Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Theme & Tone

Throughout her poetic works, Dickinson adopts the flowing organic written style, – which I discussed in my last post dedicated to analysing her grammar and syntax variations – but this naturalistic style takes root in the themes concentrated on by her in her poems. In selecting and drawing parallels to thought-provoking themes such as death & immortality and the identity of the self. Dickinson further fuels her idiosyncratic written style. Through highlighting issues important to her, she is able to define stark links between her own personal emotions and more broadly understood topics, thus making her poetry more relatable – even to the modern reader.

Emily Dickinson's grave in Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street in Amherst.

Emily Dickinson’s grave in Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street in Amherst.

Death is an extremely prolific theme across the works of Dickinson, portrayed both in the physical sense and also in a metaphorical sense. In “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -“, the very physical nature of death is examined by Dickinson, denoting the speaker’s final moments on their deathbed, as they notice the ‘Stillness’ around them. Perhaps Dickinson in this sense attempts to draw attention to some positive facet of death, in that it enables us to stop our busy lives and really examine our surroundings. On our deathbed, there should be in most respects no more necessity to worry about the future as – bleakly – we no longer truly have one to look forward to. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” also contains one of Dickinson’s more prolific motifs – ‘sight’ and the ability to ‘see’, which seems to be a symbol of the difference between life and death in her poetry. This particular poem ends with the definitive line ‘I could not see to see -‘ which ultimately signifies the death of the speaker, which in turn indicates that – to Dickinson – the ability to ‘see’ is in some ways a synecdoche for the ability to live; and when this ability is taken away – when we cannot ‘see to see’ – we die.

The examination of the self and identity is another big theme for Dickinson and we’re going to look at it through the lens of a poem we’ve looked at before – “I died for beauty but was scarce…” In this poem we really get a true sense of the importance of identity to Dickinson, and how – again harping back to the theme we just looked at – death strips us completely of it. The speakers’ ‘lips’, ability to speak and their ideals and most importantly their ‘names’ are ‘covered up’ by the ‘Moss’ as they lay in their tombs. Dickinson recognises that our identity and the assertion of ourselves is fundamentally what makes us human and that ‘Moss’ covering up those facets inevitably smothers our humanity, making us no more than blank slates.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

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Dickinson Week Day Seven: ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’

“Why do I love” You, Sir?
Because—
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—

The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
—Of Talk—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
Therefore—Then—
I love Thee—

To finish the week I think we’ll go with one of Dickinson’s more sweeter and heartwarming poems, which is – if read with a positive eye – completely devoid of her usual allusions to metaphorical or physical death. Instead Dickinson, in ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’, examines the relationship between love and reason, and ultimately suggests that there is in fact no connection between them whatsoever.

The speaker immediately addresses the eponymous question: ‘”Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’, responding to it with the somewhat childish answer: ‘Because’. This answer is largely endearing, provoking an image of a young child responding to a parent’s question, believing that simply ‘because’ is an adequate answer when stumped to find another. The allusion to a young child and the likening of this image to the speaker herself really creates a halo of innocence around her; setting an innocuous tone for the rest of the poem.

The speaker goes on, appealing to nature with the aim to, in effect, justify the absence of a justifiable reason as to why she loves the man she addresses in the poem. She gives examples of nature that require no need for an explanation, firstly the Wind’s acceptance that the ‘Grass’ cannot ‘keep Her place’ (notice how the grass is labelled as being feminine…perhaps an allusion to female submission to their male counterparts?) when it blows, as the answer is simple in that it is just so. Dickinson then goes on to use an example of the relationship between living beings and nature, denoting how the ‘Lightning’ never asks an ‘Eye’ why it blinks when it sees a lightning strike, it accepts that it is just nature and that is something not to be challenged.

The final stanza fundamentally combines the absence of reason in nature and the speaker’s love for the one she speaks to. She illustrates that the ‘Sunrise’ wakes her in the morning because of the light that it presents, and that the light wakes her simply because that is the very nature of the components of it – light is light, and it wakes us just ‘because’. This is the only time in the entire poem in which Dickinson does actually apply a very odd kind of logic to the speaker’s love. She says, after alluding to the ‘Sunrise’ and its ability to wake her, that ‘Therefore—Then— /  I love Thee—’; thus applying the same ‘anti-logic’ that was already illustrated in the previous stanza. The speaker loves this man simply because he is who he is, just as the light wakes us because it is light. Her love for this man is justified through it being ultimately unjustifable, it is simply in his nature for her to love him.

