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SPRING

 

It*s been a long time since I sent out a poem.  Here you will find two,
both on the season we are embarked on, spring.

 

I spent much of the past year revising the emails I have sent out
previously.  A friend suggested I turn them into a book, and I have.  The
manuscript is now searching for a publisher.

 

Following a suggestion from my son Dave, who found too many digressions in
my analyses of poems, I omitted some digressions and turned others into
footnotes.  I*ve stayed with the convention of using footnotes here.  I
hope they won*t turn you off.  They are not intended to be scholarly
apparatus, but conversational additions which you might want to encounter.
And if not, if you want to go straight to the chase, you are obviously free
to ignore the footnotes.

 

 

I dreaded that first Robin, so

            Emily Dickinson

 

I dreaded that first Robin, so,

But He is mastered, now,

I'm accustomed to Him grown,

He hurts a little, though〞

 

I thought if I could only live

Till that first Shout got by〞

Not all Pianos in the Woods

Had power to mangle me〞

 

I dared not meet the Daffodils〞

For fear their Yellow Gown

Would pierce me with a fashion

So foreign to my own〞

 

I wished the Grass would hurry〞

So〞when 'twas time to see〞

He'd be too tall, the tallest one

Could stretch〞to look at me〞

 

I could not bear the Bees should come,

I wished they'd stay away

In those dim countries where they go,

What word had they, for me?

 

They're here, though; not a creature failed〞

No Blossom stayed away

In gentle deference to me〞

The Queen of Calvary〞

 

Each one salutes me, as he goes,

And I, my childish Plumes,

Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment

Of their unthinking Drums〞

 

 

 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud 

That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 

When all at once I saw a crowd, 

A host, of golden daffodils; 

Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

 

Continuous as the stars that shine 

And twinkle on the milky way, 

They stretched in never-ending line 

Along the margin of a bay: 

Ten thousand saw I at a glance, 

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. 

 

The waves beside them danced; but they 

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: 

A poet could not but be gay, 

In such a jocund company: 

I gazed〞and gazed〞but little thought 

What wealth the show to me had brought: 

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie 

In vacant or in pensive mood, 

They flash upon that inward eye 

Which is the bliss of solitude; 

And then my heart with pleasure fills, 

And dances with the daffodils. 

 

 

Vermont is in full spring as I write. The crocus and scilla have blossomed
and are gone, the daffodils are fading, the tulips are in full bloom.
Cherry and apple and pear are a riot of blossoms.  The trees are leafing and
flowering, reminding me as always that as Robert Frost wrote, ※Nature*s
first green is gold.§

 

It seems appropriate, then, to consider a spring poem.  I will, in fact,
consider two, one by Emily Dickinson, one by William Wordsworth.  They could
not be more opposite.  Dickinson fears spring, Wordsworth wants to retain
it.  Dickinson is undone by the season, Wordsworth is sustained by it.
Dickinson*s lines put us at the forefront of a poetry that searches at the
margins of language and experiment; Wordsworth*s run the risk 每 I hate to
say it 每 of sentimentality and triteness.

 

Yet I think we should read them in tandem.  Dickinson seems to me deep, very
deep, extraordinarily sensitive to human experience.  Wordsworth skirts, as
I hesitatingly just said, the sentimental and the trite.  When I think of
spring, I think of Dickinson.  Yet for all its flaws 每 that sentimentality
每 Wordsworth*s poem is very great, and speaks as deeply to me as
Dickinson*s.  Maybe even more deeply.

 

Let*s dive into each poem.  Dickinson*s poem was composed more than half a
century after Wordsworth*s, but let*s consider it first.  A harder poem to
read, it might be in the end a poem that is easier to cope with.

