© Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved.
Nature and God – I neither knew
Yet Both so well knew me
They startled, like Executors
Of My identity.—E.D.
I’ve read, studied and written about Emily Dickinson’s poetry on and off for over thirty years, my serious interest and examination of it beginning long ago in graduate school and resulting in my master’s thesis. Like a dog with a good bone, though, I wouldn’t let it go even then and continued research and scholarly reading on Dickinson during the rest of my academic studies and when those days were finally over, I found it had become not only a matter of taste and fascination, but—for lack of a better word, a habit. One would think my interest would have begun to pale at this point—if not wane—and or be eclipsed and replaced by more recent “obsessive” interests in the work of other authors, especially considering my wide ranging reading of contemporary authors and my frequent re-reading of the classic big names of “yore.” But to me, and I know I’m not alone, Dickinson is inexhaustibly fascinating and just never wears out. Quite the opposite, in fact, the pleasures and treasures of her best work only increase for the reader and student with time, repeated exposure and further close readings.
It is though a little amazing to me that I keep coming back to her poetry for not only familiar delights in revisiting my favorite Dickinson poems, but also that I continue to discover previously unimagined and unappreciated wonders and insights in Dickinson work that had not yielded up in the past to me anything very remarkable or poetically dense and deft in her technique. Not all of her poems are all that great, and many that some scholars call “poems” are really only drafts, notes, jottings that she dashed off in a hurry and stuffed away in her bureau drawer, never fully developing or revising. Such are the perils for misunderstanding for a poet who does not publish widely in her lifetime. But the ones that are great, well, they are really great, timeless and completely unique and original, disclosing intellectual and emotional insights about human life in an unforgettable way and about everything under the sun.
And true to say—and true confession time—my own first encounter with Emily Dickinson as a college sophomore Literature major was a life-changing event. I knew I was a writer, had always known it, and had received encouragement aplenty. I had always loved writing with total abandon and aspired, over the course of my lifetime, to write dazzling lasting literary masterpieces. But until I bumped into Emily Dickinson in an American Lit survey course as an undergrad, I’d not found a major author to whom I could closely relate on a personal level— one that made me sit up with a shock of recognition and say, “Hey! What’s this? She’s a lot like me temperamentally, and her social and familial circumstances and pedigree were to my sophomoric unsophisticated mind eerily and uncannily similar. On top of that this was a poet whose work also knocked my socks off with its arresting unusual style and manner. That initial intro to Dickinson launched me, inspired me to get on with it, to make a full commitment to the dream, and start writing seriously—immediately.
What’s more, I was primed and susceptible to such suggestion and imaginative leap vis-à-vis a kind of kinship with her because poetry has always been my favorite genre and first love, though I later turned to writing fiction eventually (mainly because few in the reading public bothered with poetry at the time as it had become obtuse, disaffected, difficult and unmusical (and thus entirely forgettable, not worth the effort for most people).
All of this is very odd, even peculiar to me at this vantage point in my life and career for a number of reasons, perhaps the greatest of which is that I have never written anything remotely similar to Dickinson’s style, manner or approach to her subjects. In fact, that icon of modern letters and lit, his eminence gris William Gass when he was my mentor at a writers’ workshop many years ago clapped his hands in delight after reading some of my early poems and dubbed me a ringer for Dame Edith Sitwell; he thought this was a compliment, I did not. Not not not. I felt the room spin, the ground move under my feet and fell into a deep trough of despond that lasted for almost a year, unable to write anything or even look at myself in a mirror for more than a few seconds. That’s another story for another time.
Where were we? Oh yes. Poetry! The one really important literary conviction that I shared with Dickinson then and which remains unchanged to this day is that the genre is the highest and most effectual of all the literary arts. For I couldn’t have said it better myself if I had indeed endited the following quaint sounding (today) apologia for it myself:
“I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors – ”
[etcetera, exultantly-effusively-ennervatingly] ….
“Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise – ”
Odd thinking about all of that adolescent imagined Dickinson collegiality and tutelege today. At this stage I could no more want to write like her than I could desire to write like Chaucer or Sir Walter Scott. And for lack of attention-promotion (public readings, hustling) on my part, as I moved onto other projects, all of my poems are out of print right now (Closure was the last book). Whatever the case, time stumbles on and for a long time I resisted the poetic impulse, forcing myself to write stories and novels instead. Not that I didn’t and don’t enjoy writing narratives enormously, for I do very much, but fiction was not my natural métier, I thought back then. Moreover, I was convinced (and still am) that poetry could take you places no other literary form could, that certain immutable truths could only be discovered and imparted by great poetry. If I’d had my druthers, I’d not experimented with other forms and never would have become accomplished with them. Ghostwriting (on a contract basis and employed by publishers) for political figures and household names got me started with narrative and I transitioned in a few years to writing stories and novels under my own name, fiction fueled by the engine of my own imagination, not trying to translate others’ “plots” and “concepts” into books that would sell automatically because the putative “author” lent his/her name to them, that is, had a “platform,” name recognition and following.
