On this date

GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!
Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
And only the waves reply.

~Emily Dickinson

This poem reminds me of a song sung by William Pint and Felicia Dale, so I’m including the lyrics here in full, though there are rather a lot of them. They recount a true story–the loss of the British lifeboat The Mary Stanford on this date ninety-one years ago. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more tragic by the fact that the vessel which The Mary Stanford was sent out to rescue was already saved by the time the English lifeboat launched. It seems like the kind of story that would have struck a chord in Dickinson’s imagination.

When master John Stanford of London town died
They read out his will and his legacy spied
It said take this bequest for to build me a craft
So that with it my name shouldn’t die
And give it to the R.N.L.I.

So they fashioned a lifeboat of Liverpool class
38 feet from the stem to the aft
With a close reefed mainsail on a 20 foot mast
And to grant the last wish of his life
Named it Mary after his wife

She went into service in 1916
And 63 times from the boathouse she screamed
Cross the shale of Rye Bay
Through the teeth of the storm
And into the mouth of the waves
All sailors lives there to save

Johnny come home they all sing from the pier
On the 15th day of November each year
And one day the sea she will give up her dead
And home will come young Johnny Head
Home will come young Johnny Head

Young Johnny Head
Had just turned seventeen
And to serve on the lifeboat was
Young Johnny’s dream
His father was the coxswain
His brother in the crew
And to serve he was willing to die
On the Mary Stanford of Rye

On November 15th
With the storm at its height
The Alice of Riga was losing her fight
Seven miles from Dungeness
She was drifting and lost
And the crew prayed and cried
To the moon
That’s when they heard the maroon

It was four in the morning
When young Johnny Head
On hearing the signal
He leapt from his bed
With his father and brother
They ran like the wind
That whipped up the furious waves
But there were lives to be saved

To haul out the lifeboat
Took blood, sweat and tears
It took them two hours
Must have seemed like two years
Exhausted and spent, they set her afloat
And into the barbarous waves
Rowed Mary to Alice’s aid

It was 6:45 when the shoremen lost sight
of the Mary
As she pitched out into the night
And at 6:51 the coastguard he rang,
Saying “Stand down your lifeboatmen
brave
For the Alice is already saved.”

Nobody knows from that day to this,
Why the coastguard got word
At eleven past six
But the message he kept forty minutes
or more
While seventeen brave men of Rye
Rowed into the tempest to die

It was almost noon on the terrible morn
And the families and launch crew had
Waited since dawn
When suddenly somebody
Pointed and cried
And there in the surf and the spray
The Mary Stanford she lay

Her body was battered
Her keel was upright
No close-reefed mainsail
No crewman in sight
They hauled her ashore
And they knelt round and prayed
Then gazed out again at the main
And the tears they ran like the rain

Then one by one
The sea gave up her dead
First Willie Clark then young Jimmy Head
Then Albert and Rob, the two Cutting boys
And three from the Pope family
And nine more sons of the sea

But young Johnny Head
He never came home
He lies out somewhere in the ocean alone
His comrades lie buried
In the churchyard at Rye
And they keep him a space for his bed
One day they’ll find Johnny Head

So the next time you sail
Around Hastings and Rye
Look to the distance and keep out an eye
And if you see a young man from the R.N.L.I.
Standing guard over the foam
You’ll know that Johnny’s come home

~Allen Maslen, “The Mary Stanford of Rye”

The errand of the eye

Whether my bark went down at sea,
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails;

By what mystic mooring
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay.

~Emily Dickinson

This whole poem is a sentence–one act of wondering, of uncertainty. The “bark” could represent anything, really–the point of the poem is the questioning. The poem crystallizes a moment of uncertainty.

I love the line “the errand of the eye.” The notion of the eye on a mission, actively searching rather than passively receiving images, is an intriguing one.

May all your isles be enchanted.

Thunderstorm

THE WIND begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low,—
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.

The leaves unhooked themselves from trees 5
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.

The wagons quickened on the streets,
The thunder hurried slow; 10
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw.

The birds put up the bars to nests,
The cattle fled to barns;
There came one drop of giant rain, 15
And then, as if the hands

That held the dams had parted hold,
The waters wrecked the sky,
But overlooked my father’s house,
Just quartering a tree.

~Emily Dickinson

Okay, so not so much a Halloween poem, but there is definitely an element of the spooky and supernatural. It’s difficult to think about thunderstorms today–the sky is October blue, the sun pouring down as if to make up for the fact that it will be departing earlier tonight.

It’s definitely an autumn poem, too, with the leaves blowing from the trees. Everything in the poem is personified, from the wind to the leaves to the birds. All of nature is alive, inhabited, acting and reacting.

The poem ends with the quartering of a tree by lightning, and this does feel like a very Halloween-y image–the old cleft tree, scarred by storm. Though Dickinson does not describe the aftermath, the reader can see the tree, and this is the image with which she leaves us.

Storm: a prompt

IT sounded as if the streets were running,
And then the streets stood still.
Eclipse was all we could see at the window,
And awe was all we could feel.

By and by the boldest stole out of his covert, To see if time was there.
Nature was in her beryl apron,
Mixing fresher air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com.

Today, a prompt, inspired by Dickinson’s mastery of language. In the vein of the poem above, write a description of a natural event without naming the event itself or using any of the words typically associated with it. Dickinson manages to convey the noise, chaos, and finally the dissipation of a storm without ever using language we associate with storms (dark, stormy, tempest, rain, thunder, etc.). See if you can do the same.

An awful tempest

AN AWFUL tempest mashed the air,
The clouds were gaunt and few;
A black, as of a spectre’s cloak,
Hid heaven and earth from view.

The creatures chuckled on the roofs 5
And whistled in the air,
And shook their fists and gnashed their teeth,
And swung their frenzied hair.

The morning lit, the birds arose;
The monster’s faded eyes 10
Turned slowly to his native coast,
And peace was Paradise!

~Emily Dickinson

Your prompt: taking a cue from the Myth, describe a natural phenomenon in monstrous terms. Happy writing!

Storm

It struck me every day
The lightning was as new
As if the cloud that instant slit
And let the fire through.

It burned me in the night, 5
It blistered in my dream;
It sickened fresh upon my sight
With every morning’s beam.

I thought that storm was brief,—
The maddest, quickest by; 10
But Nature lost the date of this,
And left it in the sky.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via pexels.com
https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhouette-photography-of-boat-on-water-during-sunset-1118874/

I like this poem, but I’m not sure what to say about it, as my brain is pretty fried from a week of faculty meetings and prepping to teach five different courses starting this week, so I’m just going to leave this here for your enjoyment. Whatever your storms are, I hope they pass and are not left in the sky indefinitely.

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.