Despair and Hope

As voluble as our generations are when talking about our feelings, we didn’t invent that kind of emotional transparency. In fact, I sometimes think that earlier generations were more creative about it, particularly the poets.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who looks at my poetry posts, that Emily Dickinson is one of my favorites. Feminine, independent, strong, emotional, spiritual, clever and intelligent – few poets touch me as she does and has done since I first read her when I was a child. Each of these poems expresses a state of being that is opposed to, yet intimately connected, with the other.

First, “It was not death, for I stood up” (355):

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –
When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –
But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.


And then, the better known “Hope is the thing with feathers”(254):

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

“If pain for peace prepares” Interpreted

On September 11th I posted a poem by Emily Dickinson, If pain for peace prepares. Several people found it pretty impenetrable and let me know in the comments or by email and telephone, so I thought I’d post my interpretation of the poem to see if that helps at all. Please let me know in the comments if you understand it differently. That would make for an interesting discussion. I’ll start by paraphrasing the poem.

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what “Augustan” years
Our feet await! 

If the experience of pain prepares us for the experience of peace, then in the future a time of peaceful contemplation is awaiting us.

If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?

If winter gives way to spring, then the flowers will be to numerous to count.

If night stands fast — then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!

If the darkness of the night is preparing our vision so that we can can behold the sun, what a sight it will be…

When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!

… when our well prepared  eyes behold the light of a thousand suns in a thousand skies.

In other words, I read this poem as a declaration of hope and a call for patience in suffering, as a statement of belief that just as shadows define light, as white space and margins define a page, pain and suffering allow us to fully experience peace and joy.

Dickinson employs a strong rhythm in this poem (without slavishly holding to it ), something she does not always do. In each of the stanzas the first two lines are more or less rhythmic, suggesting movement to me, and the third line consists of two equally stressed syllables (again, without strict adherence).

Da DUM da DUM da DUM
Da DUM da DUM da DUM

(One of the things I love about her is her refusal to allow rhyme or rhythm to force themselves on the words and meaning, thereby not allowing us to be lulled by repetition but surprising us and keeping our attention engaged.)

On a “macro” level, the level I was intending when I chose to post the poem on the anniversary of the worst terrorist strike the United States has ever known, the poem suggests a way of marking the pain, shock and horror of that day with a view to the future – the idea that calm follows a storm, that a field must be plowed and disturbed in order to be planted and produce its fruits, that the pain of childbirth ends with the limitless possibilities of a new life entering the world.

On the individual level, this poem is very encouraging to me. Without too much gooey sentimentality (I don’t take to that very well) it reminds me that my physical, emotional or spiritual pain are limited. That the pain will give way to much more than absence of pain. It will open in the way a beautiful flower opens from a bud to reveal something very different, something wonderful.

Pain and suffering are never the end of the story.

If pain for peace prepares

Today, the eleventh of September, 2012, I offer this poem by Emily Dickinson, written in 1860 and published posthumously in 1924.

If pain for peace prepares
Lo, what “Augustan” years
Our feet await! 
If springs from winter rise,
Can the Anemones
Be reckoned up?
If night stands fast — then noon
To gird us for the sun,
What gaze!
When from a thousand skies
On our developed eyes
Noons blaze!

Love, immortality and Emily Dickinson

(Poem 917 – published 1896)

Love – is anterior to Life –

Posterior – to Death –

Initial of Creation, and

The Exponent of Earth –


(Poem 974 – published 1925 but written the same year as 917, 1894)

The Soul’s distinct connection

With immortality

Is best disclosed by Danger

Or quick Calamity –

As Lightning on a Landscape

Exhibits Sheets of Place –

Not yet suspected – but for Flash –

And Click – and Suddenness.