Victory comes late,~Emily Dickinson
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!
In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.
There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.
Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.
Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.
It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.
’T is so much joy! ’T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!
Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail,
At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat,
No drearier can prevail!
And if I gain,—oh, gun at sea, ~Emily Dickinson
Oh, bells that in the steeples be,
At first repeat it slow!
For heaven is a different thing
Conjectured, and waked sudden in,
And might o’erwhelm me so!
“Rouge et noir” seems aptly titled, but this one is weird. “Red wins”–really? That’s not exactly what I’m getting from this poem. The speaker is imagining red winning, but that win, when envisioned, seems to end as a loss. If she won, heaven “might o’erwhelm me so!” And the whole poem is still conjecture. She hasn’t won yet. She doesn’t know if she will. She’s still waiting for the result, waiting to find out what her fate will be. The word “if” appears in each stanza.
The whole poem sustains, through its dashes and exclamation points and incomplete thoughts, a mood of frenetic anticipation. What will happen? Will I win? And will that win really be a victory?
DELAYED till she had ceased to know,
Delayed till in its vest of snow
Her loving bosom lay.
An hour behind the fleeting breath,
Later by just an hour than death,—
Oh, lagging yesterday!
Could she have guessed that it would be;
Could but a crier of the glee
Have climbed the distant hill;
Had not the bliss so slow a pace,—
Who knows but this surrendered face
Were undefeated still?
Oh, if there may departing be
Any forgot by victory
In her imperial round,
Show them this meek apparelled thing,
That could not stop to be a king,
Doubtful if it be crowned!
Life has been full for both of us these past couple of weeks–family things, work things, life things–and we’ve fallen behind in our intention of posting daily poems. We’re working on getting caught up. The idea of The Emily Project is to post a poem daily, to make up for the lack of daily poetry reading books by women writers. We’re going to say not that we’ve been defeated, not that we’ve surrendered–just that we’ve been delayed a little.
Here’s to the grace we could all use for fresh starts and new beginnings and perfect imperfection.