Emily Dickinson (Forerunners)

While some of Emily Dickinson’s more well-known lines had been in my head for years, I didn’t sit down with all of her poems until a flight from Atlanta ages ago, to attend my grandmother’s funeral back home. As Dickinson says, time does not assuage; but her strange words and stranger company of her presence certainly helped at that time, and has ever since. It’s always amused me that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly who corresponded with Dickinson, was deeply unnerved when he met her in person. To someone who had fought in the Civil War and seen his share of terror, he confessed that never had he spent time “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” 

There’s a sense I get from her poems that none of them should actually work, that they should have remained her unknown hidden packets only she ever saw, seemingly obsessed with death and in love with exclamation points and dashes as she was. In another way, and in the thrill of rereading her for this post, she seems, like Whitman, the best American poetry we’ve got. Both of them also appear, in their most powerful moments, to have come from nowhere and found a singular place for themselves, without predecessor and with no way to imitate them. I don’t know another poet who could have written on such an overused sentiment in the immortal way she does, is #1142:

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

Speaking at my grandmother’s funeral, I mentioned that on the sad flight home I had been caught by the laughter and running around of children at the airport, and was again at the funeral itself, in their laughter and the clicking of their dress-shoes on the marble church floor. In the same way, I chose these favorites from Dickinson by reading them aloud to my daughter, who is about as happy and perpetually astounding a creature as I can imagine, a reminder that Dickinson conjures all points of sorrow, but joy too.

Note: the poem numbers here correspond to the Thomas H. Johnson edition of her poems. 

 


2

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

 

97

The rainbow never tells me
That gust and storm are by,
Yet is she more convincing
Than Philosophy.

My flowers turn from Forums –
Yet eloquent declare
What Cato couldn’t prove me
Except the birds were here!

 

136

Have you got a Brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so –

And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there,
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there –

Why, look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the fills,
And the bridges often go –

And later, in August it may be –
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life,
Some burning noon go dry!

 

150

She died – this was the way she died.
And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun.
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.

 

249

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

 

280

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

 

301

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –
But, what of that?

 

324

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

 

 

 

685

Not “Revelation” – ’tis – that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes –

 

686

They say that “time assuages” –
Time never did assuage –
An actual suffering strengthens,
As Sinews do, with age –

Time is a Test of Trouble –
But not a Remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady –

 

712

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 –

 

761

From Blank to Blank –
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet –
To stop – or perish – or advance –
Alike indifferent –

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed –
I shut my eyes – and groped as well
‘Twas lighter – to be Blind –

 

 

937

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make it fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls – upon a Floor.

 

943

A Coffin – is a small Domain,
Yet able to contain
A Citizen of Paradise
In it diminished Plane.

A Grave – is a restricted Breadth –
Yet ampler than the Sun –
And all the Seas He populates
And Lands He looks upon

To Him who on its small Repose
Bestows a single Friend –
Circumference without Relief –
Or Estimate – or End –

 

975

The Mountain sat upon the Plain
In his tremendous Chair –
His observation omnifold,
His inquest, everywhere –

The Seasons played around his knees
Like Children round a sire –
Grandfather of the Days is He
Of Dawn, the Ancestor –

 

1142

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

 

1235

Like Rain it sounded till it curved
And then I new ‘twas Wind –
It walked as wet as any Wave
But swept as dry as sand –
When it had pushed itself away
To some remotest Plain
A coming as of Hosts was heard
It filled the Wells, it pleased the Pools
It warbled in the Road –
It pulled the spigot from the Hills
And let the Floods abroad –
It loosened acres, lifted seas
The sites of Centres stirred
Then like Elijah rode away
Upon a Wheel of Cloud.

 

1263

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 opress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul

 

1472

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee –

 

1643

Extol thee – could I? Then I will
By saying nothing new –
But just the truest truth
That thou art heavenly.

Perceiving thee is evidence
That we are of the sky
Partaking thee a guaranty
Of immortality

 

1750

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful –

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. I love Emily Dickinson, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim Miller says:

      Thanks for reading, she is endlessly wonderful

      Liked by 1 person

  2. fridayam says:

    I keep in my poetry heart E.D.’s dictum “Tell the truth but tell it slant”. My favourite poet. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Frank Hudson says:

    It is amazing that such a writer ever existed, much less invented herself isn’t it?

    Currently, I usually notice how part of her writing draws you in, seems to show us our mundane, shared world, albeit in polished concision. And then the next line, the next stanza, the next poem, goes off somewhere that can never be figured out or contained.

    Strange too that here’s a poet, writing 150 years ago, popular since her first posthumous edition in the 19th century, and popular and read outside of the academy still today. Yet, a few antique words and a certain Transcendentalist framework aside, Dickinson seems as avant garde in her syntax and use of language than any modern.

    And as always, an especially easy poet to work with musically:

    https://frankhudson.org/2018/01/12/a-certain-slant-of-light/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. kvennarad says:

    I can’t think of another poet who influenced me so much [you wouldn’t necessarily think so to read (the bulk of) my own poetry]. I used to write ‘replies’ to her poetry – I think I was a little bit in love.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on At Sunnyside – Where Truth and Beauty Meet and commented:
    Emily Dickinson’s life and poems have always fascinated me. In gathering notes to teach my own children many years ago, I compiled a resource page on Emily Dickinson at Sunnyside Classical Christian School. Claiming no expertise of any kind, I am, nonetheless, a reader and life-long learner with an abiding love for Emily Dickinson, and in that spirit, I am pleased to re-blog this post from Tim Miller at Underfoot Poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

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