Steven Cramer both enlightens and entertains in his essay, “Dickinson’s Fascicle 16: A Book Review.” In his ambitious undertaking of exegeting Dickinson’s 16th “book,” he writes with a playful erudition that one could easily imagine amusing and even informing Dickinson herself. Acknowledging the futility of trying to divine the “authorial intentions” regarding Dickinson’s fascicles that were last seen intact by Mabel Loomis Todd in 1891, Cramer explains:
As anyone who writes poetry knows, a poem conveys its figures of thought and feeling in large part by appealing to the senses (imagery) and orchestrating tone (everything else language can do). Whatever Dickinson may or may not have intended as she copied and stitched for seven years, we can read a fascicle with nervous systems alert to its effect—that is, how each of its poems affects us in relation to the others in its “little volume.” In short, we can read a fascicle as we would any poetry collection. That’s what I’ve tried to do with Fascicle 16.
But why Fascicle 16? Because, as Cramer explains, Dickinson wrote the poems in this fascicle during the time when, according to the critics M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M Gall in their book, The Modern Poetic Sequence, Dickinson was experiencing a “psychological and artistic upheaval” in which she “found her level as a great poet.”
Cramer takes on the task of critiquing eight of the eleven poems in this fascicle —“Before I got my eye put out,” “Of nearness to her sundered Things,” “I like a look of Agony,” “I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” “’Tis so appalling—it exhilarates,” “How noteless men, and Pleiads, stand,” “Twas just this last year, I died,” “He showed me Heights I never saw”— with both a hermeneutical deftness and refreshing scholarship that sheds fascinating new light on Dickinson’s self-appointed editorial process that took place between 1858 and 1864 and which represents her only attempt to collect her poems in handsewn booklets that poets today would call chapbooks. While scholars have concentrated primarily on the content of Dickinson’s poems over the years, few if any have, like Cramer, focused on the cumulative effect of the order that Dickinson chose for her poems in each of her fascicles.
DICKINSON’S FASCICLE 16: A BOOK REVIEW
“It connects up,
Not to anything. . .”
—John Ashbery, “Tenth Symphony”
As all Emily Dickinson readers know, between 1858 and 1865 she made fair copies of over 1,100 of her poems, binding most of them into forty booklets, now known as “fascicles.” This stash contained poems that even her closest friends and family hadn’t known existed, among them most of the permanent lyrics we can’t imagine living without. How they survived—and how close they may have come to dying by fire—makes for a tangle of just-so stories so complex and vexed I’ve deleted from this essay a 500-word failure to summarize what I think I know and don’t know about that saga. Too bad: it features adultery and real estate.
It’s safely a fact, however, that Thomas Wentworth Higginson makes no mention of the fascicles in his preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson (1890), the debut volume he edited with Mabel Loomis Todd. Todd introduced the term (differently spelled) in her own preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson, Second Series (1891): “Most of the poems had been carefully copied on sheets of note-paper, and tied in little fascicules, each of six or eight sheets.” But the Dickinson these editors introduced to the world was bastardized and bowdlerized, the poems tamed, given titles, and grouped in thematic clusters, a practice followed by subsequent editors, until Thomas Johnson’s variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955), restored a great deal of the real poetry, but not the fascicles themselves. If I understand the textual history correctly, while transcribing the poems selected for publication, Todd initiated the fascicles’ vivisection, and was the last of Dickinson’s early readers to see them intact.
Johnson represents the first attempt to account for the contents of each fascicle, providing end-notes that record the numbers Todd had assigned to the packets. But sixty-five years of plundering had left the original manuscript books in a state of mutilation, requiring an act of Frankensteinian proportions to reinstate the poems in their proper order within each fascicle. And while his introduction to the first reader’s edition, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960), references “the famous packets” and quotes Dickinson’s sister Lavinia’s more affectionate “little volumes,” he makes plain that chronology, however based on inference, trumps Dickinson’s own procedures, as “the time had come to present the Dickinson poetry. . .with some degree of chronological arrangement.” Also, just imagine reconstructing forty exploded, handwritten, untitled, unpaginated chapbooks!
Enter R.W. Franklin, the Promethean reassembler of the dismembered holographs, resulting in The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981)—which, with justified pride, he calls “the fascicles’ first edition.” Published seventeen years later, Franklin’s own three-volume variorum, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998), allowed readers—or at least those able to ignore the other scholarly apparatus—to peruse the fascicles without puzzling over Dickinson’s runic and protean handwriting. Those more distractible (like me) waited for Christanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them (2016), the first complete edition that invites one to sit back and read the forty “little volumes.”
Poetry critics have grappled with the fascicles for decades. As far as I can tell, however, poets haven’t taken much interest, at least not in print. Why? Especially with the availability of Miller’s edition, this seems an odd lapse. Suppose we’d only read the work of, say, Sylvia Plath or Gwendolyn Brooks, in a massive assortment of their poetry, its chronology guesstimated, and then found out they’d spent their most productive writing years organizing those poems into discrete groups? Wouldn’t they receive at least a few reviews by poets, and then perhaps some more substantive interest as collections? Fascicle 23, for instance, opens with “Because I could not stop for Death”—one hell of a start to a book of poetry!
