The crape myrtle overhead has exploded with pink blossoms. Ah, guilt-free beauty. Here’s the poem (c. 1865) for today:
Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Are organized Decays.
‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust—
Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crash’s law.
I have noticed, now that I am deploying the Genius of Random Chance in selecting a poem each morning, that chance gives me the freedom to land in Emily’s later, more mature work. So now that I am rolling in the meat of her career, I can’t give you a thumbnail synopsis of the poem. I have to reproduce the whole thing here for you because the later poems are impossible to summarize. They are so densely packed, each word is a stick of dynamite. As Emily went deeper into her own genius, she left behind more of whatever coughing and sputtering that most of us do before arriving at our first authentic word. She taught herself, through practice, to arrive instantly at the core knot, the nut, the still beating heart of whatever she was aiming for. She did this (I imagine) by shaving away, gradually and constantly, anything that smelled even slightly of preparation.
To my ears, this density rings of a crazed, elemental urgency. As if she had grown wildly impatient with anything unnecessary. I can almost see her experiencing the same impatient dismay toward the body that encloses the soul. It’s all preparation. Get to the center of it. Why waste words or time? Get to it!
My experience of today’s poem is to be reminded that I should not be surprised by any of my current destinations. Wherever I find myself now, at nearly 47 years of age, is a result of who I am, not outside forces.
If I don’t like my current destination, if I feel a failure, I need look no farther than my own habits of thought for the cause. What Em calls “Devil’s work” I call “habit of thought.” This “Cobweb on the Soul” begins small but gathers force and strength over time. These habits direct us toward a goal that we set for ourselves by not doing our own inner housekeeping. By not clearing out the rust and cobwebs that accumulate over time, we move in a certain direction. It’s the lack of attention to process that actually moves the process. It will move on its own. We have to recognize what we set in motion.
I do not think that Emily believes our failure in encoded in our DNA, or that character is destiny. I don’t believe she means to say we are fated to arrive at certain giant failures, but that we direct ourselves that way with our smaller failures and our neglect of the conditions that created them—by allowing the cobwebs to remain. A cobweb is a filmy thing, minor, easily cleaned away at first. The junk cluttering up the soul may begin with the Devil, some outside force, but if we allow it to remain, if we fail to clean away the first signs of decay—yes, then surely the later grand undoing, our Crash, is our own doing not the Devil’s.
Also this Crash is slow in coming. We can see it before it happens, or ought to. In slipping there is plenty of time to observe oneself about to crash and save oneself. If we don’t avail ourselves of that time, we can’t blame the Devil.
“Cobweb on the Soul” are habitual patterns of thought. These influence how we act and react, how we choose and how others respond. We all know when we’re having an uncharitable thought, when we’re being mean-spirited or irresponsible, not our best self. We all know when our thoughts are making us smaller not larger. This cumulative process of thinking is the slip toward the crash. Habits of thought are just that—habits. They can be cultivated or discouraged. They are grooves that go deeper with repeated use and become harder to get out of and harder to see. As we go deeper into the uncharitable thought groove, the sides of the channel rise higher overhead so we cannot see beyond this thought into another, different thought.
Before too long, we can become convinced that our thoughts are real. Now that’s the hell where the Devil lives.
I do think Emily means we have some control and choice in this slow decay. She doesn’t offer an explicit way out, but she does let us know who is allowing the decay. It’s all a process, therefore it’s a pliable thing. Human nature is not fixed but plastic. Her view is not hopeful but responsible.
Finally Emily says: Don’t kid yourself about who is really in charge.