On Choosing the Poems
Dickinson’s first editors, Thomas Higginson and Mabel Todd, included a poem in the third collection of posthumously published Poems (1896) they titled “Aftermath:”
The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Has simultaneous come,
The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June. (F1142, J1115 dated 1867/1868)
Not only do they cut off the last two stanzas, which portray a speaker haunted by secrets she deliberately keeps from her intimates, but their truncated version depicts “aftermath” as a bittersweet declining of the seasons, not the traumatic space of psychic pain Dickinson hints at even in this poem.
In his influential study of Dickinson from 1981, David Porter coins the category of Dickinson’s “poetry of aftermath,” which scholars have been exploring ever since. Porter argued that
despite the biographers, the elementary experience [for Dickinson] has little to do with inaccessible lovers. The crucial affair for her, rather is living after things happen.
The poem he offers “as a paradigm of engrossment in the afterward” is “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” (F372, J341). He notes that “Afterward is the condition of the best known poems of physical and psychic death” and poems “that look back on crucial changes in status,” which for him include many poems from the period we are studying and several we have already discussed (links supplied):
“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (F124, J216)
“’Twas just this time, last year, I died” (F344, J445)
“I died for Beauty” (F448, J449)
“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” (F591, J465)
“My life closed twice before its close” (F1773, J1732)
“The Soul selects her own Society” (F409, J303)
“I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that–” (F225, J199)
“I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs” (F353, J508)
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (F340, J280)
“I got so I could hear his name” (F292, J293)
Poems of aftermath are not always about trauma and pain. Porter also includes the poems of “soft nostalgia over Indian Summers days that come after the ‘real’ summer” (that Higginson and Todd wanted “Aftermath” to be) and “others with a similar perspective but a less grave tone” as well as poems “that rehearse agreeable past experiences … or describe ecstatic sensation so short-lived it exists only in its resonance.” The “masterpiece” in this genre for him is “Further in Summer than the Birds” (F895, J1068).
Vivian Pollak also explores a cluster of poems with a “postexperiential perspective,” which includes some of Porter’s “classics” and others, such as
“Severer Service of myself” (F887, J786)
“I tie my Hat – I crease mu Shawl–” (F522, J443)
“There is a pain – so utter–” (F515, J599)
“A Doubt if it be Us” (F903, J859)
“It was not Death, for I stood up” (F355, J510)
“There’s a certain Slant of light” (F320, J258)
Porter goes on to outline the “conceptual position” for Dickinson’s obsession with aftermath and the poetic strategies this engendered:
For they made possible the achievement of a poetry that keeps its sensibilities intact while taking as its ground the wastes of inward desolation.
Porter’s insights are valuable and we include them here as a guide for our own reading of these poems.
First, “space opens to a bewildering size while time goes slack.” Then, Dickinson takes “the most extreme of tragic positionings, electing circumstances where the consciousness stands at the limits of its sovereignty. … Thus death was a capital allegory rather than a pathological morbidity.” She evokes “feelings of the universe experienced as a presence,” often through “visitations” which “inaugurate the period of afterward.” “Famous visitors” include, hummingbirds, bees, snakes, slants of light, long shadow of grass, wind, rain storms, frost, Death, sometimes “terrifying assaults that freeze the nerves, visitations merely weird, vaguely premonitory, suggestive of vaster opacities … [that] play fleetingly at the rim of the void … that wrench one’s perception.”
She courted this experience because it led to those stretches of aftermath where the consciousness, because estranged, is totally alert.
Speculating on the origin of this “obsession,” Porter proposes that Dickinson’s “religious orientation made meditation on the afterlife a natural activity” and that the “dramatic structure” of her poems of visitation and eternal life “is the basic Christian metaphor.” He also notes Dickinson’s allusions to an emotional crisis in the early 1860s. In a letter as late as mid-1863, Dickinson wrote to her Norcross cousins of
a snarl in the brain which doesn’t unravel yet, and that old nail in my breast (L281).
This sounds like they knew of the latter, the “old nail,” but not the “snarl” which resulted and troubles Dickinson still. Porter also alludes to Dickinson living “constantly in a state of dislocation from her prosaic contemporaries” and her dashed “expectations of marriage, of a family, and of a settled identity”—but here he considers the only terms of “identity” offered to Dickinson by Victorian culture, not those she could and did forge for herself.