Despite its decades-long head start, the critical conversation about the fascicles got tripped up early on by a fruitless debate: did Dickinson intend these groups as organic sequences, or were they arranged, if arranged at all, as miscellanies? Put more starkly, are Dickinson’s greatest poems shaped into sequences by the imagination of a conscious artist or merely tidied up by the mind-set of a book-keeper? Doctor Reassembler himself appears to side with the book-keeping camp: the fascicles were “gatherings of convenience for poems finished or unfinished,” writes Franklin. But doesn’t that argument rely on transparent question-begging? Why these poems in that group, instead of those in this group? On the other hand, those who posit an “intelligent design” tend to read the poetry in the fascicles as if from sensory-deprivation tanks, arriving at self-evident or dubious speculations about Dickinson’s intentions.
A number of those critics have taken a particular shine to Fascicle 16. In The Modern Poetic Sequence (1983), M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall pair it with its immediate predecessor, recognizing the energies released by the close proximity of so many knife-edged psychic explorations, and positing, rather obviously, that both sequences take part in a “psychological and artistic upheaval . . . during which Dickinson found her level as a great poet.” The astonishing Fascicle 15 can be read here. In 1992’s highly celebrated and maddeningly verbose Choosing not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles, Sharon Cameron offers this Möbius strip of a thesis:
[P]oems in Fascicle 16 reiterate the same terms, thereby suggesting that they are, however loosely or obliquely, bound to each other. But they do not reiterate the same relation to those terms. Therefore, when one reads through the fascicle, it ultimately becomes unclear what those terms are, or how the relations of the poems to one another should in fact be understood.
Cameron does define those “terms” as vision, choice, and death, each only fractionally more concrete than the thrice-used word itself. In its attention to the fascicles as aesthetic collections, not just assemblies of convenience, Choosing not Choosing genuinely broke ground. For the life of me, though, I can’t tell how much, or how little, she likes Dickinson’s poetry. And regarding “[poems that] do not reiterate the same relation to those terms [vision, choice, death, et al.]”—that’s a problem? More recently, in “‘Looking at Death, is Dying’: Fascicle 16 in a Civil War Context” (from 2014’s Dickinson’s Fascicles: A Spectrum of Possibilities), Paula Bernat Bennett cites intriguing if hardly definitive likenesses between some diction in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and brief passages from Dickinson’s letters regarding a family friend who died in the Civil War. From this sketchy evidence, she draws a series of Rorschach-like projections, positing that “such unity as the fascicle possesses” may relate to the national struggle coinciding with Dickinson’s most prolific years.
Resourceful as these critics can be, I find little pleasure taken—theirs or mine—in the methods they bring to bear. A useful analogy may be to the courtroom procedure: a theory is formulated, and poems are subpoenaed as witnesses to support the theory, which leads to a verdict about how the poetry interrogated “should in fact be understood.” The trial lawyer’s credo captures the spirit of the critic’s interrogation: Ask no question you don’t know the answer to. Only Rosenthal and Gall invite into the analysis their own responses to the way the poems act upon them. For the others, emotional receptivity seems an afterthought. An importantly different way of reading has an eloquent advocate in Louise Glück’s tiny essay, “Disinterestedness,” from Proofs and Theories (1995). For Glück, a receptive reader “suspends opinion and response. . . attempting, instead, neutrality, attentiveness. . . a constant, ongoing anticipatory energy; as the work is absorbed, the idling mind responds with checked gratitude.” (How a mind “suspends response” and then “responds” later in the same sentence makes for an illogic I’ll leave be; Glück wants to sketch the contours of an ideal.)
As anyone who writes poetry knows, a poem conveys its figures of thought and feeling in large part by appealing to the senses (prosody and imagery) and orchestrating tone (everything else language can do). Whatever Dickinson may or may not have intended as she copied and stitched for seven years, we can read a fascicle with nervous systems alert to its effect—that is, how each of its poems affects us in relation to the others in its “little volume.” In short, we can read a fascicle as we would any poetry collection. That’s what I’ve tried to do with Fascicle 16, using Glück’s model of absolute attentiveness to help me focus on three main access points: how does each poem work on the reader’s senses; what tone (or tones) expresses each speaker’s attitude (or attitudes); and which poems, read in situ, invite responses otherwise unavailable? I’m also aware of Glück’s chastening qualification: “the function of an ideal is to compel, in our behavior, its approximation.”
