We mentioned Emily Dickinson in our last post, and it’s time to return to this essential American poet during this National Poetry Month. I saw this charming poem of hers earlier this week and thought I might be able to do something with it.
Over the years here I’ve delved into some of the more cryptic Dickinson poems, but her poem beginning “The things we thought that we should do” is reasonably clear on first reading, at least until you get to the end. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to read along. This three-stanza poem uses exactly one rhyme, which helps its flow stick together, appropriate for a poem about how our lives sometimes seem to take us down one track that we never get around to changing. Our inability to shape our lives to what we think we should do is the first stanza’s statement. The second puts the untaken should-path and compares it to travel, or rather not traveling. Dickinson was often portrayed as homebound — though an examination of her life says she traveled more than many women of her time — but I think this is more metaphor than memoir. This stanza ends with the idea that one may then pass on the untaken task of some travel to a “son.” This may be legal language sneaking into Dickinson again,* but I also wonder if she’s punning on “sun,” since she has elsewhere used the day as a miniature measure of a lifetime. If so, she’s saying we think we’ll do these should-things tomorrow, or in the sense of generations following us, in another lifetime.
Poetry? Law? Poetry? Law? Screw it! I’m going to go outside and putter in my garden.
The last stanza is the response, the turn, the summing up. It starts out: If we haven’t been disciplined enough to do our shoulds, we likely won’t get our restful reward in heaven. And then the last line “But possibly the one —” Ah, the Dickinson dash, that little transition — but wait, there’s no more text. It ends on the dash!
This is ambiguous, and her syntax is jumbled. Did she not complete the poem, is this an unfinished draft? Or did she want the thoughtful reader to come up with the resolution that’s not stated, but derivable from the situation: that there’s a heaven even for those not doing all the shoulds, all the time? When she writes “possibly the one” is she saying that there’s only possibly one heaven, but she’s not certain — or even, that the heaven one finds outside the shoulds is plausibly the one?
I was able to bring together the music and performance for this one quickly, which was necessary since I’ve spent the past two days taking care of a computer failure over on my spouse’s desk. But I should — no, it’s not a should, it’s a desire — get another piece posted this April. So, acoustic guitar, piano, standup bass, and just a taste of celesta were called into play to realize the music that unusually is made up of mostly major 7th chords. You can hear it with the graphical player gadget below, or if that’s not there, with this backup, a highlighted link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*I’m increasingly noticing that Emily Dickinson, growing up in a multigenerational family of lawyers, seems to have picked up a fair amount of legalese. As a woman in her time, she couldn’t take up the family trade, but her mind enjoys playing around with the concepts such as ceding a should obligation to another as if in a treaty or a property transfer.
When reading this poem, I also think of psychiatrist Karen Horney’s “Tyranny of the Shoulds” — and in this manuscript version linked here, it looks like Dickinson had considered “tyranny” in place of the version we have with “discipline.”