 

※I dreaded that first Robin, so§ is, as almost all her poems are, written
in quatrains, using what is called common meter 每 alternating lines of
iambic (unstressed/stressed syllables) verse, with the first and third lines
containing four feet and the second and fourth three feet.  Eight syllables,
six, eight, six.  Conventionally the second and fourth lines rhyme, as in
the fourth stanza, where ※§see§ and ※me§ rhyme .   Dickinson avoids the
numbing affect of regular rhymes, however, by using a great deal of slant
rhyme 每 syllables which are related but do not duplicate vowel sounds.  As
in ※now§ and ※though§ in the first stanza, and ※by§ and ※me§ in the
second.§

   

(Attentive readers will notice how Dickinson violates these rules, not just
with slant rhymes but with full rhymes that do not &fit* the rules.  In
the first stanza, the first and fourth lines rhyme (※so§ and ※though§)
not the second and fourth.  The conventional rhyme is asserted in stanza
four (※see§ and ※me§), only to continue with an identical rhyme 每 on
※me§ 每 in line four of the fifth stanza and line three of the sixth.
Which is then picked up as a couplet in that sixth stanza,: ※me,§
※Calvary.§ 

 

Why all this attention to rhyme?  As I have written before, I think William
Carlos Williams, the master of free verse in the twentieth century, got it
right: Poems are ※words rhythmically organized.§  Rhyme is one of the
primary constituents of rhythmic and sonorous repetition.  What makes poems
is not their thematic concerns, but the undergirding of order beneath and
around the words.  The perceptions in the poem are given structure.
Structure takes those perceptions outside the hurly-burly of the moment and
of everyday life.  Order redeems the momentary from the anarchy of our
experience.  

 

Sound patterns are essential to poems.  Well, to the poems I admire: there
is also poetry for the eye, which provides the order in what we see[1] on
the page rather than in what we hear, but I tend to think they are less
powerful than poems whose armature is an aural pattern that can be both
regular and complex. [A note on reading footnotes in this email.  In some
email versions 每 for me, Yahoo 每 a click on the footnote itself brings it
into view.  You will however then be at the end of the document 每 you*ll
have to scroll upwards to get back to where you were reading.    In others
每 for me, Outlook 每 putting the cursor over the footnote allows the
footnote to hover on the screen.]

 

This is a lot of talk before we even get into the poem, yet it is important.
For if Emily Dickinson pushes toward the edges of experience and language,
she does so in the most conventional of forms, common meter.  The interplay
between her transgressions of what we ordinarily expect and the underlying
regularity of her poetic form is part, I think, of what makes her poems as
powerful and successful as they are.   

 

I dreaded that first Robin, so,

But He is mastered, now,

I'm accustomed to Him grown,

He hurts a little, though〞

 

What a shock.  Really.  A shock.  Those nice birds, traditional harbingers
of spring, robins.  Often with fondness called the robin redbreast.    And
yet the second word of the poem is &dreaded.*  Dickinson quickly tells us
that when the robins appear in spring (for she is writing of ※that first
Robin§), the emotion she feels is dread.  Not surprise, not joy, not
satisfaction.  Dread.  Astonishing.  We are in a land very different from
the country of polite conversation and conventional understanding.

 

Who among us would associate the first robin of spring with dread?  Not even
T. S. Eliot, who began his greatest poem The Waste Land with the shocking
line, ※April is the cruelest month.§  He is general, not specific as
Dickinson is in her poem.  And in his epic poem, he immediately proceeds to
tell us why April is so cruel (※breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing/ Memory and desire.§  Those perky robins?  Dread?  With Dickinson,
all our conventional expectations go out the window.  We are in territory
that will, when we examine it, seem superbly human, but which no one has
ever articulated before in quite this manner.  

 

What does Dickinson do with the dread that she has introduced in the first
line?  She tells us she masters it.  Well, sort of masters: but not
entirely.  For as soon as she tells us ※He is mastered now§ she takes it
back.  ※I*m accustomed to him Grown§ she says, but then states that the
mastering and accustoming is not really successful: ※He hurts a little,
though.§  So the robins, and her dread, are only partially mastered.  There
is still hurt, still the residue of that dread.

 

I love the next stanza, though I should acknowledge I love the whole poem.  