Fascicle 16’s first poem investigates the ecstasies and dangers of unguarded receptivity, the very mentality that Glück endorses. The mind’s eye of any sensitive reader will recoil, as if poked by a stylus, from its first line:
Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see —
As other Creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way —
But were it told to me — Today —
That I might have the sky
For mine — I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me —
The Meadows — mine —
The Mountains — mine —
All Forests — Stintless Stars —
As much of Noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes —
The Motions of the Dipping Birds —
The Lightning’s jointed Road —
For mine — to look at when I liked —
The News would strike me dead —
So safer — guess — with just my soul
Upon the Window pane —
Where other Creatures put their eyes —
Incautious — of the Sun —
No physical blinding takes place, of course, although Dickinson’s chronic eye ailments might have provoked the poem. Nor does the singular excised “eye” signify partial impairment, as the explicit contrast with the plural “eyes” of the sighted “creatures” makes plain. Bennett equates the loss of sight with death—“Dickinson identifies blinding with dying and dying with a new way of seeing”—but line seventeen’s conditional “would” confirms that the “I” of this poem, however traumatized, doesn’t belong among Dickinson’s large cast of posthumous speakers. In this first stanza at least, what the speaker’s blindness might signify strikes me as beside, or maybe before, the point. I’m more taken with “I got,” which launches the poem with one of Dickinson’s wonderfully plainspoken ambiguities. My online etymological dictionary provides this lovely example of passive and active connotations of “got” working hand-in-hand: I GOT wet through before I GOT to Canterbury. Maybe this blinded speaker is also the one who blinded, or maybe not. Afflicted or self-inflictor, she recounts her blinding coolly, perhaps a touch coldly. What sort of sightless person remembers having “liked as well to see?” In a further irony, she deems the sighted, who “know no other way,” as the ones missing out. In Dickinson, we often navigate a disparity between a violent event reported and the dispassionate voice of the reporter. Over and over, her poems talk to us from a state of shock.
In the next three stanzas, the speaker’s temperature rises then spikes, as her fantasy of restored sight turns into a fever dream of omnipotence. Those familiar with Dickinson won’t miss the echoes of her rapturous Ars Poetica, “Mine—by the Right of White Election!” (in Fascicle 20), but no exclamation points interfere with this carefully measured rise in pitch, abundance gradually spilling over into surfeit. The rebirth of vision could very well break a heart unprepared for it. Possessing the universe—from meadows to mountains to forests to heavenly bodies—constitutes a Noon (often Dickinson’s emblem for visionary “circumference”) as potent as a shot between the eyes. Finally, the prospect of owning the physics of motion itself—from the arcs of bird flight to lightning’s branching routes—brings her news as striking as a death-blow. The last stanza, as so often in Dickinson, stages a withdrawal—in this case a retreat to cover. Grammatically unmoored, “guess” behaves as doubly as the first line’s “got,” the chastened speaker guessing that it’s better to guess at, than to face eye-to eye, the world’s amplitude. Having imagined the sublimity of such “stintless” seeing, the blind pupil shrinks from full-on vision, leaving the risk-takers to stare at the sun.
In image and diction, the poem all but exclusively evokes the functions, or dysfunctions, of sight. Most of its eleven concrete nouns stimulate the eye, and six words explicitly call vision to mind: eye, see, eyes, eyes, look, eyes. Auditory and tactile senses in the poem’s nervous system fire so subtly the effects register almost subliminally. The blind speaker needs to be “told” how the world would look through working eyesight, and in turn she would “tell” us how a clear sky, seen full-on, would “split” her heart. The unabridged “News” of this newly visible world, granting permission to scan it whenever she likes, would deal her a fatal “strike.” Read with three of our five senses on alert, the poem induces a dizzying synesthesia. In its last, and most beautiful image, touch replaces sight altogether, “My soul/Upon the Window pane” conjuring the press of glass against a forehead. Resigned to blindness, the disembodied soul accepts a “lower” sense as compensation for the forfeited custody of blazing Noon.
This wide-eyed fantasy conveyed by the blind inaugurates a fixation on seen and unseen things that predominates for the next three poems. When other senses play a part, they do so as secondary characters, but by no means just as extras. One of Dickinson’s lesser-known gothic visions follows, depicting a scenario that’s entirely seen, or—more accurately if paradoxically put—sight-unseen:
Of nearness to her sundered Things
The Soul has special times —
When Dimness — looks the Oddity —
Distinctness — easy — seems —
The Shapes we buried, dwell about,
Familiar, in the Rooms —
Untarnished by the Sepulchre,
The Mouldering Playmate comes —
In just the Jacket that he wore —
Long buttoned in the Mold
Since we — old mornings, Children — played —
Divided — by a world —
The Grave yields back her Robberies —
The Years, our pilfered Things —
Bright Knots of Apparitions
Salute us, with their wings —
As we — it were — that perished —
Themself — had just remained till we rejoin them —
And ‘twas they, and not ourself
Perhaps we get a whiff of “the Mouldering playmate,” or feel the slightest breeze off those saluting wings, but the poem’s first active verb, “looks,” focuses the poem’s sensory performance, every subsequent stanza an eye-witness to those privileged moments when “Dimness—looks the Oddity” and clarity appears effortlessly, as commonplace as a familiar jacket or as revelatory as “Bright Knots of Apparitions.” The ghosts haunting this poem “dwell about” like houseguests, but aside from the buttoned-up, if decomposing, playmate, they appear in blurry plurals, present enough for their wings to act out a kind of semaphore, but too reticent to drag chains or rearrange furniture.
