“Hope” is the thing with feathers

We don’t usually associate Emily Dickinson with metapoetry or with the widespread sampling and recontextualizing such as found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  But this poem from Dickinson, one of her best-known, could be engaging in something we could call that.

The poem starts off with a clear indication of reference, by putting its first word in quotes. Based on Emily’s unusual but internally consistent style, I don’t believe that she’s using quotes to indicate hope as concept, as an ideal (she capitalized words to indicate that sort of thing). If it’s a quote, she’s referencing someone else. Who said this “Hope?”

My chief candidate would be the poet and poem from our last post, Emily Bronte and Bronte’s poem “Hope.”  If you read and listened to “Hope”  in our last post you’ll know that “Hope”  isn’t a hopeful poem at all. Dickinson’s poem, on the other hand, is often viewed as praising hope, but if you read/listen to them together, Bronte’s poem sheds a different light on the much better-known “thing with feathers” poem.*

Dickinson seems to start where Bronte ended. Bronte’s hope has feathered wings, and it uses them to soar to heaven to never return. Dickinson starts with “hope” only specifically given the potential for flying away, but Dickinson has “hope” sticking around. Some read the feathered aspect of Dickinson’s image as cute, like a pet songbird, a friendly image, but I don’t think Dickinson does cute much, and I’m not sure she’s doing it here.

Punk Monk Emily

My wife sent me this and I believe the illustration is by Wendy MacNaughton.

 

What Dickinson says about hope in the rest of the poem has been read as outright praise, but if we take that fly-away-and-feathers link between Bronte and Dickinson, we should be alerted that there may be more shading the situation.

Hope and Hope is a thing with feathers

For those who’d like to read along, here’s today’s text and the Bronte poem it may be referencing

 

Dickinson’s hope sings without words, which is a statement of great ambiguity from a poet. Abstract sound that goes beyond meaning is part of poetry’s power, yes, but “without words” may also say that, for good or ill, hope is generalized and not realized by the specifics of the situation. A song without words could be like advice that things will always get better, always turn out fine. A friend or advisor that always tells you that; whose non-specific hope is constant and never relenting can be a “not today please!” thing after all.

The second stanza is an extended metaphor of the hope-birds sweet song in a storm. “Plucky little bird! Good for it!” Is one reading. But there’s an odd line in there that must be weighed too. If the storm is bad enough the bird might be abashed, embarrassed, Dickinson says. Why would that be? Is the hope-bird, shy, timid? Bronte’s hope is said to be in her poem’s first line, and that turns out to be a very severe flaw as Bronte develops it. Could it be even darker? Did the hope-bird say listen to my hope-song in the storm and not fear—oh, how embarrassing—category 5, your town is wiped out by the tornado or hurricane?

Am I being Debbie-downer here? Could be. But how else does one explain the “abash” in that line?**

The last stanza begins still carrying over that metaphor: hey New Englanders (and Minnesotans!) if it’s cold, the frozen center of winter, you can still hear the magical hope-bird. Out way beyond land on the strangest sea? You can hear it. The hope-bird is operational in any and all conditions!

More won’t-shut-up testimony about the hope-bird there. Is this fulsome praise? Recall Dickinson’s famous definition of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.” And in Wild Nights Wild Nights  she speaks about adventuring on chartless wild oceans. Not to paint Dickinson as an inner stone-cold Goth here, but cold and strange are not what she seeks to avoid. Dickinson says the hope-bird keeps “so many warm.” She doesn’t say everybody or herself.

What do I make of Dickinson’s concluding couplet? Many readings see it as a comment that hope isn’t self-serving, the crumb being reward for a pet or a tamed or otherwise human-habituated bird. Dickinson (unlike Bronte, whose hope is portrayed as fickle and even cruel) has just made much of hope’s seeming ubiquity. If we take it that she’s commenting ambiguously on someone else’s hope or Bronte’s portrayal of a fickle hope, she could have undercurrents in those last two lines. She may be saying “My hope is wild and unpredictable, maybe not as specifically feral and cruel as Bronte’s, but my hope is not my pet, not at my beck and call.”