 

I thought if I could only live

Till that first Shout got by〞

Not all Pianos in the Woods

Had power to mangle me〞

 

What a stanza, how opposite to what we shall encounter in Wordsworth!
Utterly strange.  The cheep of the robin in the first two lines is turned
into a loud sound, a ※shout,§ and then in an image I can only call
surrealist 每 a half century before surrealism was invented 每 the speaker
of the poem is mangled by a sound so strange that ※not all pianos in the
woods§ could surpass it in horror.  Pianos of course are not in woods,
which accounts for the strangeness, the shock, of the image.  And mangle 每
well, we use the word without thinking of the metaphor involved in it.  A
mangle is a large machine for pressing laundry to remove the water remaining
in the fabric.  That*s the Latinate derivation of the word.  The
Anglo-Norman derivation is from the verb ※to maim.§  Both, of course,
work.  Both indicate how grievously assaulted she is by the reappearance of
the robin in springtime. A seemingly sweet, cheerful, red-breasted bird
appears and the speaker of the poem is mangled by its seemingly innocent
&cheep cheep[2].*

 

            After the &hurt* and the &mangled* we are not unprepared for
the disclosure that spring daffodils, garbed in cheerful yellow, can provoke
fear, nor for the revelation that these frilly transitory flowers have a
capacity to &pierce* the poet:

 

I dared not meet the Daffodils〞

For fear their Yellow Gown

Would pierce me with a fashion

So foreign to my own〞

 

Dickinson describes the bright yellow color, so regularly associated with
light and hopefulness, as a costume in a ※fashion/ So foreign to my own.§
She has nothing in common with the daffodils, whose very existence provokes
fear 每 we are back to the &dread* with which the poem opened 每 in a poet
who we are coming to recognize is living at the edge of her sensibilities.
Every single thing assaults her, touching a consciousness so open to the
world, an emotional existence so undefended against raw perception, that she
is exposed to hurt on every side.

 

            The grass?  She wants to hide lest it see her distress at the
renewal of the world in spring.  

 

I wished the Grass would hurry〞

So〞when 'twas time to see〞

He'd be too tall, the tallest one

Could stretch〞to look at me〞

 

I could not bear the Bees should come,

I wished they'd stay away

In those dim countries where they go,

What word had they, for me?

 

The bees?  Again, another assault, ※I could not bear the Bees should
come,§ followed by a childish wish that they ※stay away,§ a wish contra
naturam, against nature.   The bees come from ※dim countries,§ an allusion
perhaps to the warms tropics where hummingbirds and monarch butterflies
migrate in winter, perhaps to a sheltered hibernation so different from the
vitality of the resurgent spring.  

 

It is very clear that the bees, and the new grass, and the daffodils, and
that first robin, are denizens of a world in which the speaker of the poem
is an alien.  They speak a language 每 let me read the poem symbolically for
a moment 每 of rebirth, or return to vitality, that is not the poet*s.
Neither the language, nor what it is intended to convey.  ※What word had
they, for me?§  She will define this ※me§ more precisely in the following
stanza.

 

Stunning, the next phrase.  So emphatic, so clear.  She cannot stop nature
or natural progress.  ※They*re here, though:§

 

They're here, though; not a creature failed〞

No Blossom stayed away

In gentle deference to me〞

The Queen of Calvary〞

 

※They*re here, though;/ not a creature failed.§  She quietly asserts that
there is a cruelty to the natural world.  Even though she is grieving,
filled with loss, ※The Queen of Calvary[3],§ she understands 每 for this
is what spring does to her〞that the denizens of the natural world return,
revivified, reborn.  While she must endure, grieving.  Nor does the natural
world show her any deference, or recognize the loss that she and other
humans, other consciousnesses, must cope with.  She has lost so much that
she is the queen of Calvary, but the world returns as it always was: the
robins, the daffodils, the grass, the bees.