Once this dumb-show of poltergeists departs, however, the last stanza abandons imagery, along with metrical regularity, rhyme, and clear exposition. Instead, a mixed-up argument by analogy ensues. My best shot at paraphrase: the dead’s periodic visitations bring them to such vivid life that we ourselves feel as if we’d died, their sojourn really a kind of pit-stop until we rejoin them; in the meantime they mourn us, the living, as much as we mourn them. The logic here is at best “apparitional,” and the muddle gets muddier by virtue of the quatrain’s deficiency of even the slantest of end-rhymes; its errant meter (trimeter → pentameter → tetrameter(?) → monometer); and the brilliantly desperate coinages “themself” and “ourself” (hard not to think of an undergrad’s effort to maintain nonbinary pronouns).
Does this stammering finale represent a draft Dickinson left to fix later? No marginal variants or alternate versions exist, but the editors at The Atlantic Monthly clearly thought so, pluralizing the pronouns and realigning the stanza into a quintet. But we second-guess Dickinson the conscious artist at our peril. Attention to the complete poem’s tone makes the best case for deliberate artifice. Unlike the increasingly febrile speaker of “Before I got my eye put out”—whose self-possessed candor escalates to outcry, and then backs off—this poem maintains its composure established at the start, a manner of speaking we recognize from Dickinson’s many ontological thesis statements—“The Soul selects her own Society” perhaps her most famous. Granted, this dispatch from the bardo introduces a more personal “we”—just after the decaying playmate’s walk-on delivers a poignant if ghoulish close-up—but equanimity still predominates. The fascicle’s first poem has a speaker; this one a narrator. But the very strain of the last stanza—in syntax, in prosody, in grammar—destabilizes the speaker’s complacent poise; and, I’d argue, accounts for the stanza’s persuasively awkward vulnerability. The feeling is akin to witnessing a polished lecturer misplace their active vocabulary, and thus their precision of thought. We can more or less parse the argument, but the drama lies in its breakdown of rhetorical authority. Meditate on death for too long, and you go all tongue-tied.
All poetry collections have soft spots, and treating a Dickinson fascicle as a book ought to allow the reader to pause briefly on occasion and move on. “Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord” is the first of three poems that don’t warrant more than a quick appointment. Addressed to God (uncharacteristically ennobled as “My Lord”), it’s essentially a spirited kiss-off to life: imagine a fourth companion in the carriage of “Because I could not stop for Death” chattering when do we get there? Its giddy impatience to die permits two quite funny lines (“For we must ride to the Judgment —/And it’s partly, down Hill”), and it glances at the pattern of visual imagery founded by the first two poems, the speaker eagerly checking her getaway equipage: “just a look at the Horses—/ Rapid! That will do!” If Dickinson placed it intentionally, maybe she wanted readers to doze a bit, before their eyes once again open wide, and with a vengeance, immediately thereafter:
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true —
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe —
The Eyes glaze once — and that is Death —
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
Image and tone produce succinct advice regarding death: face it. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the fascicle’s first poem. Anyone who “likes” the “look” of agony shares an ironic bent with the blind person who “liked as well to see.” “Like” denotes one of the more tepid measures of affection—we “like” flavors of ice cream or early-50s Republican candidates for president—but much as the blind speaker’s initially casual nostalgia for her lost power of sight generates an ever-intensifying fantasy, this speaker’s mild friendliness toward the face of mortal suffering instantly gets serious. A dark play on the Keatsian equation—Agony is truth; truth, Agony—contends that a death-throe doesn’t fake it because it can’t. The second stanza’s first line, a disorienting reaction shot, looks back at the death-bed onlooker, from the very edge of dying. The next three lines reestablish the speaker’s viewpoint but undercut its autonomy. She sees the beads of perspiration on the corpse’s brow, remnants of life’s waning fever; but, having just seen through the “glaze” of its dying eyes, readers also feel the sweat from the corpse’s perspective. Having “homely Anguish” string these clammy beads lends a religious aspect to the metaphor, but I don’t think Dickinson intends the absurd picture of a rosary draped across a corpse’s forehead. Catholics place prayer beads in the hands of the deceased; and anyway, Dickinson wasn’t Catholic—or, for that matter, devout in any conventionally religious way.
