If you Google Emily Dickinson and ocean poems, #656 is the first search result you will get. In it, she goes on a walk with her dog to the sea. Although Emily did travel outside of Amherst during a few years of her life, by all accounts, records, and letters left behind, she never actually saw the sea. Emily did have a beloved Newfoundland named Carlo though, presented to her by her father in 1849. Her devoted and constant companion, Carlo would die in 1866 and leave Emily feeling adrift.
Although far from well-traveled and being known for her reclusive nature, Emily’s imagination and knowledge allowed her to go many places in her mind. One Hundred and thirty-two years after the first posthumous publication of her work, we are lucky to go along with her as we read her words and continue to be delighted and mystified by them.
I do live near the sea and go often. It has always been “my place”. The following is what came to me yesterday as I sat with paper and pen and watched the tide come to kiss the shore.
Today’s first line comes from one of the earliest collections of Emily’s poetry published in 1896, 10 years after Emily’s death, by Mabel Loomis Todd, a family friend and also the mistress of Emily’s brother, Austin. Thomas H. Johnson published the entirety of Dickinson’s poems in 1955 and numbered them according to his judgment of chronology.
The original poem is just four lines and is said to be about her bedroom, where she spent most of her life and where the shadows certainly would have increased as she faced ill health in her last days.
I took the first line and reflected on my childhood, when books and writing were personal havens for me. Long after I should have been, I could almost always be found under the covers writing or between the covers of a book, being whisked off to an imaginary place I was reading about, or coveting some snippet of knowledge I had to sneak to learn. Indeed, it was my happy place and the hours that passed on there were never mourned.
From March- August you can even spend an hour or two in Emily’s own “mighty room”, which has been preserved in the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Click this link for details. (It’s definitely on my Post-Covid Bucket List!)
If you search for Emily Dickinson Christmas poems, your search won’t take too long. Number 37 is the only one I have found that mentions it.
Before the ice is in the pools —
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!
What we touch the hems of
On a summer’s day —
What is only walking
Just a bridge away —
That which sings so — speaks so —
When there’s no one here —
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?
J#37 Emily Dickinson
Not that Emily didn’t love the Christmas season. She was known far and wide for making and gifting her famous Black Cake during the holidays. It actually sounds delicious and I’m vowing to try my hand at it next year. Here’s a link for the recipe if you’re interested but be forewarned that the baking time is 3 -3 and 1/2 hours, low and slow!
I took a different path with the poem, as I always do, and incorporated a little science into mine. If you don’t remember the exact specifics of E,T,C, and P of the water cycle then now would be a good time to refresh your memory.
It’s also the perfect time for me to thank you for reading and following me on this Emily and Carol journey. Wishing you and yours all the very best this holiday season and always.
By all accounts Emily was not born an “unhappy child”, but she did go on to experience significant losses that affected her deeply and contributed to the abundant theme of death in her work. In her poem #646 Emily seems to say that there is a lot more joy out there to be had than she has experienced in her self-chosen cloistered life. She hints in the last stanza that a certain unnamed someone may hold the key to making it all Bliss:
I have known people who never seem to get a break, never find that golden ticket, and spend their whole lives trying to keep their heads above water, choking and almost drowning again and again along the way. They may experience slivers of happiness here and there, but Bliss is a foreign word to them because they just haven’t had the chance to experience it.
I also know that you can seemingly have it all, or what looks like it all, wrapped up beautifully in gold and still not have a life filled with Bliss. (defined as extreme happiness, utter joy). Life is just not like that, as tragedy and loss strike us all.
As our individual paths converge with others, we’d do well to remember that we have no idea what stories, burdens and losses others carry under the skin of their public self. What we do know is that a kindness, a hand or a smile reaching out to them, without a request or expectation back, is a universally appreciated gift.
This morning I went to have blood drawn for my upcoming physical and witnessed a perfect example of someone trying their best to make everyone smile, to bring a little Bliss to each person’s day. The lab tech’s name was Sandra and she had a kind word and or compliment for every person she dealt with. It took little effort, but you could tell that people appreciated her. They thanked her, laughed with her, or like me, wished her a wonderful day before they left. Then they took that little bit of happiness she shared with them and went their own ways, surely smiling under their masks and hopefully inspired to fulfill the butterfly effect and share it with someone else.
We’ve all experienced how one word, one interaction, can ruin a good day. We can’t individually solve everyone’s problems, but we each have the power to help bring a little bit of joy, bliss, or happiness to other’s days. And sometimes that goes a long way towards helping someone believe that life is truly good, prompting them to share that goodness with someone else, and making our world a kinder, gentler place for us all.
In her poem #604, Emily expressed her never waning passion for books. Known for being a homebody and preferring her book shelf and garden to engaging with others, she was a well read woman and like all writers, delighted in reading when she wasn’t writing.
Books have saved my life a thousand times. They’ve inspired me, challenged me, terrified me, delighted me, comforted me, enlightened me and expanded my understanding of humanity. I’m the girl that will walk straight to your bookshelf and peruse it for clues to who you are. Take me to a bookstore or library and you’ve opened the door to my heart. Don’t expect me to leave very soon though, for like Emily, I think books are better than Heaven.
I for one was extremely curious that Jesus actually was rapping back in the day. Could he have been the Original L L Cool J? Cool J’s real name is James and the LL stands for Ladies Love (Cool James). You know how everyone finds religion in prison? Jesus might have been LL Cool Jesus ( Lawbreakers Love Cool Jesus)!
