As if the Sea should part

Emily Dickinson didn’t mind at all being strange or odd in her poetry. For example: today’s poem, which after an opening line quickly goes off to a strange place and then stops at eternity in less than 40 words. In one of her best-known poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,”  she saunters at a mid-19th century horse-drawn pace to eternity. But with today’s poem, rocket ships couldn’t leap as fast. Here’s a link to the text of “As if the Sea should part”  if you’d like to follow along.

It’s not only pace that separates Dickinson’s mode of expression in these two poems. On the face of it, “Because I could not stop for Death”  begins as a somewhat friendly and homespun gothic, a tale of a clearly metaphoric trip told with homey touches in its imagery: children playing at recess, harvest-ready fields, the early chill of oncoming autumn night. “As if the Sea should part”  starts with a miracle which might draw us in, as if we’re to be following Moses across a divinely separated sea. But it’s not exposed seabed and astonished crabs we’ll see as the sea parts. It’s “a further sea.” And we’re off!

And then that further sea parts, and reveals another sea. This is all beyond the speed of even these few words, it’s almost beyond the speed of thought or revelation. Li Bai’s mental presumption conjured up some drinking pals here a few posts back, but Dickinson’s poem progresses too fast to present itself as mere fancy. Dickinson had a famous two-factor definition of poetry: a goose-bump chill that would make any clothing as insufficient as a gossamer nightgown outdoors in autumn—or the top of one’s head being taken off. This poem intends or portrays the later.

I get the impression, the three seas are only a start, this first parting of the waters to reveal other waters which also then part. Why does she stop at three, other than it being the minimum to establish the pattern? I found one reading that thought the capitalized “Three” in the poem may be intended as the Christian Trinity,*  the three-form God-Head. Many of Emily Dickinson’s family and cohorts took to revivalist Christianity, something that Emily specifically resisted. We also know that she knew of and may have had an affinity for Transcendentalism, an American movement that sought a more immanent, first-hand spirituality based on the soul of humanity and the revelations of the book of nature. The experience in this poem seems more the later than the former, but “presumption” is a key word at the center of the poem. After all, the poem begins with “As if…” telling us this is imagined, not direct observation. This entire poem is her mental flight, and not a meditation on the seashore, which after all would be a hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst.

The final stanza is extraordinarily difficult to follow. “Periods of Seas” starts out gnomic, and the best I can extract from it is that Dickinson’s mental traveler is now also seeing not just the measure of oceans’ surfaces, but the measure of time when seas might dry up or form—but all those eons are being seen in a measure of three words. Even at the speed of her vision she realizes that there is no way to reach all the shores of seas in this infinity, for at the greatest speed of mental travel they will part and show new seas.

Am I reading too much into this? And is this just so much mystical “Oh, wow man, I just realized the universe is like infinite,  ‘cause even if you reach the edge of it, what’s beyond would be just more different universe still forming, you know!” Well serious cosmology and humankind’s sobering spiritual awe at nature, or its foggy analog of too many bong hits, Electric Kool Aid, and cups of Chinese wine, it’s all a little too much. Dickinson had a garden to keep, food to prepare, poems to write and sew into little books. Why did she write this down? To briefly remind herself of what happens when the top of her head lifts off perhaps. She may never have intended it be something for us to read and understand, though we might still hear it, somewhat muffled, over the roar of parting seas.

Amherst Emily and the Sea LP cover

“I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind, Open up my head now just to see what I can find” are not lines from Dickinson’s poem. Also kids: drugs and vinyl are both overrated. Sarcastic political activism is too, but which of these are necessary?

 

A tip of the hat (or is that the top of my head?) to the Fourteen Lines blog where I came upon this Dickinson poem for the first time. Today’s audio performance of Emily Dickinson’s “As if the Sea should part”  relates to the particular foggy analog of mid-1960’s psychedelic music, a little like something that Country Joe & the Fish would fry up back then. The player gadget to hear it is below for most of you, but if you don’t see the gadget this highlighted hyperlink will also play the piece.

*This reading then has the “presumption” as the poem’s speaker scoffing at the presumptive idea that the God-Head could be limited to merely three manifestations.

Ample make this Bed

I’ve been unable to do as much as usual with this project for the past month for several reasons. One of those reasons was a trip to Massachusetts, which if this was a normal blog would have already generated posts of the travelogue sort. However, this project is about two palpable things, music and words (mostly poetry), that can’t handily be walked along, though you can tour their containers and neighborhoods. Perhaps that trip, in an indirect way, will generate pieces yet this summer.

I was finally able to visit Amherst and the house where Emily Dickinson lived nearly her entire life—and today’s piece uses words from one of Dickinson’s poems—but long-time listeners will know that Emily Dickinson is already a favorite source for words here.

No house, no state, not even any time or country can explain the genius of Emily Dickinson. For reasons of brevity, I’ll try to summarize by saying that she created and entirely new form of poetry, powerfully compressed, elusive and still approachable, and wholly without precedent. The things scholars can trace as influences can be found in her poetry, but no one else made Emily Dickinson poems out of that same stuff. And her poetry has largely not become obsolete. Over 150 years after it was written it still seems modern, maybe even more modern today than it seemed to the early 20th Century Modernists 100 years ago.

Dickinson Bedroom 3

Ample? The specific standing for eternity. Emily Dickinson’s restored bedroom in Amherst

 

I’m attracted to shorter poems that unpack into larger things, and “Ample make this Bed”  is that. It’s short even by Dickinson standards, eight lines, 34 words. If one pauses to puzzle at this meaning, the imagery of the grave is what comes to many reader’s mind. It can be read as a shorter companion to one of Dickinson’s most famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death,”  but with a bed replacing the longer poem’s subterranean dwelling. However, besides its greater concision, “Ample make this Bed”  is using another poetic form, one different from her longer poem.

“Ample make this Bed”  is an aubade.

An aubade is a poem where two lovers wish for the morning to never arrive. Since it is, in fact, arriving, they will deny it, wishing for their night together to remain forever. By using this traditional poetic trope, Dickinson has thrown a rich ambiguity into her 34 words. Although Christian religious belief has its variations, the traditional judgement day is the day of eternal salvation and the universe’s perfection. “Ample make this Bed”  compares the morning of divine perfection to the morning that separates the lovers in an aubade.

Is this a statement that the sensuousness of human love can be judged greater than eternal salvation? Or is it a puritan statement that any such love will face its final end and judgement? Could it even be both, balanced on a knife’s edge?

Look too at two of those 34 words describing possibilities of this bed. Its Mattress, where the body rests, may be straight. The body has a straightaway lifetime. The Pillow, where the mind inside the braincase rests, may be round, a circular line that doesn’t end.

Dickinson puts her poetic thumb on the scale with the most beautiful line in the poem: “Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise.” The poem has been puritan with its rhymes until this line, although elusive near-rhymes are present in the first stanza. Now it lets in richness, a rhyme internal to the line, before proceeding to the final perfect rhyme in the last line. Besides the line’s sound, the dawn of eternal judgement is— what?—so much noise. If Keats’ second inversion is so, then beauty is truth—and Dickinson may be indicating her thoughts on the matter.

Musically, I performed this in waltz time and I repeated the first stanza to add some sense of the eternal.  You can hear the performance with the player gadget below.

 

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.

Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?

When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”  proved years ago).

With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”  I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.

That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.

In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.

The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.

Emily Dickinson Gravestone
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone

So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot”  to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.

At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.

Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.

So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”