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One could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on Emily Dickinson’s complex attitude toward prayer. I’m reading all of her poems in order, and the one I read today, #576, is more straightforward than many in its treatment of prayer:

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —

If I believed God looked around,Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —

And told him what I’d like, today,And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn’t stay —

She no longer believes in the God of her childhood, but she feels the lack. It’s interesting that the way it feels to live without that strong God isn’t expressed as pain, fear, sorrow, loss, or even uncertainty, but lack of balance. Maybe this poem isn’t as straightforward as I thought at first. Dickinson has a way of doing that. Whatever poise a reader possesses, she disturbs it, almost as if she set out on purpose to do it.

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Reading some more about Emily Dickinson before giving today’s sermon on some of her poetry and its power, I came upon the description of her  “earliest friend,” Benjamin Franklin Newton. He died young, but before he did, he had a great influence on her that she referred to throughout her life. Among other things, he introduced her to Emerson, whose poetry, she wrote in wonder, “has touched the secret Spring.” Hm, I thought. Wonder if he was  a Unitarian. Sure enough, his minister was Edward Everett Hale.

I haven’t posted about them since the first few days, but I have continued my practice of reading one Emily Dickinson poem per day, in order as determined by Thomas E. Johnson (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1960). Today is day 54. Several of the poems over the past week have been about death. How did she ever get the reputation of being all tweeting birds and sweet little flowers? The woman was obsessed with death and had so many profound things to say about it.

53

Taken from men — this morning —
Carried by men today —
Met by the Gods with banners —
Who marshalled her away —

One little maid — from playmates —
One little mind from school —
There must be guests in Eden —
All the rooms are full —

Far — as the East from Even —
Dim — as the border star —
Courtiers quaint, in Kingdoms
Our departed are.

51

I often passed the village
When going home from school —
And wondered what they did there —
And why it was so still —

I did not know the year then —
In which my call would come —
Earlier, by the Dial,
Than the rest have gone.

It’s stiller than the sundown.
It’s cooler than the dawn —
The Daisies dare to come here —
And birds can flutter down —

So when you are tired —
Or perplexed — or cold–
Trust the loving promise
Underneath the mould,
Cry “it’s I,” “take Dollie,”
And I will enfold!

Number 51 combines a theme about death with a tendency that many of these early poems have, which is to read like an old-fashioned riddle: here’s the poem, guess what it describes, like this classic:

In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with skin as soft as silk,
In a fountain crystal clear,
A golden treasure does appear.
There are no doors to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold. (Answer below, for those who haven’t read The Hobbit nor sought out lots of this kind of riddle as a child.)

For example, number 25 is:

She slept beneath a tree —
Remembered but by me.
I touched her Cradle mute —
She recognized the foot —
Put on her carmine suit
. And see!

Doesn’t that sound like a riddle? I don’t know what the answer would be–some kind of flower? In any case, the same tone seems to pervade poems like number 51, where she is clearly speaking of a graveyard but refers to it only as a village.

I am loving this practice. I miss a day here and there but make it up the next day, but it’s nicest when I have a daily poem for several days running.

(The answer to the riddle is: an egg.)

Day 2, Poem 2

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

The way I read the poem, it is about two states of being: the one her brother is in, and the one she is inviting him into. They are words I would like to say when a friend is depressed, but I usually don’t, because what good would it do? They already know that not everyone is shadowed by gloom. Maybe she didn’t utter hers aloud either.

In some places, this poem is titled “The Cloud Withdrew From The Sky.” ED almost never titled her poems, and most editors who are compelled to title them just use the first line. Whoever chose this title imposes their own interpretation. It’s an interpretation that suggests that she was also under a cloud and now it’s gone, and I don’t see any support for that in the poem. Actually, its only references to the passage of time say outright that this state of sunniness never changes: “Ever serene and fair,” “ever green,” “Where not a frost has been.” All of which makes me think that she is referring not to happiness (hard to imagine ED asserting that melancholy never strikes her), but to love and acceptance he may find with her, or perhaps to the presence of God.

I don’t know if I can really do this, or will want to after a while, but I had the idea of reading an Emily Dickinson poem each day, reading them in order (as set in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson). If I never missed a day, it would take close to five years. No doubt I will miss many days, and also come to poems that I want to spend a few days contemplating before I fill my mind with the next one. I also won’t try to write about every one. But I must write about this first one, because it’s the first, it’s unintentionally (?) funny and, well, let’s just say that if it were a typical example of her poetry, I would not be setting out to read all 1,775.

It is headed “Valentine week, 1850” and appears to be an exhortation to her brother Austin to get married already (he finally obeyed seven years later). Her argument is that “All things do go a courting,” and she lists examples, and I do mean lists. It gets a little tedious, and the hexameter takes on a singsong quality in too many lines. It also doth seem that every noun doth verb, instead of just plain verbing; it reminds me of what I think of as flight attendant-speak, in which the speaker says things like

We will be showing an in-flight movie.
We do ask you to keep your seat belt on while the aircraft is in motion.
We do offer complimentary soft drinks and juice.

and on and on with unnecessary emphasis, as if contradicting an earlier assertion, until I want to take off my seat belt, leap from my seat, hurl my flotation device, and scream, “No one’s arguing with you! Stop being so damn defensive!” I guess in ED’s case, it’s a scansion issue, but still.

ED even lists a half a dozen candidates for lucky bride (one of whom he did marry, if the Susan of the poem is Susan Gilbert). Still, it’s far from doggerel, and it has its moments, like “The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon.” I also notice that she is already spinning gorgeous images of death:

“The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride.”

Here’s the whole thing. I am also glad ED doesn’t do quite so much underlining in future poems; Johnson preserved it, and the italics don’t survive a copying and pasting from other websites, and are very tedious to put back in.

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make their solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower—
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum—
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

Courage. It won’t be long before we get to the seriously good stuff.

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