February 21, 2005

Is that a lit book in your pocket, or did you feel Emily today?

The title above is a quote from Martinez, in case you were wondering . . . and the quote came from a lunchtime discussion of the preceding American Lit class wherein Dr. Coppinger had actually asked us the latter half of the above question.

Anyway, there's a lot I could say about Emily Dickinson. She has a pretty hardcore fanbase amongst the more starry-eyed denizens of my field of study. And I know a fair number of people who are still bitter about being made to read some of her poetry in high school. Personally, poetry isn't my special area, but I do love a good poem. And Emily Dickinson wrote some pretty good poems. However, she also wrote quite a few incomprehensible poems . . . especially to a hapless high schooler stuck with a starry-eyed, gushing prof.

Anyway, I would say that Dickinson wrote more poems by herself than I've probably read by all poets combined at this stage in my career. And she didn't just write about one thing. There are a lot of worthwhile themes in her poetry that I could examine . . . and a number of poems which simply provide excellent reading with their vivid and vivacious descriptions of nature.

However, in this case I have selected the six poems from the assigned reading that appear to me to be about mourning for lost loved-ones and questioning God. These six poems, all quite short, can be found beneath the fold.

I must note, before proceeding, that as subjective as criticism of poetry often is, Dickinson's poetry seems to me to be especially wide open to interpretation. As such, I'm just kinda speculating here. It would be really nice to know exactly what is going on in her life as she writes each of these poems, but there it is . . .

To summarize briefly, the first poem as a straightforward statement boils down to: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away . . . sometimes more than once, and sometimes taketh happens without giveth.

The second poem is a description of the numb feeling that accompanies a great loss, second stage in the cycle of mourning she has outlined in the last line of the piece. The comparison is between mourning a loved one and passing through a freezing winter. This is what you, too, will experience . . . if you survive.

The third poem questions God's motives in giving life to the speaker. Ignorance, apparently, is bliss. The speaker wants to know why she was given the gifts of reason and life when they are accompanied by so much misery. I have asked these same questions, and have found answers that satisfy me. Far more difficult, however, is watching others that you are close to ask the same questions, and knowing that your answers cannot possibly hold any comfort for them. This I have done as well.

The fourth poem once again addresses the mourning process. This time it speaks of the pain and necessity of moving on, storing away emotions until the time when they will be required again. There is certainly a faint glimmer of hope here that "we will all meet by and by," but when read together with some of the other poems, how sincere is this hope?

The fifth poem may seem like a random choice at first, but it really struck me when I read it, so I included it. It is about the callous and perfunctory side of nature which terminates life and beauty indiscriminately while God looks down and pronounces that it is good. This poem, of course, fails to address the fact that we live in a fallen world. However, I'm not really up for spouting the party line on this one right now. Let's leave easy answers behind for the moment. More on that further down.

The sixth poem, dealing with loss in a very personal manner, links back to the first poem with its reference to the number two in association with periods of sorrow and mourning. The last two lines never fail to move me, because I have experienced at least my fair share of partings, and I hate them. And there is a very profound truth in making the connection between parting and the torments of hell.

Now, let's dive right in. First, the picture I present here is rather one-sided. I know this. There is a good deal of joy and sunshine in some of Dickinson's other poetry. But the joy is never merely a thin, artificial thing used to hide pain and suffering . . . They exist side by side, and I think there is true depth to be found in the poetry written by a sad or angry or confused Emily.

At the very least, Dickinson asks some hard questions and makes some unpleasant observations without providing trite answers (because she has none) and without brushing negative emotions lightly aside (because life isn't that easy). It is because life is not always easy that the answers to Emily's questions are hard for me to supply. When life is easy, the answers to questions like "Why do we suffer?" seem all too apparent. But have you ever told someone who was suffering that "them's the breaks" because we live in a fallen world? Did it help?

Just because something is true doesn't mean that being aware of it is particularly beneficial. I don't really know whether Dickinson realizes that these things are true, but neither do I think that knowing why life is sometimes painful would have made her life any happier.

I sense a great deal of isolation from Emily Dickinson's poetry. There is a sense of emotions being buried rather than worked through . . . questions asked of no one which go unanswered . . . being knocked down by life with no guarantees that life will pick her back up or refrain from knocking her down again.

Even if one possesses all the answers to life's mysteries, the way to comfort someone who is in pain is to suffer with them. I can't tell that Emily Dickinson ever had someone who suffered with her. That, if true, is far more tragic than any losses she experienced. To quote Spider Robinson (shut up, I can't believe it either):

"Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased - thus do we refute entropy."


I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod;
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels, twice descending,
Reimbursed my store.
Burglar, banker, father,
I am poor once more!


After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.


Of Course—I prayed—
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird—had stamped her foot—
And cried "Give Me"—
My Reason—Life—
I had not had—but for Yourself—
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb—
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb—
Than this smart Misery.


The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, --

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.


Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.


My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Posted by Jared at February 21, 2005 07:48 PM | TrackBack