The poem’s purpose in the fascicle seems to me, quite literally, pivotal. On the one hand, it looks back to the visual imagery that’s been accruing—eleven instances, by my count—since the first line, and consolidates that pattern in a terse endorsement of unmediated seeing: “I know it’s true.” On the other hand, this brief close-up on death prompts the fascicle’s most startling jump-cut to the legendary poem that follows:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here —
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —
To add yet more words to the dossier on “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”—a daunting task. Debates over what the poem’s “about”—mental breakdown, depression, proleptic death-nightmare, a fainting spell—will persist, as will conjectures about its mise-en-scène: is the speaker in the casket or the casket in the speaker? The increments of torment she goes through—tread by tread, beat by beat, world by world—account for much of the poem’s hold on us, since we, its readers, undergo what the speaker endures. Encountering it in situ shocks us in a new way, underscoring the value of Miller’s reading edition of Dickinson’s fascicles. After four poems almost exclusively pitched to our sense of sight, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” shuts its eyes and ours, the space we enter a nowhere to be seen. For all its scrupulous positioning of setting and dramatis personae, readers grope through the poem, equipped only with our ears and outstretched hands. Some imagery is entirely acoustic—the service’s drum-like beating, the floor creaking under the pallbearer’s feet, the tolling of space—but sometimes what’s heard melds with what’s felt, as in the first stanza’s disorientations—“feel” both tactile and affective, “treading” primarily auditory but, from the mourners’ perspective, a vibration through their boot soles. And what, really, might it mean to feel a funeral in your brain? I know of few declarative sentences with so much semantic combat between each of its elements. One metaphor belies my claim about the poem’s deficiency of sight—that bizarrely outsized Ear of Being. The extended simile is rigorously aural—if space “tolls” as if the Heavens constituted one big bell, then existence perforce needs a big ear to hear it—but hiding in plain sight is a visual, proto-surrealist image worthy of Magritte’s Untitled (Shell in the form of an ear). In both dreamscapes, the ear has run aground upon some silent, solitary beach.
Todd omitted the last stanza from Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series (1896), perhaps sufficiently unsettled by a marooned ear with no Friday in sight. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive an image more unnerving than an ear the size of existence itself “listening” to a silence pervasive as island solitude. To disturb more deeply, Dickinson takes full advantage of her auditory imagination. Grammatically pointless, the comma that splits “Reason” from “broke” rhythmically “trips” before the plank collapses, but “plank” and “broke” complete a consonantal chain, the earlier links being “kept,” “creaked” and “wrecked.” Once the bridge gives way underfoot (the breakdown of reason both heard and felt), the sense of falling takes over, the final sequence of entirely haptic words—“drop,” “hit,” and “plunge”—battering the speaker downward to darkness.
But who is it that says this poem? Can the unspeakable be construed to have a tone of voice? (Andrew Solomon recites it, unforgettably, to preface his lectures on depression.) In its single, paratactic sentence, anaphora joins each syntactical unit with “and,” the most common of coordinating conjunctions. The word begins ten lines and also produces two rhetorical figures that bracket the poem: stanza one’s “to and fro” (deadlocked antithesis: motion without progress) and stanza five’s “down, and down” (a hendiadys of identical twins: unending descent). What results is a relentlessly structured monody, not so much spoken as intoned, the repetitions deployed to hasten, across the five stanzas, an unstoppable fall:
The poem’s other coordinating conjunction, “then,” implies a time to come, and indeed gets the last word, but its grammatical role is indeterminate. Thereafter I finished knowing? Therefore I finished knowing? I finished knowing and then something else occurred? Paraphrase defeated, the dash that follows serves as a full-stop and an ellipsis. Whatever comes after is silence.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” might seem an impossible speech act to follow, its depths leaving nothing to plumb further or to climb out of, much less to rise above: no way, in short, to recover. As it turns out, Fascicle 16 doesn’t, or doesn’t quite. Of the six poems to come, two warrant brief attention; three (especially the last) resonate movingly; and one, the next, qualifies as among Dickinson’s weirdest oddities:
’Tis so appalling — it exhilarates —
So over Horror, it half Captivates —
The Soul stares after it, secure —
A Sepulchre, fears frost, no more —
To scan a Ghost, is faint —
But grappling, conquers it —
How easy, Torment, now —
Suspense kept sawing so —
The Truth, is Bald, and Cold —
But that will hold —
If any are not sure —
We show them — prayer —
But we, who know,
Stop hoping, now —
Looking at Death, is Dying —
Just let go the Breath —
And not the pillow at your Cheek
So slumbereth —
Others, Can wrestle —
Yours, is done —
And so of Woe, bleak dreaded — come,
It sets the Fright at liberty —
And Terror’s free —
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!
Critics have tried to make this poem fuse, Helen Vendler’s attempt in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (2010) the most valiant I know of. But even Vendler, pressed for time during a 2011 lecture, stops reading after the third stanza (at 34:50, for those interested): “I won’t read the rest,” she says, disarmingly, “it’s not so good as the beginning.”
It does start with a bang, and I find that it holds up forcefully for one more stanza than Vendler grants it, and then devolves into an almost farcical sputter. Part of its impact once again relies on sight: the Soul “stares” after the receding, as yet unnamed, “it.” The pronoun unveiled as death, the speaker derides “scanning” a ghost as too “faint”—a word that activates visual, tactile, and aural sense impressions. Those too timid to face the fact of death are “shown” the consolation of prayer, clearly a gesture of bad faith from those “who know” enough to “stop hoping.” The poem enlists its most explicitly visual terms to convey what qualifies, perhaps too plainly, as its topic sentence: “Looking at Death, is Dying.” What follows, however, earns my vote for retaining the penultimate stanza. Just after the fatal equation, a gently imperative voice intercedes, counseling one last breath of acceptance, before the advent of a sleep deeper than the deathbed’s own pillow.