This “condition of afterward” materially affected her poetic style, as Porter brilliantly demonstrates:
Her art of the aftermath was an intense setting of language in search of the feel of dead things. … filled with the pitfalls of melodrama and self-pity, with the ponderosities of awe, and with emotional slither and the crutches of cliché, but Dickinson, except in moments of unwary facility, evaded many of them.
She did this by using unexpected words and oxymorons (“Funeral in my Brain”), exceptional economy, contradictory yokings (“Quartz contentment”), wry synecdoche to induce “linguistic vitality out of wasted experience” and to ballast abstractions and the “great void.” Also, the use of made-up words that
begin the tilt into an alien world where old meanings do not apply and where the old consciousness must be super alert. … The constant possibility of slipping off the ledge of the familiar also depends upon a basic habit of structural shift.
Porter sums up:
The disparate lexical references, the freakishly precise images, the made-up and willfully grammatical comparatives, the structural instability: each of these activities opens interstices through which appears the void of afterward. Each interstice also opens the prospect of the passage from comprehension to stunned ignorance.
We have explored many of the well-known poems of aftermath mentioned by Porter and Pollak in earlier posts and we provide links to them above. The poems we gathered for this week are less well-known but part of this extensive “subcategory” of “postexperiential pessimism” in Dickinson’s canon.
I breathed enough to take
the Trick –
And now, removed from Air –
I simulate the Breath, so well –
That One, to be quite sure –
The Lungs are stirless – must descend
Among the cunning cells –
And touch the Pantomime -
How + mb, the Bellows feels!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 33 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (71a, b) A solemn thing – it was – I said, J271, Fr307; I breathed enough to take the Trick, J272, Fr308. First published in Poems (1896), 179, with the alternative for line 8 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 14 in the 6th place sometime in early 1862. It is written in a fairly regular common meter of 8686 with slant rhymes: Air-sure, cells-feels.
The poem at first sounds like a posthumous narrative, a Gothic perspective pioneered by the writers of the Azarian School: the speaker, “removed from Air,” is dead and is speaking from beyond the grave. Rebecca Patterson notes that in Dickinson's poetry, “air” is connected through the element of oxygen with love:
Love is oxygen because it is that element without which one cannot live. To love is to be alive, to breathe.
But the word “Trick” has several meanings. According to Dickinson's Lexicon, "trick" means
1. Hand of cards counted as a unit for scoring purposes in a game … to take a trick means to score a point; 2. prank or joke; 3. artifice or deception.
Whether it's points, jokes or artifice, there is some kind of deception at work here. Then, the third line tells us that the speaker “simulates the Breath, so well” that an observer would have to “descend / Among the cunning cells” to figure out whether they are working or not, or whether they are merely “simulating” breathing. This, then, is one of Dickinson’s death-in-life scenarios, the terrain of the aftermath of crisis.
David Porter calls this a “riddling poem,” part of a group of poems
where psychic trauma lies out of sight behind a charade. … In that hard-faced poem the careful, impersonal understatement changes life subtly, linguistically, and unannounced into inanimate machine: “How numb the Bellows feels!”
Though it is a “machine” that needs a human agent to work it. What is the speaker’s agency in this “trick”?
This poem accomplishes brilliantly the eerie confusion of death and its simulation. The word “Pantomime” to describe the non/working of the lungs imposes a silence that belies the sound of human breath, often a figure for poetry itself. The simulation is so convincing that anyone observing the speaker would have to get down to the cellular level in order to “touch” this dumb show, to figure out what is real and what is not. The tone is also eerily detached, as if the speaker, like an apprentice magician, is amazed to be able to carry off the “trick.” Even the speaker’s body, down to the “cunning cells,” colludes in the simulation. What came before to cause this death-in-life is hinted at in the allusion to “Air” linked to oxygen: the death of love. What the future of this numbed being will be is left unspoken.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon.Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 109.
Porter, David. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981, 284.