 

In the final stanza, stateliness is suggested by a different tone than that
of her horrifying realization that ※they*re here though, not a creature
failed 每/ No Blossom stayed away.§

 

Each one salutes me, as he goes,

And I, my childish Plumes,

Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment

Of their unthinking Drums〞

 

Although nature shows no deference to her grief[4] the natural world appears
to ※salute* her, to recognize that she exists, even as that natural world
proceeds apace in its renewal.  In return for that &salute,* Dickinson
accepts that the vernal parade 每 ※no Blossom stayed away 每 is not without
its formality.  It is a funeral procession. She is the queen of losses, both
emblem of and captive to what has ended.  

 

※And I, my childish Plumes,/ Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement.§  What
does she, in her sense of loss (※bereaved§) acknowledge?  That the
procession of life and renewal continues and that ※no creature failed§ to
stay away; that the drumbeat of the cycles of life will go onward whether
she wants that parade to go forth or not.

 

As so often in Dickinson*s poems, she is left as an alien in the world,
separated from it by what alienated her.  Consciousness.  To be aware is to
be separate from nature and the world of things.  The natural world sounds,
significantly,  ※their unthinking Drums.§  

 

In some of her poems, consciousness is the compensation for what it causes
her to lose, an ease at being-in-the-world.  Not here. The poem*s speaker
is bereaved and without comfort.  Spring has come and made her aware of how
fully alien she is on the shore of the advancing season.  ※Not a creature#
stayed away.§  The poet remains, lifting her plumes 每 childish ones, at
that 每 ※in bereaved acknowledgement§ that her consciousness stands apart
from and a stranger to the procession of renewal, that her mind in spring is
assaulted by dread and not capable of transforming the world into a place
less haunted by loss.

 

William Wordsworth probably wrote ※I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud§ in 1804,
two years after the experience of daffodils he recounts in the poem.   Owing
to the near-miraculous power of looking things up on the web[5], I can begin
with the experience itself, recounted by Wordsworth*s sister (and closest
companion) Dorothy in her journals.

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close
to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore &
that the little colony had so sprung up 每 But as we went along there were
more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there
was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country
turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy
stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a
pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if
they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they
looked so gay ever dancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the
lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few
yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity &
unity & life of that one busy highway 每 We rested again & again. The Bays
were stormy & we heard the waves at different distances & in the middle of
the water like the Sea.

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802

This specific, actual event is what is recounted in the poem: this is the
poem*s donn谷, its &given.*  Although, as we shall see, the gap in time
between the event and the writing of the poem is immensely significant: the
poem is more about memory and its rejuvenating powers than it is about
daffodils!

 

The opening line is one of the most famous in English literature.  Like a
lot of what we think we know, it bears close scrutiny.  ※I wandered lonely
as a cloud.§  Most striking about that line, I think, is not the loneliness
it seems to refer to 每 I think we tend to read, correctly, the loneliness
as a state of solitude, as one cloud drifting across the sky 每 but the
untetheredness[6] of the cloud.   &Floating* above the solid ground.  For
the second line emphasizes this untetheredness:  ※I wandered lonely as a
cloud/ That floats on high o*er hills and vales.§

 

I want to emphasize that untetheredness, that lack of grounding, because in
the magnificent final stanza the poet will no longer be unmoored, but will
find himself anchored in what he once saw.  The poem, and we are getting
ahead of ourselves here, is about grounding, about being connected to
nature, to one*s life, to what we might grandly call &existence.* 

 

But let us not get ahead of ourselves.  This is ostensibly a spring poem
since its subject is the blooming of wild daffodils[7] along the shore of a
lake.  The poem is at times flabby and trite 每 I cannot defend &a crowd, a
host, of glorious daffodils.*  What does &host* add to the poem, except a
foot in the scansion?  &Twinkling stars*?  Any good editor would say: CUT!
※Tossing their heads in sprightly dance§?  Right out of a book for
children, a platitudinous book at that.  Or, in stanza three, the
combination of ※glee§ and ※gay§? As they said in the old comic strips,
&Yikes!*

 

But beneath the flabbiness is a poetic sensibility, and by this I mean not
something trite but that sort of attentive ear that we saw at work in
Dickinson*s poem.  The meter is more regular than in Dickinson*s poem,
almost 每 almost 每 to the point of boredom.  The rhyme scheme is likewise
regular 每 ABABCC 每 and all the rhymes are too-pleasantly full, not a slant
rhyme among them.  

