Dickinson Week Day Three: “I died for Beauty—but was scarce…”

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 —

In “I died for Beauty—but was scarce…” Dickinson seemingly writes about two martyrs in their respective tombs, talking to each other about their deaths until all of their remains have been overgrown by ‘moss’ and thus forgotten completely. One of these martyrs died for ‘Beauty’ and the other for ‘Truth’, and their declarations of this really paints a picture of a couple of revolutionaries dying while fighting for their ideals in life. The poem seems to ultimately idealise martyrdom as the connotations of both the virtues these martyrs have died for are indisputably good and pure in their positivity.

The ultimate message of this particular Dickinson poem is in fact rather morose when analysed through a rather tragic lens, in that everything humane about these two martyrs – their ‘lips’, ability to speak and their ideals, their ‘names’ – are ‘covered up’ by the ‘Moss’ (again note the capitalisation) in death. Dickinson arguably communicates to her reader that no matter how strong an emotion, or cause, or ideal – such as ‘Beauty’ or ‘Truth’ might be in life, it is ultimately erased and obliterated in death and is eventually lost and forgotten, along with those who championed them.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Dickinson Week Day Two: “The Soul selects her own Society —”

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots —pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One—
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone—

Now this Dickinson poem seems to paint an extremely ritualised portrait of ‘The Soul’ and its self-determination. “The Soul selects her own Society —” ultimately illustrates the process of ‘The Soul’ choosing ‘her own society’, ‘society’ most likely referring to an intimate group of friends and family whom this particular ‘Soul’ wants to keep close. In describing the soul’s process of ‘selecting’ this ‘society’ as heavily ritualised, the poem becomes clad with a ceremonial tone which is further intensified through Dickinson’s reference in the second stanza to ‘an Emperor…kneeling / Upon her Mat.’ This reference to royalty and prayer and their respective connotations of faith and submission along with other references to ‘divinity’ and the idea of a ‘Chosen One’ fundamentally suggests the power and self-determination of ‘The Soul’ (which as I discussed in my previous post displays a further use of capitalisation on the part of Dickinson). The image that is conjured by the reader, of ‘The Soul’ surrounding ‘herself’ with a select few people and then the ceremonious shutting of the ‘Door’ and  the closing of ‘the Valves of her attention’, to me, really serves to highlight the intimacy of the soul and also its exclusivity.

If we look at the poem with a fresh pair of eyes it also could be argued to be a romantic poem, illustrating the soul’s search for her mate. The final stanza and Dickinson’s allusion to the ‘Chosen One’  seems to suggest a certain level of exclusivity to the ‘One’ who is chosen to have an intimate connection to the ‘Soul’ and fundamentally seems to correlate to the traditional idea of a ‘soul mate’ as each person’s partner for life. Dickinson ultimately seems to champion monogamy in this poem, depicting the finalised nature of finding a soul mate; finding them ‘close[s] the Valves of her attention’ to anything or anyone else around, which both suggests traditional monogamous romance and also possibly a danger. If the soul’s ‘Valves’ of attention are blocked and closed, this may possibly allude to Dickinson’s preoccupation with the ability to ‘see’ in her poetry, which to her serves as a metaphor for living. If the Soul’s entire attention is focused on her lover alone, then ‘she’ will arguably be blind to all other things, she will ‘see’ and thus live solely through her lover and without this, ‘sight’ will ultimately be lost, thus implicating death.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Dickinson Week Day One: “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—…”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—…”, to me, seems to provoke a real examination of both the romanticism and bleakness of death in the moments before it, and balances itself perfectly on the line between the macabre and the utter peaceful completeness that is achieved in its realisation. Dickinson’s focus on the ‘Stillness in the Room’ at the moment before her speaker’s imminent death is starkly highlighted in her capitalisation of this word, personifying ‘Stillness’ as a calming presence, soothing the poem’s speaker in their final moments. This ‘Stillness’ seems to provoke the speaker to pay specific attention to their surroundings and to take advantage of the ability to ‘see’ – Dickinson’s metaphor for ‘living’.
The focal motif of the poem, the fly, in some ways points out the facets of life that we encounter every day but do not stop to appreciate or even notice. As I’ve mentioned already, Dickinson draws specific attention to particular ideas through capitalisation and if we look closely at the words that are capitalised – which includes ‘King’, ‘Window’ – thus possibly highlighting the things that for one reason or another pass us by in our daily lives in our younger years in particular. Of course, Dickinson’s use of capitalisation may be relevant to archaic styles in written expression in the 19th century, but as we are reading her poetry as a contemporary audience this consistent implementation of capitalisation encompasses a whole new meaning for us. The capitalisation of the noun ‘King’ is of particular interest to me, in that – if we infer the usual connotations of ‘King’ in this context as referring to God – it is possible to suggest that if Dickinson is highlighting God as a being that goes unnoticed by us in our daily lives just as we would ignore a ‘Window’ or a ‘Fly’.
When I first read this poem, the ‘Fly’ that Dickinson focuses on seems to represent a much larger idea than we may first realise. It is possible to infer that the ‘Fly’ that ‘interposed’ as the speaker ‘signed away’ their physical possessions – ‘Keepsakes’ – and body, is ultimately a godly figure who comes forth to welcome us into death. It’s appearance may be controversially argued to be an actual embodiment of God himself and that this God is full of imperfection. The ‘stumbling Buzz’ that the fly lets out perhaps highlights that God may not be all that he seems to us as the living and the portrayal of him as an ‘uncertain’ fly tarnishes him with an anthropomorphous exterior.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Brown Penny by W. B. Yeats

