Dickinson Revisits Keats: “I Died for Beauty”

dickinson2I died for Beauty–but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For beauty”, I replied–
“And I–for truth–Themself are One
We brethren, are”, He said–

 And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night–
We talked between the Rooms–
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names–

Emily Dickinson’s favorite poets were John Keats and Robert Browning. Certainly, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “I Died for Beauty” are indubitably linked through their exploration of Platonic idealism in regard to Beauty and Truth.

For Keats, Beauty becomes synonymous with Art, or Imagination. When he famously offers near the ode’s end his maxim, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he means that what the imagination perceives as real is both beautiful and true.  Putting it another way, Art is Truth beautifully rendered.

Dickinson, in contrast, exhibits a more modern, complicated sensibility in her latent suspicion of a priori reasoning. Truth and Beauty, undefined in her poem, are relative terms, not verities. Although she may initially appear accepting of their affinity (i.e., “kindred”) a closer reading indicates that their synthesis isn’t a given. Why are the two entities in separate rooms?  Why must they converse “between the rooms”? In short, they’re separate bed fellows.

What does Dickinson connote in the first speaker’s use of “died,” subsequently rendered “failed” by the second speaker?  If the two entities are related, it consists in their earnest pursuit of absolutes, or closure within the context of human experience. Ironically, failure, not success, informs their liaison in death as we’ll see in the poem’s conclusion.

For the Platonist Keats, their proffered unity transcends mortality.  Not so for Dickinson’s poem in which Truth and Beauty, never articulated, nor the context of their demise, metamorphose into indecipherable headstones, swallowed up by the anonymity of death and its oblivion:

We talked…
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names.

In sum, death abrogates every human quest, even the most noble.

–rj

Christina Rossetti’s “After Death”: Her unction to the living

 

crossettiI have always liked the poetry of Christina Rossetti, Victorian England’s foremost female poet. Poetry ran in her genes. Her maternal grandfather had been a poet and translator; and, of course, so was her more famous brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also excelled at art.

I like to think of her in conjunction with the American poet, Emily Dickinson, our most prominent woman poet; in fact, they share the same birth year, (1830). Both suffered losses in love and never married.

Both were raised in devoutly religious homes. Dickinson’s grandfather was prominent in founding Amherst College, initially a school to train ministers. Rossetti’s mother was an evangelical. Both wrote a cerebral poetry of ardent sensitivity to life around them.

But there are differences, too. Religiously, Dickinson proved rebellious; at times, even skeptical.

On the other hand, Rossetti’s poetry is replete in piety. Still, thematically both poets seem often preoccupied with retreat and mortality. Strikingly, several of their poems feature a persona speaking from the grave.

Here is a poem I’ve always liked and taught in my literature classes for many years. Maybe you will like it too:

After Death

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

ANALYSIS

In this poem, a deceased person reminisces her funeral. She recalls the man she loved, filled with pity, gazing at her corpse and weeping.

But there is disillusionment on the persona’s part: her friend did “not touch the shroud, or raise the fold/That hid my face, or take my hand in his,/or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head.” In short,  he exhibited no commitment, even in the context of death. (It’s not what he does, but what he omits to do that matters here.) At best, his response proves ambiguous and we are left unsure his grief manifests love, for grief is not necessarily synonymous with love. We only know from the persona’s perspective that he “did not love me living.”

Ironically, the persona’s anguish eclipses that of the mourner, for what she yearned for in life was love and not the pity that comes from her death.

The poem’s last lines are saved from self-pity in their matter-of-factness: “He pitied me; and very sweet it is/To know he still is warm though I am cold.”

But the poem with its subtle “I am cold” also returns us to the theme of death and its inexorable alienation from life with which the poem opens. And even more: it hints at the persona’s repressed anguish in the close–“He still is warm though I am cold,” sparing these lines from their seeming sardonic, or derisive, tone. The truth she reaches for is that he did not make use of the opportunity to love her while she lived.

While pity may speak for the mourner’s potentiality for love, death has foreclosed on its possibility.

Mortality’s unction is that we fervently love while we can in this brief parenthesis of light.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of fellowship with Nature

monarch

One of the best hobbies I’ve ever come upon is that of being an amateur naturalist.  It needn’t be expensive and you can do it in your own yard or on a walk or, believe it or not, from a car window.  And, yes, you don’t even have to leave the house.

