On Choosing the Poems
This week’s poems take inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s letter to Mary Bowels (L262), lamenting Samuel Bowles’ absence while abroad, as well as the correspondence from Samuel Bowles himself, which was published on May 10th in the Springfield Republican along with a group of letters from other passengers on the Steamer China. Bowles writes of the land off the coast of Liverpool, noting the “contrast” between the “rich green verdure” of England and Ireland and the “barrenness” of “those we left behind us in America.”
Dickinson also conceptualizes foreignness in relation to what she knows at home. In “To learn the transport thro’ the pain” (F178), a poem from around 1860, she plays on the double meaning of “feet,” which might literally be on home soil, and the “feet” of her poetry, which are “haunted by native lands:”
To learn the transport thro’ the pain –
As Blind men learn the sun –
To die of thirst, suspecting
That Brooks in meadows run –
To stay the homesick – homesick feet
Opon a foreign shore –
Haunted by native lands – the while –
And blue – beloved Air –
This is the sovreign anguish –
This – the signal wo –
These are the patient “Laureates” –
Whose stanza, hushed, below –
Breaks in victorious Carol –
Inaudible – indeed –
To us – the duller Cornets
Of the mysterious “Band” – (F178, J167)
Though many of Dickinson’s poems allude to foreign lands, Cristanne Miller points to the trend of “Orientalism” in her verse, in which she refers to Asian and Middle Eastern places, such as the “Himmaleh,” the “Isles of spice,” or the country of India. According to Miller, the “Orient” is never the originator or inspiration for Dickinson’s poetry, but rather a “rewriting of the symbolic geographies of her era,” and despite the dated, perhaps fetishistic regard for foreign lands, Dickinson routinely exhibits a “sympathetic” tone, “even if romantically or ambivalently so.” Essays she read in the Atlantic and Harper’s, and popular works like the Arabian Nights, which her brother Austin loved, often fostered patronizing stereotypes of the East. Miller observes:
Although Dickinson echoes these stereotypes at times, she also writes poems that demonstrate knowledge of the contemporary politics of Asia, critique Western attitudes, and raise questions about racial categorization and liminality. Other poems invoking the East focus on creative self-transformation or fulfillment through a (romanticized) natural, ephemeral, or rare beauty and ability.
The year 1862 marks a spike in the frequency of these references, so we’ve included several poems about the East, alongside poems about travel in the selections for this week. If anything characterizes these poems, it is the attempt, as Dickinson says above, “To learn the transport thro’ the pain.” Dickinson’s engagement with Asia is distinguished from her contemporaries: she did not read “Asian scripture and literature, as did her contemporaries Emerson, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Lydia Maria Child, and Whitman,” nor does she see the Asian continent as a natural continuation of American imperialist Manifest Destiny, according to Miller. Her fascination with foreignness, however, is ever-present in her writing:
Encounters with those who had traveled, news about foreign lands, objects from Asia, and popular Orientalist writing gave Dickinson a geographical vocabulary of exoticism and rare or ephemeral beauty, encouraged speculation about epistemologies of foreignness, and offered narrative models for experiences of radical or fantastic transformation, or inspiration—that “Exultation” of the “inland soul” in entering a sphere overwhelmingly outside its ken. It was also a condition of being she identified with ontologically, as though her increasing isolation after 1860 took her farther from Amherst than any trip she had taken before.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 119-21.
Civilization – spurns – the
Was the Leopard – bold?
Deserts – never rebuked
her Satin –
Ethiop – her Gold –
Tawny – her Customs –
She was Conscious –
Spotted – her Dun Gown –
This was the Leopard's
nature – Signor –
Need – a keeper – frown?
Pity – the Pard – that
left her Asia!
Memories – of Palm –
Cannot be stifled – with
Nor suppressed – with
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #set 89. Amherst – Amherst Manuscript #set 89 – Of nature I shall have enough – asc:7235 – p. 4. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 273, as three quatrains.
This is one of what scholars call Dickinson's “big cat” poems, which might have been inspired by other New England writers Dickinson read. Leslie Mcabee points out that, having told Higginson that she read Harriet Spofford's short story “Circumstance” (L261) in the April issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Dickinson likely also read “Instinct” by Leonard Augustus Jones, sparking an interest in the animal mind and inspiring these “big cat” poems. As discussed in the post on her second letter to Higginson, Dickinson enigmatically commented in that letter that Spofford’s “Circumstance” followed her in the dark,” much like a predatory cat. Mcabee writes:
the [“big cat”] poems “Civilization-spurns-the Leopard!” (Fr276A), “As the Starved Maelstrom laps the Navies” (Fr106A), and “A Dying Tiger-moaned for Drink-” (Fr295B) ventriloquize a common assumption held by leaders of “exotic” animal entertainment and popular science, both in print and live exhibitions: that the consumer has special insight into the life of the animal, its character, experience, and place of origin.
