Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Gentian Weaves Her Fringes by Emily Dickinson

Today's post contains the last poem for this year's celebration of National Poetry Month. The next post will contain a complete Table of Contents for the posts, which you can also access through my tags by clicking on "building a poetry collection". I contemplated going with something that sounded like a definite ending. Specifically, I contemplated going with "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot, which I love in general for its bleakness and specifically for its ending:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

But alas, it's still under copyright protection, and also, it would be breaking faith with you, since I promised from day one that the poems would be somehow interrelated either by theme or form or poet or, well, something. And so it is that we come to the real start of today's post.

Yesterday's selection was Keats's Ode "To Autumn", with its lovely words and images and turns of phrase. I confess to having thought of moving on to Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", in particular because it starts in autumn and ends the seasonal discussion with "O Wind!/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" And I have a kickass analysis of that poem already written (as you'll see if you followed the link). But the part of Keats's poem that really sang to me today was the mention of the bees in the first stanza (perhaps because I always notice references to bees in light of my friend Loree Griffin Burns () has a forthcoming book called The Hive Detectives, and, well, bees make me think of Loree, and Loree first made me take notice of bees . . . but I digress.) I first read this poem by Emily Dickinson about a year and a half ago, and I keep going back to it (or perhaps it keeps coming back to me). In my copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson, it's number 18:

The Gentian weaves her fringes
by Emily Dickinson

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.
Let us go with thee!

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

As with many Dickinson poems, this one follows hymn metre until the final three-line benedictory stanza, with each line containing three stressed syllables. There's also a rhyme-scheme in play in the first two stanzas. Were you to number the lines one through sixteen (no sense numbering those last three lines), you'd find rhymes - or slant-rhymes (also called near rhymes) in the even-numbered lines: red/parade, prepare/are, there/prayer, be/thee. It was quite a bold move on her part, considering when she was writing, even though it was one of the things that her correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (a literary critic), didn't "get."

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. Butterflies are similar, free to flit and go.

And the Bobolink? Well, what d'you know? William Cullen Bryant had a famous poem about that 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 they had a secret relationship (particularly since they both used a lot of four-line hymn stanzas and wrote a lot of nature poetry), but of course I cannot. And in any event, 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.

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


Terrence Berres said...

Do you have that year of publication for "Robert of Lincoln"?

Kelly Fineman said...

Based on online searching only, it appears to have been first published in 1871 in Poems by William Cullen Bryant.