It can be difficult to know precisely what Emily Dickinson means in her poems. It is not that her language is obscure, though it can be quirky, more that it is oblique, that she comes at things from an unexpected angle. But this one seems fairly clear: she is saying that there are two kinds of courage: there is the extrovert martial courage of, say, soldiers fighting for their country, and this is good in its way, but still greater is the quiet unsung courage of those who deal privately with life’s trials, with isolation, illness, bereavement, who face down their inner demons alone.
Some years back my three-year old grandson started nursery school. When asked how he got on on his first day, he said ‘I was a bit sad, but Big Connor said don’t whinge, so I didn’t’. If I read this poem right, I think Emily Dickinson would have approved four-year old Connor’s sturdy philosophy of life. Which need not mean that she lacked a proper compassion for the suffering and disadvantaged – the best stoics ask of themselves more than they ask of others.
Textual note: versions of the poem can be found online in which ‘cavalry’ in the fourth line is replaced by ‘Calvary’, the place of the Crucifixion, enabling the expositor to link the idea to the suffering of Jesus. As far as I know there is no warrant for this dyslexic reading, and to me charging an enemy cavalry makes more sense than charging a place, so the commoner version of the line is what I’ve stuck with.
To fight aloud is very brave —
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe —
Who win, and nations do not see —
Who fall — and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no Country
Regards with patriot love —
We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the Angels go —
Rank after Rank, with even feet
And Uniforms of snow.
The mystery of Emily Dickinson is how a poet seemingly so innocent of life could nonetheless go so often and so unerringly to the heart of the human experience – in the words of Ted Hughes, who could be so generous and perceptive about other poets, how she ‘grasped the centre and circumference of things as surely as the human imagination ever has’. It’s an odd flower, poetic genius, that may wither in a hothouse yet flourish neglected in the barest of soils.
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity –
I find this piece haunting, the more so because it is one of those poems that seem to give up their full meaning only slowly over the course of a lifetime. For me it is about those mysterious moments of alertness that we probably all have, those intimations of some platonic parallel world that trouble us with a sense of lost chances, of a realm where not only do things go better for us but we ourselves are better. It is linked in my mind, and not just by reason of the ‘cathedral tunes’ simile, with one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’. When I listen to that I know exactly what ‘heavenly hurt’ is, and what ‘imperial affliction’ can be sent us of the air. And yet, while the poem may speak of hurt, and of a despair for the fading of the vision which is like a small death, there is a kind of uplift about it as well. For it is no small part of our humanity, that at least we are vulnerable to these intimations of the better, that we have our place in that landscape that listens, among those silent shadows.
There’s a certain Slant of light
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Emily Dickinson, as this poem testifies, was a proud spirit in a humble situation. Nothing new in that, of course: there’s many a maker who has passed unnoticed during life, or received no more than a few crumbs of recognition from those who cut the literary cake. Those who do not belong must create their own belonging – in a way that’s much of what being a poet is about – and this Emily most powerfully did. I admire this poem’s uncompromising rejection of populism, its insistence on the essential privacy of the poetic act and the incorruptibility of its individual truth. Of course, to trust the soul’s selection while keeping the valves of one’s attention not entirely petrified would be an even better trick.
Am I alone, though, in finding Emily’s eccentric punctuation – the proliferation of dashes, the arbitrary capitalisations – something of an irritation? But I suppose one has to respect the right of a poet to create a poem’s shape on the page, even though in the end what matters is a poem’s shape in the mind, so I have preserved her own typography.
The Soul selects
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 —