“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), One of America’s Greatest Poets

It has been a while since I’ve presented a poem by Emily Dickinson. Along with Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, she is one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced. This one is called “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

A tippet is a narrow piece of cloth worn over the shoulders, and tulle is a kind of netting, which could be made from any of several fibers.

Emily and Eternity

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Every so often, I feel like sharing an Emily Dickinson poem with you. Her stark simplicity opens blocked passages in my lungs and brains, allowing my breaths and thoughts to flow more freely.
POEMEmilyEternity

“I’ve Seen a Dying Eye”

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

The above illustration is from TeenReads.Com, which has an interesting take on the New England poetess. Whenever I have been away from her for a while, I love to read a few scattered poems by the poetess from Amherst, Massachusetts. Most recently, I have admired the following short poem:

I ’ve seen a dying eye
Run round and round a room
In search of something, as it seemed,
Then cloudier become;
And then, obscure with fog,
And then be soldered down,
Without disclosing what it be,
’T were blessed to have seen.

The images of the eye of the dying person running round and round, becoming obscured with fog, and finally being “soldered down” are a sobering, almost too intimate view of death. At the very end, Dickinson at last calls the dying person’s sight “blessed” without divulging the mystery of what was seen during those last few moments. A sense of mystery pervades the room, and our consciousness as readers.

 

A Frugal Chariot

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Here is one of Emily Dickinson’s simpler poems—but no less powerful for all that. It is called “A Book”:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

At a time when poetry is being pushed aside by the young in favor of video games and other more spurious entertainments, it is good to see a simple statement of why it should not be so.

There are few things one can read that can so work the mind and enliven the spirit as a powerful poem, such as those of Emily Dickinson. Usually, they are complex arrangements of relatively few words. Fortunately, there is a reward for making the effort, a reward in the form of greater understanding.

 

Fragments of Eternity

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Eden

Sometimes even a fragment can set one’s mind a-roving. Today while eating lunch at the Attari Persian Sandwich Shop in Westwood, I started reading an article about the poetry of Charles Simic in the July 11, 2003 issue of The New York Review of Books. Because I was almost finished with my iced tea, I stopped reading the article and got up to make room for other diners. Before I folded up the issue, I saw an intriguing comparison between the poems of Emily Dickinson and the bricolage art of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Now who was this Joseph Cornell? I got back to the office and looked at several samples of his work, two of which I include here. I also read a poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “A Bird Came Down,” which I present below in its entirety:

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm 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, splashless, as they swim.

Everything is fairly clear until we come to the last two stanzas. At this point, Dickinson compares the bird’s wings to oars and butterflies, whose movement suggests to her a resemblance to swimming in the air. Now, let me ask you this: Did the bird accept the proffered crumb or not? Did the bird suddenly take to flight and suddenly remind the poet of butterflies diving, as it were, into the air?

You may notice: I do not present answers, merely questions. I am not such a tyrant as to wish to impose my interpretation (which, in any case, I have not yet arrived at and probably never will) on you. To me, poetry that is great suggests a multiplicity of questions, and no dogmatic answers. Poetry leads you to strange places and makes you see strange relationships. But, if it’s great poetry, it leaves the answers up to you. So, too, does the following box by Joseph Cornell:

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

Joseph Cornell’s Medici Boy

What is it with that thing in the lower center that looks like a small fan? And what about those photos and drawings along the sides of the main image and the blocks at the bottom? Then there are those numbers that look like something taken off an oversized railroad schedule.

Eventually I’ll read the article about Charles Simic’s poetry. Perhaps tomorrow. In the meantime, certain fragments have made me see things that set my mind reeling. Even if my conclusions are different from those of the reviewer, I will have taken an interesting little journey.

“It Will be Summer—Eventually”

A Poem from Emily Dickinson Looking Forward to Summer

A Poem from Emily Dickinson Looking Forward to Summer

As this year’s horrible tax season grinds to a close, I look forward to having weekends to myself once again, and time to enjoy them with Martine. Now, as often, I turn to the poems of Emily Dickinson to express my feelings:

It Will Be Summer—Eventually
by Emily Dickinson

 It will be Summer — eventually.
Ladies — with parasols —
Sauntering Gentlemen — with Canes
And little Girls — with Dolls —

Will tint the pallid landscape —
As ’twere a bright Bouquet —
Tho’ drifted deep, in Parian —          [porcelain, snow?
The Village lies — today —

The Lilacs — bending many a year —
Will sway with purple load —
The Bees — will not despise the tune —
Their Forefathers — have hummed —

The Wild Rose — redden in the Bog —
The Aster — on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion — set —
And Covenant Gentians — frill —          [blue flowers

Till Summer folds her miracle —
As Women — do — their Gown —
Or Priests — adjust the Symbols —
When Sacrament — is done —

“It will be Summer—eventually” (#342) by Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. © Back Bay Books, 1960. Reprinted without permission.

I am curious about that concluding dash in the poem. I cannot help but think that it is deliberate and contains its own message, such as: And the whole process will be repeated again one more time.