I think I was enchanted

Earlier in the history of this blog I did a series called “The Roots of Emily Dickinson” talking about some influences that helped shape her poetic originality, but in that series I missed running into this ecstatic poem known by its first line “I think I was enchanted.”   Scholars are fairly certain it’s the American poet’s elegy for British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Actually, it’s one of three Elizabeth Barrett Browning elegies Dickinson wrote, evidence that she truly wanted to record her appreciation for this poet. In my casting about for interesting material to perform and present here I came upon today’s piece only after finding another of the three, “I went to thank Her.”   I had gone so far as to start writing music for the Parlando presentation of that poem, when, in looking for information, I came upon this other one via Susan Kornfeld’s fine blog on experiencing Dickinson’s poetry. You can use this link to read that post and today’s poem as she presented it.  Kornfeld says “I went to thank Her”  pales in comparison to “I think I was enchanted.”   It’s certainly more intense — intense to the point I began to question my initial readings of the poem, as I often do with Dickinson.

One of the challenges with Dickinson’s poetry is that I have little sense of exactly what the author intended. We have no readings of her performing her own poetry written in the 1860s of course, and despite some saved correspondence, those letters seem to me to show a person who presents different personas in what for others would be casual prose.

I said this poem is often considered as an elegy, a poem of praise written after the death of the subject, but while “I went to thank Her”   speaks of EBB’s grave, there’s no direct mention of her death in this one. Furthermore, “I think I was enchanted”   has moments I read as humor, even satire, mixed with what could be read/heard as outlandish but sincerely intended Blakean visionary experiences.

Dickinson opens her poem with a distancing frame: she tells us this is how she responded to EBB’s poetry as a “somber girl” — and in one of her alternative notes in manuscript she considered “little girl.” Here’s she’s recounting how the younger goth-girl Dickinson encountered EBB, and I love Dickinson’s concise entry into that gothic outlook: “The Dark — felt beautiful.”

What follows is the Blakean part, an outright visionary state: time has no meaning, logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead*, butterflies have become as large as swans. Dickinson has other poems that portray such states, and in some of them here I’ve mused that she had either/and visual disturbances like migraine/epileptic auras or full-fledged mystical transport where ordinary reality dropped away. But then observe how this vision recounted from childhood trails away. In our somber young girl’s vision, the older Dickinson says the sounds of bees and butterfly wings are audible but that they were little tunes “Nature murmured to herself to keep herself in Cheer — I took for Giants — practicing Titanic Opera.” I think the older Dickinson (she probably wrote this poem in her mid-30s) is allowing she was a little over the top in her feelings then. That she calls the sounds in her vision “opera**” is easily read as being over-dramatic in feeling by moderns, but I’m not certain how Dickinson would have viewed opera from her mid-19th century seat.


Emily Dickinson performs her tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — wait that can’t be right! Well, it’s analogous, or psychedelic, or something.

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The second half of the poem becomes more abstract, though opening with the metaphoric claim that ordinary days, even the “Homeliest” of them, are now transformed after reading EBB into a fancy-dress “Jubilee.” Another unusual word choice there, not prompted by rhyme. Did Dickinson mean something exact with “Jubilee?” Would she have been familiar with the Hebrew tradition*** from which the word derives? Possibly from Old-Testament sources.

The poem’s 6th stanza seems satiric to me. One of the most well-known examples of Emily Dickinson’s stubborn individualist character was her steadfast refusal to declare herself as “saved” by being reborn in the Protestant religious revival tradition of her time and place. That issue was part of what ended her formal education, and it set her apart from friends and family members. This stanza says, in my reading, that “What happened to my mind back then, I can’t really define and explain — but it’s not some simple declaration or decision, you have to live/experience it.” Thus sticking it once again to the just publicly accept Christ’s grace and be saved crowd. She continues the satire in the following stanza, in effect saying “You think I was out there, what with my butterfly bees beating opera tunes — well, your sanity without that luscious visionary intensity is dangerous to me! And if I ever get poisoned by that, well I have the antidote…” and she launches into a final stanza.