If I'm lost – now –
That I was found –
Shall still my transport be –
That once – on me – those
Blazed open – suddenly –
That in my awkward -
gazing – face –
The Angels – softly peered –
And touched me with
Almost as if they cared –
I'm banished – now – you know it –
How foreign that can be –
You'll know – Sir – when the
Turns so – away from you –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet X, Mixed Fascicles. Includes 14 poems, written in ink, ca. 1858-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (46d). First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 166, as three quatrains, from a transcript of A (a tr350, 350a).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 13 in the 6th position sometime in early 1862. Like the previous poem, it is written in the common meter with some disturbance in the second stanza and with an array of rhymes: exact (be-suddenly), slant (peered- cared) and off (be-you). It explores a different kind of aftermath from the previous poem: the aftermath of banishment from Christian salvation and, thus, Heaven.
The speaker’s present situation of being “lost” to heaven and paradise is bearable because of the retrospective knowledge of having once been “found.” The memory of this lost state of acceptance is crucial to the speaker’s sense of self, so much so that the speaker labels it with a key Dickinsonian term, “transport,” a word meaning “rapture, ecstasy, joy, intense emotion” (Lexicon) and also a means of movement across boundaries, such as the human and divine. Even in a state of banishment, the speaker still experiences the aftereffects of the rapture of having once seen the “Jasper Gates” (Revelation 21:18) of heaven “blaze” open and welcoming.
But the poem contains hints that even that welcome was qualified or suspect. The speaker describes salvation as Angels peering into “my awkward –/gazing – face” and touching “me with their fleeces, / Almost as if they cared.” “Fleeces,” according to Rebecca Patterson, refer to hair, but the image gives these Angels an ungainly sheep-like quality. Only in this stanza are both tetrameter lines missing a syllable. Could “fleece” also imply
to strip of money or property, to take from, by severe exactions, under color of law or justice, or pretext of necessity, or by virtue of authority (Dickinson’s Webster’s)?
Something is missing here. These angels don’t quite convince the speaker that they care and, thus, the speaker becomes “foreign” to itself and others, especially to an addressee, a “Sir,” who, the speaker cautions, will also suffer a similar banishment. This is cold comfort. Again, the generating occasions of these falls from grace are unspecified. We are left in a bleak and ambiguous aftermath of outcasts.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 50.
It ceased to hurt me, though
I could not +see the +trouble go –
But only knew by looking back –
That something – had +obscured
the Track –
Nor when it altered, I could
For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock
I hung opon the Peg, at night.
But not the Grief – that
As Needles – ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks –
To keep their place –
Nor what consoled it, I could
Except, whereas 'twas Wilderness –
It's better – almost Peace –
+ feel +Anguish +benumbed • frock [Gown crossed out]
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet X, Mixed Fascicles. Includes 14 poems, written in ink, ca. 1858-1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (49a) It ceased to hurt me, though so slow, J584, Fr421. First published in Atlantic Monthly, 143 (February 1929), 186, and Further Poems (1929), 189, with stanza 3 omitted and the rest as three stanzas of 6, 4, and 4 lines; in later collections, as three quatrains.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 14 in the 17th position sometime around autumn 1862. Metrically, it is unusual: the first two stanzas are rhyming tetrameter couplets, the next two stanzas are rhyming tetrameter triplets though the last line of the last stanza is a trimeter line, ending the poem on a feeling of truncation.
This is another poem of aftermath in which the “It” or “trouble”/variant: “Anguish” remains undisclosed. The speaker looks back on the obscured “Track” of this history of pain and cannot say when or how it “ceased to hurt me,” so slowly did the effect withdraw. It had become as familiar to the speaker as “the Childish frock” taken off and hung “opon the Peg.” This homely detail is one of “the freakishly precise images” that David Porter identifies with Dickinson’s landscape of aftermath.
But the next stanza’s structural shift has us almost “slipping over the ledge of the familiar,” as Porter so acutely characterizes Dickinson’s effective grammatical disruptions. She begins a long negative subordinate clause, “But not … nor,” that amplifies the earlier examples of not being able to “trace” the cessation of the pain, but uses imagery that is so unsettling, we almost ignore the grammatical sense of the sentence. Grief nestling close, like a child, exemplifies Dickinson’s use of upsetting yokings. She then turns this up a notch by comparing it to “Needles – ladies softly press / To Cushions Cheeks / To keep their place–.” She is alluding to pincushions women use to keep pins and needles safely stowed, but in Dickinson’s poem, these “Needles” are too close to “nestled” on one end and soft cheeks on the other. The sense of self-harm in a “wilderness” where no rules or limits exist is palpable.