 

And yet: the rhyme scheme is not as simple as this.  Yes, it is ABABCC
throughout, but the recurrence of rhymes 每 and here we get into slant
rhymes 每 is more thoroughgoing than we might expect.  Here is the way I
would transcribe the rhymes, using a [∩] for a slant rhyme. The first two
stanzas are conventional:

            ABABCC

            DEDEFF

But at this point, halfway through the poem, the numbing regularity takes a
dramatic turn

            EC∩EC∩GG

            E∩A∩E∩A∩BB

 

As with Dickinson, the sound patterns anchor the poem.  In hers, they
counter what I called &the hurly-burly of the moment.*  In Wordsworth*s
poem, the complexity of the rhyme scheme counters, I think, the sense we
might otherwise have that the poem is trite and simplistic.    

 

Back to the first stanza.  The wandering poet is transfixed by what he sees,
※a crowd,/a host[8], of glorious daffodils.§

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud 

That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 

When all at once I saw a crowd, 

A host, of golden daffodils; 

Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

 

Then, like a good reporter, having given us the &what,* he proceeds to
give use the &where* (※Beside the lake, beneath the trees§) and the
&how*: those daffodils were moving, perhaps even to some rhythm unknown to
the poet but not unperceived by him (&dancing§) as they fluttered and
swayed in the gentle wind of spring.

 

            The poet, then, is wandering &as free as a cloud* while the
daffodils, ※Fluttering§ in the breeze are nonetheless rooted bedside the
lake, beneath the trees.  He is more free than they. Although they do seem
to move to some natural music.  

 

The daffodils are, through simile, like the stars in the night sky, a great
multiplicity of them making a sort of belt along the lake.  The ※twinkle§
may indicate the similarity between the stars and the daffodils in movement
as they are touched by the breeze, but that word is, as I suggested earlier,
awfully trite.  ※Continuous§ and ※never-ending,§ they continue the dance
proposed by the previous stanza.

 

Continuous as the stars that shine 

And twinkle on the milky way, 

They stretched in never-ending line 

Along the margin of a bay: 

Ten thousand saw I at a glance, 

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. 

 

That dance?  A secret music, the music of nature[9], heard in some sense by
both the near and small (daffodils) and the distant and immense (twinkling
stars in the Milky Way, the reflection of our galaxy to yourselves).  

 

Dancing appears a third time in the following stanza, and on concluding the
poem we realize it has emerged in each of the poem*s stanzas, for it will
reappear again in the final line of the fourth and final stanza.  Here, the
small waves reflect the sunlight, waves beyond but not unconnected to the
daffodils in flower. 

 

The waves beside them danced; but they 

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: 

A poet could not but be gay, 

In such a jocund company: 

I gazed〞and gazed〞but little thought 

What wealth the show to me had brought: 

 

But whatever twinkles in the stars at night or glints off the ripples in the
lake, the swaying of the daffodils surpasses them in joyful movement.  The
flowers ※outdid the waves in glee.§  And, responding, the poet emulates
the flowers.  He himself is gay and joyful.  

 

We are a long way from Emily Dickinson*s robin and those daffodils which
※pierce§  her.  Spring which was for Dickinson a time of extreme and awful
alienation is for Wordsworth a time of connectedness.  In one poem the poet
finds ※glee§ and ※joy;§ in the other ※dread§ and a sense of being
※foreign.§  Wordsworth approaches the daffodils as emblems of the spring,
※a jocund[10] company.§  His poem is about what we might call a
&conventional* spring, the kind of poem we might expect.  The world
flowers, all is joy, the harsh winter has retreated.

