heaven!

Going to heaven!
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!

Perhaps you ’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I ’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Min An, Pexels.

There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.

Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.

The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.

But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.

There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.

a way of persons outside windows

I had been hungry all the years;
My noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.

’T was this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own.

I did not know the ample bread,
’T was so unlike the crumb
The birds and I had often shared
In Nature’s dining-room.

The plenty hurt me, ’t was so new,—
Myself felt ill and odd,
As berry of a mountain bush
Transplanted to the road.

Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

If I’ve learned anything about Emily Dickinson over the course of this year of an Emily poem a day, it’s that there are vastly more Dickinsons than I realized when I began this project. This is a very specific one of them–the I-got-what-I-thought-I-wanted-and-realized-I-don’t-want-it Dickinson.

On one level, this is simply that. A hungry person, upon having food made available to her, realizes it isn’t as appetizing as she imagined it would be. So often we long for something, only to be disappointed upon receiving it.

But there’s much more going on here. In the third stanza, the speaker metions “Nature’s dining-room,” where she shared her meager crumbs with birds. Upon leaving nature and entering into human habitation, she becomes disconnected from the natural world, from the birds and from the just-enough that nature offers–in other words, just what we need, without the excess that many of us have come to expect from our civilized lives.

Our lives are Swiss,–

Our lives are Swiss,—
So still, so cool,
Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
And we look farther on.

Italy stands the other side,
While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps,
The siren Alps,
Forever intervene!

~Emily Dickinson
The intervening Alps. Image via Pexels.com

Not technically a poem about winter, but it feels wintry to me, with its mention of the snow-capped Alps and our still, cool lives. Based on prior experience, I’m suspicious that Dickinson is talking about death (surprise!!), but I think there are other ways to read this poem.

She could be referring to the moment of death, at which we “look farther on.” But if this is the case, then something, represented by the Alps, prevents us from ever getting there. So what I think this poem is about, really, is our rare and beautiful moments of transcendence in this mortal life–the moments when we get a glimpse of the divine, when the Alps’ curtains fall and for an instant, we have an experience of something beyond this mortal coil.

Friendship

My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem perfectly captures the perplexing aspects of human friendship. Friends fly away, they die, they leave, they wound. They can puzzle us infinitely, because they, like us, are human and contradictory. No one has the power to injure us quite like someone we love.

This poem appears in collections of Dickinson’s poetry with love poems, and perhaps it is one–but it could be true of any kind of human relationship.

Wheat and chaff

I worked for chaff, and earning wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted wheat,—and hated chaff,
And thanked the ample friend;
Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m in the thick of NaNoWriMo, so how about another writing prompt?

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker gets more than what she asked for, and reacts badly. What does your character want most? What happens when they are in a position to actually get what they want? Of course the trials and privations in which writers like to place their characters help to reveal those characters’ personalities–but sometimes, getting exactly what we want reveals other things about us. How does someone react to sudden fortune, wealth, status, privilege? What does this say about them?

Out of joint

ARCTURUS is his other name,—
I ’d rather call him star!
It ’s so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

I pull a flower from the woods,—
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time’s brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I ’m ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven’s changed!
I hope the children there
Won’t be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl,—
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything,—
Over the stile of pearl!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

Let’s do another prompt! Because it’s NaNo season, and that’s how my brain is operating, apparently..

What I love about this poem is the way it articulates a sneaking suspicion that many of us have–that we were born in the wrong time, that our attitudes and priorities are so different from those of the majority that we’re not sure we belong here.

So your prompt is this–pick a character (sure, you could choose your MC, but what if you chose the villain?) and write about their favorite time in history that isn’t their own. Why does it appeal to them? Do they feel like they’d belong better there? What does this out-of-jointness say about them, and how does it affect their actions? dress? attitudes? behaviors? You might unlock something really interesting.

Day of the Dead

The distance that the dead have gone
Does not at first appear;
Their coming back seems possible
For many an ardent year.

And then, that we have followed them
We more than half suspect,
So intimate have we become
With their dear retrospect.

~Emily Dickinson

This seems an appropriate poem for today, when the Day of the Dead concludes. When someone has died, that they are gone at first seems impossible. As time passes and the loss settles into our bones, we wonder if we have joined them. You can read this on different levels–the pain of grief, the wishing to be with the departed, the fact that they take pieces of us with them…The last two lines are intriguing–“So intimate have we become/With their dear retrospect.” I wonder if Dickinson is talking here about the way we change the dead in our memories–we become familiar with their retrospect rather than hanging onto them exactly as they were. Memory is tricksy, and we alter the dead in our imagination.

Shipwreck

IT tossed and tossed,—
A little brig I knew,—
O’ertook by blast,
It spun and spun,
And groped delirious, for morn.

It slipped and slipped,
As one that drunken stepped;
Its white foot tripped,
Then dropped from sight.

Ah, brig, good-night
To crew and you;
The ocean’s heart too smooth, too blue,
To break for you.

~Emily Dickinson

Image via Pexels.com

Dickinson’s oeuvre is full of shipwreck poems. A ship is always a good metaphor, and she uses them frequently. So, November is shipwreck month here at The Emily Project. This is the season of hurricanes and storms. Last night, the wind rose and knocked everything about the yard. It was a veritable tempest for Halloween night.

In this poem, the storm has overwhelmed the ship that seems “drunk” and “delirious” from its battle with the waves. The last stanza is where Dickinson really gets to the meat of this poem–the ocean (nature? the divine??) doesn’t really care about any of us. We are insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speaker from valuing the little craft and its crew, their struggles on the deep. The meaning we find in our lives is meaning we make for ourselves, not anything conferred upon us from without. The universe may not note or care what we do, but we can value human effort and struggle, and feel for those who are lost.

Though pyramids decay

’T is an honorable thought,
And makes one lift one’s hat,
As one encountered gentlefolk
Upon a daily street,

That we ’ve immortal place,
Though pyramids decay,
And kingdoms, like the orchard,
Flit russetly away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

This poem has some things to say to this other poem, so I’ll just put them both here and let them talk it out. The following poem has chatted with Dickinson’s work here before, but I need pretty much no excuse to reread “Ozymandias” for the gazillionth time.

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

Bone

Image via Pexels.com

The bone that has no marrow;
What ultimate for that?
It is not fit for table,
For beggar, or for cat.

A bone has obligations,
A being has the same;
A marrowless assembly
Is culpabler than shame.

But how shall finished creatures
A function fresh obtain?—
Old Nicodemus’ phantom
Confronting us again!

~Emily Dickinson

Hmm…I don’t know?? “The bone that has no marrow” seems like maybe outer appearance without substance. Something hollow that should be full. A bone without marrow is not nourishment–it’s jut a bone. No one can get anything out of it.

In the second stanza, Dickinson moves from the example of the bone to what it represents–bones are obligated to contain marrow, just as beings are obligated to perform certain functions. “Marrowless” people are at fault for their own hollowness, she seems to be saying.

Is there a possibility of redemption? Can “finished creatures” achieve a new purpose if they’re already lacking marrow, substance? She doesn’t overtly offer an answer, but ends with “Old Nicodemus’ phantom.” Perhaps this is the answer–a resounding no. One who is hollow is a phantom.