Li-Hsin Hsu contextualizes Dickinson’s reference to “Narcotics” in this poem as part o her interest in and awareness of opium use, which she learned about from a visit to Peter’s Chinese Museum in Boston in 1846. In a letter to her friend Abiah Root about the exhibit, Dickinson describes the people she learned of there:
One of them is a Professor of music in China & the other is teacher of a writing school at home. They were both wealthy & not obliged to labor but they were also Opium Eaters & fearing to continue the practice lest it destroyed their lives yet unable to break the “rigid chain of habit” in their own land. They left their family's & came to this country. They have now entirely overcome the practice. There is something peculiarly interesting to me in their self denial (L 13).
Mcabee, Leslie. “Through the Tiger's Eye: Constructing Animal Exoticism in Emily Dickinson's ‘Big Cat’ Poems.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 26 no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-26, 1-2.
Hsu, Li-Hsin. “Emily Dickinson’s Asian Consumption.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 22 no. 2, 2013, pp. 1-25, 5.
The lonesome for they know not
The Eastern Exiles – be –
Who strayed beyoned the
Some madder Holiday –
And ever since – the
They strive to climb – in vain –
As Birds – that tumble from
Do fumble at the strain –
The Blessed Ether – taught
Some Transatlantic Morn –
When Heaven – was too
common – to miss –
Too sure – to dote opon!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXIII, Fascicle 13 (part). Includes 11 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1861. Houghton Library – (128b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 130, as two stanzas of 4 and 8 lines; in derivative collections, without stanza division.
Cristanne Miller calls attention to this poem’s treatment of exile as an originary condition:
we are all “Eastern Exiles,” all diasporic wanderers taught by “Blessed Father” to stray from “Heaven” and then incapable of regaining that native land.
Dickinson’s reference to “transatlantic” extends the condition of exile across continents, so that the “displaced population” might be
a displacement that is typical of all human experience, goes beyond popular representations of the East.
It is notable that Dickinson refers to “Some Transatlantic Morn” in 1862, possibly around the time when she was writing to Mary Bowles about Samuel Bowles’ trip to Europe. She might find solace or consolation in knowing that we all share the morn across the Atlantic, that we all share the condition of exile.
At the same time, Dickinson’s brand of “Orientalism” diverges from other strains of U.S. Orientalism. As Miller points out, Dickinson’s version depicts
Asians not as nomadic or steeped in sensual luxuries and not as hermetically sealed off from the contemporary civilizations but instead as emigrating across “turbaned seas” to rest of the world, including Amherst.
Being at home, even in the Homestead, is already “culturally other,” already foreign. Birds tumbling from clouds, for example, could well be an image from an Amherst backyard, but just as easily an image from across the “turbaned sea.” The experience is at once shared, and also a form of exile. This, then, could be the reference for the “lonesome for they know not What.”
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 128, 131.
If you were coming in the Fall,
I'd brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a
I'd wind the months in balls –
And put them each in
For fear the numbers fuse –
If only Centuries, delayed,
I'd count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers
Into Van Dieman's Land.
If certain, when this life was out –
That your's and mine, should be –
I'd toss it yonder, like a
And take Eternity –
But, now, uncertain of the
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the
Goblin Bee –
That will not state -
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85 – I dreaded that first robin, so – asc:17631 – p. 8. Poems (1890), 48-49, with the alternative adopted. Courtesy of Amherst Library, Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 186, corrected, with the alternative included.
“If you were coming in the Fall” most directly addresses Dickinson's feelings of separation from Samuel Bowles during his trip to Europe. Moreover, the speaker would take comfort in measuring any amount of time before a return, if only that time could be known. In the third stanza Dickinson refers to “Van Damien’s Land,” the British Colony that would later be known as Tasmania. The stanza, then, collapses time and geography into a single continuum: “If only centuries, delayed, / I’d count them on my Hand, / Subtracting, till my fingers dropped / Into Van Dieman’s Land.” Centuries can be counted on fingers, which, in turn, fall across continents.