Here’s a little checklist to see how versed you are on the natural world around you:

1.     Identify the ten most common trees in your neighborhood.

2.     Name five wild flowers that grow in your area.

3.     Identify ten flowers or plants common to your neighborhood landscaping.

4.     Identify five migrating birds that visit your yard.

5.     Name five birds that are year long residents.

6.     Identify ten common weeds in your yard.

7.     Name the planets and identify three of them in the sky

8.     Locate the North Star.

9.     Identify five rocks in your yard or area.

10.   Identify five insects in your garden

Most of us are hard pressed to do half of these IDs.  But then, that’s the fun of it, that you can begin, anytime, anywhere, and discover kingdoms all around you—and even below your feet.

Be careful, though, for discovery can be addictive.  You may even choose to specialize, maybe on rocks, bees or flowers.

Being connected with nature can yield release from daily stress.

It can also give you awareness of the fragility of nature’s weave of flora and fauna, their delicate balance and our dependency on that balance.  One third of our crops are pollinated by bees, for example, but our sprays have caused a serious threat to their survival.

One other gift that comes from a love for nature is how it develops your powers of observation.   My favorite American poet, Emily Dickinson, had this acuteness, with nature’s minutia a dominant motif in her poetry.  Take, for example, this delighful poem.

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

 He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Naturalism can grow friends for you.  There are groups of people out there like you who would gladly welcome you.  It’s fun to be among other gentle stewards of the earth, sharing their experiences and concerns, working together to promote awareness and preservation.  I like the Nature Conservancy.  It buys up threatened habitat and maintains it.

Your new hobby can afford you numerous excellent, often moving, reads, like Rachel Carson’s land mark Silent Spring or Thoreau’s classic Walden.  Good stuff on rainy days!

Think about how much you and your family can enjoy that country hike, park excursion, or neighborhood walk, connecting with what you now know, challenged by what remains to fathom in a hobby salient with retreating horizon.

Through its repetitive rhythms, nature confers assurance that tomorrow the dawn and dusk will come again, the seas will rise, and the moon ascend; that after winter, spring will surely come and our aerial friends return.

In sum, Nature amply rewards those who fellowship with her, conferring not merely release, but blessedness in an often troubled world.

–rj

On living with ambiguity

Those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recall that its end letter comes down to either a P or a J, denoting perception vs judgment modalities.  P types can tolerate, if not thrive on, open-ended movies.  Conversely, J’s like their movies to end with all the pieces in place.  As essentially an everyday existentialist, I’ve always found bonafide certainty elusive.  Thus, I generally come out in the wash as a P, with speculation often more fun for its U-Turn potential than the dead end of the J alternative.

But hold your horses. This doesn’t mean I’m closed to fixed verities and the closure they provide.  Who wants to cast his fate with an ambiguous lover, or speculate about whether he’ll have his job next month or, omigod, is it cancer?  Like the next guy, I want the bad guys rounded-up and justice meted out.  What a wonderful world it’d be if we could truly accept things as they appear, knowing nobody practices deceit, a world with no need for lawyers to protect us from the fraudulent.  No need for the clergy either to put right God’s way of doing things.  And so with psychiatrists, since there’d be nothing to be anxious about in a world absent of unknowns.  But as Voltaire’s Candide discovered the hard way, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

I wouldn’t even be writing this entry if it hadn’t been for coming, serendipity fashion, upon Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with its blunt rendering of our stumbling angst in a cosmos devoid of moon and stars to light our journey through the metaphysical night, reminding me again of ambiguity’s pervasiveness and our struggles to find our way:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Here Dickinson fashions the poem’s edifice by way of analogy from everyday life of our initial difficulty seeing things when suddenly plunged into darkness until our vision adjusts and we find our way, or think we do (“And life seems almost straight”).  The equivocation comes in the persona’s almost, which we mustn’t miss in Dickinson’s typical closet subtlety, perhaps mirroring the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert she read avidly.

When the narrator tells “Of something in the sight/Adjusts itself to Midnight,” we come to the bottom line of how we manage our journey through the psyche’s dark night (“Those Evenings of the Brain”), perhaps through religious faith, a mainstream fixture for many in the Calvinist Amherst of her time.

My point, and I think Dickinson’s as well, is that in a cosmos absent of Divine revelation and explicit meaning, our need for closure–to abolish life’s curves and set its steps straight, exerts itself in human constructs, epistemologically, whether done through provisos of faith or artist metaphor.

It isn’t just nature that abhors a vacuum.  We despise it too.  In the end, Jung is wrong, for we are all J’s at heart!  Life is very often a search for meaning and, if tenuous in its ambiguity, compels us to define it, however vulnerable its artifice.

