Dickinson’s vital death
There is something wrong with reading a Dickinson poem in isolation, or so it seems to me. For every poem I am compelled to ask: but where is your brother who questions you? Where is your sister who answers your question? Your mood is contractive, withdrawn—where then is your expansive counterpart? Your mood is impeccably expansive—where does the skepticism you cannot avoid find voice, if not within your confines? Only on a few happy occasions have I located such conversations between her poems—the last gave rise to my first post about her work—but yesterday I found another, and should like to report on what I overheard.
Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –
Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vitally –
The poem is born in violence: the searing of a sapling, the scalping of a tree, but then nature is violent, which is precisely why it provides Dickinson such a good model for the soul. I am speaking generally, however, for here nature is no such model—indeed is set against the soul. What Dickinson shows us is the aftermath of this violence, the effect of it: it is a sort of vital death. For while the sapling or tree may die when so struck by lightning—I cannot but treat nature’s instrument here as lightning, for a reason that will be apparent once we see the second poem—it is recollected by her “Green People”.
Dickinson’s choice of the word ‘recollect’ is fascinating. It plays on two, maybe three, senses of the word. The first sense is the obvious one, the recollection that goes on in our memory all the time. Nature remembers her dead in their offspring—that is the testimony of the fainter leaves. Yet there is also a second, material sense of the word. Trees are, after all, mere collections of matter, and that collection is disrupted in the searing or scalping, but it may then be re-collected—indeed this is the mechanism of nature’s remembrance. Then there is a third sense, really a modification or enlarging of the first, if we recall Plato’s theory of recollection in this context: all knowledge is recollection of previously known truth. The new trees of further seasons are recollections of the old equally in this Platonic sense: new embodiments of an old truth, perhaps the oldest.
Through this rich notion of recollection—Dickinson condenses so much into a single word!—we get a sense of the vitality inherent in this death. Here we must make a distinction between vitality/productivity/creativity and what I will call inventiveness. Inventiveness is the production of the new, but of what is new in but a relative sense. For examples of inventiveness, in poetry for instance, encompass the inventions of new techniques. But this amounts only to rearrangements of words, and the same pattern will hold true for any example of inventiveness you care to show me. Inventiveness produces new arrangements, but hop down a level and the matter is the same. What is vital about the death of the trees, however, is not this sort of inventiveness that is fully compatible with the non-existence of anything new; rather it is the re-production of the old, its recollection. Of course this recollection does not produce identical forms—which would amount to the adherence to tradition that is the age-old opponent of inventiveness or “innovation”—and so there is room for inventiveness within it. Only now this inventiveness is not for the sake of finding the new because the old does not satisfy, is not enough, but because what exists is insufficient for the expression of the old. The vitality of the death of the trees is, as a fictitious version of Beckett might have put it, that vitality that finds the old forever untried.
In contrast to this stand the humans, those who have the souls. Dickinson carefully refers to the trees’ testimony as dumb, as silent—in short, as lacking language, that defining characteristic of we ensouled ones. Only now, instead of serving as a source of our dignity, our souls seem to be a hindrance, for we, unlike the trees, “Die oftener – Not so vitally –“. Dickinson does not expand on this, leaving only questions. Is it language that strips our death of vitality? Or if not, just what is it about our souls that strips our deaths of this vitality? And why do we die “oftener”?
Good questions all. But one question itself sears, and will sear until it is answered. Dickinson, I see you spiraling inward, see you contracting around this skeptical thought, but where is the outward movement that will redeem you?
He fumbles at your Soul
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –
When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –
This poem is linked to the last by a word and an image. The word is primary: before a tree was scalped; now it is your naked soul. Before, the agent went unmentioned; now, it is lightning—and thus I cannot but read the other poem as detailing the aftermath of a lightning strike. The poem is a description of the process leading up to this strike—first stanza—as well as its aftermath—second stanza. There is someone, an unnamed “He” who is the source of the strike, and you, the recipient. The process is likened to him warming up at an instrument, of which you are the strings, fumbling before the real show starts. Tentativeness and mistakes characterize this period, but these “fainter Hammers” serve as preparation, and then—the moment arrives.
That is a clumsy description of the poem: it lacks sensitivity to how the poem operates. For while the poem describes, it also and more importantly enacts. At each point, what the poem says is happening in this process, the poem is also itself doing. Consider the first eight and a half lines, until “Then nearer –“. The poem itself is fumbling, not quite establishing a rhythm: we have two long sequences—20 and 19 syllables, respectively—in which no dashes occur to provide room for a breath, and each is followed by short gasps, first of six syllables after the first passage, then two quick gasps of three syllables each after the second. The poem itself cannot catch its breath.
But this is still preparation for what is to come, and this preparation soon takes definite form. For just as Dickinson says that the fainter hammers come “so slow / Your Breath has time to straighten –“, the poem itself evens out, first with a calm ten syllables in which our breath does indeed straighten. Then it slows even more as our brain bubbles cool, and we begin to feel what it describes. And then— — —the four, short, emphatic bursts in which the thunderbolt is dealt—and my own soul is scalped. Lastly, then, the soft rustling of the final stanza, and, between two dashes, the final island of stillness.
Perhaps it is language that, in the prior poem, cuts us off from vital death. If that is so, this poem seeks to remedy this loss, for the process it causes in the reader is just such a vital death. Why do I say this? The poem is linked to the previous by a word and an image—I cannot take that as accidental, even if the linkage really amounts only to the word. Do I have more conclusive evidence of a genuine link? I do not, except the shivers that dance up and down my spine, the bubbling that cooled and hardened and left a stillness to everything, the woods in which I read the poem, rustled by the paws of wind. This is an old truth I sense; the question is, can I give it form.