 

And yet, and yet.  What is not conventional thus far in the poem is the
connectedness he sees in the natural world, both animate and inanimate, in
daffodils and stars and waves.  All are ※dancing.§  The vision is 每 hold
on to your hats, the history of philosophy is coming 每 that of Baruch
Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who saw the universe as unitary, in
opposition to Descartes, who preceded him, and saw existence as divided into
subject and object.  A major student of Spinoza in our day, Steven Nadler
writes of the opening propositions of the Spinoza*s Ethics, ※Spinoza
presents the basic elements of his picture of God.  God is the infinite,
necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe.
There is only one substance in the universe; it is God; and everything else
that is, is in God.§  What Wordsworth experiences by the lake is that the
daffodils are connected to everything else.  Everything dances 每 and
blossoms and is joyful.

 

And then there is the sense that the ※wealth§ he sees is something that
enriches him:

 

I gazed〞and gazed〞but little thought 

What wealth the show to me had brought.

 

I love that ※I gazed〞and gazed.§   I know we could call it a redundancy,
saying the same thing twice, but the repetition here seems to connote the
amazement he feels at what he sees,  daffodils stretching ※in never-ending
line§ along the shores of the lake.  That repetition exemplifies his
wondrous, omnivorous gazing.  The poet is taking in what he sees before him,
taking it in hugely.  

 

There is a gap between the experience recounted in the first three stanzas
of the poem and the final stanza.  We can be certain of that gap because in
the first three stanzas the verbs are all in the past tense.  The encounter
with the daffodils along the lake happened in the past.  In the final
stanza, the verbs are all in the present tense (※flash#fills#dances§).
Resting on a couch in  the city, Wordsworth is thinking back 每 lying on the
couch happens in the present 每 to what he had experienced several years
earlier.  

 

In his famous ※Preface§ to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800),
Wordsworth wrote that ※Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful
feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.§
What this poem does is recall emotion, although whether the poet is tranquil
or not is in some doubt.  What cannot be doubted, though, is that his
emotion 每 ※glee§ when he sees the long line of blooming, dancing
daffodils 每 is recollected and that the glee then overflows into the poem.

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie 

In vacant or in pensive mood, 

They flash upon that inward eye 

Which is the bliss of solitude; 

And then my heart with pleasure fills, 

And dances with the daffodils. 

 

Let us look closely to that final stanza, where the poet lies on his couch
and recollects.  The last stanza, it seems to me, redeems the poem, rescues
it from the sentimentality toward which its words have strayed.  Reclining,
clearly indoors and not outdoors, quite obviously settled and no longer
wandering lonely as a cloud, the poet is neither gay nor jocund but ※in
vacant or in pensive mood.§  I very much think that the couch is in a room
in the city 每 for that would be in stark contrast to the open countryside
in which the previous stanzas are set 每 but cannot support the urban
setting save by referring to a romantic trope, that of the weary
city-dweller[11] who can only be saved by the natural world that is
encountered in the countryside.  

 

Salvation does arrive in this poem as the poet, ※in vacant or in pensive
mood,§ suddenly recalls the daffodils, which ※flash upon that inward
Eye.§  In the imagination the retained visual memory of the daffodils
emerges, displacing emptiness and the weariness of too much introspection.
The imagination, that ※inward eye§ is called the ※bliss of solitude§ in
the poem.  We readers are drawn into agreement not because the line is a
statement, but because the movement of the poem itself shows us how in
solitude the poet, ※vacant§ and ※pensive,§ finds bliss as his
imagination feeds on memory.  