“Counting” is also a metonymy for meter, meaning that writing poetry also has the power to manipulate time and space. Only writing poetry, for Dickinson, can overcome the longing across geographic distance—a reality which certainly pertains to her longing for Bowles, who is overseas. The final stanza, however, grapples with measuring unknown lengths of time: “But, now, uncertain of the length / Of this, that is between, / It goads me, like the Goblin Bee – / That will not state – it's sting.” That is to say, the “sting” of longing and isolation is not the precise distance or the precise length of time before a return; it is the sting of not knowing how to count or reckon that time. Under its influence, the bee, in other poems a figure of freedom, promiscuity, and delight, becomes a “Goblin” that casts the speaker into Gothic depths of despair.
Like Flowers, that heard the
news of Dews,
But never deemed the dripping
Awaited their – low Brows –
Or Bees – that thought the
Some rumor of Delirium,
No Summer – could – for Them –
Or Arctic Creatures, dimly stirred –
By Tropic Hint – some Travelled
Imported to the Wood –
Or Wind's bright signal to
the Ear –
Making that homely, and severe,
Contented, known, before –
The Heaven – unexpected come,
To Lives that thought the
A too presumptuous Psalm –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 17 (a 85-11/12), I dreaded that first robin, so – asc:17623 – p. 12. Courtesy of Amherst Library, Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published Poems (1890), 83, by error as the final stanzas of “A something in a summer's”; the alternative (line 1) was not adopted. The error, which Mabel Todd discovered in 1891 (Bingham, Ancestors' Brocade, 156), persisted in reprintings and derivative collections.
This poem has a relatively unusual form: three line stanzas of 886 syllables rhyming loosely and slantwise aaa: for example: Dews–prize–Brows; name–Delirium–Them; Ear–severe–before; come–Worshipping–Psalm. More usually for Dickinson, it is structured as a series of four similes: Like Flowers … Or Bees … Or Arctic Creatures … Or Wind’s bright signal, with the tenor of these four examples being “The Heaven – unexpected come…” So, the poem offers four illustrations of the speaker’s experience or knowledge or certitude of “Heaven,” a word that can stand for salvation, immortality, or less theologically, bliss, transport, “extasy,” for those who thought, according to the last stanza, their “worshipping” was “too presumptuous.” That is, they were not officially “saved” by the lights of the evangelical beliefs of the day. We know, of course, that Dickinson herself refused throughout her life to accept conversion, though all of her family, including Austin, had.
The first two similes participate in the gardening theme that pervades Dickinson’s poems, which we examined last week: the unsuspecting or seemingly undeserving speaker, or people like her, compares herself and them to flowers that heard the “news” of “dew” but never thought themselves worthy of it, or bees that likewise heard “Some rumor of Delirium” that summer causes, but did not think it was for them. The third example connects to our present theme of foreign travel and exotic places. Dickinson imagines “Arctic Creatives, dimly stirred” by some “Tropic Hint” brought to them by a “Travelled Bird.” Another frequent denizen of local gardens and woods, birds also have the ability to fly long distances and migrate to and from exotic places. The juxtaposition of “Arctic” and “Tropic” mobilizes Dickinson’s motif of the white, frozen, blank north and the colorful, hot and sensual south. Does she glimpse “Heaven”
in the promise of warm breezes “Imported to the Wood”?
Judith Farr associates this poem and others like it with Dickinson’s conservatory, built off the Homestead’s dining room, which allowed Dickinson to defy the seasons:
She herself in winter was like an “Arctic Creature, dimly stirred/By Tropic Hint,” as she sat near the conservatory writing poems that imagine spring. Sending oleander blossoms tied with black velvet to friends in deep winter, sending them poems that acknowledged but transcended whatever bitternesses winter or age or death might bring to her “House of Snow,” Dickinson taught them to look with reverence at the gifts of the “little garden within” (L432).
Farr, Judith, with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 174.
It would never be Common -
more – I said –
Difference – had begun –
Many a bitterness – had been –
But that old sort – was done –
Or – if it sometime – showed -
as 'twill –
Opon the Downiest – morn –
Such bliss – had I – for all
the years –
'Twould give an easier – pain –
I'd so much joy – I told it – Red –
Opon my simple Cheek –
I felt it publish – in my eye –
'Twas needless – any speak –
I walked – as wings – my body bore –
The feet – I former used –
Unnescessary – now to me –
As boots – would be – to Birds –
I put my pleasure all abroad –
I dealt a word of Gold
To every Creature – that I met –
And Dowered – all the World –
When – suddenly – my Riches shrank –
A Goblin – drank my Dew –
My Palaces – dropped tenantless –
Myself – was beggared – too –
I clutched at sounds –
I groped at shapes –
I touched the tops of Films –
I felt the Wilderness roll back
Along my Golden lines –
The Sackcloth – hangs opon the nail –
The Frock I used to wear –
But where my moment of
My – drop – of India?