I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough’;
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
‘Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair.’
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.

O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.

In ‘Brown Penny’, Yeats explores the question of love; specifically in opening lines of the poem the speaker is pondering whether he is in love with a girl or not. Yeats illustrates the internal conflict of the speaker in the first two lines; ‘I whispered, “I am too young,” / And then, “I am old enough.” These two lines seem to confirm to us that this is a coming-of-age, the speaker questions whether he is ‘old enough’ to be in love, but not just if he can be in love, he also seems to wonder whether or not he has the maturity to appreciate love. He ‘threw a penny’, perhaps flipping the coin, to find the answer to his question of whether he ‘might love.’ The speaker does not have to wait long for an answer to his question of whether he ‘might love’, as the penny seems to speak to him, saying: ‘Go and love, go and love, young man / if the lady be young and fair.’ The speaker’s following proclamation, in stating that he is in ‘looped in the loops of her hair’ instantly after the penny gives him his answer somewhat suggests that he already knew he was in love, and asking whether he was or not is simply ‘head-over-heart’ logic. Alternatively his asking of the penny suggests that he may possibly be the victim of blind faith, he is so in love already that he’ll do anything to have it confirmed to him. He is ‘looped’ in his lover’s hair, suggesting an element of confusion, thus extending the metaphor; the speaker is in fact ‘blinded’ by love.

In the second and final stanza the speaker comes to accept that asking the penny for a prediction of his romantic exploits is ultimately futile, as ‘love is a crooked thing, / there is nobody wise enough / to find out all that is in it.’ He concludes that attempting to predict the future is a waste of time and if we obsess over it, we will waste the rest of our lives and will never find any answers; we ‘would be thinking of love / till the stars had run away / and the shadows eaten the moon’, thus implying the events of the end of the world. The speaker finally addresses the ‘brown penny’ again, claiming that ‘one cannot begin it too soon’, referring of course to the attempts at understanding the ‘crooked’ ways of love. If love would take more than a lifetime (and more time than it would take for the world to end), then age is arguably no object, you can love at any age. The act of finding a penny is widely considered as a good omen or good luck in folklore, and so in using a ‘brown penny’ as a motif in his poem, Yeats perhaps draws a parallel between the connotations of chance in finding a penny or throwing a penny into a fountain / well with the speaker’s risk of throwing himself into love.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

In Paris With You by James Fenton

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy

Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with… all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.

Fenton’s poem ‘In Paris With You’ ultimately illustrates the very human methods we use to try to repair a broken heart – specifically ‘the rebound.’ In humanity’s incessant need to be needed and wanted, we can turn to superficial non-relationships that we believe to have no consequences, in order to ‘get over’ a previous love or relationship. In using colloquial language, as evident in the first stanza: ‘when I’ve downed a drink or two’ and consistently maintaining this informal tone throughout the poem, Fenton juxtaposes the elegance and serenity of Paris with very informal and crude language such as ‘sod’ and ‘sodding.’ The speaker also reflects the cynical outlook upon the traditional romantic connotations of Paris through literally suggesting that they and their liaison disregard the monumental landmarks of the ‘city of love’; claiming that they should ‘say sod off to the sodding Notre Dame / … skip the Champs Elysées / and remain here in this sleazy / old hotel room.’ The speaker covertly suggests that this relationship – being a self-professed ‘rebound’ – is purely focused upon sex, wanting to avoid the commitment and responsibility that comes hand in hand with long-term relationships.

The speaker claims that they are angry at the way [they’ve] been bamboozled / And resentful at the mess [they’ve]  been through’, thus implying that they have experienced a negative and ‘messy’ break-up. Their lack of elaboration further intensifies their clear resentment and we are likely to assume that this ‘rebound’ is an attempt to remedy the speaker’s broken heart; they don’t want to talk about love any more, they’ve ‘had an earful’ already. Paris is in fact literal in the sense that the speaker has presumably taken a trip to Paris to escape the woes of their recent break-up; ‘I’m in Paris with you’, but he wishes to shut himself away from the city also. He wishes to disregard everything that Paris has to offer as a city and wants to remain in a hotel room, with only a ‘little bit of Paris in our view’; the speaker can see reality, but does not want to be in its midst.