Susan Kornfeld views this poem as a follow-up to “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and speculates:
The image of a lady pushing needles of grief into the pincushion of her heart (where they belong!) each night springs from the long tradition of the nightingale who presses her breast into a thorn to sing.
She cites Ovid’s famous depiction of Philomela, who is raped and then transformed by the gods into a nightingale, a reference Shakespeare makes in Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece and in his sonnets, all of which Dickinson knew. Kornfeld concludes:
It is very Dickinsonian to turn this classical reference into a homely image of needles and pincushions. And it is very tragically romantic ––but appropriate!––of her to place herself in the nightingale lineage.
All true, though we wonder whether this allusion lends credence to some of the theories, rehearsed in “This Week in Biography,” that Dickinson suffered from post-traumatic stress due to a violation that might have been sexual in nature? Is this not part of the nightingale's lineage?
Legarda, Isabel. “Dickinson’s Legacy is Incomplete without Discussing Trauma.” The Establishment. September 8, 2017.
To make One's Toilette -
Has made the Toilette cool
Of only Taste we cared to
Is difficult, and still –
That's easier – than Braid
the Hair –
And make the Boddice
When Eyes that fondled it
By Decalogues – away –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (107a) To make One's Toilette, after Death, J485, Fr471. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 101.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 22 in the 16th place sometime in late 1862. It is written in two stanzas of the common meter of 8686 syllables rhyming abcb.
It exemplifies Dickinson’s technique of opening poems with lines that begin in the legible, familiar world but quickly drop away into the abyss. David Porter describes this as one of her techniques that “opens interstices through which appears the void of afterward.” He notes that in a prose fragment, Dickinson refers to this technique in a woman poet she does not identify, perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and says:
Did you ever read one of her poems backwards, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes have – A something overtakes the Mind.” (PF 30)
The opening lines of this poem have the added punch of making it difficult to decide if “One” makes one’s own toilette after death—this would be a death-in-life scenario—or if “One” makes another’s toilette after they have died. Hints in the second stanza suggest it is the latter, but in either case, the ambiguity is unsettling, as are the sensory markers: the “coolness” and “stillness” of the dead flesh, the difficulty of pleasing “Taste.” Dickinson is referring in the last case, I think, to the difficulty of eliciting “preference” from the dead about their final arrangements, but it casts us into the void of the unknown.
In fact, death and mourning rituals in the 19th century were very different from today. Rather than funeral homes and professionals preparing bodies, families cared for their own dead. Women of the family or community prepared and dressed bodies for display, usually in the parlor or some other formal, closed off room suitable for funeral visits. Bodies were laid out in caskets made by local carpenters or purchased at the General store and buried in family graveyards or local cemeteries. These traditions, of course, were severely disrupted by the Civil War, which produced much death far from home. Thus, embalming became more frequent, since bodies had to travel long distances, and soldiers were frequently buried in the national cemeteries that were being established.
Porter observes about this poem that after
the precipitous start to unsettle the mind … the poem lapses into redundancy, as if [Dickinson] lost any sense of wholeness once the gesture had begun. The stanzas are identical in statement, playbacks without effective purpose.
Not so. The second stanza offers some important imagistic details of the aftermath of death: the eyes of the living “fondling” the “it” of the dead–the “Boddice,” the face? If the dead here is female, is the speaker also a female preparing a beloved friend for death? In that case, “fondling” offers homoerotic suggestions. Also significant are the eyes being “wrenched away” by “Decalogues.” The “Decalogue” (singular) is the Ten Commandments brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moses (Book of Exodus, 34:11–26). Dickinson produces an uncanny, intensifying effect when she pluralizes the word. What in these laws wrenches the eyes of the living away from the dead?
Porter, David. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981, 93.
“North American Funerals: History of U. S. Traditions. The Funeral Source: “The” Source for Funeral Information.
See also “19th Century Mourning.” The National Museum of Funeral History.
