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I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there –
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler –
I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner’s name –
For doubt, that I should know the Sound –
I judged my features — jarred my hair –
I pushed my dimples by, and waited –
If they — twinkled back –
Conviction might, of me –
I told myself, “Take Courage, Friend –
That — was a former time –
But we might learn to like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home!”
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Tags: ask, back, being, both, conviction, courage, dimples, doubt, features, felt, former, friend, glass, hair, hands, heaven, held, home, jarred, judged, know, learn, Life, might, myself, name, old, owner, paused, possibler, pound, prove, pushed, round, see, sound, spirit, told, turned, twinkled, waited
Unto like Story — Trouble has enticed me –
How Kinsmen fell –
Brothers and Sister — who preferred the Glory –
And their young will
Bent to the Scaffold, or in Dungeons — chanted –
Till God’s full time –
When they let go the ignominy — smiling –
And Shame went still –
Unto guessed Crests, my moaning fancy, leads me,
By Heads rejected — in the lower country –
Of honors there –
Such spirit makes her perpetual mention,
That I — grown bold –
Step martial — at my Crucifixion –
As Trumpets — rolled –
Feet, small as mine — have marched in Revolution
Firm to the Drum –
Hands — not so stout — hoisted them — in witness –
When Speech went numb –
Let me not shame their sublime deportments –
Drilled bright –
Beckoning — Etruscan invitation –
Toward Light –
Tags: beckoning, bent, bright, brothers, chanted, country, crests, crucifixion, deportments, drilled, drum, dungeons, enticed, etruscan, fair, fancy, feet, firm, glory, god, grown, guessed, hands, heads, hoisted, honors, ignominy, invitation, kinsmen, leads, light, lower, marched, martial, mention, mine, moaning, numb, perpetual, preferred, rejected, revolution, rolled, scaffold, shame, sister, small, smiling, speech, spirit, story, stout, sublime, trouble, trumpets, will, witness, worn, young
A Mien to move a Queen –
Half Child — Half Heroine –
An Orleans in the Eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler Company
When none are near
Even a Tear –
Its frequent Visitor –
A Bonnet like a Duke –
And yet a Wren’s Peruke
Were not so shy
Of Goer by –
And Hands — so slight –
They would elate a Sprite
With Merriment –
A Voice that Alters — Low
And on the Ear can go
Like Let of Snow –
Or shift supreme –
As tone of Realm
On Subjects Diadem –
Too small — to fear –
Too distant — to endear –
And so Men Compromise
And just — revere –
Tags: alters, bonnet, child, company, compromise, diadem, distant, duke, ear, elate, endear, eye, fear, frequent, half, hands, heroine, humbler, low, manner, merriment, mien, move, near, none, orleans, peruke, queen, realm, revere, shy, slight, small, snow, spirit, subjects, supreme, tear, tone, visitor, voice, wren
Doubt Me! My Dim Companion!
Why, God, would be content
With but a fraction of the Life –
Poured thee, without a stint –
The whole of me — forever –
What more the Woman can,
Say quick, that I may dower thee
With last Delight I own!
It cannot be my Spirit –
For that was thine, before –
I ceded all of Dust I knew –
What Opulence the more
Had I — a freckled Maiden,
Whose farthest of Degree,
Was — that she might –
Some distant Heaven,
Dwell timidly, with thee!
Sift her, from Brow to Barefoot!
Strain till your last Surmise –
Drop, like a Tapestry, away,
Before the Fire’s Eyes –
Winnow her finest fondness –
But hallow just the snow
Intact, in Everlasting flake –
Oh, Caviler, for you!
Tags: away, barefoot, brow, caviler, companion, content, degree, delight, dim, distant, doubt, dower, drop, dust, dwell, everlasting, eyes, fire, flake, fondness, forever, fraction, freckled, god, hallow, heaven, intact, last, Life, maiden, opulence, own, poured, quick, snow, spirit, stint, strain, surmise, tapestry, timidly, whole, winnow, woman
Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower –
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum –
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!