That stanza says EBB’s books of poems are “Tomes of Solid Witchcraft” — a phrase which slots right into a pagan-feminist bookshelf doesn’t it! And then a lovely fade to end: “Magicians are asleep” (the only possible reference to EBB’s death in this putative elegy) but she will remember the magic of that “somber girls” experience of EBB’s poetry, and the possibility of its creation by a woman, like as the religiously faithful remember the godhead/universe-creator.

In that reading I’ve outlined, I enjoyed this poem’s passionate mix of possible reflected youthful visions and the more mature satiric comparisons to a certain kind of religiosity. I did find it somewhat difficult to perform, as the syntactical jumps are hard to fit to breath and natural expression.

One thing still leaves me puzzled: Yes, I understand that Dickinson could easily feel that EBB was groundbreaking in her expression of woman’s ability to write and think and desire — and while that’s no settled notion even in our current age, it must have been even more striking in 1860. But even allowing for the framing device that Dickinson uses, the visionary experience engendered by encountering the poems as a young girl, I never have received that kind of jolt of new perception from reading any Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Maybe I haven’t come across the right poem? Maybe I can’t quite read them as Dickinson did from her situation?

Which is another reason to be grateful for Emily Dickinson, because in poems like this and others, this mid-20th century guy living in the 21st century can  get that jolt from Dickinson.

To hear my performance of “I think I was enchanted”  you can use a player gadget below if you see it, and this highlighted hyperlink if you don’t. Today’s music resulted from me specifically wanting to combine a variety of non-obtrusive percussion sounds (percussion being those pure “you hit it and sound comes out” instruments) with swelling synthesizer sounds that have no struck attack in them at all.

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*Grace Slick riffed on a number of authors, not just Lewis Carroll, but I can’t think of an instance when she quoted Dickinson. Maybe she (like I) grew up in a time when Dickinson’s poems were thought and taught as simpler homely oddities. Grace, if you’re reading this blog, let me know what Dickinson meant to you.

**Like Dickinson I’m attracted to close, near, and slant rhymes, and when reading and performing this piece I was surprised that she missed the near-rhyme that “Titanic Overtures” would be in place of “Titanic Opera” with “To keep herself in Cheer.” “Opera” is a more strained rhyme, so maybe that exact word was important to her intent?

***Every 7 times 7 years farmland was to lay fallow and slaves were to be set free. This relationship to slavery led the term to be adopted by Afro-Americans in connection with the ending of slavery, a process that began in the United States around the time this poem was written. I have not solved to myself the mystery of Emily Dickinson’s opinions on American chattel slavery and Afro-Americans. Her father’s known political opinions on slavery (a huge issue when Dickinson was writing her poems) was as a “moderate.” But her Massachusetts had significant and militant abolitionists (including the Dickinson associate Thomas W. Higginson). Abolitionist positions are not synonymous with belief in the full and equal humanity of Black Americans; and it would not surprise me if Emily Dickinson, like Whitman, could hold racist opinions about Blacks while intellectually being whole-heartedly committed to freedom.

It’s also possible that Dickinson may have known of Roman Catholic Jubilee years; and in the context of a poem about a poet who lived in Italy and was connected with the turmoil there (which cancelled the 1850 Catholic Jubilee Year) this term could have been brought to mind.

How Do I Love Thee

Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.

There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.

Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.

That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning crop

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”

 

None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.

Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.

As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:

“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”

 

Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**,  and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_By Harriet Hosmer

Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands

 

Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.

To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*This theory is not universally accepted, and as far as I know was first suggested in 1995 by Julia Markus in her book Dared and Done  about the marriage. As I read of this, I was struck by the coincidence of having just presented Jean Toomer’s striking Modernist love poem, written by another writer with ambivalence about his mixed-race ancestry.

**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.

***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.