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)

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)

I Am Very Bothered by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.

 

I’d say the most interesting thing about this particular Armitage poem is the way in which it follows the traditional length of the romantic sonnet; although abandons all of the other usual facets. A sonnet professes the poet’s love for the recipient and in a strange and unconventional way, this poem does exactly that. It describes a juvenile love and the innocent disregard for consequences and the ‘butterfingered way[s]’ we use to get attention when falling in – what we then are convinced is – love at a young age. The language used massively juxtaposes what one would expect to find  in the traditional sonnet; roses and wine are replaced with white-hot scissors, Bunsen burners and ‘the stench of branded skin’…not quite the pinnacle of conventional romance; and it is in some ways endearing how the speaker still holds some guilt over his actions so many years into the future

Marriage is used as a covert motif throughout the poem and is finally professed as the speaker’s intentions in the final line. Armitage refers to the victim of the speaker’s ‘butterfingered ways’ as ‘slipping [your] thumb and middle finger in / then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings.’ Now, this particular line is a very interesting one. As opposed to the ring finger, Armitage puts emphasis upon the fact that the unnamed girl is using other fingers to use the scissors, perhaps suggesting that she is blatantly not ready for even contemplating the thought of marriage in the same way that the speaker’s immature act proves his lack of readiness. Of course a lack of readiness for marriage at the age of thirteen is to be both expected – to a degree – encouraged, but the following line which depicts that the girl ‘couldn’t shake off the two burning rings, Marked / the doctor said, for eternity’ seems to imply that just because these two are not ready for marriage in that present moment, they are in some way destined for each other and ‘marked’ to be together.’  The speaker’s anecdote of how he burned the hand of a girl he loved to draw her attention suggests an entirely positive message overall; it denotes that an action does not have to be lavishly brimming with romance for it to be romantic in itself uniquely.

Simon Armitage (1963-)

Simon Armitage (1963-)

My Heart is Heavy by Sara Teasdale

My heart is heavy with many a song
Like ripe fruit bearing down the tree,
But I can never give you one –
My songs do not belong to me.

Yet in the evening, in the dusk
When moths go to and fro,
In the gray hour if the fruit has fallen,
Take it, no one will know.

 

Albeit very short, ‘My Heart is Heavy’ is an extremely powerful little poem that gives us a lot to think about and relate to. Perhaps this is my more melancholy side coming to the surface but when I first finished reading this poem, I imagined that the reason for it’s abrupt and seemingly premature end was due to the heartache felt while writing it. To me, it depicts a time in life where we have given so much love to one person that we cannot possibly give anymore; when the right person comes along but we are helpless to give them our love like we have done with others before.

The first line; ‘my heart is heavy with many a song’ is puzzling. The normal connotations of song are ones of joy and lightheartedness, but here, song makes the writer’s heart heavy with despair. It’s almost as if too much happiness results in sadness and bleakness, these metaphorical songs are ‘ripe fruit’ and filled with the potential as affection and love can be, but the persona has already given too much away in the past and now – as they say – ‘my songs do not belong to me.’ Their love has already been exhausted by others and metaphorical walls have been erected as protection to the pain that love can inflict.

Despite this, the speaker wants to open up to this new-found potential lover and encourages them to try to steal their love away through Teasdale’s continuation of her ‘double metaphor’ of song and fruit. The persona ends by encouraging the potential lover to look out for the ‘gray hour’, when their guard is down and ‘the fruit has fallen.’ When the ‘fruit’ is available for the taking, the persona wants their potential lover to steal it away, claiming that ‘no one will know.’

The poem, if read in this way, is ultimately tragic and deals with the irony of having given too much love away to the wrong people and have them break hearts and trust, to only be unable to give the right person this love when they come along.

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)