 

We have seen the scene he once saw; now, in this final stanza, we see the
poet dealing with vacancy through the sudden remembrance of what he saw
years before.  ※The inward eye# is the bliss of solitude§ is a summary of
what he has experienced just before writing and continues to experience as
he writes.  Lying on that couch, his mind*s eye recalls the crowd of
daffodils, the ※never-ending line§ of them.  His vacancy and pensiveness
are supplanted by joy.  ※Bliss§ comes to the poet in his study. Existence,
what is actually happening to the poet as he writes, precedes the esthetic
generalization that the imagination is our hope and the potential source of
※bliss.§  

 

That last stanza is deeper by far than at first appears.  It is time for us
to remember that dancing has appeared throughout the poem, once in each
stanza. First, the daffodils dance, then the waves, then again the
daffodils.  But in this concluding stanza, in the present of the poem, what
dances is the poet*s heart.  Not only does he remember the flowering, the
rebirth, the glee of spring: banishing his vacant mood, his heart now
※dances with the daffodils.§ 

 

We are back to Spinoza.  We find that all is one: flowers, stars, waves,
past, present, the poet.  It is all a dance.  Through the imagination,
※that inward eye,§ the oneness of existence makes itself manifest.  All is
celebration, all is dance, all is gay and jocund and ※bliss§ and
※pleasure.§

 

Spring brings &dread* to Dickinson.  To Wordsworth it brings an image that
can and will sustain him when, to cite another of his poems, ※the world is
too much with us.§  Is spring an assault or as a means to our salvation?

 

Who is right, Dickinson or Wordsworth?   ※The question is absurd,[12]§ for
we do not have to choose.  The likelihood is that contradiction, disallowed
by logic, is a condition in which we can and do live.   Let me give the
final word to two of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace
Stevens, both of whom consider the need, or capacity, to embrace opposites
even if logic denies them.

 

Hopkins writes in ※Carrion Comfort§: 

 

※O which one? is it each one?§

 

Stevens writes near the conclusion of ※Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction§: 

He had to choose. But it was not a choice

Between excluding things. It was not a choice

 

Between, but of. He chose to include the things

That in each other are included, the whole,

The complicate, the amassing harmony.

 

Yes, perhaps both Dickinson and Wordsworth, opposite as their poems are, can
both be right about spring. 

 

 

 

 

 

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  _____  

[1] Visual poetry, often called &concrete poetry* today, has a long
history in English, perhaps the most famous examples being George Herbert*s
※The Altar§ and ※Easter Wings,§ both written in the early 17th century.
Herbert is of course primarily noted for the use of versification and meter
rather than visual shape to moor his verse.  

Guillaume Apollinaire is one of my favorite poets.  French, early twentieth
century, close friend of Picasso, his early poetry was purely verbal, but
the radical experience of the First World War 每 where he served as an
infantryman and was ultimately wounded so severely he died 每 literally
reshaped his poems so that they are structured by both sound and vision.
Poems from his Calligrammes can be found on the web, both in the original 
French and at times in English translations.  ※Le Petit Auto§ (※The
Little Car§) is to my mind spectacularly successful, as a poem about the
instant when one realizes a war is about to commence, as a lyric meditation,
and (in the middle) as a calligramme of a small car.

 

[2] Here is a discovery which will enrich you, even if you are unconvinced
that Dickinson and Wordsworth have much to say to you.  If you have a
smartphone, you can download ※Merlin§  for free (although it uses a lot of
memory.)  Merlin will help you identify 440 North American birds.  Not only
with photos, but with their songs.  Want to know what a robin*s call sounds
like?  Merlin will play it for you.  If you want the heavy-hitter among bird
identifiers, spring for twenty bucks and get the pro*s choice: the ※Sibley
Birds of North America.§  There is also a &lite* version of Sibley for
free#

[3] There is an unfortunate tendency to patronize Dickinson, to see her as
&little Emily,*  This is, despite poems which indicate lack of stature in
the world 每 most of them like the one before us, indicating a sense of
alienation from the world, a sense of the exceptional strangeness
being-in-the-world presents of a self-aware consciousness 每 indicates that
any such patronizing is entirely unjustified.  In this line, Dickinson takes
on the role of Mary, mother of God.  Not some small creature cowering,
solitary, in her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts.  

