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.
Besides being National Poetry Month in America, April is also the birth month of William Shakespeare. The 23rd of April is sometimes celebrated as his birthday, though we don’t actually know that, only that his family baptized him and entered him into their church’s records on April 26th. The 23rd is also a handy date in that it’s the day Shakespeare died in 1616 back in the same small English town he was born in, only 52 years old. One theory has it that he’d just celebrated his birthday—well, a little too much—and that did him in.
No one knows exactly when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, but ironically for our 2020 April they were first published in 1609, when the playhouses of London where shut down due to a plague.
The sonnets present themselves as outpourings of personal feelings and thoughts, which makes them tempting clues to the personality and biography of Shakespeare, but of course Shakespeare made his bones as a playwright, and so was well able to create characters and put them in motion with various plots and outlooks. Since today is the anniversary of his death, I thought I’d perform Sonnet 152, which can be viewed as the last sonnet in the sequence, since the two sonnets that follow it are an unconnected coda based on a classical poem about Cupid.
Sonnet 152 is a lover’s fight where we hear one side, with an overall structure as if the speaker is investigating the matter of lovers’ relationship to the truth as if it was a legal contract dispute. You might think that an odd choice, though there are lawyer-poets. Wallace Stevens comes to mind, and I think at times Emily Dickinson’s mind was fully capable of succinctly absorbing the modes of her family of (male) lawyers.
Was Shakespeare having fun with this? Perhaps. Anytime one writes 152 sonnets you’d have the opportunity to try out a lot of metaphors. Even if he was drawing on life experiences of some actual tumultuous love affair, it is a showy poem that renders the breakup as if Perry Mason or John Grisham was closing the case—but since the Elizabethan-era language may make this less than clear, I’ll summarize how I understood this poem today.
Well, I’ve looked over this book contract and it doesn’t say you need an ending. But Will, I’ve got this idea for a sonnet…
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call the speaker of the poem “he” as if he’s Shakespeare for the rest of this discussion—but as I said above, we don’t know that. And this particular text isn’t even gendered, and a woman could play the text in the first person without needing to change a word.*
He starts out saying that he and his lover are both sworn, as if witnesses or officers of some court, as lovers are often said to be to each other. But he then claims that the lover has in effect taken two oaths. This is ambiguous to me, some read this if the lover is married to another (and if “he” is Shakespeare, so would he have been too). A “bed-vow” has been broken and some faith has been broken too, a state of new hate after new love has broken out. Is this the lover forsaking their spouse for the he of the poem? Or the lover forsaking the he of the poem? Or both? Shakespeare may be intending this confusion, laying out the case that the adulterous lover may be just as untrue to him as to their spouse.
Now goose and gander here, if we play the “he” speaking in the poem as the married Shakespeare, then he’s just as guilty regarding marriage oaths. But he’s onto his next point. He confesses! Look, you broke your vow to me and to your spouse: that’s two. But I’ll say right out I’ve done ten times more oath breaking!
Six lines in, he, and the poem make a turn. He starts to layout his lies, his broken oaths, his sworn perjuries:
Yes, I’ve vowed that I’ll only misuse thee. “Misuse” in this era has a strong connotation of exploiting someone for selfish sexual pleasure. So he’s saying that now, he’s now hooked in love.
I’ve placed faith in you. Sort of a “I’m culpable because I should have known.”
I’ve “sworn deep oaths” that the lover is kind, loving, truthful, and constant.
I’ve been blind to the lover’s deceit, and I made my eyes swear they aren’t seeing what they are seeing.
Obviously every one of those statements is ironic. He’s saying he was “living a lie” when he trusted that the lover was really devoted to him, and that he has moved from thinking of them as someone he could dally with (misuse) and move on. And yes, if you are judging the character of the poem’s speaker, he seems to be a bit slick in his legalese.
So, an odd ending to the series of sonnets. It’s like one of those TV series that gets cancelled right after an episode with a big scene which is never resolved. And that could be exactly what happened. Shakespeare may have left off writing sonnets. Or the publisher may have only had access to part of what Shakespeare wrote. Accidental or not, like the lovers in Keats’ painted urn chasing each other, we’ll never know if anything will be resolved, and that somehow keeps them alive in some strange way, hundreds of years later.
Musically, I threw together a small orchestral arrangement for this.You can read the text of the sonnet here, and unless you’re reading this on the WordPress reader for Apple IOS, you should be able to click on the player gadget to hear my performance of it. IPhone and iPad users who use the WordPress reader should catch the performance by opening frankhudson.org in a regular web browser like Safari on their phone or tablet.
These posts on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology have run to the long side, so today I’ll be brief. I promised I’d tell you how the book of linked short epitaphs about a Midwestern town resolved the tale of Minerva Jones’ sexual assault.
Music has utility, it’s entertainment, a movement in sound to dance with and loosen one cares. Poetry is pretension, it asks one to rise above everyday speech and outlook, and offends you when you don’t.
Sexual assault is often largely about power, not unbridled lust or desire, and this seems to be case here. Minerva’s rape is to teach her a lesson. No amount of understatement and fracturing of the story in Spoon River can hide that this is one of the ugliest episodes in this book that contains full measures of hate, distrust, crooked deeds, hypocrisy, and crushed hopes.
