26 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/43

The only Ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in Mechlin – so –
He wore no sandal on his foot –
And stepped like flakes of snow –

His Gait – was soundless, like the Bird –
But rapid – like the Roe –
His fashions, quaint, Mosaic –
Or haply, Mistletoe –

His conversation – seldom –
His laughter, like the Breeze –
That dies away in Dimples
Among the pensive Trees –

Our interview – was transient –
Of me, himself was shy –
And God forbid I look behind –
Since that appalling Day!

Emily Dickinson

What is the Mechlin that this ghost is dressed in? It is a type of lace that originated in Mechelen in Flanders. Most definitions single out its delicacy, and at least one specifies that it is generally used in women's clothing (though the article goes on to mention its occasional use in cravats, at least among the British royal family in a period predating Dickinson). But the speaker here merely says the ghost is dressed in Mechlin, which suggests more than a cravat or cuff. The lacy garb may be a reference to the traditionally filmy nature of ghosts. But it's also the first reference in a pattern in which this ghost, specified as male, is described in and surrounded by traditionally feminine terms and comparisons.

He's dressed in lace. His step is light, like a snowflake, even soundless. His walk is compared to a bird's, or to a roe's (a roe is a small deer). The comparison is not to traditionally martial and manly birds like the eagle, but to a little one, soundless on the snow; and not to a stag, much less a bear or lion, but to a small deer, of the sort that is easily startled and rapid when it runs away. He speaks little, and his laughter is compared to a dying breeze gently rustling through the leaves. [T]hat dies away in dimples is a brilliant evocation of how leaves turn and flutter as a gentle, failing wind ripples through them, but it also associates this male ghost with dimples, and pensiveness. His fashions are quaint. He is shy. None of this suggests anything traditionally masculine.

Much attention is paid to the ghost's "fashions". The edition I use (for which see below) capitalizes Mosaic, suggesting a connection to Moses: perhaps the clothes are old-fashioned, even ancient like nomadic draperies, or associated in some way with religious regulations. But other editions have the word as mosaic, suggesting something patched out of small pieces. And capital-M Mosaic doesn't preclude this suggestion, since Dickinson also capitalizes (among other words not usually capitalized) Mistletoe, Breeze, Dimples, and Trees. Mistletoe can play into both interpretations. It is a plant that grows parasitically on certain trees and shrubs, which suggests something connected but disconnected, something partial which can also take over its space, which might be in tune with mosaic. But it is also associated with Christmas (as well as ancient Druidic religious rituals), which might be in tune with the religious implications of Mosaic. The poet mentions sandals rather than the shoes you might expect when the next line brings in snow – do sandals perhaps have a Biblical resonance here, furthering (along with Mosaic and mistletoe) an association between the ghost and traditional religions? When she says, near the end of the poem, God forbid I look behind, is God forbid just an everyday phrase, or does she mean it to sound like a more strictly religious injunction? (Remember that Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt through disobeying the divine command not to look back when fleeing Sodom.)

As ghosts go, this one sounds quite mild-mannered and attractive: he is associated with gentle, even pretty things, and delightful natural phenomena, rather than with moaning torments, hell-fire, and sulfurous damnation. He speaks little, the encounter is fleeting, and he is shy around the poet. So it's a surprise to find the strength of horror present in the last two lines. As discussed above, there is a Biblical intensity underlying what might seem the everyday exaggeration of God forbid I look behind. And she increases the emotion by calling not just the encounter but the entire day of the encounter that appalling Day (complete with exclamation point). The rhymes help mark this break in the emotions we might expect from what seems a gentle ghost. In the earlier quatrains, we have had very regular and complete rhymes on each second and fourth line: so / snow, Roe / Mistletoe, Breeze / Trees. In the final quatrain, we have shy / Day. There's a bit of a visual rhyme there (both are three-letter words ending with a y) and the words chime together. But the lack of the exact rhyme the poem has led us to expect is contextually jarring and marks an emotional disruption.

Appalling is an interesting word here. It conveys something terrible, but with the connotation that this thing has left you sort of stunned and emotionally drained. As the pall in there might tell you, the word derives (via Old French and Latin) from one that means to grow or to make pale. In other words: if you are appalled, you grow as pale as a ghost. Is there a suggestion here that encountering this epicene apparition has not only shocked the poet but made her resemble it in some way? People are, generally, disturbed on an irrational level by variations on gender norms and assumptions: is that what is appalling the poet and making her possibly resemble the ghost? Do his androgynous qualities connect to or startle something in her? Or is her strong reaction owing to the religious implications of the poem: does this strange presence from another world show a connection with or a deviation from the traditional theologies suggested by some of the language?

There are many questions, and no definite answers. Like many of Dickinson's poems, this one hovers between the domestic and the apocalyptic. It seems like a charming ghost story suitable for a chilly autumn evening, but the closer we look, the more deeply disturbing and perplexing it becomes. We may end up feeling as if we too have had an encounter with an appealing but unsettling spirit. The poem creates in us a version of the experience it describes.

(As an amusing sidelight on the poem's play with both gender and religion: when I typed epicene above the word-processing system flagged it and suggested only one other alternative as the word I must have intended: Nicene, as in the Nicene Creed. Perhaps Dickinson's deep knowledge anticipated the poetic links made by spellcheck.)

This is from the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

No comments: