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

Adam and Eve couldn’t blame complex structures of economic systems or multiplex ties of work and relationships when they ran into problems with the moment at hand. Which tells me want and regret may comprise a problem which pre-dates every other hiccup, spiritual and otherwise, on the road to happiness. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems that gives me a big dose of “now” is “The difference between Despair”.

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Is there a “…difference between Despair” over BP Oil’s cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico, “And Fear” that drives our revulsion about, and anticipation of, environmental problems? While the disaster has everyone focused on causes and solutions, it doesn’t have the instantaneous delivery aspect “of a Wreck – /And when the Wreck has been -”.  To dramatize the focus when our body is paralyzed and consciousness is as a light beam on the here and now of being caught in a smashup in traffic, the poem at once lifts us out of danger and shows us one of calamity’s values. Finding benefits of commonly held abhorence for pain, loss, death and other human suffering is not unusual in a poem of Dickinson’s.

Everyone wants to enjoy prime focus; ability to concentrate on the work in front of us. One of the benefits of meditation, of which I am a regular practitioner though for less time each day than is recommended, is increased awareness. This is another way of saying meditation can improve our ability to resist stress and worry. What is the difference between the attention given to the moment when we are caught in a disaster like “..the instant of a Wreck – ” and an instance of peace such as meditation? Both focus attention on the here-and-now to a heightened degree. Dickinson’s example, though, says that living in the present is far more intense than just having improved thoughts and an ability to prioritize. Or, another of meditation’s advantages, a better circulatory system and cardiovascular health. I think what’s going on here is a challenge to realize life itself is intense, dramatic and potentially overwhelming – if we’re paying attention.

The second stanza actually sounds like meditation. “The Mind is smooth – no Motion – / Contented as the eye”. Instead of the bitter, harsh experience of a car crash, now the poem’s emphasis is on a pleasant, mild and agreeable stillness. Instead of imagining the stare of frightful eyes from a head-on driver plunged, like me, toward mutual doom, I have the honeyed stare of one admiring “.. the Forehead of a Bust -”.

Perhaps, like our ancestors, we will never be able to avoid the impulse to look for what the future will bring. For goodness sake, I don’t even understand most of what my past brought. I also wonder whether the cagey use of “it” in “That knows – it cannot see – ” avoids precision about whether “I” have potential for freedom from worry.

Or, if it’s the lifeless, stone head that is alone in its freedom from either despair or fear.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I don’t see how anybody can read, “Morning is due to all – ”, by Emily Dickinson without at least a thought about whether or not to count oneself among the (difficult to identify, but) privileged few.

The all inclusive morning is right and proper for anyone and everyone.

A night “club,” like the Mediterranean’s 10,000 capacity “Privilege Ibiza,” slightly more exclusive. Definitely more so than democratic morning.

Morning is due to all –
To some – the Night –
To an imperial few –
The Auroral Light

I find an embedded dare, or challenge, in this small poem aimed at rousing me from self-satisfaction. Feelings of security, false or otherwise, may easily become part of my every-day attitude if there are no threats on the horizon to my well-being, such as a job loss or other personal tragedy. My practice of grabbing the morning light with hour-long walks before my day starts at about 7:30 a.m. fills me with Nature’s best fragrances, bird sounds and fresh attitudes among the few I meet. I like to think these self-appointed beginnings are respectable metaphors for life’s original stages. And, available to all.

We are all “created equal,” “Morning is due to all – ”. My own Western-religious and democratic political foundations for this idea means I tend to accept Dickinson’s expropriation of “morning” for equality.

The poem starts out by including everyone, then begins to narrow, slightly, the subject of its concern. “To some – the Night -” doesn’t say who has been deleted. Only that a team has formed from within the league of morning people. I tend to associate this franchise, “Night,” with those of us who can’t figure out what we want to be when we grow up. Depending on my core issues, and whether they are inborn or caused by circumstances, I may take up this quandary with ease, but probably with angst. For it is a lonely task. One for which we are led only by our souls.

If so, from within that society of the self-aware, it is “To an imperial few -” that “The Auroral Light” has created a dawning of cherished purpose, destiny. I like to think Dickinson’s “auroral light” is a claim on the original use of the term.  The Latin and poetic tradition for auroral light, which is “dawn, goddess of the dawn,” according to my dictionary, has little or nothing to do with spectroscopes or infrared light.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Spring will soon give way to scorching summer days. Perhaps then, the intention behind Emily Dickinson’s extraordinary use of white, “Dare you see a Soul in the White Heat?” will be unambiguous.

