Emily Dickinson: Forever and Crumbling

Today Emily Dickinson is going to show us how not to write a poem—and how to make it work anyway.

This piece combines two different poems she wrote: “Forever—is composed of Nows”  and “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act”  in a way that I hope lets each poem reflect on each other. Both speak about time and the universe’s track along it, and that’s part of Dickinson’s substantial task as the poet here: these things are abstract. The Modernist experiment, which Dickinson in many ways presages, would generally try to represent even the most abstract, contradictory, and elusive things as images, palpable things. When that tactic works, it lets us find a shape, a sensual feeling, a weight and color to things we otherwise cannot behold.

Dickenson can  do that. Forgotten Imagist Carl Sandburg* even called her an Imagist, just as Imagism’s call to Modernism was emerging a few decades after Dickinson’s death and posthumous publication. But here, in these poems, she predominantly avoids that tactic.

I can think of a few reasons she might do what she does in these poems. If you’d like to follow along, here are links to the text of  “Forever..”  and to “Crumbling…”

First, she received a science education. This may seem odd, even though some time back we learned that Percy Bysshe Shelley, the uber-romantic poet knew how to calculate the distance between the Sun and the Earth, but Emily Dickinson was a woman as well as a poet in Shelley’s 19th century. Science? My 21st century child goes to a high school with a substantial STEM program. “It’s all guys, and they act like it too” is the report about the Engineering class here in 2020. But in Emily’s New England, science, the humble mechanics of the universe, was actually considered a safe subject for the hampered female brain. Politics, theology, fine arts would all be fields walled off from women anyway, but they were also considered inappropriate for the lady-brain.

The second is that she grew up in a household steeped in the legal profession. Her father, her grandfather, and her brother were all prominent lawyers. Though I’m not a full-fledged Dickinson scholar by a long-ways, I’m not aware that this substantial fact is much discussed as potentially formative in how Dickinson saw and thought about things. Yet, here by her poetry we can see that she was possessed of a mighty intellectual engine, one whose genetic blueprints and environment would be tailored to express things as lawyers might: in sharply defined abstract legalities.

Lastly, 19th century poetry was comfortable with abstraction of the sort she exhibits here, though few could match her compression of expression. We still use much abstract rhetoric in general discussion, but our poets generally recognize the danger of taking the specific vividness out of verse.

In the first piece of our dual Dickinson presentation today, she makes a statement about the nature of time: that it cannot be experienced relatively other than as an infinite series of nows. She cannot find a physical image for this, and so uses abstract scientific and legal language to describe this mystery: “Composed…Infiniteness…latitude…remove…dates…dissolve…exhale,” and the near-enough Latin of “Anno Dominies.” This, the language of a contract or scientific paper. That said, a phrase like “Years—exhale in Years” is palpable.

The second piece, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,”  could be read as a tiny summary lecture on entropy. In the middle stanza of this three-stanza poem (‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul…An Elemental Rust,”) Dickinson moves from abstract summary to imagery, but even here, her knowledge of botany, both empirical and academic, is deployed. “Cuticle” is not some chat over a manicure—it’s a distinct feature of plants. “Borers” and “rust” likewise would be familiar to Emily as the dedicated gardener of the Dickinson household.


Emily Dickinson, science nerd:. Hosta’s cuticle protects it from dust, Dickinson’s self-made herbarium scientifically categorized a host of plants, and Rudolf Clausius considers entropy and whether to grow a mustache or not


The concept of entropy was only first posited in 1850, and I don’t know if Dickinson had any access to discussions of what would have been a fresh scientific concept. Some read “Crumbling is not an instant’s act”  as a reaction to medical or psychological issues Dickinson was personally facing rather than musings on the formal structure of ruin and the universe’s law of return to equilibrium. That reading works too. This old guy may not study thermodynamics, but I can personally recognize the states in this poem without measuring instruments or a blackboard of equations.

If you or I were to try to write either of these poems, we’d risk failure. Our abstractions might seem enervated, while the compressed energy of Emily Dickinson carries me through her argument, even where one cannot follow its intellectual thrust easily. In the middle of these abstract arguments, in the second stanza of each three-stanza poem, Dickinson lets in enough imagery to pull us in.

It may seem odd, now, in this month, as the nation stands at a crossroads to present these two poems today. Frankly, as I looked for any poem in the public domain that wouldn’t seem beside the point or merely pander to it, I failed.

Dickinson wrote in the midst of the greatest crisis, moral and physical, that our nation ever faced. In 1963, in a critical year of struggle against Afro-American civic oppression, John Coltrane released four records. In 1863, in the midst of the turning point year of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote 295 poems. Coltrane was a musician, not a poet or singer. I can’t fault him for not giving us words when he gave us “Alabama”  and “A Love Supreme.”  Emily Dickinson’s poet’s words don’t address the Civil War directly, we can even doubt that she understood the situation of Afro-Americans and slavery’s advocates significantly, however sharp and searching her mind was. So, check your privilege Emily? Sure. But her poetry is about—no not just about, is —freedom, a searching, seeing mind. Our caring hearts take us partway there. Our minds must journey too.

In combining these two poems I wanted to put them in a context that rings for me, in our present moment, however abstractly. We are in our forever nows, as we always are. Ruin is not a now, but a formal process, consecutive and slow.

Thank you for reading and listening. The player to hear my performance of two poems by Emily Dickinson should appear below.




*In looking for the next piece here I must have read or re-read over a hundred Carl Sandburg poems this past week. He’s often remembered as the 20th century’s first great inheritor of Walt Whitman, with great spanning catalogs of Americana in rambling free verse. But early Carl Sandburg is full of attempts and successes at concise Imagist poems that work like his contemporary pre-High Modernism Imagists’ poems did.

