When first reading, “A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!” I felt disoriented by Emily Dickinson’s roundabout, meandering syntax. So, I decided to take on a sense of having been thrust into a mission that seems impossible to understand.  I found a story line acted out between the poem’s speaker and a still-unproven emissary. Play along with me, if you like, to create a complete sentence out of the poem’s first line by using the recognizable lead-in.

Whimsically, at first, I placed the familiar cliche from the movie, “Mission Impossible,” in front of the poem. This is your mission.  If you decide to accept it, you will need:

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
It’s fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – ’twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me – Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

The first line of the poem, now, has a subject (you), a main verb (will need), and a prepositional phrase …well, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson, though I confess I always loved conjugating sentences.  Right away, I feel lured into accepting this mysterious appointment with the promise of more than a fair wage: “It’s fee – to be of Gold -”.  In this conjured mission, the only assurance of reliability, “… I am true!” is set opposite the vulnerable condition of precarious reliance on nature’s “monstrous House”, and, “A single Ragged Child -”.

If the “Him” referenced throughout the poem is an allusion to posterity, and “a Mine” is the rich source, or treasure house, of truth stored up in the poems for future generations, it stands to reason that, “To earn a Mine – (anyone worthy of it, willingly) would run/That Interdicted Way,”.  I think part of the difficulty in this poem is that there slips back and forth self-talk by the speaker, and, imaginary instructions transmitted to another. The first two lines of the second stanza appear as a personal reflection, while the other two are addressed to one who is charged with following through. If a poem is a storehouse for truth, regardless of how much “That Interdicted Way,” that opaque language, seems to resist meaning, then the hero of this mission impossible will be the reader intent on breaching poetic perimeters.  I find it comical then to read, “.. Charge Thee speak it plain – ”, speak it plain (!?), that which is embodied in the poetry itself.

Just like the movie, this “mission impossible” is not impossible at all if the poet’s representative is up to the challenge. Much of the implied dare is in the question about whether, “.. – Truth is True?”

As in the famous thriller, instinct and skill must guide when truth is not forthcoming.

The speaker seems to say that if you cannot find the truth, then look at the source of the message, “And answer What I do -”.  Almost as if we are told to, “consider the source.”

Perhaps this third stanza’s apparent reversal of night and day refers to enlightened self-interest which results from a period of emotional darkness, “Since Midnight – happened – ”. If so, it would fit in with this idea of poetry-for-the-ages being dependent on a single “ragged child” and “Another Lad – (to) help thee -”.

The fifth stanza reiterates “orders” in language fitting promises to a soldier of fortune for hire, “Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be – /And His – in solid Gold – /Say Rubies – if He hesitate – ”.  The speaker then seems to be whispering only to herself, “My Message – must be told – ”.

The final two stanzas are a decorative conclusion as we might see in a Hollywood film. The brave speaker walks out of the picture into the sunset.  The dominant, starring role is now forever placed into the hands of the reader (ragged child? other lad?), “Say – last I said – was This – /That when the Hills – come down… And Deity conclude – / Then – look for me… Least Figure – on the Road – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way


Inevitably, I will have a gazillion little distractions and Perfectly Good Reasons to delay a sit-down with a blank screen.

The old cliche’ of an alcoholic award-winning novelist or the newspaper reporter with a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer derive from the sometimes burdensome isolation of a writer. I wonder if it is this that Emily Dickinson recalls in “There is another Loneliness”.

There is another Loneliness
That many die without –
Not want of friend occasions it
Or circumstances of Lot

But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral –

There is satisfaction in writing when I’ve completed a blog post or other writing project that is deliciously different from other pleasures. And, plenty of people have other private satisfactions.  And, I’m sure they have equally be-deviling habits to stand in their way without ever an attempt to make a dime with their time at a keyboard. “There is another Loneliness / That many die without – ”.

It’s not the kind of loneliness that has anything to do with a lack of friends. “Not want of friend occasions it”.  Nor can it be blamed on the rich or poor circumstances of my life. It doesn’t even have anything to do with having a job, a mate, or, much else. “Or circumstances of Lot”.

This next line slows me down after the somewhat mysterious words of the first stanza. And, then hands me over to a slow, contemplative – almost rock back and forth – tempo. “But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought”.  That line.  It sits out there all by itself.  Through repetition of “sometimes, sometimes” it emphasizes the rarity of the experience of writing greatness.  Thought, in the world of Dickinson poetry needs no object to be a verb. Thought, like nature, just is.  Upon completion of my writing, I may feel a oneness with nature.  Fine.  That is one thing. “But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought” through me! What an amazing way to say how it feels to create something out of words. A rare privilege, indeed.

