Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.
Introduction: A Mystic Riddler
Emily Dickinson composed several poems that are just pure fun; they work as riddles do, not mentioning their subject that can only be determined by a correct interpretation of the poetic devices. It is widely understood that Emily Dickinson fashioned most of her poems to focus on profound themes: life, death, the afterlife (immortality), and complex human relationships. She has the uncanny ability to see straight into the core of each issue.
Dickinson's ability to penetrate the surface to gain reality can only be reckoned with by accepting the obvious fact that the poet possessed mystical powers of observation and understanding. However, the Amherst recluse also composed a number of poems that show a propensity for pure fun. These poems may be validly called riddles as they describe the subject but allow the reader to ferret out what the subject is.
It sifts from Leaden Sieves
It sifts from Leaden Sieves —
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road —
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain —
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again —
It reaches to the Fence —
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces —
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack — and Stem —
A Summer's empty Room —
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them—
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen —
Then stills its Artisans — like Ghosts —
Denying they have been —
Reading of "It sifts from Leaden Sieves"
Commentary: "It sifts from Leaden Sieves"
A Dickinson poem that functions as a riddle is her widely anthologized, “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” The poem displays in 5 four-line stanzas. The speaker begins by metaphorically describing the item as a material that behaves much as does flour that one would use to bake a cake. The substance “sifts from Leaden Sieves” as a housewife or baker might sift flour for baking.
As the housewife sifts the flour, she places it in a bowl to prepare the dough, then she spreads the flour over a countertop or cutting board so she can roll out the dough.
However, the poem's sifted substance does not end up in a bowl, not even in the house at all, but in the woods. As it does so, it fills in the cracks in the road and has the appearance of “Alabaster Wool.”
Then the kitchen metaphor transforms into a hyperbolic face as the speaker asserts that this substance has piled so high that it creates the illusion that a mountain and the plain that appear level; it is “Unbroken Forehead from the East / Unto the East again.”
The speaker then has the substance reaching to the fence where it forms a ring around the rail, making the fence appear to be wearing wedding gear. The speaker describes the fields on which the substance has landed as "Summer's empty Room"; the fields have been harvested and only stubble is still standing.
Now the substance fills up the empty field. It become unrecognizable as a field but for the several stalks that still stand up through the white material that has fallen on them like flour over a countertop.
In the final stanza, the speaker portrays the substance of some lace-like material that might be worn by a queen, but it is adding ruffles to the "Wrists of Posts." Suddenly, the weather changes and it stops snowing, and it seems that craftsmen suddenly ceased their work.
The scene has been created, and by this time, readers and listeners will be aware that the substance that "sifts from Leaden Sieves" and "powders" the landscape is none other than snow, which the poem/riddle has never named, only suggested.
I like to see it lap the Miles
I like to see it lap the Miles —
And lick the Valleys up —
And stop to feed itself at Tanks —
And then — prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains —
And supercilious peer
In Shanties — by the sides of Roads —
And then a Quarry pare
To fit its Ribs
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid — hooting stanza —
Then chase itself down Hill —
And neigh like Boanerges —
Then — punctual as a Star
Stop — docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door —
Reading of "I like to see it lap the Miles"
Commentary: "I like to see it lap the Miles"
Another Dickinsonian riddle poem is “I like to see it lap the Miles.” This poem presents a double metaphor making it also a double riddle. Two questions arise regarding it contents: Who (or what) is the actor in the poem? What is the actor doing?
The poem plays out in four stanzas with the first, second, and fourth containing four lines, and he third five lines. The first stanza finds the speaker asserting that she likes, “to see it lap the Miles / And lick the Valleys up / And stop to fee itself at Tanks.”
The "it" of this riddle/poem seems to be an animal gulping up water perhaps, and nipping at a salt lick or gobbling food; however, it then does what an animal would never do when it stops to “feed itself at Tanks.”
This subject may at first seem like an animal, likely a horse, but it becomes clear that it is not a horse. It has to be a subject more powerful; it has the ability to "step" "Around a Pile of Mountains.”
In addition to gaining speed around a mountain, this subject can peep into the little "shanties" along the way. Also, this subject can cut out enough room for it to fit the mountain, “To . . . its Ribs.”
Even though the subject itself could not possibly have carved out its own way through the mountain, because it was needed for the object to do so, this procedure was accomplished.
This stanza affirms that the subject is not an animal: it makes a noise "in horrid — hooting stanza." While owls might make hooting sounds, surely no owl could have performed the tasks that this one has already done. Thus, horse becomes clearly a metaphor for something.
The final piece of the description shows the subject as it “chase[s] itself down Hill” while it “neigh[s] like Boanerges.”
"Boanerges" is a term found in the King James Version of the Holy Bible at Mark 3:17, indicating “sons of thunder,” an appellation Jesus Christ applied to John and James because they so loudly displayed their zeal for evangelizing.
Finally, the subject arrives on time at its destination, heralding the end of this trip. It becomes “docile and omnipotent / At its own stable door.” While he metaphor of a horse continued throughout the description in the poem, readers/listeners will at last understand that the subject is, in fact, a train, which is, of course, not a horse.
Thus, the answers to the beginning questions: (1)it is a train (2) traveling through the countryside, ultimately arriving on time at its appointed destination.
Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.
Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.
New England Family
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.
Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.
Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.
After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.
As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.”
Reclusiveness and Religion
In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.
Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.
Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.
Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.
Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes