How dare the robins sing,
When men and women hear
Who since they went to their account
Have settled with the year! –
Paid all that life had earned
In one consummate bill,
And now, what life or death can do
Insulting is the sun
To him whose mortal light,
Beguiled of immortality,
Bequeaths him to the night.
In deference to him
Extinct be every hum,
Whose garden wrestles with the dew,
At daybreak overcome!
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How dare the robins sing,
How the old steeples hand the scarlet,
Till the ball is full, –
Have I the lip of the flamingo
That I dare to tell?
Then, how the fire ebbs like billows,
Touching all the grass
With a departing, sapphire feature,
As if a duchess pass!
How a small dusk crawls on the village
Till the houses blot;
And the odd flambeaux no men carry
Glimmer on the spot!
Now it is night in nest and kennel,
And where was the wood,
Just a dome of abyss is nodding
Into solitude! –
These are the visions baffled Guido;
Titian never told;
Domenichino dropped the pencil,
Powerless to unfold.
Book artist Charles Hobson interpreted Billy Collins’ “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” in a wonderfully inventive way; reading this book requires one to deal with mother-of-pearl buttons with a “light forward pull” and contend with the “hook-and-eye fastener” to get to the pages between the covers.
While you’re visiting Hobson’s site, be sure to look at the other interpretations he offers: of stories and essays by Barry Lopez, poems by Richard Wilbur and Margaret Atwood, paintings and monotypes by Edgar Degas, and Balzac’s thoughts on coffee. They are rich and tactile expressions that merge words and print and paper and images in fascinating ways.
Kurt Anderson’s Studio 360 rebroadcasts a 2006 piece on Emily Dickinson as part of the show’s American Icons series. Focusing on Dickinson’s The Chariot (a.k.a. “Because I could not stop for Death”), the piece highlights the strange and gnomic characteristics of Dickinson’s poetry, particularly as opposed to the loquacious style of the Fireside Poets.
Interviewed for the show was Belinda West, who portrays Dickinson (among others) for the Vermont Humanities Council, PBS and the History Channel. She wove Dickinson’s words about the perils of publication (“the auction of the Mind of Man”) and the pitfalls of fame into her responses in a natural, witty way.
The “common meter” peril–singing Dickinson to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Gilligan’s Island,” or any number of hymns–is, of course, brought up; but so is the wordplay and subtlety of the poems that Dickinson dressed in such homespun garb. (Or in gossamer gown and tulle tippet; Billy Collins has his say, too, with thoughts on taking off Emily Dickinson’s clothes.)
A rapid, footless guest,
To offer whom a chair
Were as impossible as hand
A sofa to the air.
No bone had he to bind him,
His speech was like the push
Of numerous humming-birds at once
From a superior bush.
His countenance a billow,
His fingers, if he pass,
Let go a music, as of tunes
Blown tremulous in glass.
He visited, still flitting;
Then, like a timid man,
Again he tapped — ‘t was flurriedly –
And I became alone.