The final line has incited gasps—of laughter—from my students: no doubt an example of the 21st-Century’s tone-deafness to 19th-Century period style. Still, I also find it hard not to react with a suppressed chuckle. The stanza itself registers as a parody of gothic derangement, its monsters allegorized by capitals, its longest line marked by portentous internal rhyme and syntax appropriate to a Universal Studios horror flick: “And so of Woe, bleak dreaded — come.” Come to rethink it, there’s something hectic, even hysterical, about the whole poem. It can’t settle on a meter, the lines slaloming in and out of pentameter (5), tetrameter (4), trimeter (8), and dimeter (5). The last line defeats scansion altogether. As violently messy as the meter, the poem’s end-rhymes sustain couplets for three stanzas, then make a show of Dickinson’s characteristic xaxa quatrain, before lapsing into an xaabbb sestet. In short, the poem’s all over the place. But in place—that is, within the fascicle—the poem’s frantic manner works dramatically if one imagines its psychology as a kind of PTSD in the wake of “I felt a funeral, in my Brain.” In the immediate aftermath of such an appalling, exhilarating, horrific, and seductive sojourn into the mind’s underworld, the resurrected soul looks back at the cold, bald truth of it, grappling with meanings. No wonder this Lady Lazarus finds only wild and whirling words (the poem has intriguingly Plathian elements), and all the more reason to depart after the penultimate stanza’s startlingly benign invitation not to rage against the dying of the light.
The two poems that follow—“How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand” and “When we stand on the tops of Things”—share a first-person plural viewpoint; speak with restraint; and, again, use a sensory palette of visual cues: noteless, eye, invisible, and stare in the first; look, mirrors, wink, light, shine, and spotted in the second (sky, trees, hills, and lightning reach the brain via the optic nerve as well). Neither rates as major Dickinson, but the first adds to the fascicle a shade of poignancy worth pausing over:
How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand,
Until a sudden sky
Reveals the fact that One is rapt
Forever from the Eye —
Members of the Invisible,
Existing, while we stare,
In Leagueless Opportunity,
O’ertakeless, as the Air —
Why didn’t we detain Them?
The Heavens with a smile,
Sweep by our disappointed Heads
Without a syllable —
Once “noteless” is understood as “unnoticed” or “overlooked,” not “clueless,” much in the first two stanzas, including their paradoxes, come into focus. While we routinely disregard the constellations at night (“Pleiads” being Dickinson’s shorthand), their absence can be made to reveal itself by a suddenly bright sky (perhaps Dickinson had in mind the simple phenomenon whereby daylight obscures starlight). So it is with “men”: we tend to ignore them until one is forever “rapt” (carried off to Heaven) from sight. Having joined the club of the unseen, they persist as absolute potential, without allegiance (to the living, at least) and as beyond grasp as the air around us. Might Dickinson have heard Wyatt’s famous metaphor?—“Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.” The extended analogy squints a bit, because sunlight doesn’t make humans disappear, but a light that conceals and thereby reveals all that we’ve lost still makes for an affecting irony.
This poem’s understated, eight-line sentence restores order after the ghastly holiday not only by its contemplative remove, but also by its prosodic decorum. Although enlivened by Dickinson’s deft variations, the reliable ballad meter returns, with its xaxa rhymes, slant as the last pair are, providing a satisfying, even calming, steadiness. The recognizably disinterested Dickinsonian speaker also prevails until a sharp tinge of contrition, previously “noteless,” emerges in the third stanza’s plaintive question: “Why didn’t we detain Them?” (a manuscript variant, “retain,” pierces even more deeply). The speaker’s remorse for terrestrial “opportunities” missed has the ring, to my ear, of Robert Hayden’s “What did I know? What did I know?” Metrical variation underscores the question’s urgency: the ballad meter established in two stanzas “requires” the line to scan as tetrameter, but it won’t. Instead, three ambiguously distributed stresses capture its edge of regret: Why dídn’t wé detáin them? or Whý didn’t wé detáin them? In the last three lines, the Heavens offer a passing smile, but no answer, to our dispirited query.
“When we stand on the tops of Things” doesn’t have its predecessor’s frisson of heightened intensity, and therefore feels a bit like a place-holder in the fascicle. Still, it’s interesting for at least one reason: it may well count as the single poem in the fascicle that credibly alludes to the Civil War, the first scene it invites us to “look down” upon being distinctive because of “the smoke all cleared away from it.” Dickinson did write poems inarguably about the war, including two that appear in Fascicle 24— “When I was small, a woman died” and the beautiful “It feels a shame to be Alive.” A Dickinson reader, not a Dickinson scholar, I’d like to hear of others, but I’m unpersuaded by Bennett’s contention that the fascicle’s ninth entry assumes the voice of a Civil War casualty:
‘Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms —
It had the Tassels on —
I thought how yellow it would look —
When Richard went to mill —
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.
