Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Spotlight on another gift today, one that my mother gave me a few months ago, a gift that was unconnected to any celebration.  How wonderful is that! To my list of what kind of gifts are best, add the following:  a gift given for no reason other than the giver thought the recipient would really like it.  I saw this and thought of you. Or in the case of this gift, pictured above, I saw on your blog that you didn’t understand Emily Dickinson and the next day I happened to read a review of this book and I thought it might be helpful. My mother’s gift is all the more unexpected and sweet because she is not one for impulse or indulgent purchases.  Frugality is the instinct of her generation but also of her particular circumstance.  In raising eleven children with a constant worry that the family was headed to the poorhouse, she learned to do without.  Which is an understatement for someone who served powdered milk, sewed her own clothes, and wrapped presents in newspaper comics.

Thank you, Mom!  The book is a wonder.  It’s the perfect bathroom book and I say this not because the pages are like silk and in a pinch would feel not unpleasant on my bummy.  You can dip into the book at any point, read two or three pages, and flush with the accomplished feeling that you understand a new poem. Poetry scholar Helen Vendler takes 150 of Dickinson’s poems and not only explains them, she opens each one up, throws the doors wide open and amazes readers with how much is going on behind Dickinson’s plain style and compact verses. I’m in awe of Helen Vendler almost as much as Dickinson.  She’s a perfect guide.  How nice it would be to have Ms. Vendler take me by the hand through the halls of poetry, pointing out things I hadn’t noticed and explaining what I thought I couldn’t understand.

She’s an interesting gal, this Helen Vendler.  She majored in chemistry as an undergrad and got a Fulbright scholarship to study math, but here she is, one of our most esteemed literary critics.  You can read a wonderful interview with her here, where she weighs in on everything from the importance of memorizing poetry to how her study of science relates to her work with poetry.  I just love her big big brain and good sense.

She’s written a book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in a similar format to the Dickinson one.  As long as I’ve got presents on the brain, I might as well mention that if anyone related to me is thinking about Christmas presents, her Shakespeare book is at the top of my list.

all ready for Helen

I really could use a new book in the guest bathroom.

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poem is sitting on top of the brochure stand

To fight aloud is very brave…
Emily Dickinson

To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.

sorry, not the sharpest photo

At the risk of sounding like a noodle-brained yahoo and offending English majors across the nation, I confess that I am not an Emily Dickinson fan.  She sometimes frightens me the way birds do.

But I was in northern Michigan over Memorial Day weekend with no poems at my disposal except what I could tear out of a 1942 college freshman English textbook I had taken from my father’s collection.  There I found “To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave,” a poem I had never read before, and as you will see, have not had much time to consider.

I usually get tangled up in Emily Dickinson’s syntax.  I lose the thread of her phrases and sentences, where the subject is and what it’s doing, and I end up with a jumbled mess in my head.  This poem I was able to understand, at least the first two stanzas.

Obviously she didn’t intend the poem as a tribute to the families of fallen soldiers, but that’s what it made me think of this Memorial Day.  Today we salute those who gave their lives for our country, but let’s also remember the families who are left behind to fight “within the bosom/the cavalry of woe.” Their silent and unseen battles with grief are brave indeed.

On a less serious note:  the third stanza has me befuddled.  I have no idea what it means.  A little help, please, if you get it.

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