Expect the Unexpected

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Poetry Friday: Emily Dickinson woman of mystery


Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Oscar Wilde observed that “as soon as you understand a great work of art, it dies for you.

I think that’s one of the charms of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It’s like a puzzle. You can put a lot of the pieces together, but some don’t seem to fit. A word or description is unusual, or a poem’s meter or rhyme is off. Is the puzzle defective or was this the author’s plan and we just don’t get it?

We don’t know. Emily Dickinson, the “Belle of Amherst,” died in 1886 at the age of 55. At that time only a handful of her works had been published. A seemingly modest country girl, she never married and became a recluse. After her death, her sister found hundreds of her poems as well as several letters she wrote (and likely did not send) to an unknown “master.” Perhaps an unrequited love?

Mystery is part of the beauty and allure of Emily Dickinson. But from her quiet self-imprisonment she expressed more about passion and pain than others who traveled the world. She made the most simple but astute observations:

“A wounded deer leaps the highest.”
“Saying nothing… sometimes says the most.”
“Beauty is not caused. It is.”
“Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate. “
“Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.”
“A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”

As an English major at Boston University, I perfunctorily studied Dickinson’s poetry. The thing I was most impressed with at the time was that her poem Hope is the Thing With Feathers, inspired Woody Allen to sardonically name his book Without Feathers.

It wasn’t until I was much older that her poetry spoke to me, or I should say, I finally heard it. I now have enough life experiences to appreciate Dickinson’s thoughts about love, nature, and the cold pain of losing someone you love.

There is some exciting news for Dickinson fans — a thing with feathers is on the horizon. Renowned filmmaker Pamala Hall is writing a screenplay based on Jerome Charyn’s thought-provoking novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. If the film is anything like the soul-searching book, it will be great fun.

A selection of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson:

If I Can Stop

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

How Happy is the Little Stone

How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.

Success is Counted Sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From tankards scooped in pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air  – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – through endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue.

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door,
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

Much Madness

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

In I Gave Myself to Him, Emily Dickinson shares harsh insights about the subservient role women played during her time, likening marriage to a rather one-sided business contract.

I Gave Myself to Him

I gave myself to Him
And took Himself, for Pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way

The Wealth might disappoint
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own of Love

Depreciate the Vision
But till the Merchant buy
Still Fable—in the Isles of Spice
The subtle Cargoes—lie

At least—’tis Mutual—Risk
Some—found it—Mutual Gain
Sweet Debt of Life—Each Night to owe
Insolvent—every Noon

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

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