The final thought of this poem is to recognize the prosperous condition of our spirits when we overcome the isolation, the fear to publish, and tell the wolves of self-doubt to find another victim. “And whoso it befall / Is richer than could be revealed / By mortal numeral – ”.  Immortal numeral for immortal words.  Don’t I wish.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Does anyone stare at the moon anymore? Wondering.  Occasionally, accompanied with a feeling you need to know where so-and-so has gone? Don’t you simply check Facebook? You want to know how an old acquaintance looks nowadays? Try their Twitter Bio, blog or other online resource. When Emily Dickinson writes “You know the Portrait in the Moon”, she recalls a moon who oversees all, networking the mysteries in love, loss and adventure.

You know that Portrait in the Moon –
So tell me Who ’tis like –
The very Brow – the stooping eyes –
A fog for – Say – Whose Sake?

The very Pattern of the Cheek –
It varies – in the Chin –
But – Ishmael – since we met – ’tis long –
And fashions – intervene –

When Moon’s at full – ‘Tis Thou – I say –
My lips just hold the name –
When crescent – Thou art worn – I note –
But – there – the Golden Same –

And when – Some Night – Bold – slashing Clouds
Cut Thee away from Me –
That’s easier – than the other film
That glazes Holiday –

I find in this poem a curious mixture of sensations of warmth and affection, together with adventurous yearnings, which paradoxically lead to looking inward, “A fog for – Say – Whose Sake?”

In an imaginary moon-study-conversation, “So tell me Who ’tis like – / The very Brow – the stooping eyes – ” a restlessness that is hard to pin down sets the mood. We are “asked” to share in gazing at the moon, looking outward the way reading a book is looking outside one’s own thoughts and assumptions.

An adventure is anything that is different from that which seems temporarily a limited world. Gazing at the moon isn’t only searching for escape, but remaining secure in existing comforts. “But – Ishmael – since we met – ’tis long -/And fashions – intervene -” is a reminder of this dual rootedness in memory and present-day conditions. Whether “Ishmael” is a reference to the long-suffering Herman Melville character in Moby Dick, or Abraham’s intriguing son, they both embody love and adventure?

I think both are possibilities as docents in my private adventure, “When Moon’s at full – ”.  Perhaps “ ‘Tis Thou – I say -/ My lips just hold the name – ”, is like that brief stage of fullness in the moon – unfortunate that this feeling of oneness and belonging is so brief. The exact memory of those not in our daily lives fades like the moon, “When crescent – Thou art worn – I note -”.

In the final stanza there’s no longer a conversation, as two kinds of imaginary or lost loves emerge. “And when – Some Night – Bold – slashing Clouds / Cut Thee away from Me -”, swashbuckling daring invades the night in the form of clouds whose romantic, gallant flamboyance cut into reality.  Of course, there’s always “… the other film / That glazes Holiday – ”. Holidays that are supposed to be a break from routine may be dimmed by thoughts of “The very Pattern of the Cheek – ” who is easier to see in a full moon. (Facebook eat your heart out.)

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

When enthusiasm leaves me, and discouragement stalks every attempt to accomplish my goals, I often recall “I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl – ” by Emily Dickinson. I find this poem to be powerful in absorbing depression, that horrific static sensation, and reviving me in spite of myself.

I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl –
Life’s little duties do – precisely –
As the very least
Were infinite – to me –

I put new Blossoms in the Glass –
And throw the Old – away –
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there – I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do –
And yet – existence – some way back –
Stopped – struck – my ticking – through –

We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman – When the errand’s done
We came to Flesh – opon –
There may be – Miles on Miles of Nought –
Of Action – sicker far –
To simulate – is stinging work –
To cover what we are

From Science – and from Surgery –
Too Telescopic eyes
To bear on us unshaded –
For their – sake – Not for Ours –

Therefore – we do life’s labor –
Though life’s Reward – be done –
With scrupulous exactness –
To hold our Senses – on –

From the first stanza, despair is conveyed by the idea that all is “as if” it mattered, which gives a depressed reader a real hook. As the very least
Were infinite – to me – ”
. (My underline.)  For, “as if” is depression’s clarion call to gather every persistently sad person under its roof. I remember feeling forced to act as if I cared when life’s activities and obligations were the very least of priorities to me.

The relentless fact of action in the poem, “I put new Blossoms … ”, “I throw … ”, “I push … ”, “I weigh … ”, and perhaps most significantly ~ “I have… ” is at odds with the poem’s argument of inertia.

As a young person I was undiagnosed but very depressed for many years. In my case, inability to “gain traction” in whatever pursuit presented itself seemed to put me in ever more difficult situations. Depression, for me, meant coming up against relentless frantic confusion. I began finally to climb out, though with a big setback when my teenage daughter died. Then, as before, this poem was important to me. For me, as in the poem, “existence”, just “ticking” is not a thing to be cherished. In the poem, as in life, whether we like it or not at the time, “We cannot put Ourself away”.