Continuing the story of Minerva Jones: Doctor Meyers and Mrs. Meyers

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.

Minerva Jones is possibly related to “Fiddler” Jones, the man who music had a hold of, and who the town wouldn’t let go of, for the joy of dancing to that music. She is the daughter of “Indignation” Jones, whose family including Minerva are jeered at for being poor and unkempt. Minerva is assaulted by a town rough, quite possibly one of the group that hoot at her because she is poor, not pretty, and yet she fancies herself “the village poetess.”

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.

So how does Masters’ resolve this story? Minerva’s epitaph has already alluded to her death, and Doctor Meyers is said to play a fateful part. You can read “Doctor Meyers”  here and his wife’s following epitaph here.

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.***

Doctor Meyers and Mrs Meyer woodcuts from Spoon River Anthology

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.

*****Read the book if you want to find out.

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson by Genevieve Taggard

I’ve mentioned in passing that I was reading Genevieve Taggard’s 1930 The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  this spring. The busy schedule of this project, and life in general, slowed my reading-rate, but I thought I’d share a few brief thoughts about it after I finished it.

Once I read about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. First, because I was so struck by Taggard’s poem “Everyday Alchemy”  I presented here, and because as one of the first (if not the first*) full-length biographies of Dickinson, Taggard had access to people who had first and second-hand experience of Dickinson while Dickinson was still alive. I’m not sure if journalistic style interviews were considered appropriate for literary biographies written in the 1920s, but despite Taggard’s limited use of some personal testimony in the book, I can’t help but mourn what could have been documented by a talented journalistic writer early in the 20th century investigating Dickinson and her milieu. Taggard as a feminist and as a person working in Amherst for awhile as a professor, writes in her book about the society of 19th Century Amherst, but she does not write this in a first person “walk with the reporter” kind of way were you could directly share how she evaluates and comes upon her information.

Such an imagined book would have been much longer, and Taggard’s shorter work was not a best-seller in 1930 either, but now that Dickinson’s stature as an American literary icon is established, such a longer form examination of her times from an intelligent reporter would be so illuminating.

Taggard-Dickinson Title Page

One of the lovely things about holding this copy were the “Minneapolis Athenaeum” stamps reflecting the history of this public library


If The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  was launched today the big PR hook would be that, from local testimony, Taggard believed she had identified the main male love** of Emily Dickinson’s life as George Gould, and that they were engaged, but Dickinson’s father forbid their marriage. Taggard’s detail on Gould’s life and its possible illumination of Dickinson’s interests via letters—an important way that Dickinson expanded her world and emotional circle—was fascinating to me, even when it was speculative.

Taggard seems to be using a Freudian outlook at times in her analysis of Dickinson’s life, and the other main relationship that she develops throughout her book is that between Emily and her father Edward, an attorney and major figure in the town of Amherst who served in both the national and state legislature. One doesn’t have to have the 1920’s intellectuals’ belief in Freud to agree that this is likely a key relationship, particularly considering that Emily speaks of her mother as being less significant to her (and there’s likely a story there too). I’m sometimes struck by how much some of Emily Dickinson’s poetic expression has an exact but slant-wise way about it that reminds me of some legal writing, such as in contract law. I see the same thing at times in Wallace Stevens (a lawyer/poet).***

In her concluding chapters, Taggard makes the case of Dickinson’s literary greatness, which the ensuing decades have continued to expand and endorse.

It’s a shame, but Taggard’s book is not easily available. It’s not been kept in print, and as far as I know, it’s still in copyright. At least when I looked, used copies are not inexpensively and plentifully available. I was able to read an original edition of The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson  from my public library—a little bit worn, brittle and brown. I looked at the ink stamps on the checkout slip from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and wondered a bit about those readers and what they thought of it, but this reader found it well worth reading.

Taggard Check Out

Some of the readers added light pencil marks throughout the book too. I couldn’t help but ask each time I saw one what led to that mark, slowing my reading of Taggard’s book even more.


No new audio piece today, but maybe you haven’t listened to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “This World is Not Conclusion”  yet. It’s another of Dickinson’s skeptical hymns, this time full of abstractions and twists of that active mind that she charms us to follow anyway. Here’s the player gadget to hear it.





*Susan Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Bianchi published  The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson  in 1924, and I haven’t read it. I’m unsure how much of it is biography and how much is a letters collection, but Taggard politely notes in an appendix that Bianchi got a number of dates wrong.

**There’s a lot of modern interest in Dickinson’s sexuality, with attention being paid to the idea that she was lesbian or bi. Given the lack of the kind of deep contemporaneous social investigation of 19th century Massachusetts society, this may be impossible to determine to the modern gossip level of who engaged in what sex acts with whom. Even at the non-Dickinson-scholar level where I live, it’s apparent to me that Dickinson had a very active mind and was highly attracted to other minds that were similarly energized regardless of if the minds were in male or female noggins.

***I’m not sure how large that group, lawyer/poet, is. The only other one that comes to mind is Tom Rapp, the less-known-than-he-should-be songwriter of “The Sixties.”

Much more dour than Stevens and Dickinson, but I could even see a bit of that “Tell me what it is by telling me what it isn’t” expressive mode in Robert Mueller’s little farewell speech yesterday—but has anyone tried singing that to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”  I’ll bet Nancy Pelosi and William Barr could both read Dickinson’s “The World Is Not Conclusion”  and differ on what it says!