Of course, a great deal of this reading depends on thinking that when Dickinson put hope in quotes she meant to refer to the title of Bronte’s poem whose protagonist is highly skeptical about hope. There’s another thing she might be quoting, a special use of the word. When Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke the students there were highly encouraged to make a sincere profession of religious faith. At the end of her single year there, Emily Dickinson was still in a small group that refused to make that profession. The school had a classification for those hard-cases. They were put down as “Without hope.”

Here’s my performance of Dickinson’s “Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*Somewhere in my reading this spring someone tipped me off to consider Bronte’s “Hope”  as an influence on this poem of Dickinson’s. I did, and this is what I found following that tip. However, I can’t find any note I made about where I first read that there might be a connection. I owe someone.

**I’m truly hesitant in this regard. I do believe in the intractable nature of the human condition, and I think Dickinson does too, but I don’t want to discount hope or “the peace that passeth all understanding” as a necessary part of dealing with those things.

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Emily Bronte’s Hope

If Emily Dickinson had no real models for the revolutionary poetry she developed, she did have other poets she could look to. We know from her letters that one of them was Emily Bronte.

English author Emily Bronte and her two sisters Charlotte and Anne all wrote poetry and then novels, but Emily seems to have been the most avid poet of the trio. Starting in childhood Emily Bronte created along with her sister Anne a fantasy world they named Gondal in which they spun tales of adventure. At least some of Emily’s poetry was connected to that world, and so it’s possible that today’s hopeless piece titled “Hope”  is part of some fully imagined plot and isn’t autobiographical.

Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte. Plotting what to do to that useless hope when she’s uncaged?

 

One of America’s great contributions, an Afro-American contribution in large part, is The Blues. The Blues reaction to misfortune is almost inevitably to battle that misfortune in some way: to mock it, to hip others to it, to talk back to it and tell it that the speaker knows the score and may even settle that score with it some day. Most American Blues aren’t “woe is me, I’ve got it bad, and I’d rather be dead” it’s “I can tell you how much trouble I’ve encountered, but I’m still here.”

Emily Bronte is mocking too, but she’s mocking hope itself, not the unspecified troubles that have figuratively imprisoned the poem’s speaker. Hope is portrayed throughout as an external character, and that character is a pious creep, totally uninterested in easing the pain of the imprisoned speaker.

Still you have to hand it to Emily Bronte here. This is a rather impious poem from a preacher’s kid, even if it’s a character from her imagined world and this is only a momentary lament. Perhaps that’s part of what attracted Emily Dickinson to this fellow Emily. Dickinson is also a great mocker.

Does today’s Emily Bronte poem remind you of a well-known Emily Dickinson poem? Check back later this week and we’ll try to follow up on that—but until then, here’s today’s audio piece Emily Bronte’s “Hope.”  The player gadget is below. Full text of Bronte’s poem for those who would like to read along is here.

 

 

 

The Darkling Thrush

My teenaged son is proud of his mastery of modern youth slang and enjoys the idea that his parents and their generations will have no idea what such terms mean. This is of course part of the utility of language: it not only binds people together, it keeps them apart.*

No matter, new times and new experiences enjoy making fresh and untarnished words to describe them. Words must have their pleasures, even when we don’t quite understand everything someone is saying. Take Thomas Hardy, a man who wrote what may be one of the last poems written in the 19th Century, after he had spent 61 years in it. Published on or around New Year’s Eve in 1900, today’s piece is “The Darkling Thrush.”  In Hardy’s poem, as an old man looks at the changing of a year and century, we have the reverse of my son’s joy: old words from an old man.

Thomas Hardy Moustache wax abuser
Careful with the moustache wax Tom, you’ll put someone’s eye out!