Whatever depression’s cause, if beneath it all there remains a capacity to feel that sting, “To simulate – is stinging work – ” it is because to liveas if” is too much to bear. It is that sting that brought me out.  I think people who commit suicide do so because the sting of simulating life brings them to it. To simulate life, to act as if I feel alive, cannot be born forever.

“Science” and “surgery” as helpers, pale in comparison to our instinct for life. Though many have what seems a herculean capacity to do “life’s labor – ” as though “…. life’s Reward – be done – ”. The will to live, I believe, is not missing forever, as long as there is energy to “do” “With scrupulous exactness – / To hold our Senses – on – ”.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

One of the reasons I return often to read Emily Dickinson poems is the recurrent topic of change.

I was recently reading one of the letters Dickinson wrote in the summer of 1861 and was struck by these poignant and strangely tender words, “God made me…He built the heart in me – Bye and bye it outgrew me – and like the little mother – with the big child – I got tired holding him -…”.

Casually expressed, while acknowledging a mystery, this is a thought spoken with acceptance of inevitable transformation in self awareness. But, in the poems, there is much evidence to contradict such sanguine compliance with change. I wonder if Dickinson’s “I Years had been from Home” doesn’t describe the discomforts of reshaping, or remodeling, one’s perspectives.

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare solid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –

I understand “Home,” and “the Door” of the first stanza like wistful remembrance of my innocent, if childish, self.  Homesick for those days, “I dared not enter”, toys with lingering childishness in imagining I could return if I wanted to those blameless years. However, what I would find would be the me that I am today. “.. a Face/I never saw before/Stare stolid into mine/And ask my Business there – ”.

Daydreaming and fantasizing how I’d rather my life be than how it is, can create a kind of unreal existence if it goes on long enough. Then, if I change my life into something from which I no longer need to escape in fantasy, what does that do to my recollection of years of living with one foot, so to speak, in unreality? Reflecting cannot be helped. I have to “..ask my Business there – /’My Business but a Life I left/Was such remaining there?’ ”.

The poem acknowledges what may on the surface seem utterly absurd. A successful life pining for its former, very limited existence. I might even try to re-imagine my fantasies just to push away the feelings of loss. “I leaned upon the Awe -/ I lingered with Before – ”. Fear and longing become entwined. I may briefly experience myself as two different people, the here-and-now me and the former me with “the awful Door”, to separate two “selves.”

But, finally, I know it is not the past that beckons most: “And held my ears, and like a Thief / Fled gasping from the House – ”.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I love my life and the opportunity to share online and in discussion groups the poems of Emily Dickinson. By volunteering frequently at the Emily Dickinson Museum, many wonderful neighbors have become friends. Occasionally, and today being one of those occasions, I have an urge to shake things up and do something totally different. That’s fine, you say. My (not-so-big) problems is – I have an equal desire to keep things as they are.

Dickinson’s “They called me to the Window, for” shows the poet’s power to create enormous change of pace from everyday habits and routines, without actually going anywhere, by reading her own imaginary images. Then, translating them in this poem.

They called me to the Window, for
” ‘Twas Sunset” – Some one said –
I only saw a Sapphire Farm –
And just a Single Herd –

Of Opal Cattle — feeding far
Upon so vain a Hill –
As even while I looked – dissolved –
Nor Cattle were – nor Soil –

But in their Room – a Sea – displayed –
And Ships — of such a size
As Crew of Mountains – could afford –
And Decks – to seat the skies –

This – too – the Showman rubbed away –
And when I looked again –
Nor Farm – nor Opal Herd – was there –
Nor Mediterranean –

I can almost get my shot of something different, electric and exciting by bearing down (in my own imagination) on the flight from reality in this poem.

Somebody in the family calls me to the window ~ “” ‘Twas Sunset” – Some one said -” ~ to show me a sunset. What could be more commonplace? Sunset itself a ritual; predictable, if unique each time.

Then, imagination takes over. The poem recognizes what is unstable, short about a sunset and then “runs with it” using magical pictures of “.. a Sapphire Farm – ” and “Opal Cattle – ” that “.. even while I looked – dissolved – ”.

I am not looking for anything steady. Just a temporary jolt. Enhanced by the poem, I’m caught up in the display before me that so thoroughly displaces itself in stages ~ “But in their Room (stead) – a Sea – displayed – ” one image is wiped out by the other, which also changes immediately ~ “This – too – the Showman rubbed away -”. (In one of Dickinson’s notes on this poem she uses “stead” in place of “Room.”)

All of a sudden, “And when I look again -”, this fantazmagorical break with routine is gone. “Nor Farm – nor Opal Herd – was there -/Nor Mediterranean – ”.  Just what I needed.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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