It starts out ordinarily enough. Out of all the holidays in the series of the year, Thanksgiving is one. We celebrate it with meals and with remembrance. So far so good.
“Neither patriarch nor pussy”–wtf, Emily? Neither an old man or a cat? I have no idea what she’s getting at. Somewhere between an old man and a cat?? Skipping this. Moving on. “I dissect the play.” This echoes other Dickinson poems in which she speaks of observing others as being like her own private theatrical experience (see, “The show is not the show”). Thanksgiving seems to the speaker like a “reflex holiday”–perhaps a day when one is on automatic pilot, when we go through the motions. This is an interesting take on the day, for sure, and yet one that probably resonates for many people.
In the next stanzas, the syntax completely loses me. If there hadn’t been any subtraction–any loss–then what? I am completely flummoxed by the ending. If we hadn’t ever lost anything, we wouldn’t know how to be thankful?? If we hadn’t ever been subtracted from, we wouldn’t be who we are, looking back on the past and those who were subtracted?? Emily Dickinson, is this yet another poem about death???
I’ve got nothing here. So I’ll just say this–may your Thanksgiving be a heck of a lot easier to understand than this poem.
What a weird little poem! The meter is what strikes me first–it’s mixed-up, the last lines of both stanzas coming short and abrupt on the heels of the more typical longer lines before. The first line of the poem is noticeably, awkwardly longer than any of the rest, too, giving the whole poem a choppy feel.
Is this what Dickinson is going for? She’s delving into the past–into our experience of it from the present, and the ways in which it can either affirm or negate us. Perhaps she’s set up this awkward pacing to echo the hesitance with which the speaker approaches the idea of the past, or her own past in particular.
In the first stanza, the speaker begins with the positive–past memories may reward us with happiness. But in the last line of the stanza, she presents an alternative–the past may be a disgrace. It’s the second notion she sticks with for the entirety of the second stanza, elaborating that the past is dangerous. You must approach it with caution, armed against whatever you may find. The past may be gone, but it’s still potent–it still has the power to wound via “rusty ammunition.”
The description of the past in this poem makes it sound like an adversary–it’s described in militant terms. The past is not necessarily our ally. The poem’s final image calls to mind, for me, a grizzled, at least slightly mad old Civil War veteran sitting on his porch, yelling at kids to get off his lawn while balancing an ancient firearm across his knees. Is it loaded? Maybe not. Maybe. Does it work? Do you want to find out?
A PRECIOUS, mouldering pleasure ’t is To meet an antique book, In just the dress his century wore; A privilege, I think, His venerable hand to take, And warming in our own, A passage back, or two, to make To times when he was young. His quaint opinions to inspect, His knowledge to unfold On what concerns our mutual mind, The literature of old;
What interested scholars most, What competitions ran When Plato was a certainty, And Sophocles a man;
When Sappho was a living girl, And Beatrice wore The gown that Dante deified. Facts, centuries before,
He traverses familiar, As one should come to town And tell you all your dreams were true: He lived where dreams were born.
His presence is enchantment, You beg him not to go; Old volumes shake their vellum heads And tantalize, just so.
Pam: This poem embodies really every Emily Dickinson poem ever. Old poem! Yes! What does she have to tell us? What am I going to learn from this? Birds? Bees? Pastoral? Yes! This is beautiful! . . . wait. What does the last line mean? This doesn’t make any sense? Why is it over? Why can’t I ask her what it means???
Brenna: Okay, so my first thought is–BOOKS! YAY! This is NOT A POEM ABOUT DEATH!!! And then I start reading, and I remember that, doh, this is Emily Dickinson, and this is totally a poem about death.
Pam: It’s ALWAYS a poem about death.
Brenna: It always is. Death is Emily Dickinson’s BIG MOOD. Okay, so in this particular poem about death…
Pam: I do love that she describes the book as “mouldering.” I feel that usually when we see that word, it’s describing dead bodies. This feels pretty Poe of her.
Brenna: It really does! Poe-riffic!
Pam: Death: of the book! Of the ideas expressed in the book, because the era of the author is long gone!
Brenna: And the juxtaposition of “pleasure” with “mouldering”…very “Fall of the House of Usher.”
Pam: Yes! A “mouldering pleasure.” Gross, and I also get it! The smell of books. Or maybe I’m just thinking of the slightly sweet mildewy smell of old books.
Brenna: I remember reading this years ago, before social media and Kindles and such, and it didn’t hit me in quite the same way it does now. This poem is APT, yo. It could be a poem written yesterday by one of the “e-readers are blasphemy” crowd.
Pam: Oh, bless. As if any method of ingesting books could be bad. At the same time, I really, really love an old book. I’m talking old. The spine has cracked. The glue has disappeared to parts unknown. The pages are dog-eared or torn or falling out. The edges are worn soft. I love that. When you get a book that old, and you let it flip open, and it falls to the same place every time and you can kind of guess that this was an important passage to somebody, so this is where they turned to a lot? I eat that right up.