We would do well to remember this.  Walt Whitman, her contemporary, so often
accused of grandiosity 每 ※Song of Myself§ begins, ※I celebrate myself
and sing myself§ 每 has nothing on Dickinson, who for all her alienation
from the world, for all her conflicted discomfort at claiming her own
selfhood, can still see herself as a reincarnation of the mother of God!

 

[4] What grief?  In this poem it is relatively undefined, at least in
particulars.  The speaker of the poem is the queen of losses.  What losses?
Other poems suggest specific losses: death of her friends and relations,
loss of her hopes for herself, the loss of confidence which accompanies her
awareness that she will never be one with nature or the world, the
fragmented and alienated consciousness.  It is not a specific loss Dickinson
addresses here, but the individual*s awareness that time does not bring
renewal to the individual mind as it does to the natural world in the cycle
of the yea.  Time, for humans, brings loss. For Dickinson, in this poem,
nature*s time is cyclical and human time is linear.  The lack of fit
between two kinds of time produces &dread,* &mangled-ness,*
&piercing,* &foreignness.*  In a word, loss.  Ho different her poem is
from Wordsworth*s, which we will read shortly.

 

[5] I could have course gone to the library and looked at Dorothy
Wordsworth*s Journals.  But the web has transformed the way we read and
study.  Not always for the best, I should add, although in this case it is a
positive boon!

 

[6] I have made up this word.  It seems to me precise, better than more
conventional terminology such as &unmoored* or even the word Wordsworth
chooses, free-floating.

 

[7] I once had, myself, an experience deeply congruent with what Wordsworth
describes in this poem.  Not by a lake, but on the side of a small mountain.
It was springtime, and I was out for a walk with some friends in Tuscany.
Not a hike, not a stroll, but a walk up the side of the mountain.  I can*t
remember if we reached, even tried to reach, the peak.  What I can recall,
and I knew as I saw it that it would be forever etched in my memory, was a
grassy hillside which was stunningly comingled with wild daffodils.
Short-stemmed, brilliantly yellow.  They do not, in memory, dance in the
breeze.  They are just there, one of the greatest floral displays of my
lifetime.  I could barely comprehend the scene, so many were the flowers, so
miraculously there.  

Wordsworth writes of a youthful experience, coming home from a dance that
lasted all night, of seeing the dawn break above the meadows.  

to the brim

          My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows

          Were then made for me; bond unknown to me

          Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,

          A dedicated Spirit. On I walked

          In thankful blessedness, which yet survives.

That day on the Tuscan hillside I in fact made no vows, and vows were not
made for me, nor bond (Wordsworth is speaking of his profound commitment to
vision and poetry that was bolstered at that moment).   But I think the
blessedness survives.

After the walk, one of our party fried a jointed rabbit in a pan over a wood
fire.  The combination of those daffodils, and that meal, has lasted in my
recollection.  It was, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote of such
things, a &peak experience* in my life.  Seeing daffodils in such profuse
array, in the wild, is unforgettable.

 

[8] I said earlier that ※a crowd,/ A host§ is flabby, meaning that the
redundancy of the terms for &a multitude* goes against our sense that a
poem must be economical to be well-made.  But at the same time I do not want
to lose the sense of these words: that the observer-poet is so stunned  by
what he sees, by how many daffodils there are before him, that a repetition
of the concept of &many* is necessary to convey his feeling of shock at
what he sees.  

 

[9] The music is natural, or what the ancients called &the harmony of the
spheres.*  It is not the wonderfully described ※still, sad music of
humanity/  Nor harsh nor grating§ that Wordsworth proposes in ※Tintern
Abbey,§ a meditative poem he wrote six years earlier.  

 

 

[10] Jocund: lighthearted cheerful.  From the Latin, jovare, to delight.  

 

[11] Wordsworth*s closest friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote in ※Frost
at Midnight,§

For I was reared 

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, 

And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. 

These lines contrast with Wordsworth*s own upbringing, in the largely wild
Lake District of northwestern England.

 

[12] The line is Auden*s, although in a remarkably different context.  See
his ※The Unknown Citizen§ (1939).