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19, Houghton Library – (146a). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 98-99, as eight quatrains.
In a long commentary on this poem in the post on “Publication” we talked about it as a poem of “aftermath,” describing the consequences of some crisis that completely wreaks and alters the speaker’s world. We entertained the theory of several scholars, who saw this crisis as a literary one, in which, as Alice Fulton suspects, “a woman confronts literary effacement.”
We noted that the “drop – of India” evokes not only the exotic, sensual East but, more specifically, drops of “india ink” that probably indelibly marked the writer’s clothing with evidence of her work, staining her “moment of Brocade.”
But in terms of our present theme of travel and Orientalism, we might understand the final reference to “India” a bit differently. This poem begins with the claim that “Difference – had begun” and, thus, the unspecified “It” “would never be Common– more.” Some transformation has occurred that raises the speaker above the common mold but also brings a loss of (metaphorical?) “riches” and “palaces,” which renders the speaker a beggar living in a “wilderness.”
In the final stanza, the speaker shows us “sackcloth” hanging “opon the nail.” Is this the frock she “used to wear”? According to Dickinson’s Webster’s, sackcloth is a coarse fabric but the
word is chiefly used in Scripture to denote a cloth or garment worn in mourning, distress or mortification. Gird you with sackcloth and mourn before Abner. 2 Sam. Iii. Esth. iv. Job xvi.
Saints wore sackcloth to expiate their sins. Though it is not clear whether this sackcloth is hung up out of familiarity or disuse, it stands in contrast to the speaker’s “moment of Brocade,” a richly ornamental dress of “Silk stuff, variegated with gold and silver, or raised and enriched with flowers, foliage and other ornaments” (Lexicon). This reference to riches is her “drop – of India,” a place of luxury that symbolizes a richness—of love, intimacy, imagination, ambition— that has fled.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
How sick – to wait – in any
place – but thine –
I knew last night – when
some one tried to twine –
Thinking – perhaps – that
I looked tired – or alone –
Or breaking – almost – with
unspoken pain –
And I turned – ducal –
That right – was thine –
One port – suffices – for a
Brig like mine –
Our's be the tossing – wild
though the sea –
Rather than a mooring -
unshared by thee.
Our's be the Cargo – unladen – here –
Rather than the "spicy isles -"
And thou – not there –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – Fascicle 20 (66a). Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 158, as five quatrains, from a transcript of A (a tr140).
In his insightful reading of this poem in terms of Dickinson’s manuscripts, Domhnall Mitchell attempts “an archaeological reconstruction of what the poem may have looked like during the first stages of it construction” and finds a “tight, clipped rhythm (mainly iambic dimeter and trimeter) [that] seems to suggest the massive emotional forces that it is designed to dam up.” But Dickinson revises this into a longer sequence with some unusual (for her) iambic pentameter lines and rhyming couplets. For Mitchell:
The effect is stunning: the thirteen dashes powerfully convey the battle between surface and form and emotional depths, energies that are then unleashed in the second stanza, which explodes the longer line into smaller fragments, returning to tetrameter in the emphatic, determined declaration of “One port –suffices – for a Brig like mine.” The third stanza, by contrast, turns wistful and wishful at the same time: dactyls and trochees are deployed to create a rolling motion in its first and third lines before Dickinson switches to the disrupted and discordant rhythm for the sequences beginning “Rather.” Perhaps the larger point to make, however, is that Dickinson did experiment with the length of lines in order to fashion new stanzaic forms. To focus on the physical arrangement of single words and lines on the page is to miss the highly innovative structural intelligence at work …
We should note the imagery of storms, boats tossing in wild seas, and a single port of safety that connects this poem to “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” which we discussed last week in terms of its imagery of the garden of Eden. In this poem, though, the “Brig” has a “Cargo” shared by the pair of lovers referenced in the poem, and it is “unladen – here – / Rather than the “spicy isles.”
This is a reference to the Maluku Islands or Moluccas, an archipelago within the Banda Sea off Indonesia, known as the “Spice Islands” because of the nutmeg, mace, and cloves that grew there exclusively, inciting the interest of European colonizers in the 16th century. The poem doesn’t explain what this cargo is, but only that it is not unloaded at the origin of exotic spices, but “here,” in a “place” that is “thine,” referring back to the striking opening line, which calls our attention to an unspecified space of abeyance. The syntax of the last stanza makes its meaning elusive, but we get whiffs of rich, sensual spices that are inextricably linked to the “place” where an impassioned speaker waits for fulfillment.
Mitchell, Domhnal. Measures of Possibility: Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, 257-58.