I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear; Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong; The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work; The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck; The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands; The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown; The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing— Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else; The day what belongs to the day— At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
Image of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), age 35, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1855, steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison. Via Wikipedia.
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
~ Emily Dickinson
This a picture of Emily Dickinson.
This is a “fabricated” picture of Emily Dickinson.
According to a docent at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the late 1990s, the photograph was probably altered after Dickinson’s death in 1886, as a tribute and a keepsake. At that time, families often had photographs “enhanced” after a loved one’s death.
I didn’t know Emily Dickinson personally, but judging from what I’ve read and heard about her, I think if she’d seen the enhanced version, she’d have hooted.
She was obviously depressive, but she also had a sense of humor.
The docent told the following story (documented in an LA Times review by Susan Reynolds):
‘Once, when Samuel Bowles, an old family friend and the subject of Dickinson’s Master poems, went to visit, he found himself yelling up the stairs: “Emily, you damned rascal. No more of this nonsense! I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once!”‘
The detail that doesn’t appear in the article, but that the docent added, is that, at Bowles’ summons, Emily left her room and came down the stairs, laughing.
Try calling someone without a sense of humor a “damned rascal” and see what happens.
And she wasn’t quite as antisocial as she’s generally portrayed. Alix North, in a biographical sketch of the poet, writes that in her twenties, Dickinson had a “busy social life” but that by her thirties, she had become reclusive and withdrew when visitors came.
It’s been speculated that Dickinson pulled away from the public because she thought she wasn’t beautiful, or that she was mourning an unrequited love, or that she was agoraphobic. But perhaps Dickinson “became an isolata , creating a moat around herself to preserve the rarity of her soul and because she believed that isolation was critical to artistic expression.”
By the age of 35, Dickinson “had composed more than 1100 concise, powerful lyrics that astutely examine pain, grief, joy, love, nature, and art.”
In other words, she knew exactly what she was doing: Social butterflies rarely, if ever, compose more than 1100 poems by the time they’re 35, at least not concise, powerful ones.
[Sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph are mine alone. I could be wrong, but I’m not. A 14-year-old boy once told me that anyone who stayed at home as much as Emily Dickinson did couldn’t know enough about life to write anything worthwhile. I refrained from replying that 14-year-old boys don’t know enough about anything to say what Emily Dickinson could or could not do. Now I wish I’d said it. But as I was saying before I interrupted myself . . .]
Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, was described by contemporaries as “stern and unyielding”; “within his home his decisions and his word were law.” Emily wrote that she didn’t learn to tell time by the clock until she was fifteen because “[m]y father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know.”
The museum’s docent pointed out, however, that he was also kind. He could have required Emily to work and support herself or at least to contribute to family finances. Instead, he supported her until his death in 1874. Her sister, Lavinia, took care of most domestic tasks that would normally have been shared. Her family allowed Emily time and space in which to write.
Well, I’ve gone on about Emily Dickinson for a lot longer than I intended, and I hope you’re still with me. I’ll stop now, but not before saying this, which I’ve said before, but I’m going to say again:
A textbook I taught from in 1973, my first year in the Texas secondary school trenches, contained the statement that Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest women poets.
Once upon a time, a few days before Halloween, my friend ME called and said, “There are thirteen men under my house. They’re leveling it. For the second time in five years.” Then she invited David and me to go with her and her husband to see the Edgar Allan Poe exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center, on the University of Texas campus. The next day, I presented ME, via email, the following verse. This is its annual appearance on Telling the Truth. Mr. Poe might be horrified, but since ME is my Muse, the result was bound to be quirky.
To G and ME,
in celebration of their tenth trimester of home improvement,
with gratitude and affection
Forgive me for making mirth of melancholy
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping,
As of someone gently tapping, tapping at my chamber floor.
“‘Tis some armadillo,” said I, “tapping at my chamber floor,
Only this, and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the dry September,
And my house was sinking southward, lower than my bowling score,
Pier and beam and blocks of concrete, quiet as Deuteron’my’s cat feet,
Drooping like an unstarched bedsheet toward the planet’s molten core.