I thought just how Red — Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between —
And the Carts stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in —
I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates —
To make an even Sum —
And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me —
But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year —
Themself, should come to me —
I grant that this poem qualifies as a dramatic lyric, and that it obviously features a posthumous speaker—indeed, it’s the only one in Fascicle 16 to evince both attributes—but where’s the internal textual evidence that this farm-bred youth died in the Civil War? The over-reach that Bennett trades in raises the spirit of Flannery O’Connor, whose mike-dropping response to an English professor’s hallucinations about “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” applies to many a figment of the critic’s imagination: “If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.” Ditto poetry.
Getting back to the words on the page, reading with one’s senses offers a direct link to the speaker’s attitude, who comes alive, as it were, to the one-year anniversary of his death via an auditory mnemonic: the rustling tassels of corn his coffin passed en route to its burial. Memory then resurrects his brief lifespan pictorially—the vivid yellows and reds of the farm’s produce, and the ungainly “stooping” of the carts—before a given name surfaces, which increases the tug of remembered intimacy and alerts the sentient corpse to his entrapment. Thereafter, a squirmy claustrophobia reminiscent of “The Premature Burial” (published in 1844; might Dickinson have known it?) holds sway: “And then, I wanted to get out,/But something held my will.” In stanza four, “wondering” replaces “thinking,” the speaker’s recollections of a past life giving way to hunches, barbed with resentment, about family gatherings he’ll miss. He mulls over which survivor will miss him least, not most. He leaves ambiguous the import of Dad’s obsessive math with the Thanksgiving plates: does “an even Sum” memorialize or erase his place at the table? In the most powerful emblem of the negative space a death leaves behind, his Christmas stocking hangs in Heaven, beyond even Santa’s reach, its absence on Earth clouding the festivities.
“All art that has endured has a quality we call schmaltz or corn,” wrote Richard Hugo in Writing Off the Subject. The tassels of that quality rustle here. I would gently amend Hugo’s dictum: in all enduring art, the quality we call schmaltz or corn exists in tension with some other attribute—choose your antonym—and the friction between the two elements causes complexity. In stanzas five and six, the speaker’s ache to rejoin the living competes with his wish to be “recognized” as dead: it’s this rivalry between feelings, not just postmortem homesickness, that he realizes must come to grief, opting in the final stanza (with a creepy willfulness) for “the other way” to think about his problem. As so often in Dickinson, the choice of an article releases even richer intricacies. “The other way” primarily denotes a reversal—that is away from the retrospective moodiness (only natural for a corpse) infusing the poem to this point. But this other “way” also thinks proleptically, toward a family reunion in the afterlife, his fantasy communicating a double-edged message to his surviving kin: both a soft we’ll meet again and a prickly memento mori. Alert to this poem as part of a group, we can’t ignore the reprise of the plural/singular hybrid “Themself.” The earlier subversion of grammatical propriety bonded the individual and collective dead as they visited the living. Here, it’s the living who are “fused” into the solecism, the lonely speaker yearning for them to join him in death. “Now that’s the way to cheer up!” chirps an online commentator about the stanza. Not hardly.
I confess some impatience to arrive at Fascicle 16’s parting shot, not because its penultimate poem, “Afraid! Of whom am I afraid?” is utterly unworthy of note. In fact, its plucky trust in the benevolence of death, life, and the afterlife makes for a curious outlier in the Dickinson canon of poems on religious subjects. The speaker’s unqualified faith in Faith may actually peg the poem as a satirical caricature, much like Dickinson’s faux paeans to marriage. There’s a breezy off-handedness to parts of it—“one or two existences—/Just as the case may be,” the speaker says of her life—that reminds me of her great portrait of married complacency, “I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that.” Or maybe not: perhaps Dickinson tried out a thought experiment in blind faith. For an intriguing study in contrasts, hold the poem up to the light of “Of course—I prayed,” which employs a similar speech act—an answer to a question just asked by an unnamed interlocutor—but does so with a petulant sneer of religious skepticism.
Both speaker and interlocutor come center-stage, trading words in the touchy dialogue that concludes Fascicle 16:
He showed me Heights I never saw —
“Would’st Climb” — He said?
I said, “Not so” —
“With me” — He said — “With me”?
He showed me Secrets — Morning’s Nest —
The Rope the Nights were put across —
“And now — Would’st have me for a Guest”?
I could not find my “Yes” —
And then — He brake His life — And lo,
A Light for me, did solemn glow —
The steadier, as my face withdrew —
And could I further “No”?
Keeping alert to the ways the fascicle appeals to a reader’s senses, and listening to each poem’s tonal modulations, I’ll briefly postpone what really struck me when encountering this poem as part—indeed, the final part—of a collection. Like most of the other poems, “He showed me Heights I never saw” primarily deploys visual imagery and diction—showed/saw/showed/Morning’s Nest/Rope/Light/glow—even as its immediacy depends upon readers being an audience of listeners. (The strange and beautiful “Rope the Nights were put across” may evoke the Milky Way.) In its perceptual disposition, then, the poem mainly consolidates patterns established (or strategically disrupted) from the start. Its tone, however, might be more precisely described as its “positioning” of the reader, a standpoint common enough in Dickinson’s poetry but without precedent in the fascicle: it reports on a conversation, but it does so with such immediacy that we feel as if we overhear it.