'Tis +good – the looking back
on Grief –
To re-endure a Day –
We thought the +mighty
Of all conceived Joy –
To recollect how Busy Grass
Did +meddle – one by one –
Till all the Grief with Summer -
And none could see the stone.
And though the Wo you
Be larger – As the Sea
Exceeds it's + unremembered Drop –
+They're Water – equally -
+ well + monstrous +meddle + blew + undeveloped
+ They prove one Chemistry –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (107b) 'Tis good – the looking back on Grief -, J660, Fr472. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 116, with the alternatives for lines 1 and 12 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 22 in the 17th position in late 1862, just after the previous poem. it is written in the common meter and has several significant word and phrase variants.
Explicitly written from a “postexperiential perspective” as Vivian Pollak calls it, this poem is about measuring one’s response to grief and loss over time. It unsettles us almost immediately with the term “good.” Is it good to look back on grief because that means the grief is in the past? But is it really “good” (positive, healthy, advantageous)
To re-endure a Day –
We thought the mighty
Of all conceived Joy –
Dickinson’s variant for “mighty” is “monstrous,” which intensifies the extent and negative effect of the loss. The word “Funeral” links the experience to “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” and the funerary images of “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” two key poems in the sub-genre of “aftermath.” The use of “we” implies that Dickinson is making a general observation. But how is this re-experiencing “good,” or is that word meant ironically?
The second stanza details the recollection of “the mighty/monstrous Funeral” that took place in summer and threw everything into stark clarity, especially the individual blades of “Busy Grass” growing merrily over the headstone of the dead until “none could see the stone.” But the terms Dickinson uses for this growth suggest a violation, even sexual violation, of this process or those who care about it: “meddle” and its variant “tamper.” We might compare the tone and mood in this poem to Whitman's similar image from “Song of Myself” Section VI:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child? …
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
The last stanza contains a consolation of a kind, but not really. The speaker admits that the “Wo” of the present is “larger” than its initial manifestation and offers the simile of the “sea” and its “unremembered Drop”– both are water "equally" and “prove One Chemistry.” Are we to understand that scale does or does not make a difference in a situation of aftermath? If the small drops of woe have grown to the size of an ocean of grief, what is “good” about it?
I lived on Dread –
To Those who know
The stimulus there is
In Danger – Other impetus
Is numb – and vitalless –
As 'twere a Spur – opon
the Soul –
A Fear will urge it
To go without the
Were challenging Despair.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (170d) I lived on Dread, J770, Fr498. First published in Poems (1891), 211, as an eight-line.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 23 in the 20th position sometime in late 1862. Its two stanzas are written in the common meter with fairly exact rhymes: is-vitalless, where-despair.
It is a fitting poem to end this cluster on, since it expresses one extreme of Dickinson’s terrain of aftermath: the bold and fearless. The speaker brags, “I lived on Dread,” and got so used to the stimulation it afforded that any other “impetus” felt lifeless. Perhaps this is not boldness, but the description of a soul “addicted” to forms of melodrama, fear, danger, and dread, a soul so deadened by despair that it requires extreme experience to feel alive. The term “spectre” casts us into the realm of the Gothic, of hauntings, ghosts, and the disrupting “visitations” David Porter identifies as necessary initiators of Dickinson’s drama of the aftermath.
Robert Weisbuch positions this poem at one extreme of the many contradictions in worldviews he finds in Dickinson’s canon. He classes it with “that more transcendental view” evinced by poems that urge us
to grab life’s lightning … this “Electricity” of being that is so much more than mere “Oxygen” [see “The farthest thunder that I hear”F1665, J1581 ] and is sometimes not even a choice [see F595, J630]. … Dickinson proudly proclaims, “I lived on Dread,” terming “Other Impetus” as “numb and Vitalless,” and yet we also have reviewed those poems like “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” where a numbing repression is automatic.
He views the aftermath depicted here as the antithesis of the deadening aftermath, but the enlivening “dread” only thinly veils a despair that stalks it closely.
Weisbuch, Robert. “Prisming Dickinson; or Gathering Paradise by Letting Go.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998: 197-223, 221.
Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, 202-21.
Porter, David. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981: 9-11, 13-20.