 

“Darkling”, “coppice”, “spectre”, “bine-stems”, “lyres”, “outleant”, “illimited”—we meet the first one in the title, the second five words in, the third at ten words. Even if I was to quiz educated Americans, I doubt most could define the majority of these words, and I’m unsure how much better modern British residents would do.**

Coppicing is a European method of managing tree growth, in which mature trees are cut off to allow fresh shoots to continually propagate. Spectre is more known now as a trademark applied to laptops and James Bond bad-guys, but is an English word for a spirit or ghost. Bines are not vines to the knowledgeable horticulturist (bines twist their main stem around things to tangle and climb, vines use special parts of branches to hitch themselves up). Lyres are not supporters of disreputable political movements, but a stringed harp. Illimited is just another, rarer, form of the word unlimited, and I think Hardy may have chosen it because it starts with a sick word, ill, but also puns on illuminated. The titled adjective, darkling is a handy way to say it’s occurring in the dark. Although it’s a little-used word, like illimited, the sound of it brings to mind something else, the smallness of the title bird, as in duckling,  and darkling’s sound also lets us see dusk rather than deep night, when we can still see the winter thicket Hardy sets his poem in.

But outleant is the real mystery word. A short web search finds no online dictionary definitions, no examples of its use other than in Hardy’s poem. A simple deconstruction of the word’s parts would make it, inverted, saying “leaning out.” And that’s what it probably means. There’s textural evidence as it ties back to the poem’s second word, “leant upon the gate” to the coppice. Yet, did Hardy intend to infer two other close words in this word’s sound? Out-lent, a sense that the haunted and dreary winter scene of the poem is owned by the old, dying century and is lent out only to the present? Depending on pronunciation of the printed word’s “ea,” it could conceivably be pronounced out-lent (and Hardy does rhyme it with “lament.”) Does he also want us to hear a closeness to outlearnt, and that the old century’s corpus of belief has been superseded (by newer scientific discoveries?) That would be consistent with Hardy’s beliefs.

Perhaps this is my weakness as a reader, translator, performer and poet myself. If I sense an image is possible, I want to see it, hear it, perform it. Bare winter bines twisted around a copse of brush wood as a corpse leaning out of a coffin may be grisly, but it’s not to me a strong image.*** Even if it’s abstract, the second sense, that of this bare and haunted landscape being the cemetery plot owned by the old century of which we are only visiting seems stronger. For others, the sense that new knowledge has killed off the old beliefs (outlearnt) could be a choice. I can’t know that Hardy intended this ambiguity by choosing this unusual word outleant, but I, the reader, put it there.

The title calls attention to the central image, yet another messenger bird in British poetry, to go with the nightingales and skylarks of Keats and Shelley, poets of Hardy’s now dying century. I like that Hardy lets us see the bird, and it’s frail, gaunt, and -ling tiny, and that we can see feathers fluffed to best insulate its frame, which the wind is disputing.

So, there was Hardy, around New Year’s Eve, using his old and odd words at the end of an old century. For us, Hardy’s oncoming one (the 20th century) has now closed itself. Will things get better or worse in our new year? Something in us wants to foretell at every ending—yet even looking backwards, we have trouble making a simple better or worse judgement. Here, the battered bird, the darkling thrush, says better. Hardy says he knows he doesn’t know.

He knows he doesn’t know is the realist’s version of hope.

Anyway, one of the joys of combining poetry with music is that you don’t have to take a test on the words to enjoy the piece. My pompatus of a performance of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”  is available with the player below.

 

 

 

*Right now he’s very generous in this however. He wants me to know these words so I won’t be left out.

**Before looking them up, I knew spectre and lyres for sure and I was fairly sure about darkling as an adverb, then taken to adjective. I had ideas (some from context) on the others—and in the case of coppice, my ideas were wrong. My son knew spectre and lyres and defined darkling as “a creature of the night” for which I’ll give half-credit. In the case of bines, I told him I learned how bines were different from vines, and he told me “Sure they are! Vines are 7 second videos.” (That last was a joke on his part.) My wife, a fine word-smith, also got 2.5 (“Bines, it that like a wood-bine?” got half-credit as understanding was there, even if a good dictionary definition it wasn’t.)

***Saplings and bines and “sharp landscape” would indicate a skeletal image is intended, but bare bones are not particularly scary or intense compared to rot and decomposition, much less animated brains-hungry undead. Hardy doesn’t mean scary so much as long-dead I guess. Interestingly, Hardy had a direct graveyard experience to draw on here.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest band). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.