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door –
Red – is the Fire’s common tint –
But when the vivid Ore

Has vanquished Flame’s conditions –
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the Light
Of unanointed Blaze –

Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs – within –

Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge –

“Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? / Then crouch within the door -”.  It is a dare, as well as a warning. If I stop to look at fire’s ultimate temperatures, I cannot resist the white hot heart. Yet, if I don’t have proper respect for what a blacksmith mixes, using experienced skill, I can only gawk. Or, worse, get too close with amateur clumsiness.

When the cause, ..Fire’s common tint – / .. the vivid Ore” leads to its effect, the results promise transformation from liquid metal to precise instrument.  That is, if the blacksmith has learned how to make it happen, through learning, courage and intact belief.

Life may bring about what seems to me unbearable personal issues and abhorrent circumstances, “Flame’s conditions -”.

If so, then, rage “..quivers from the Forge”.

If I feel crushed and engulfed, I may become emotionally depressed, in other words, “Without a color, but the Light / Of unanointed Blaze -”

As in a play, right at the apex of the poem’s dramatic tension, we take a break. The poem’s picture, “Least Village has its Blacksmith / Whose Anvil’s even ring”, reminds me of a common site that is as customary as it is generally understood to be dangerous.

While I relax, it’s as if the poem takes me to a chatty place I can access through memories of various graphic illustrations of a blacksmith. Who hasn’t been enchanted by smithies in Victorian art? Western movies dramatized blacksmith shops repeatedly.

There’s a romantic quality to seeing a man’s tender skin in close proximity to a working anvil. Because horseshoes and other necessary implements painstakingly fabricated as the result of manipulating white-hot iron, “(s)tands symbol for the finer Forge”.

That which doesn’t kill me makes me.

Here’s the real dare. Do I have the courage, the guts, the moxie, the pluck to see my own soul – “That soundless tugs – within – ”?

The poem’s challenge in the final stanza is to take the time, love and self-reflection for “Refining these impatient Ores / With Hammer, and with Blaze”. My “ores” and yours won’t be the same. In fact, “my hammer and blaze” look somewhat different from my parents or my even my children’s. The tools of understanding, interest, talent, and weaknesses or sins, even circumstance and motivation obviously differ from person to person.

Still, the principle is the same. Eventually, the poem promises, you and I both will arrive at the Great “Until..”. I will have that sense of self benefited by  “… the Designated Light”.  Then, the old struggles will recede and die away, “Repudiate(d by) the Forge -” of personal conflicts.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I am not one of those who enjoys a fundamental psychological equilibrium. Perhaps that is why Emily Dickinson’s “The feet of people walking home – ” is like a sanctuary. The poem uses many contrasts between feeling and fact to coach, or illuminate, the balance I need to be effective. The poem thinks with great emotional sensitivity, but persists with logical processes.

The feet of people walking home –
With gayer sandals go –
The Crocus, till she rises
The Vassal of the snow –

The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practise bore –
Til bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver’s farthings –
Extorted from the sea –
Pinions – the Seraph’s wagon –
Pedestrian once – as we –

Night is the morning’s Canvas
Larceny – Legacy.
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies
Whose Peasants are the angels –
Whose Cantons dot the skies –

My Classics veil their faces –
My faith that dark adores –
Which from it’s solemn abbeys
Such Resurrection pours.

Dickinson gives us an easy example at first in describing the lilt in one’s step when on the way home, as opposed to the implied contrast in having to walk somewhere less congenial. Every verse is a repeat of this kind of contrast.

It’s almost comical to make a metaphor of “… these Bargemen” to trigger positive regard for church choirs whose “.. lips at Hallelujah/Long years of practice bore -”.

Could any words be more concise and precise than “Pearls are the Diver’s farthings – /Extorted from the sea -”.  In that single poetic stroke we are prompted to compare the pearl, forced from its seabed, with the diver’s expedition. Premium booty, to be sure. The point is, regardless of the evident disharmony between the amount of time and energy it takes to retrieve the prize and the prize itself; balance is established by the pearl’s profits.

Each example in its turn, “Night is the morning’s Canvas”, demonstrates that the contrast itself is the great equalizer. Equilibrium is refusing to be deceived by darkness, for though darkness seems to steal the light from us, night is what gives balance to light: “Larceny – Legacy.”

Death is what balances our anticipation of immortality and interrupts our concept of living forever. Death, in this poem, prevents our becoming too hubristic and defiant of consequences: “Death, but our rapt attention/To Immortality.”