Come to find out, Emily was writing about the other kind of rapping, Jesus rapping or knocking on a door. She goes on to write about how she begins rapping on the door of her beloved’s heart. In this instance, as in many in which Emily writes of an unnamed love, we can assume that the heart she was referring to was that of her beloved best friend and eventual sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, to whom she is said to have written and hand delivered this poem.
For my version of #317, I decided to visit current events here in the USA and speak to those who probably don’t want to hear what I have to say, but I’ve never been one to shy away from “Good Trouble”. You’ll have to imagine it spoken by a competent rapper, because that I am not.
In the words of the late great human rights activist Representative John Lewis:
“Just so- Jesus raps-“
Just so – so you know
I didn’t look like those pics they show.
But oh hell yeah- I did throw
the temple tables of all of those
making money as religion’s hoes.
Religion should help, religion should support.
Keep your right-wing asses out of court.
Get your feet
out on the street
and minister to people who need to eat.
Take your pro-life banner and tear it up.
Put your money where your mouth is and show my love.
Some say Emily Dickinson had a morbid fascination with death. Others see the fact that approximately 1/6th of all her poems and letters were about death as something not unusual for one who lived next to a cemetery and during a time when folks died of illnesses at a much younger age than we do today. Her poem #614 speaks of diggers attempting to find a man buried in rubble. Too late, the saving grace is Death, in that he is no longer suffering.
I saw the setting of the first line of #614 as a place where dreams die, aspirations are quashed and we sometimes don’t even understand that we have made ourselves prisoners. I imagined a frolic of mythical forest fairies engaging in a battle with death, attempting to coax it into and ward it off with their fairy ring of mushrooms, a place of legendary doom for non-fairy folk.
In researching fairy rings, I learned quite a bit and will definitely be on the lookout for them in the future. If there’s a full moon and you see me running around one nine times, from east to west (the direction of the sun), it will be in hopes of hearing the fairies dancing and frolicking underground. Please just watch from afar and don’t make me lose count, for legend has it if I run around a tenth time I will meet ill fate and be made to run to the point of exhaustion and death and/or perhaps become invisible.
According to some scholars, Dickinson’s poem #613 is quite the exercise in feminism. In it, she masterfully uses the imagery of a captive bird and speaks in a defiant voice about the struggles of being a female, expected to be silent and kept locked up by societal expectations of the mid 1800’s.
Although she never engaged in any public romantic relationships, researchers have long questioned the many cryptic references to “loves” in her poetry and posed questions about her private life and potential relationships with several men and also with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. In my version of this poem I imagine the coded language she used to send messages that would not be deemed appropriate during her time. Over a century and a half later, fans of her work are still looking for the meanings between her lines.
Note on “fascicles:
*During Dickinson’s intense writing period (1858-1864), she copied more than 800 of her poems into small booklets, forty in all, now called “fascicles.” She made the small volumes herself from folded sheets of paper that she stacked and then bound by stabbing two holes on the left side of the paper and tying the stacked sheets with string. She shared these with no one. They were discovered by her sister Lavinia after Emily’s death.
Yesterday I actually went in a few shops! After almost 15 pandemic months of staying out of most indoor public spaces, what use to be an ordinary act contained all the excitement of a winning lotto ticket coupled with the enjoyment of a yummy ice cream cone. My friend and I oohed and ahhed at all the cute little shops and lovely things we happened upon, enjoyed a scrumptious lunch and just had a really nice day. I fell in love with several unique papercraft pieces and came home and began working on my own flamingo. (pictured below)
Poetry is very subjective. Some believe poem #480 speaks about Dickinson’s love of God and others believe she is referencing her untold love for a man/woman. In both cases, the answer to the question asked in the first line -“Why do I love you Sir?” , is simply “because”. While acknowledging that love resists reason and logic, the narrator loves because it could not possibly be any other way. Today’s Carol and Emily poem speaks to being attracted to one who stands tall and proud in their “youness”, one not deterred by bullies, nor afraid to embrace their individuality.
I know I’m not always able to be that person, that unflappable flamingo. I’m a work in progress and the challenge to embrace my uniqueness, flaws, weaknesses and eccentricities is ongoing. May we all help each other find that path.
I’m back after taking a little break to delve into my other creative projects! I wrote this poem just this morning as memories of my 4 year old daughter skipped through my brain. In her poem, Emily spoke on one her favorite subjects, death. She seemed to be saying that one should be able to choose their manner of death, much as she chose her burial attire and the manner in which she wanted her own death to be recognized.
When she ventured outside her Amherst home, Emily explored as an avid naturalist, and spent much time surveying, cataloguing and appreciating the wide variety of life forms. As a mother of two young children, I sought to get them outside as much as possible and to let them learn from and experience all the wonders of the natural world. On one particular trek through the woods in back of our North Carolina mountain home, my 4 year old daughter came upon a tiny fallen bird, unmoving and sadly dead. This poem is about how she reacted.
The next morning we arrived at the doorway to her Montessori preschool and she presented the Directress with the shoebox containing her discovery. As all good teachers do, during morning circle she used it as a teaching moment, as the littles solemnly passed the box around and they talked about what might have happened to the tiny bird. A simple playground burial followed, with the preschoolers expressing their genuine and heartfelt care for the tiny creature. Life is beautiful and poignant, gentle and harsh. May we all be as bold as preschoolers in expressing that same kind of genuine and heartfelt care for each other.