But what really struck me about this poem came in the form of a question: where had I heard these back-and-forth cadences before? I believe from here:
LOVE III George Herbert
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Many have detected the English Metaphysicals in Dickinson, Herbert’s poetry especially. As far as I know, no one has claimed “Love III” as a direct ancestor to “He showed me Heights I never saw.” I won’t (quite) do so, but it’s hard not to notice right away the dramatic premise they share: both perform an intensely intimate exchange between a host who invites and a guest who vacillates in response to the invitation. In Herbert, the host is self-evidently the risen Christ; Dickinson’s poem, though inexplicit, allows and rewards that reading.
Deliberate homage or assimilated affinity, Dickinson’s courtship (or seduction) scene converses with Herbert’s in ways too suggestive to ignore. Most obviously, “Love” concludes Herbert’s poetic sequence, The Temple, while “He showed me Heights I never saw” ends Fascicle 16 (a significant parallel only if we accept the fascicle as a book, not just book-keeping). Among the more intrinsic likenesses, the give-and-take rhythm of the two colloquies, a delicate interweaving of gesture and speech, constitutes the most striking and pervasive kinship, but more local family likenesses also identify the poems as fraternal twins. Both comprise a “trinity” of stanzas, and both start in medias res—their pacing inspirited by terse, simple past-tense verbs. They share two words—“guest” and “(with)drew”—that more or less “define” their relational dramas, while two other locutions bear a less direct but still tangible resemblance: Herbert’s firm “I cannot” gets an update in Dickinson’s qualified “I could not” and, more guardedly, “and could I?” The most stirring parallel embeds itself in an etymological off-rhyme. Love’s sweetly admonishing rhetorical question—“And know you not. . . who bore the blame?”—alludes to The Passion, reminding Herbert’s speaker that his sins have already been redeemed. Dickinson’s Christ “brake[s] His life” as a final gesture of hospitality, “brake” being the crux word. I doubt that she intended a meaning current by 1868—“to apply a brake to a wheel”—which the context doesn’t encourage anyway. More likely, she drew from an earlier sense for the noun form of “brake”: “an instrument for crushing or pounding.” Just as Herbert’s Christ appeals to his guest’s awareness of His redemptive act of self-sacrifice, Dickinson’s savior reenacts the “solemn glow” of His martyrdom, lighting the way for the speaker to. . .
. . .well, to what? The beauty of Herbert’s heavenly sparring match involves its absolute certainty of outcome. Love has an answer for His hesitant guest’s every mortified protest. I know of no poem in English that more resourcefully dramatizes the forgone conclusion of faith. The power of Dickinson’s parley between pilgrim and deity comes from the religious skeptic’s cunning “rewrite” of Herbert’s sublimely benevolent homecoming. Despite all her reverence for Herbert, Dickinson’s poem comes across as anything but devout, and hardly benign. For one thing, while Herbert’s speaker abjectly addresses Love four times, Dickinson allows hers a single, clipped “not so.” Moreover, Dickinson’s host fancies himself the guest, his part in their flirtatious banter not so much an invitation as provocation. And unlike Love’s resourcefully various techniques of persuasion (roughly nine, depending), Dickinson’s host has a single rhetorical tool in his arsenal—three hectoring questions, one of them repeated tendentiously: the ploys of the seducer more than the gentle prodding of the Beloved. Nor is the contrite faintheartedness of Herbert’s pilgrim—who flinches at Love’s welcome like a nerve poked by a needle—anything like Dickinson’s diffident speaker, who at first curtly demurs, then can’t find the words for assent, and finally turns her face away at the precise instant the light of a promised redemption brightens and steadies itself. Her reflex may suggest helpless aversion or willful refusal, but in no way is she ready to “sit and eat.” Still, whatever the terms of her withdrawal, it’s not necessarily a flat rebuff. The poem’s last line—“And could I further “No”?—is a question addressed not to her host but to us. A final evasion, the answer to which is anybody’s guess, it leaves open the chance of consent but gives the last word to refusal. “Love III” needs no guesswork to conclude, because all was foreordained from the start. On the one hand (Herbert’s), faith embodied by action; on the other (Dickinson’s), equally deep-seated skepticism expressed by an unanswered question. One couldn’t ask for more authentic last words.
Is Fascicle 16, then, an arrangement or a miscellany? Beats me. But why the need to posit intent—or impose dubious unities—if reading poems together simply (simply!) adds to one’s appreciation of a poetry loved for decades? I think back to what Sharon Cameron calls the “undecidability” of Dickinson’s intentions regarding her booklets—“it ultimately becomes unclear . . . how the relations of the poems to one another should in fact be understood”—and I wonder if my trouble with Cameron’s formulation lies not just in the starchy “should,” but also in the mindset implied by “in fact.” In fact, I have no idea if Dickinson wrote “He showed me Heights I never saw” in response to Herbert’s “Love III,” and no clue whether she placed her poem last in Fascicle 16 because Herbert (with inarguable deliberation) ended The Temple with his. I’m just convinced that neither poetry collection could end any other way.