death is described as “Wonder upon wonder.” My favorite part is the third stanza. The idea that another world lingers just at the edge of our vision is a compelling one. This is definitely not an angsty Dickinson death poem. Death here is like the turning of the seasons, a natural part of the cycle of life, and is couched as such–but with a magical spin.

“It passes, and we stay”

LXXXV


A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here


A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That silence cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.


It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.


Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:


A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.

~Emily Dickinson

A quality of loss is affecting my content today as, after a sunny, breezy early spring day yesterday, I woke to sleet that quickly turned to snow. The afternoon light is wintry now, the snow changed again to rain. But I can take refuge in this poem, and dream of warmer, sunnier days.

The Snow

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
A Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen –
Then stills it’s Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been –

Emily Dickinson

As I write this, my portion of North Alabama is lying still under a winter weather advisory. No, really. We don’t know how to drive in snow–we rarely get it, we don’t have snowplows, we don’t always have salt for the roads–so folks who don’t have to go out are probably avoiding travel. Schools, universities, businesses–there are lots of closures set up for tomorrow already.

We’re predicted to get about 2.5″ of snow.

This snow is not going to do what the snow in the poem above does. The snow in the poem above has agency; it shifts, powders, and fills. It reaches, wraps, deals, ruffles, and stills.

We’ll be lucky if our snow simply sticks, but it’s so much fun–for someone who, admittedly, hasn’t seen a lot of snow–to imagine a snow like the one above. A snow that blankets everything. A snow that fills the ruts in the road. A snow that covers farmland. A snow that puts a sheet of thick cotton batting over every available surface.

The end of this poem, the stilling of artisans like ghosts, is that moment when the snowflakes have finished and the snow remains, untouched. The end of this poem feels like the gasp you might have if you looked out and saw that spectacle–even the poem can’t finish its last sentence. Where’s the final period?

Usually when we get snow predictions, they bust. Cities north and south and east and west will get a few inches, and we’ll grumble loudly instead. The temperature is dropping, and supposedly, the changeover from drizzle to snow will happen in a few hours. Plenty of time for snow to pick some active verbs and go to work–