Brenna: So. To sum up: She likes old books and she cannot lie.
Pam: You other poets can’t deny. We cannot do this entire song. We COULD do this entire song. But we should not do this entire song.
Brenna: When a book walks in with an itty-bitty spine and–okay. We will not do the entire song.
Pam: We will probably end up doing the entire song and posting it as an Easter egg somewhere.
Brenna: Someday people will search for it.
Pam: God bless these people.
Brenna: It will be like READY PLAYER ONE, but for the other kind of nerds.
Pam: The really desperate ones?
Brenna: The book ones. US, Pamela. !!
Pam: THE REALLY DESPERATE ONES
Pam: Girl, you know it’s true.
Brenna: Wait–is that Sir Mixalot??
Pam: Milli Vanilli.
Brenna: RIGHT. PAM. DEAD.
Brenna: I’ma just blame that one on the rain and move on.
Pam: You out-Milli-Vanilli-d me.
Brenna: I WIN. I’m too sexy for this chat, too sexy for this chat…Okay. POEM. FOCUS, Pam and Brenna.
Pam: I feel like this is the rare Emily Dickinson poem that’s just doing what it says on the tin!
Brenna: I really, really want to believe that.
Pam: This is like something a stoner would conceive of. Wow, old books are cool. Isn’t it weird how the people who wrote this are dead? Okay, bye.
Brenna: And yet, I feel like she’s weaving in all these references to mortality, and those have to mean something.
Pam: How much is Emily Dickinson the poet wondering whether people might read her in the future and beg of her in the same way not to go? For somebody who wrote so prolifically and published so incredibly rarely–and asked that her papers be burned, I think–she had to have considered it, right? So maybe she really is wondering a little bit about her own authorial immortality?
Brenna: She invokes Plato, Sappho, Sophocles, Dante–all these classical greats. She is also careful to underscore their mortality.
Pam: And then there’s the whole other issue of the folks who published her works after her death, and who edited them as well–so even though she has attained this kind of immortality, the words that became famous after her death were not printed as she wrote them. It’s nice that she includes Sappho, too. One could probably have a field day researching and following that down the rabbit hole.
Brenna: TL;DR–a few of her poems were published, but it’s unclear whether she okayed this. No one knows if she wanted to be published or not.
Pam: I read something earlier today (not sure where) that she was also a prolific gardener, and used to send “posies” to her friends, along with scraps of poetry. I think Dickinson reported (or at least thought) that her friends were happier with the flowers than the verse.
Brenna: What is up with the ending? It does seem like a fairly straightforward poem, up until the point where she’s begging a book not to go and it is tantalizing her.
Pam: It’s weird, right? She always does this! I really do look at this poem the way that I look at most of her poems. I’m trucking along, and I think I get it, and then there’s a hard left turn.
Brenna: YES. It’s as if every poem is a riddle.
Pam: The reader begs “him,” the book, not to go in the way that we, the readers, are begging her not to end the poem there. So in that sense, if it’s intentional, it’s a great example of what she’s just shown us in the poem. And I can’t believe that it’s unintentional.
Brenna: But how can a book possibly “go”? In what world outside of a Miyazaki film does this make sense?
Pam: It ends!
Brenna: OOOOH. DUH.
Pam: I read it as, “Book, you are so interesting, please don’t end!” But you can’t stop it from ending.
Brenna: Wow I feel dumb.
Pam: You are not dumb!!
Brenna: I think you figured it out. Pam. YOU WIN THE POEM.
Pam: And the volume shaking its head = closing the book? WE’VE DONE IT. WE GOT ONE POEM. 1/365 is not a bad ratio, yes?
Brenna: Only three hundred and something-ty more days to go!!!
THIS was in the white of the year, That was in the green, Drifts were as difficult then to think As daisies now to be seen. Looking back is best that is left, Or if it be before, Retrospection is prospect’s half, Sometimes almost more.
This morning I woke to a dusting of snow across the yard and driveway. The snow is gone now, but more hangs in the pale, heavy cloud blanket that rings my sky.
Winter is a time for introspection, and for retrospection. I like the notion that “retrospection is prospect’s half”–the looking-backward and the looking-forward dovetail, inform each other. In order to look ahead with any clarity of vision, it’s good to know where you’ve been. In order to look back with any optimism, it’s good to know you are headed somewhere.
I also like how Dickinson says that retrospection is “sometimes almost more” than prospect. “Sometimes almost” is the same thing, really, as “not ever,” but it sounds so different. There’s a suggestion here that retrospection could almost tip the balance, could weight the scales so ponderously that maybe, just maybe, it could almost change the equation.
The white-lead clouds brood overhead, heavy with unfallen snow.