–rj

The Smile that Hides the Soul

I have a number of books that supposedly clue you into discerning the personalities of people based on their physical gestures, things like hands on hips,  the turned up corners of the mouth, the wrinkling of the forehead or lifting of the eyebrows,  etc.  The problem is that body language can differ from one culture to another.  While close spatial contact with lots of touching may convey caring in, say, a Hispanic culture, it’s apt to raise the specter of territorial invasion among white North Americans.  I know families, for example, that simply don’t touch.

My take on kinetics, or body language, is to approach the subject with caution.  But it’s more than this, too.  I’m simply suspicious of reductionist approaches that promise us a mirroring of the human psyche and, often as not, a means to its manipulation, if we just read the body cues right and fine-tune our approach.

No, we humans are offspring of eons of evolutionary survival stratagems that camouflage thoughts, and with good reason in a world that often cannot tolerate a baring of the soul with its sonar witness to salient distress as a life component we’re uncomfortable  acknowledging.  We feel safer behind walls.

Thus we’re prone to exercising considerable dissembling skills to avoid alienating our fellows and exacerbating our isolation, for no matter what form physical pain, anguish, and grief assume, there’s always the immense individuality of suffering which even the greatest empathy cannot transcend.

Emily Dickinson, like all gifted poets grounded in sensory acuity, knew this well, typically drawing upon Nature for analogies of  concealment, undermining the conflation of appearance with reality in “The Wounded Deer Leaps Highest” with its successive examples of a deer’s leap, a gashed rock, a sprung trap, and, in the human realm, flushed cheeks and even laughter, suggesting a dynamism masking covert wounding:

A wounded deer leaps highest
I’ve hunter the hunter tell;
Tis but the ecstasy of death,
And then the brake is still.

The smitten rock that gushes,
The trampled steel that springs;
A cheek is always redder
Just where the hectic stings!

Mirth is the mail of anguish,
In which it caution arms
Lest anybody spy the blood
And “You’re hurt exclaim.

As the closing stanza poignantly bears witness, we put on a brave act hiding our grief, as though expressing it were a weakness, with resulting pity simply reinforcing our isolated fate.  Culture has insisted men, in particular, should be very good at this.

We are complex in our emotions and body language.  In the space of three years, Dickinson  would lose 26 friends and relatives to death; but she also knew that life goes on and the game must still be played.

–rj

 
   
   
   
   
   
 

Of Emily Dickinson and Spring Blooms

Foxgloves in the Homestead garden
Foxgloves in the Homestead garden

The opening and the Close Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk–(1089)

I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  She has this pithy way of putting things in a few, well-chosen words; a prism mind that turns things over for a thorough look; a quiet defiance that goes its own way with surprisingly modern skepticism;  a willingness to break free from fettering meter; best, a probing of the human heart in its pangs of love and grief.  I admire her honest wrestlings with God and matters of eternity.  She wanted to believe, but not by forfeiting her intelligence.

I  like how nature finds its way into virtually all the nearly 1800 poems she largely wrote in her upstairs bedroom at the Homestead, looking out on the main street of Amherst.  Every sort of plant and creature seemingly populates her poetry, including not only birds, flowers, butterflies and bees, but caterpillars and even snakes.  She kept an album of pressed plants and often slipped a flower in with her many letters.  While few Amherst villagers may have known the woman in white was a consummate poet, everyone knew she kept a great garden.

A holdout in that era’s high tide of Christian belief, she adopted her garden as her daily church, a  place of intimacy with the divinity of life:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church__
I keep it staying at home
With a Bobolink for a Chorister–
And an Orchard for a Dome–

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice–
I, just wear my Wings–
And insterad of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton–sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman–
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last–
I’m going, all along (236)

That garden and its seedlings had disappeared by 1915, when the Homestead’s attached conservatory, her father’s gift, was also dismantled.  Fortunately, beginning with 2005, that garden has been lovingly restored, based on diligent research, to its likely layout and, along with the Homestead, is now owned by Amherst College.

I bring up the subject of gardens because gardening is something I’m fond of as well. Every spring I re-thumb my garden magazines and books, looking for new ways to retool bloom and beauty.  This year, I thought of Emily Dickinson and my several visits to the Homestead.  Since it’s rare I can get back to Amherst in my birth state of Massachusetts, why not the next best thing and find room for a Dickinson look-a-like in my backyard, a space swimming in the flowers that Emily loved like violets and arbutus, daffodils, tulips and crocuses, daisies and roses.

Flowers, “Nature’s sentinels” (912), launched meditative moods in Dickinson, who drew upon metaphysical poets like Herbert and Vaughan for nuances of the Infinite.

For her, nature’s seasonal rounds resonated life’s own temporal rhythms with its undulations of joy and sadness; the immediacy of nowness and the anguish of letting go; the fact of mortality, and yet hints of something more.  That works for me as well. –rj

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