23 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/12

Doom is the House without the Door –
'Tis entered from the Sun –
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape – is done –

'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside –
Where Squirrels play – and Berries die –
And Hemlocks – bow – to God –

Emily Dickinson

This poem radiates between the mundane and the apocalyptic, the former grounded in concrete details of daily life (a house, the sun, the squirrels, berries, hemlocks) and the latter in abstract terms (Doom, Escape, Dream, even God). Oddly the generalized abstractions seem more real than the weirdly specific details, which is perhaps a source of the poem's uneasy power. The poem opens with Doom – doom in general, doom as fate, not an individual's doom. And yet Dickinson's metaphorical definition of doom conveys a sense of domesticity and even intimacy: doom is a house. It's where you live. And you are trapped in there, because, as in a nightmare, there is no door. So how did you get in there? From the Sun (the source of light and life, and frequently a stand-in for God, as in the opening of Book III of Paradise Lost: "Hail holy light. . . "). But not through the rays of light: from a ladder. This may just be part of the poem's use of very literal processes (you aren't just showing up inside this house, you have to have a way to get into it, and a ladder would make sense) combined with intense, surreal images: the ladder is from the Sun. It may also be a reference to, or a reminiscence of, Jacob's vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder from Heaven (Genesis, chapter 28). But here the angels are unmentioned, and the ladder is thrown away, because there is no escape once you're in there. That's the nature of doom. (Is it perhaps also the nature of the version of Christianity prevalent in the poet's nineteenth-century New England? While fewer and fewer believed in the literal nature of the Bible, they were still very much enmeshed in the social behaviors produced by it. But doom seems too harsh a term in this context. It would be a mistake to limit Dickinson's possible meanings just to one thing.)

Perhaps the house without a door may also be seen as the body that holds an individual's consciousness or soul, which could be seen as entering "through the Sun," that is, via God, or another source of generation. And you can't escape from the body you were born into. What happens outside your individual consciousness – that outside where the unspecified they do things – is, in some ways, a Dream. Again, very precise details are subsumed by an abstract state: just as the house and the ladder and the sun are a metaphor for doom, so the squirrels and berries and hemlocks are seen as ultimately unreal, as a Dream. And some strange things are going on: not so much the squirrels playing, but definitely the berries dying – even if that's just a vivid way of summing up the ripening/rotting world of a berry, it's a strikingly strange way of putting it, and the summation of life processes as death is suitable for a poem examining Doom. And then we have the hemlocks, bowing to God. This is most likely a reference to the hemlock tree that was common in New England, and you could easily describe trees bending in the wind (that unseen force!) as bowing to God. But it's also almost impossible for a literary person (for the sort of person who would read this kind of poetry) to hear hemlock, particularly in conjunction with bowing to God, and not to think of the poisonous herb used to kill Socrates for promoting impiety (it's difficult for me to believe that Dickinson wouldn't have been aware of this resonance in the term hemlock; there are plenty of other terms she could have used). On that level the poem's final line seems to be reinforcing such a punishment for free philosophical inquiry: the hemlocks bow to God. But on another evel, the line is rejecting such a punishment: the reader is mistaken if he or she thinks this is the same plant that was used to kill Socrates. We're wrong if we think there is divine punishment in that dream-world outside. As with the ladder, with its possible cryptic reference to Jacob's dream, so the hemlock suggests an evocative episode in humanity's relationship with heavenly authority. The Doom described remains mysterious, perhaps inexplicable, but powerful and inescapable.

I took this from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. In the years after her death in 1886 several volumes with selections of her work were published; I'm not going to go into her whole publication history (which is actually quite fascinating and entertaining, what with adulterous affairs and family rivalries and separated stashes of increasingly valuable manuscripts) except to note that all those editions tamed Dickinson's poetry by smoothing it out, reducing perceived irregularities, and imposing standard punctuation. Johnson's edition, published in 1955, was the first to publish her work accurately and completely. There is also a more recent edition edited by R W Franklin, which incorporates more current discoveries and thoughts about what Dickinson intended (again: a complicated publication history, which I am mostly gliding over). I haven't seen the Franklin edition but I came across this blog which has several interesting entries comparing the two editions. Another recent book, which I have not seen but which sounds intriguing, is The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, which gives you an idea of what some of Dickinson's manuscripts look like.

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