Week 317: The Bustle in a House, by Emily Dickinson

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 –

Emily Dickinson

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Week 210: There’s a certain Slant of light, by Emily Dickinson

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

Week 82: The Soul selects, by Emily Dickinson

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– 

Emily Dickinson