But I’m glad I did learn the narrative craft as a journeyman in the employ of publishing professionals who taught me what worked and didn’t, what makes for a good story and credible characters and the rest of it. Nevertheless, I still think poetry is the highest form of literature, the purest. But every writer wants to be read. It’s a well-accepted fact in publishing that fiction “sells,” poetry doesn’t (much), and I do love spinning yarns and telling “stories” about truths, even if they are a more diffuse, diluted—watered down—avenue to The Point, which is to render life’s signal issues and experiences in a meaningful way and transcend the dross of the ordinary, reaching for something ultimate and eternal that makes life bearable and even joyful.
Enough deep background and disclosure blather, and more to the point of this particular post—As I mentioned earlier here several days ago, Dickinson’s “nature” poems have always had an especially strong fascination for me, particularly because I intuit that she and I share some of the same sensations and characteristic responses to the teeming, wriggling and stupefying surprising natural world. Whatever the case, I “connect” on some deep level with what she says in them and many have become personally aphoristic to me, have metamorphosed into perdurable truisms about Life Writ Large. By this stage I probably have assimilated and filed away in my head thousands of lines of Dickinson poetry that pop into consciousness at appropriate occasions. It’s funny how that works with great poetry: out of nowhere at just the right time, poof, a humdinger on target phrase, a line or stanza, will emerge from some dark dank brain cubby hole spontaneously like a paranormal wraith, as an assist or guide to one’s current situation or pressing events to help one understand, cope or navigate. That’s the miracle of great poetry. It sticks and sticks with you—much of it unconsciously. Anyway, be that as it may, rattling on here, Dickinson continues to supply certain critical life enhancing words that I actually live by, having stuffed so many into my cranium for so many years, and I not infrequently summon snatches of it to use to relate to the “great outdoors,” to parse what my senses are telling me empirically, and to enjoy it.
A curious and distinctive aspect of many of her poems about the natural world is the consistency with which she casts herself at the outset of such a poem as an unsuspecting innocent or naïf—it’s a kind of coy pose she assumes as a “little school girl,” someone vulnerable and unprepared for what happens as the poem progresses. There is a fairy tale quality, something of a “Little Red Riding Hood” or babe in the woods motif in the first stanza or so of all of these “nature” go-adventuring poems in which the poet saunters forth into the “wilds” of nature intent on satisfying her idle curiosity about something or another, and, as the poem moves along, realizes she had no clue about what she was risking or getting into, the “danger” she had put her preconceptions and sensibilities into by going on what was for her initially a lark, taking a flyer on something, saying sort of “Why not?”
In a dramatic reversal of her initial posture and attitude, the action in the following verses deals with stunning and often frightening new knowledge she gains. Usually in the course of these poems what she in fact eventually finds or discovers is shocking apprehension of the mysterium et tremendum inherent in the natural world (a subject treated by philosopher and linguist Ernst Cassirer and other scholars of myth and the sacred. That is, a shuddering recognition of the awe inspiring divine essence, the life force that underlies all things or in more common parlance, what religionists call God. The unexpected chance encounter literally flips the poet’s mental and emotional circuit breakers, knocks out her every fuse, shatters all her mundane preconceptions and just totally blows her mind. It spins her around, lifts her up, gobbles up her tiny silly self, and leaves her not only humbled but also paradoxically much enlarged, for it has provided her with a new and deeper appreciation of the sanctity of life and the shocking and terrifying realization that her life is not her own but only a part of something infinitely larger and more significant, something of immense and momentous import.
In a very peculiar and revealing way, these poems are also at the same time frequently amusing, witty and self-deprecating, for as each poem comes to a close, in retrospect, looking back at the naiveté’ she had at the beginning of her excursion into uncharted territory, terra incognito, the great unknown, essentially she is critically implying, aghast, “Go figure! What a moron I was! Gads! What a bonehead! I just had no freaking idea!”
