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)

 

Advertisements

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)

 

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-)

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.

 

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)

 

 

The More Loving One by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

© W.H. Auden. All Rights Reserved.

This particular poem is hands-down my absolute favourite Auden poem. It’s both lamentable and heart-warming and deals with a subject matter that Auden had plenty of experience and of which more or less all of us can relate – the pain of unrequited love. I’ve always favoured the idea that Auden creates a gorgeously tragic metaphor out of the stars in the sky to be all the lovers who never returned his affections. The More Loving One in some respects could fundamentally be considered to be Auden’s extensive self-examination of his failures in romantic endeavors, and the delicately implemented natural imagery enhances the idea that these failures are ultimately an inevitable facet of human nature.

I love how Auden begins his poem with typical romanticism and the (now almost cliché) act of ‘looking up at the stars’ and then immediately follows with the abrupt claim that ‘for all they care, I can go to hell.’ I guess I’m just a sucker for ironic cynicism but I utterly adore this kind of commentary. It’s as if Auden is immediately clarifying his realist perspective to us readers, but also addresses that this kind of indifference is not the most evil our world has to offer as there are far worse things ‘we have to dread.’ He points out to us that if it were that the ‘stars [would] burn / with a passion for us’ our planet would catch a blaze it would end in destruction and toil. If we continue with the interpretation that the poem is discussing the pains of unrequited love, we can infer that Auden has deduced that ‘equal affection’ is not always possible and not always a positive thing. Affection and attraction (although both holding positive connotations) can result in detrimentally damaging relationships filled with obsession and jealousy. He thus concludes that if this ‘equal affection cannot be , / then let the more loving one be me’, diluting his pain with the antidote that if all does not go the way in which he willed, he can still pride himself on his ability to love and protect the one who evokes his affections from the pain he suffers; as a virtue that one would find near impossible to fault.

The final stanza is particularly poignant, with Auden’s final contemplation of the worth of his painful endurance in his unrequited love affairs. He claims that ‘were all the stars to disappear or die, / I should learn to look at an empty sky’, thus implying that eventually the pain of unrequited affection will heal or simply numb itself and could result in not feeling the thrills of love at all. He calls this scenario ‘dark’ and suggests that adapting to this ‘might take me a little time.’ We are ultimately left wondering whether or not the pains of love aren’t actually a covertly positive facet of human nature, for if it did not exist Auden seems less sure that we could fully appreciate life without those we truly love – regardless of if they return our affections or not.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)