Thursday, July 1, 2010

Emily's irony

As I sometimes do, this evening I grabbed my copy of R.W. Franklin's collected poems of Emily Dickinson and opened it to a random page. Holy smoke! There was a Dickinson poem - not a "great" one worried about like an inportant bone by her army of scholars - but Emily at her most real.

Or so I think.

It's the one that goes:

My Faith is larger than the Hills
So when the hills decay -
My Faith must take the Purple Wheel
To show the sun the way -

(If the sun fails to rise, after the purple sunset, it must be led toward the purple dawn.)

'Tis first He steps opon the vane -
And then - opon the Hill -
And then abroad the World He go -
To do His Golden Will -

(See the sun rising - first to the barn-top, then to the hill-top, then everywhere.) (Apparently she pronouced "upon" like "opon.")

And if his Yellow Feet should miss -
The Bird would not arise -
The Flowers would slumber on their Stems -
No Bells have Paradise -

(If the warming sun fails to reach them, birds and flowers will not rise.)

How dare I, therefore, stint a faith
On which so vast depends -
Lest Firmament should fail for me -
The Rivet in the Bands

For Dickinson, a barrel was the main way in which commodities were conveyed. If a rivet holding the metal bands of a barrel failed, all would fall apart. At first, the poem sounds like a typical 19th-century affirmation of faith. "My Faith is larger than the Hills -". But listen hard. Can a faith necessary to keep the sun rising, to keep the world from falling apart, make any sense in a world in which, well, the sun is going to rise anyway, the birds are going to sing, the flowers bloom?

This was from Dickinson's most fertile period, during the Civil War, a time when death was in the air. I see it as an affirmation of life.

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