“That poor armadillo,” thought I, “choosing my house to explore.
He’ll squash like an accordion door.”
“Tuck,” I cried, “and Abby, come here! If my sanity you holddear,
Go and get that armadillo, on him all your rancor pour.
While he’s bumping and a-thumping, give his rear a royal whumping,
Send him hence with head a-lumping, for this noise do I abhor.
Dasypus novemcinctus is not a beast I can ignore,
Clumping ‘neath my chamber floor.”
While they stood there prancing, fretting, I imparted one last petting,
Loosed their leashes and cried “Havoc!” then let slip the dogs of war.
As they flew out, charged with venom, I pulled close my robe of denim.
“They will find him at a minimum,” I said, “and surely more,
Give him such a mighty whacking he’ll renounce forevermore
Lumbering ‘neath my chamber floor.”
But to my surprise and wonder, dogs came flying back like thunder.
“That’s no armadillo milling underneath your chamber floor.
Just a man with rule and level, seems engaged in mindless revel,
Crawling ’round. The wretched devil is someone we’ve seen before,
Measuring once and measuring twice and measuring thrice. We said, ‘Senor,
Get thee out or thee’s done for.’”
“Zounds!” I shouted, turning scarlet. “What is this, some vill’nous varlet
Who has come to torment me with mem’ries of my tilting floor?”
Fixing myself at my station by my floundering foundation,
Held I up a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.
“Out, you cad!” I said, “or else prepare to sleep beneath my floor,
Nameless there forever more.”
Ere my words had ceased resounding, with their echo still surrounding,
Crawled he out, saluted, and spoke words that chilled my very core.
“I been down there with my level, and those piers got quite a bevel.
It’s a case of major evolution: totter, tilt galore.
Gotta fix it right away, ma’am, ‘less you want your chamber floor
At a slant forevermore.”
At his words there came a pounding and a dozen men came bounding
From his pickup, and they dropped and disappeared beneath my floor.
And they carried beam and hammer and observed no rules of grammar,
And the air was filled with clamor and a clanging I deplore.
“Take thy beam and take thy level and thy failing Apgar score
And begone forevermore.”
But they would not heed my prayer, and their braying filled the air,
And it filled me with despair, this brouhaha that I deplore.
“Fiend!” I said. “If you had breeding, you would listen to my pleading,
For I feel my mind seceding from its sane and sober core,
And my house shall fall like Usher.” Said the leader of the corps,
“Lady, you got no rapport.”
“How long,” shrieked I then in horror, “like an ominous elm borer,
Like a squirrely acorn storer will you lurk beneath my floor?
Prophesy!” I cried, undaunted by the chutzpah that he flaunted,
And the expertise he vaunted. “Tell me, tell me, how much more?”
But he strutted and he swaggered like a man who knows the score.
Quoth the maven, “Evermore.”
He went off to join his legion in my house’s nether region
While my dogs looked on in sorrow at that dubious guarantor.
Then withdrawing from this vassal with his temperament so facile
I went back into my castle and I locked my chamber door.
“On the morrow, they’ll not leave me, but will lodge beneath my floor
Winter, spring, forevermore.
So the hammering and the clamoring and the yapping, yawping yammering
And the shrieking, squawking stammering still are sounding ‘neath my floor.
And I sit here sullen, slumping in my chair and dream the thumping
And the armadillo’s bumping is a sound I could adore.
For those soles of boots from out the crawlspace ‘neath my chamber floor
I’m watching Patterns, a movie written by Rod Serling. Van Heflin plays a young production engineer hired by a ruthless industrialist to replace his vice-president, whose ethics and integrity make him, in his superior’s eyes, a liability to the company. The new executive finds himself caught in a pattern he’s determined to break.
The movie’s name reminded me of the Amy Lowell poem, in which a woman trapped in a different pattern wishes to break free.
I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.
And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.
I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles
on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon —
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.
Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday se’nnight.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.
In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?