I shared with my wife, who has many concerns bearing down on her this summer, recent video clips of Freya, a celebrity lady walrus who’s lately been hanging out in Oslo Norway’s harbor. Freya is a young 1300-pound mermaid who spends around 20 hours a day sleeping while carelessly lounging on marina boats, sinking a few with her what-the-hell-I’m-wiggling-aboard anyways. During the other four hours Freya chases ducks and swans. The marina also has kayakers and paddleboard riders which she also likes chasing. Recent videos have caught her eating one of the swans,* but perhaps thinking of her beach-body figure, she’s skipped eating the humans so far.
“Twenty hours of sleep…” my wife responded. “goals!”
Hot Girl Summer: Freya, in her liminal state between 20 hours of rest, bird and clam eating, boat wrecking, and being adored by her Norwegian fans.
Now as far as I know the great American poet Emily Dickinson never got to observe a walrus. On one hand, Emily did have a privileged life as the child of a successful lawyer, but then it was the 19th century and they had fewer smartphones, washing machines, lawn tractors, induction stovetops, and air conditioners. At least in her youth her parents believed strongly in self-reliance and careful household finances, and so distained servants, since after all they had a pair of daughters who could do that work. If we think of the later-life Emily Dickinson as the housebound hermit, you may not know that the younger Emily Dickinson divvied up the household work so that she had more outdoor chores compared to her sister.
One of the things I learned when I visited the Emily Dickinson house a few years back was that across the main road in front of the Dickinson house the family also had a field they farmed. And then on the house’s main lot there was an orchard and food garden which were largely the creature of Emily and her mother. Harvesting hay from the field was probably men’s work, but I was told that Emily would be tasked with bringing the harvesters water and food during their work. All that came back to me as I read this charming poem of Dickinson’s that is generally known by it’s first line: “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly.” Here’s the full text of the poem if you’d like to follow along.
There are three or four characters in this little poetic drama. There’s our Butterfly (joined by others of her kind later), a “notwithstanding bee” who is proverbially occupied pollinating and presumably making honey, and the harvesting men. The fourth character is animated by the poet herself, a flower which despite being a plant is described as “zealous,” waving in a summer breeze for an afternoon.
Our main character, the Butterfly is described as if she’s an idle lady. She seems to have no task, something she flaunts in the poem. The field workers, the men, have obvious tasks. That hay won’t harvest itself. The bee, a cliché of purpose. The flower is a bit more ambiguous. If we assume Dickinson chose zealous carefully, the flower may be ardently worshiping the summer day or perhaps it’s divine author, shuckling in vegetative prayer.
Which character does Dickinson identify with? Maybe a little with all of them, if not entirely with one. If one has farm tasks (or for that matter the artistic tasks of a poet) the idle lady making a show of her leisure isn’t your model, even if you may feel a bit of envy — and yet poetry can be charged as like a butterfly, a piece of beauty that seems to do nothing. The men are doing useful work (see Robert Frost on mowing in this poem) but though Dickinson tends a garden this haying is not her work. Same for the bee. Dickinson no doubt knows the bee’s work, appreciates it too, but it’s not her work. We know Dickinson is highly knowledgeable about flowers, and often makes them the subject of her poems, but this zealot flower? If she’s serious about that characterization, she stands outside that level of belief.
The closing stanza, like her more famous “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” poem resolves this separation from her, the observer of it all — Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity — and so the purposeful actors and the purposeless Butterfly will all be gone by end of day. Emily the poet remains, as does her poem if we take the time to observe with her again, many days and decades later.
Before I leave you with an opportunity to hear my performance of Dickinson’s “From Cocoon forth a Butterfly” I want to put in a note here about the lack of activity here this summer. I share some of the concerns of my spouse, and I am also trying to reevaluate this Project to see if I can make what I do here more useful, or beautiful, or something. Traffic and listenership always drops off in the summer, so a good time to reevaluate, and you may see fewer new pieces until autumn.
To hear my performance with original music you can use a player gadget many will see below. Don’t see any gadget? This highlighted link is here as a backup for you.
*Showing a connoisseur’s appreciation for the swan greater than William Butler Yeats’ I’d say. Yeats only looks at his swans, and yet the great poet distains at putting his tusks into one like Freya. Walruses also eat clams, which as far as I know have never moved Yeats to poetic transport. Apparently, Norway has a problem with lots of invasive clams, which may be why Freya has been hanging out in Oslo.