Saturday, September 5, 2015

Dwelling upon Death (Dickinson & Vendler)


I read William James Varieties of Religious Experience at a young age and always considered myself a “healthy” rather than a “sick” soul.  But the final stages of Susan’s illness and consequent death forced me into that other realm, if not to the extent of making my soul sick at least to the dwelling upon the subject of death more than I might otherwise have done.

In a general (actuarial?) way I was heading in that direction after having arrived at the age of 80.  Even if I wasn’t physically sick it wasn’t possible that I would live another 80 and so I resolved to focus on poetry during my remaining years or as long as I had the mental energy for it.

I began adding books to focus my attention on poetry – many of these turned out to be failures, poetry and poet I still haven’t managed to take seriously.  But one poet is growing on me, Emily Dickinson, and she might be a sick soul.  I won’t swear to it.  Many of her poems are optimistic and it is perhaps only because of her illnesses and near-death experiences that she thought so much about death.  On page 121 of Dickinson, selected poems and commentaries Helen Vendler presents the following Dickinson poem:

Of Bronze – and Blaze –
The North – tonight –
So adequate – it forms –
So preconcerted with itself –
So distant – to alarms –
An Unconcern so sovereign
To Universe, or me –
Infects my simple spirit
With Taints of Majesty –
Till I take vaster attitudes –
And strut upon my stem –
Disdaining Men, and Oxygen,
For Arrogance of them –

My Splendors, are Menagerie –
But their Competeless Show
Will entertain the centuries       
When I, am long ago,
An Island in dishonored Grass –
Whom none but Daisies, know –

Editors (not Emily) gave this poem the title “Aurora” and indeed it is her response to seeing the Aurora Borealis, but as I might take up any subject and find before I am done that I am writing about Susan’s death in some way, Dickinson contrasts the magnificence of the Aurora with first the puffing up of herself, strutting (if one can imagine a daisy strutting) upon her stem and her own death.  And while the allusions to the aurora might seem elusive (as they did to me upon the first several readings) the last stanza is clear enough and nicely done.  I like the lines “When I, am long ago” (although I don’t understand the comma) and “Whom none but Daisies, know –“ (and don’t understand the comma in this line either). 

Helen Vendler refers to two versions of this poem and says that Dickinson didn’t indicate a preference.  Vendler though prefers the version which reads “Whom none but Beetles – know”.   Dickinson’s publishers have preferred “Daisies” but Vendler prefers “Beetles.”  She notes that there is a dash after Beetles.  The dash indicates a pause as does a comma but the latter isn’t as grammatically acceptable.  Also, Dickinson nicknames herself Daisy in other poems.  Also, she mocks herself in this one as “strutting upon my stem.”  But I prefer Daisy.  I like the possibility of reading “Whom none but Daisies, know –“ as referring not only to the daisies that would grow above her grave but to the critics and others who might read her poems and strut upon their own stems.

So many of Dickinson’s poems are about death it is scarcely possible to open her complete poems at random without finding one.  I did that just now and found,

I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty”, I replied
“And I – for Truth – Themself are One –
We Brethren are”, He said –

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – our names –

Helen Vendler writes about this poem as well, except unlike me she takes the “I” not to be Dickinson but to be “Beauty” itself.  Why does Vendler do this?  Vendler begins by saying Dickinson was keying off of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.  I’m not comfortable with this.  It isn’t Beauty who is in the tomb but someone who died for Beauty and Vendler makes no distinction.  The people who died are abandoned and replaced by Keats’ Beauty and Truth. 

Vendler says in regard to the term “fail” in the fifth line that it is used in the sense of “weaken and die”.  I don’t agree with that either.  That is, “fail” has more than the meaning “weaken and die” and I suspect Dickinson had more than that in mind.  The meanings that came first to my mind were to be “deficient” and “fall short.”  Both these people fell short but there was no end to talking about it – until the moss obliterated memory of them.  But it was the people who died that had their memories obliterated – not beauty or truth in my opinion; even though Vendler is consistent by asserting “even the highest Platonic concepts gradually disappear under the Moss.”

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