Masters, the lawyer/poet, wishes to prosecute this town’s crimes even further. Doctor Meyers tells us that he was a good man, maybe a touch proud of his good deeds and steadfast life as a father and husband, but that’s such a minor sin, and set out to set up his tragic fall. When Minerva comes to him after her rape the general reading of his poem/epitaph is that it’s for an abortion. It’s just slightly possible that the episode Doctor Meyers speaks of in his epitaph is her showing up at night right after the rape, injured from the assault. It’s even thinkable that she’s miscarrying a pregnancy when she arrives at his door.
Masters isn’t interested in making this clear. Doctor Meyers simply says Minerva Jones died that night she came to him “in her trouble.” In an odd fracturing of the story, in Minerva’s earlier-in-the-series epitaph we have a vivid two-line account of her going into shock from blood loss. Doctor Meyers’ account picks up intensity as he recounts what happens next. The town assumes his act was evil and criminal—the strongest evidence that what occurred that night was considered to be an abortion bolstered by the idea that “help her out” was a euphemism that would be understood as such by reader of the time.* It’s slightly possible that he was presumed to be the rapist and then murderer of Minerva, or the father of the unborn child.**
I assume his “indicted me” is legally literal, but there’s no account of a trial, much less a verdict or sentence—and Masters the lawyer has lots of trial and law stories in Spoon River. Perhaps the “pneumonia finished me” event happened soon after the indictment and before any trial.***
I don’t know if Masters had control over the line drawings/gravestone engravings used to illustrate Spoon River in the 1919 edition, but if he did, these may tell us how he viewed these two characters, or how the characters view themselves
Doctor Meyers says his wife died of a broken heart. Her epitaph follows his, and the divided heart seems to me to be between some existing love or duty to her husband and her strong sense of propriety and morality that largely blames the “fallen woman” for tempting her husband into something she assesses is against “law human and divine.” Her testimony more or less cinches the abortion assumption, at least in the mind of Mrs. Meyers. If the accused crime was that Doctor Meyers was the rapist and murderer of Minerva Jones, she wouldn’t also use the possible abortion euphemism “he…tried to help her” in her epitaph. She ends her epitaph preaching that the rules of morality are absolute, an unfailing guide to avoidance of shame. In the context of the story, her view is that Minerva Jones, even if she had a pitiable soul,**** got what she deserved and her husband was justly accused. I won’t blame readers for thinking this a chilling statement of callousness, because it is. But Mrs. Meyers is the victim as well as part of the cause and maintenance of the town’s cruelty. It is at least slightly pitiable to hear her clutch at the protections of adherence to a strict and legalistic morality and probity that didn’t protect her from the town’s patriarchal prejudice nor Minerva Jones from her tragedy of a pretense to poetry and useless beauty.
Mrs. Meyers epitaph directly follows “Doctor Meyers,” which is proceeded by Minerva Jones’ father’s (not presented here) which follows Minerva’s. “Butch” Weldy, the rapist/attacker’s follows “Mrs. Meyers,” with Masters the lawyer giving us a black-humored joke that you can think of as the final resolution.***** Masters wanted us to clearly follow this story in this order. Other stories and linkages in Spoon River are more separated. In general, reading the epitaphs has a certain likeness to an open-world video game, and in any order the mosaic of events remain the pieces of a Cubist jigsaw puzzle loose in the box.
I performed “Doctor Meyers” and “Mrs. Meyers” together for today. A mild finger malady was making it hard for me to play guitar this past weekend, so it’s mostly piano today, though I could work out a way to play electric bass for this short piece. The player is below.
*Much of the action in Spoon River occurs in the later half of the 19th century, a period during which abortions were made illegal in much of the United States. Illinois law was early in this change, so it’s clear he could have been indicted on this in the legal sense that would have been clear to lawyer Masters.
**In another of the epitaphs tangled linkages, we learn that another townsperson Willie Metcalf is said by some to be Doctor Meyers illegitimate son. We aren’t told if that is cause or effect of the disgrace of Dr. Meyers. I can imagine an elaborate Serial-style podcast relitigating the entire Jones/Meyers/Weldy case.
***During the course of writing Spoon River, Masters himself, likely weakened by stress and an unhappy life, was stricken with pneumonia and may have been close to death, so this choice for Doctor Meyers coupe de grace may have not been random. “Webster Ford,” the pseudonym that Spoon River was first published under in serial form in Reedy’s Mirror, gets an epitaph in Spoon River Anthology: a longer, more hermetic and supernatural one than most of the book’s.
****Masters’ syntax in Mrs. Meyers epitaph is confusing, perhaps designedly so. Even with the semicolon separator, “The newspapers lied about him…” is linked in sentence with “That he was not at fault in Minerva’s fall….” The newspapers disgracing him were claiming the opposite, and the sentence seems to reflect Mrs. Meyers’ own ambivalence. Likewise, the sentence starting “Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see” is ambivalent. I think she’s largely referring to Minerva, “poor” in her possessions of morality and wealth, though some read it as referring to her husband.