Tags: bee, bird, care, death, eyes, fair, flower, god, hope, ice, Life, Love, may, moon, night, nothing, sea, see, sing, song, soul, spirit, sun, tree
On January 12, 2009, the words of Emily Dickinson will return to the London Underground. Not, though, as part of the Poems on the Underground series, which has featured Much madness is divinest sense, I taste a liquor never brewed, and There came a Wind like a Bugle in the past.
Instead, two lines from Dickinson will be part of the British Humanist Association’s Atheist Bus campaign:
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate –
This instigates an appetite
The campaign on the Underground will also feature Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, and Katherine Hepburn. The choice–of Dickinson in general, and these words in particular–is thought-provoking.
Dickinson was certainly a skeptic. Though she lived in a world charged with religious and spiritual fervor–the last waves of the Second Great Awakening, Calvinist pietism, Emersonian Transcendentalism–she paddled against the general stream. Though she attended the Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson never “converted” like so many of her peers. “Christ is calling everyone here,” she wrote in an 1850 letter, “all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion.”
But an atheist? I’m not entirely convinced. Dickinson’s approach to religion was certainly ironic, skeptical, sometimes sacrilegious, often playful. In her poems about death in particular, she strikes some pretty hard blows against religious beliefs. Safe in their alabaster chambers, for example, notes the eternal sleep of the “meek members of the resurrection” while “[g]rand go the years in the crescent above them”; Death, for Dickinson, is a particular Eternity, with no sounding trumpet on Judgment Day.
But God–or a god of some sort–is strongly present in many of her poems. In some cases, it seems to be a Calvinist God–remote, unknowable, harsh. In other cases, as in her poems about the loss of loved ones, there seems to be a consoling God:
They perished in the seamless grass, –
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.
More often, “God” seems to be a metaphor for something–universal order, the grandeur of nature, time–larger than the individual. There’s much vastness in these short poems, and much wonder. Dickinson certainly rejects the trappings of church and piety, and is at the very least unorthodox, heretical, and strongly critical of religion. But she is very much of her time and place all the same, and not easily made to fit into contemporary atheist or humanist garb. If anything, she reminds me most of the Nontheist Friends, a particularly slippery sort of Quaker.
That the Atheist Bus campaign picked this particular Dickinson poem, and these specific lines, is interesting. It’s certainly an aphoristic statement, and it echoes the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” catchphrase of the campaign. But the second two lines–”Believing what we don’t believe / Does not exhilarate”–seems more consistent with Dickinson’s poetry, and, to be honest, much less trite; I could almost picture “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet” printed on the pedestal of a “Precious Moments” figurine. There are better, more searing quotes available–her poem on the inefficacy of prayer, for example, or her playful mocking of a Heavenly afterlife:
I ‘m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ‘d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.
We need to be careful when marshaling the dead to our contemporary causes, particularly the subtle dead like Dickinson. Her concerns were not necessarily ours, and her approach to doubt and faith much more nuanced than what we hear now on either side of the debate. I don’t know that she’d be bothered to be on the Atheist Bus posters–she’d probably find it more than a little funny–but her smile would be more than a touch wry.
Tags: autumn, book, books, care, dead, death, eternity, faith, god, ice, joy, Life, Love, music, Nature, noon, poem, sea, see, spirit, thought, touch, year
‘T is whiter than an Indian pipe,
‘T is dimmer than a lace;
No stature has it, like a fog,
When you approach the place.
Not any voice denotes it here,
Or intimates it there;
A spirit, how doth it accost?
What customs hath the air?
This limitless hyperbole
Each one of us shall be;
‘T is drama, if (hypothesis)
It be not tragedy!
Tags: ice, spirit
Of bronze and blaze
The north, to-night!
So adequate its forms,
So preconcerted with itself,
So distant to alarms, –
An unconcern so sovereign
To universe, or me,
It paints my simple spirit
With tints of majesty,
Till I take vaster attitudes,
And strut upon my stem,
Disdaining men and oxygen,
For arrogance of them.
My splendors are menagerie;
But their competeless show
Will entertain the centuries
When I am, long ago,
An island in dishonored grass,
Whom none but daisies know.
Tags: land, men, night, pain, spirit