Monday, October 08, 2007

An Emily sort of Monday

I first read this poem by Emily Dickinson about two weeks ago, and I keep going back to it, even though I'm several dozen poems past it in my reading of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. The poem that's been haunting me is number 18, "The Gentian weaves her fringes."

The Gentian weaves her fringes—
The Maple’s loom is red—
My departing blossoms
&emsp &emsp Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare,
And one below this morning
Is where the angles are—
It was a short procession,
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be.
Summer!——Sister!——Seraph!
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze— Amen!


There are a few things to know, I think, when parsing this poem. One is that Gentian is a fall-blooming flower that is usually found in a bright-blue form in the United States, and which was used in a number of poems during the Victorian era. In the language of flowers, fringed Gentian means "I look to heaven." One famous poem referencing Gentian specifically referred to the Fringed Gentian, and was called (appropriately) "To the Fringed Gentian." It was first published in 1832 by William Cullen Bryant, a fellow Massachusetts resident, and it is likely that Emily Dickinson would have been familiar with this earlier poem. You can read Bryant's poem in full over at Bartleby, among other places, but I'll include the middle stanza here:

From "To the Fringed Gentian"
by William Cullen Bryant

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frost and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.


Bees in Dickinson tend to be, well, bees. They are free to come and go, sometimes irresponsible, and sometimes rascals. Butterflys are similar, free to flit and go.

And the Bobolink? Well, what d'you know? William Cullen Bryant had a famous poem about the bird called "Robert of Lincoln", which you can read on Bartleby and elsewhere, only it seems to have not seen publication until after the date ascribed to Dickinson's poem. I'd love to say that he was the unknown "Master" to whom she referred in a number of poems (particularly since they both used a lot of four-line hymn stanzas and wrote a lot of nature poetry), but I'm not willing to go there. But I digress.

About the Bobolink: An old farm story holds that the bobolink says "Dig a hole, dig a hole, put it in, put it in, cover't up, cover't up, stamp on't, step along". His presence at a funeral therefore makes sense, right?

Because the poem really is discussing a death. Some say it's the death of a person, but I think not. I think it's Dickinson observing the end of summer, and little more, although it seems as if she's buried something, while the Bobolink says "dig a hole" and the gentian looks to heaven. Whatever it was had a very brief illness, and seems not to have suffered, nor does Dickinson seem overwrought, as one would expect her to be if it were a close friend or relative. We are left there near the woods, where the Gentian is blooming (an autumn flower), the Maple is turning colors, and the Bobolink has not yet flown south for the winter. Summer has flown, and a benediction is offered, not in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but in the name of the Bee, and the Butterfly, and the Breeze. I love the pairing of the spirit and the breeze, of course, and so much more about this language.

Anyone else care to tell me what they make of it?

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