The final stanza serves to ultimately confirm the speaker’s superficial motives with this partner who is in Paris with them. Fenton illustrates this through having the speaker concentrate upon the physical nature of their new partner, ‘I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth.’ The speaker has no interest in their ‘rebound’s’ personality, they are ultimately a tool to repairing the speaker’s loneliness and broken heart; which ostensibly seems rather antagonistic, but really gives the speaker a sense of humanity. Fenton reinforces the humanity of the speaker through their crudeness; ‘I’m in Paris with…all points south / am I embarrassing you?’; physical affection is all the speaker feels like they need, they need to feel wanted and heal the wound of a broken heart.

James Fenton (1949-)

James Fenton (1949-)

Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face by Jack Prelutsky

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.

Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.

Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.

Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place–
be glad your nose is on your face!

Prelutsky’s humorous ‘Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face’, being aimed at children, follows the simplistic ABAB rhyme scheme, and using a simplistic lexis to follow suit. The message of the poem itself is also rather elementary; be grateful for what you have, and be aware that changing these things could bring about disastrous consequences. Through using the nose as a metaphor for something that we have in our lives,Prelutsky is able to illustrate that if our noses were in any other place it would not benefit us at all. He describes our noses as being ‘precious’ and important, and humorously places it in the most peculiar places around the body; the feet, the head and the ear.Prelutsky’s placing of the nose as being ‘sandwiched in between your toes’ evokes both an image of comedy and also discomfort at the thought of being ‘forced to smell your feet.’ This constant state of discomfort ultimately points out to the young reader – in a covert fashion of course – that changing the position of something so important could hold very irreversible consequences, so we should be grateful for the things we have got, and not seek out to change things that are perfectly good as they are.Prelutsky’s poem shows the reader that it is sometimes easy to overlook some of the positive things in our lives, and it is also very easy to concentrate on the negative facets of these things. The desire to change things can often be overwhelming, butPrelutsky goes on to give further examples of the consequences of change. He claims that if our noses were on our heads then it ‘would drive [us] to despair, / forever tickled by [our] hair’, a parallel to the discomfort of positioning a nose between toes on the foot. This is continued again in the third stanza, in which the nose has been placed within the ear and this is described as being ‘an absolute catastrophe’, and that the ‘brain would rattle’ whenever we sneezed.Prelutsky comes to, in the final stanza, the very same conclusion that was stated at the beginning of the poem; that you should ‘be glad your nose is on your face!’, it can be dangerous to attempt to change something that was perfectly fine to begin with.

Jack Prelutsky (1940-)

Jack Prelutsky (1940-)

 

 

Spinster by Sylvia Plath

Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious April walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
Her gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower.
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! –
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock, each sentiment in border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here – a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley –
A treason not to be borne. Let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

 

Plath’s 1956 poem ‘Spinster’ serves to juxtapose the order and disarray of the natural world with the anxiety to maintain control. The persona in ‘Spinster’ – as is evident by the name – exists in a state in which men are not to be depended on, furthering the interpretation that ‘this particular girl’ wants to have autonomous control over her own life; without being dictated to by a man. The use of the word ‘ceremonious’ in the first stanza implicates heavy connotations of both the prospect of marriage and also structure and uniform, the ‘suitor’ that walks with her is clearly somebody that this girl is expected to marry. But the presence of disorder in their environment clamps the girl’s attentions, with the ‘birds’ irregular babel / and the leaves litter’; the word ‘litter’ erasing the usual connotations of nature’s beauty, portraying it as a mess and not at is should be.

The persona’s sterile detachment from the ‘suitor’ she walks with is truly confirmed in the second stanza. She ‘observed her lover’s gestures’, the verb ‘observed’ reminiscent of a scientist looking on at some lab-rat experiment, even Plath’s description of him as a ‘suitor’ depersonalizes his character. He poses no significance to the persona, she has no emotional ties to him; he is her ‘latest suitor’, implying that there have been many others before him. The persona also continues to have a dissatisfaction of nature’s movements, in ‘a rank wilderness of fern and flower; / she judged the petals in disarray.’ The only facet of nature that seems to please the persona is the season of winter, which she describes as being ‘scrupulously austere in its order / of white and black’; t’s monochromatic characteristics implies a sense of uniform with the reduced components –  ‘ice and rock.’

The third stanza concludes by referring to ‘heart’s frosty discipline / exact as a snowflake’, finally bringing together the two elements of nature and the heart of the persona. The rest of the poem shows the persona’s rationalization of remaining in spinsterhood, and rejecting all men. In the final stanza Plath implements the metaphorical  ‘barricade[s] of barb and check’ that the persona set around her heart – which Plath refers to as her ‘house’ – which ‘no mere insurgent man could hope to break / with curse, fist, threat / or love, either.’ The persona is utterly adamant. She will remain a spinster, and be the master of her own life.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

A young Plath on holiday in 1953, three years before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.