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!)
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.
– Emily Dickinson
The first stanza of this poem is one that is well known. What I get from this collection of Emily’s words is that Hope doesn’t cost a thing. Granted, the cost of fulfilling those hopes might take more than wishful thinking, but no matter our station in life, we can all afford the miniscule cost of giving another soul hope.
Because it’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve got other projects calling my name, I’m not going to write my version of Emily’s poem #254 today. I’m going to cross over to my other blog and share my wish for all of you, that as you leave 2021 behind and enter into 2022, you take these words to heart, knowing that you were made for joy.
191 years ago today, Emily Dickinson was born. How amazed would she be to know that her words would survive and become such a legacy to the world? As a little girl, she was the first of many poets I would come to admire and treasure, poets that would inspire me and make me marvel at the mystery of it all, as well as the magic created by mere consonants and vowels put together in just the right way to reveal entire astonishing worlds.
As we celebrate her life today, I imagine that being the introvert that she was, like me, she would at times find a celebrated public life tedious.
The first poem I ever memorized was her #600:
One of the many ways I relate to Emily is in the comfort found in nature, wherein lies a soothing solace, a buzzing energy, and an all-encompassing mystery that one desires fervently to live in and write about. Emily had her gardens. I have the oceans and the multitudes of life they hold. We have both found inspiration and understanding through the act of writing.
From Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Emily attended at 16, she wrote to a friend at home,
Emily refused to be part of the flock. For her failure to accept the veneer of things, she was dubbed by the principal of the school to be one of the “No hopers”, the group of girls who were labeled as having no hope of salvation. I would venture to guess that quite a few of my own teachers had me on a similar list.
Maria Popova in The Marginalian writes of Emily Dickinson:
Peering through “the pinhole of surprising” or “telling it slant” is something Emily was quite adept at, as in poem #1263 she writes;
Being the skilled poet that she was, she didn’t seek “define” the truth, which opened the window of understanding and connection to readers who each approach it via different circuits and on their own terms. As an adult, I’ve come to understand that we do not all share the same truths, nor should we be expected to and as writer I hope to accomplish the same thing Emily did in her poems.
From an early age Emily broke with convention, not accepting the traditional role and conventions that women of her time were expected to adhere too. Veering off road like that can sometimes be a painful and solitary trek, something I can personally attest to. But doing so also allows for individuality and maximum growth, which I explore in my alteration of poem #600.
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.
If we have ever loved a pet or human, we know this to be true. That even after they are gone from this physical realm, they live on in our hearts. If you were to Google quotes about love and life you should be prepared to go down a chasmic rabbit hole, only to emerge weeks later with one great truth- stated a thousand different ways in a myriad of languages, cultures and religions…
“To love and to be loved is the greatest happiness of existence.”
Sydney Smith, in Lady Holland’s Memoir (1855), “Of Friendship”
And if ever there was a poignant pregnant line spoken by a character and lived for too short a time by the actor who played him, it is this one.
“Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society
In the first line of her poem, Dickinson likened love to immortality and I have done the same with my poem, while exploring the quality of a life without love, or as in Robin Williams’s case, a life so clouded by depression that one is rendered unable to sustain him/herself. We can survive for a time on all the other things, the scraps, like wealth, recognition, applause, etc., but on the table of life the main dish is love and if we don’t get to partake in and share that, no amount of those other things will ever satiate our souls.
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.
It seems much of what I’ve written lately follows the theme of both random and not so random worrisome thoughts swirling through my mind at inopportune times. Times when I need to clear my head, relax, or sleep peacefully. I could try to assign it to Pandemic Brain, but this phenomenon is not at all unusual for me. I tend to plan in my mind for the worst case scenarios so I will be relieved when anything less than that happens. As a mother, I still irrationally question what part I have in any unfortunate situations my adult child gets into. That mother guilt. Those what ifs. Those if onlys. Those would have, should have, could haves.
In her poem #701, Emily wrote of having a thought reoccur Deja vu-like (my interpretation), but being unable to determine from where it came. I’m sure many of us can relate to both of these instances.
The themes of death and prayer come up often in Emily Dickinson’s work. Her #476 recounts praying to God only that she might be content and also go to Heaven. She then experiences a feeling of doubt about the Bible verse ,”Whatsoever you asketh, that shall be given you,” renders herself fooled like a child and moves on. Many of her poems reflect the conflicts and doubts she experienced when it came to committing herself to the organized Christian church. Unlike the rest of her devout family who went to church each Sunday, Emily preferred to keep the Sabbath at home.
My poem #476 is quite different from Emily’s. It deals with a “first world problem”, the issue of having experienced a higher standard of living and later not feeling inclined to settle for anything less!
The collage background I chose for this poem is just a fun little thing I did with leftover scraps from another decoupage project. I delighted in making it, so I guess that’s its connection to today’s poem #868. Emily’s poem was about flowers and all the other “darlings of the soil”. Mine recounts the first 5 things that came to mind as I pondered delight. PerhapsI’veprompted you to do the same.