Boiling it down, what actually “happens” in these poems is a kind of emotional sacred rapture and ecstasy as her sense of “self” is suddenly caught up, overwhelmed and engulfed by what would appear to be the almighty, inscrutable Pulse at the heart of Life Itself. For, reeling with shock and awe, Dickinson makes clear she sensed the divine maker in these dislocating and all-encompassing experiences and these poems are her feeble, flawed attempt to chronicle her nature “adventures” and describe as best she could the luminosity and numinosity she perceived, or was granted, almost as a mystical vision. This is not news in Dickinson studies. Dickinson scholars, even the earliest, picked it up right away. And anyone familiar with the Christian, Buddhist or Sufi mystics will recognize the feelings she tries to capture and convey in the poems, feelings which are often frustratingly unapproachable in words, intuitions fundamentally ineffable and resistant to rational thought and categories, and they will also understand the intense thrill she feels as she is “swallowed up” by these rare and wonderful encounters with the sublime. In the instances occasioned by these particular poems in her oeuvre she frequently employed the imagery and figurative language of physical “ravishment” by a lover along with religious imagery to try to impart to the reader the intense spiritual-physical-intellectual aspect of the encounter, however transient and evanescent, an all-encompassing pleasure coincident in these moments.
A Caveat is in order here. Don’t be misled and take the sexual allusions literally, you 21st century readers; all mystics have used it down through the ages, from time immemorial, to try to describe how they felt at this moment of “union” with the divine at the center of the universe, including St. John of the Cross no less.
The following poem is representative of this one vein in Dickinson’s poetic impulse and imagination, is typical of this motif and structure, and is cast, I think, as a kind of personal fable that renders for her and the astute reader the quite ancient and universal paradigm of enlightenment, the rare glimpse of eternity, the wink and blink of the Eternal Now in which we swim during our lives but all too rarely see or feel, albeit in the somewhat colloquial language of mid-nineteenth century New England. But this was her consistent style. Dickinson never tried to be anything other than what she was in her verse and, as she said on more than one occasion, “The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune – /Because I grow – where Robins do – . . . /Because I see New Englandly – “ Even her verse forms are simple quatrains in the meter and roughly the rhyme scheme of the common nineteenth century church hymnals. She was not presumptuous and did not “put on airs,” behavior that would have been considered atrocious and roundly ridiculed in her place and time. Although highly educated and well read, and from a prominent well to do family, Dickinson took a dim view of Avant guarde anything and everything from a stylistic standpoint. Her accomplishment was to take up the ordinary, the “materials” at hand, and transform them into the extraordinary though imaginative sleights of hand, startling juxtapositions and revelatory realignments. She was sly and subtle at this and never failed to surprise by over-turning the well-worn apple carts with a deceptively simple
yet wholly original well-turned phrase. Yet how much she was able to do with the somewhat homespun parochial lingua franca of her age and locale and still invest it with such beauty and significance that persists to this day for readers the world over is certainly the hallmark of only the greatest poets.
A bit of a pedantic windy prologue here to the following poem, and I apologize, but all too often I see Dickinson poems in blog posts and elsewhere online that are offered up without any background or intro and I bothered with the foregoing in the hopes of increasing your understanding, appreciation and pleasure in this interesting signature type of a Dickinson “nature” poem.
As a last side note, a bit of trivia, I’ll just mention that Emily Dickinson had for many years a big beloved bear of a dog named “Carlo;” she mentioned him often in her letters and he is featured as a boon companion in several of her poems. He lived to be 17 years old, trotting along beside her, lying and sleeping at her feet and beside her bed, watching her every move no doubt with the large soulful caring brown eyes only a good ole dog possesses. I’m sure she was thinking of Carlo and alluded to him at the outset of this poem.
I STARTED EARLY – TOOK MY DOG
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
–EMILY DICKINSON, c. 1862
[Afterword—Note how “The Sea,” the majesty and numinous transcendence over the quotidian and conventional, and union with the all comprehensive oneness or force of life, withdraws at her approach to civilization, its conventions and the bland mores of society, e.g., “the Solid Town – ” Also—how it scares the wits out of her and she “started” (being startled out of her mind) and fled, ran away from it, terrified it would swallow her, “eat” her up. Very interesting poem. Like an onion, lots of layers!
Some other exemplar Dickinson poems (there are many, but just to name a few) in the same mode and treating of similar illuminating moments in the natural world, poems that recount similar experiences and revelations with the characteristic development and structure, that you may appreciate: “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” (#214), “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” (#318), “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” (#754), “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” (#986), “Summer – We All Have Seen” (#1386) ]