Last episode here we had Jean Toomer’s poem of alienation from labor. In Toomer’s “Beehive” the poem’s voice is portrayed as just another drone bee, only able to fantasize of escaping work or receiving any benefit from it. Today’s piece is by Emily Dickinson, and while there can often be a touch of irony in Dickinson, I think we can take the voice in her poem “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” as earnestly engaged in their farm work.
One doesn’t have to go too far into differences in biography to account for the contrast between the two poems. As I mentioned last time, Toomer was the child of an enslaved person, and the book in which his poem appeared was his literary account of an early 20th century southern American feudal society associated with a racial caste system. Dickinson was an upper middle-class daughter of a successful lawyer and politician — and well, let’s just say it — even if the rights and social assessments of women in mid-19th century America were constrained, she’s got that White Privilege and a different economic vantage point.
Dickinson’s poem, the one we perform today, looks to a specific farm labor event: the harvesting and storage of hay, likely for the animals including the horses used for transportation by her family. One thing I learned when I visited the Dickinson Homestead a few years ago was that the area right across the highway that still runs in front of her family’s house, was a field used to raise grain; and that at least in her youth, Dickinson had as one of her chores, taking food and water to the workers in that field. I don’t know the details of the ownership of that field. Was it shared between more than one family? A village green sort of resource for the town? The harvest depicted here seems to involve more than one family. That doesn’t make certain that it’s a shared field. For haying time, particularly when one has a smaller family lacking muscle power headcount, there may be an exchange of services between farmers, either for hire or in a cooperative barter agreement.
It’s a temptation, one that some American thinkers of Dickinson’s time easily fell into, to romanticize that kind of work, so different from the arrangement of slave labor plantations or share-cropping vassals. Indeed, some of the Northern and border state opposition to American chattel slavery was based less on belief in the full humanity of the enslaved and the crime of denying that, than on the idea that “free soil” labor was ennobling in and of itself and a benefit to a republican citizenship.
So, when Emily Dickinson, northern state’s daughter of a Whig representative, speaks of how engaged and happy the hearty labor of the hay harvesters is, she may be participating in a political sentiment of her time. Now how much the ironic Emily wants to undercut this I can’t tell for sure. The poem’s general argument is that this bustle of life and colleagueship for those with human rights, who are not scrounging for subsistence, is such that the sleep of death is not welcome. Is she making a subtle point in some undercurrent, that death will find this work only vanity? Is there a winking case for the repose of the grave verses labor’s toil? Intended or not, you might find a bit of that there, but it doesn’t seem so to me.
Dead simple chords today. When I present these songs-sheets I’m hoping for better singers and players than I to take up these pieces.
Did you find this discussion of what surrounds this poem tiresome or detracting from the pleasure of Dickinson’s verse as a piece of art? If so, you may not even get to this paragraph. I read a remark by writer Caitlin Moran this week that a woman spends less than 1% of her lifetime making love — yet sex and desire, and woman’s role in that, seems to take up a much greater portion of what is written about them. Poetry too has that disproportionateness — and I’m not here to knock love poems, particularly honest ones — but I feel the world of work is too unrepresented in poetry. Maybe I’ll find a poem of acute love, or a transfixed descent into the book of nature next time? We’ll see.
You can hear my musical performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today” with a player gadget, if you see that. No gadget? I supply this backup highlighted link. Thanks for reading, listening, and putting up with my varieties here!