While it recognizes the psychological tension most people feel, the poem counsels not to become imbalanced over the mysteries, “My figures fail to tell me/How far the Village lies

Perhaps in the final verse, the poet’s reverence for My Classics… implies their status as utmost champion. And, to see their veiled faces, her premium reward. Meanwhile, the solemn abbeys” of faith help to define that which “Such Resurrection pours.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I’m drawn into Emily Dickinson’s “You Cannot take itself – ” by the assumption in the first two lines that a conversation has been taking place all along.  Perhaps about problems that come and go, but that cannot do lasting destruction on one’s essential self.  As though the speaker is simply continuing the dialogue between “us.”

By the very act of making me feel a part of a conversation, I see the first hint of the motivation behind this short verse.

You cannot take itself
From any Human soul –
That indestructible estate
Enable him to dwell –
Impregnable as Light
That every man behold
But take away as difficult
As undiscovered Gold –

The poem “assumes” I, the reader, know what I can do. while speaking to what I cannot.  Foreknowledge of the meaning of the imprecise “itself” anticipates the indefinite but universal quality of “Light”.

I put this poem in that category some call “teaching poems.”  It has a comforting tone. Not the soothing language we might speak with a child. But an adult conversation that precedes and extends beyond the perimeters of the poem.  While often the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” is said somewhat dismissively, the poem is respectful and solemn about that great question, “who am I?”, which is implied throughout the poem.

As one who has struggled most of my life with contradictory desires and inconsistent abilities, I am sensitive to this poem’s focus on an identity crisis.  But, of course, life offers up its own threats with external forces against our sense of self. Like many others I am not a stranger to these, in the form of death, loss and disaster.

First, (the poem counsels), as divergent as desire and motivation may be, this is not the same as removing the soul from within the self.  The first two lines assert that self and its soul are inseparable. Even though trauma, tragedy and turmoil may make me feel carved up, bisected and quartered.  The soul and the self are “That indestructible estate”.

Beginning with the fourth line, “Enable him to dwell – ” the poem moves me out of the realm of confusion and fear about the integrity of my inner being. From there the fundamental question of whether my “ear” can be destroyed when the need arises to listen to my inner self, finds reassurance in the comparison of the soul to light. Light, a universally cherished element of illumination. Either physical brightness or emotional luminescence.

Fear not, the poem seems to say, your soul cannot be destroyed by conflicting desires, nor by upheaval or anguish, any more than light itself can be erased. For, the soul is the essence of being; what “Enable him to dwell – ”.

The soul, too, is as “Impregnable as Light”. Someone might as well try to steal a precious metal that has not even been found; “But take away as difficult / As undiscovered Gold – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

It is a source of endless fascination for me to examine my own and others’ individuality when acting from within marriage or other committed relationship.

Emily Dickinson’s interest in these dynamics may be described when “She rose to His Requirement — dropt” employs the skeptical voice of the unmarried.

She rose to His Requirement — dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife —

If ought She missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe —
Or first Prospective — Or the Gold
In using, wear away,

It lay unmentioned — as the Sea
Develop Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself — be known
The Fathoms they abide —

In my first marriage, I was reasonably happy for many years with its terms. Though, I remember looking in the mirror the first few days after the wedding expecting to look different.

Not so. Though, in looking, I sought to discover whether “I” would survive the urge to merge. The stakes are high. The difference is that between a weed and a pearl.

Of myself I might have said, “If ought She missed in Her new Day, / Of Amplitude, or Awe —”, the fault lay entirely with “her.” There were so many “.. first Prospective(s), I leaped from one to the other for over a decade without much thought about the end-game.

The poem makes “marriage” and “work” synonymous, a fairly common idea in the 21st century. Still, who isn’t drawn to the idea of rising to the challenge posed by sacrifice? Added to that enticement, our culture’s “.. the honorable Work / Of Woman, and of Wife —”, and most women’s egos are drawn to act accordingly, if given the chance.

So, having “dropt / The Playthings of Her Life”, what then?  If “… the Gold (love)/in using, wear away”, the couple may use the convention of marriage to hide the misfortune, (the weed.)  The wearing away of love may, or may not, lay, “unmentioned – as the Sea/Develop Pearl, and Weed,”. The poem’s intrigue is in the issue every paparazzi butters his bread with: willing sacrifice versus sacrificial loss.

The universality of a truth that not only lies with women, for as “.. only to Himself ”, both partners bear truth’s burdens. Whatever is left unsaid, will be “The Fathoms they abide —”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way