Live Free Or Die

Emily grew up in a “live free or die, give me liberty or give me death” sort of culture. Really, she arrived about a century after the time period that gave rise to those sentiments, yet these must have echoed in her ears all the same. If for no other reason than geography. (They’re still defending themselves against the “war of northern aggression” down here in the swamp.) One of the things I tend to take for granted about New England is that it was the cradle of our rebellion. And Emily’s too.

#728, c. 1935

Let Us play Yesterday —
I — the Girl at school —
You — and Eternity — the
Untold Tale —

Easing my famine
At my Lexicon —
Logarithm — had I — for Drink —
‘Twas a dry Wine —

Somewhat different — must be —
Dreams tint the Sleep —
Cunning Reds of Morning
Make the Blind — leap —

Still at the Egg-life —
Chafing the Shell —
When you troubled the Ellipse —
And the Bird fell —

Manacles be dim — they say —
To the new Free —
Liberty — Commoner —
Never could — to me —

‘Twas my last gratitude
When I slept — at night —
‘Twas the first Miracle
Let in — with Light —

Can the Lark resume the Shell —
Easier — for the Sky —
Wouldn’t Bonds hurt more
Than Yesterday?

Wouldn’t Dungeons sorer grate
On the Man — free —
Just long enough to taste —
Then — doomed new —

God of the Manacle
As of the Free —
Take not my Liberty
Away from Me —

I should just love this poem. What I feel instead is a curiosity to know what does she seek liberty from? Rather, what does she dread being manacled to? She has her liberty. That is clear. Her point is that anyone who has tasted freedom will suffer more in losing that liberty than one who has never known it. So what’s the prison she dreads?

She possesses the freedom to think her own thoughts. That information she received in school eased her famine somewhat, yet it was a dry wine. That oxymoron is perfect. How can a liquid be dry? A drink that leaves you more thirsty after you drink it. This is what an education does to an independent-minded young woman. (of sound New England stock!)

Break free those bonds of the canon. The academy. The ivory tower. The limits forced on a girl’s mind are the most dreaded. The restraint she chafes against is childhood itself, when the intellectual authorities are telling her what to do, how to think, what is worth knowing or writing about. Sounds like she is in a hurry to grow up. I remember being extremely impatient with my own childhood. I wanted to grow up as quickly as possible, so that I could be in charge of my own life. I imagined that grown-ups had all the fun because they had complete freedom.

Now that I am a grown-up (and yes, I am, don’t argue with me) I have a different perspective. All that freedom can make your head spin. Absolute freedom can be terrifying. This is why many people love the “prisons” they make for themselves. I keep thinking of Janis Joplin singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” She voices a grim pleasure in that line. Not a cozy thought, but true. When you have nothing to lose, that frees you up to do anything at all. Emptiness, total loss of familiar context and complete disconnection make a person immune to risk and failure. Lonely but invincible. Emily would probably agree. Even in her freedom of thought, though she yearns for it, without the intellectual context of like-minded creative thinkers, she’s out there on her own. I’ll bet no one around Emily understood her or what she was doing. That had to feel isolating at times, if not terrifying, much as her spirit demanded it.

I empathize with her demand not to be interfered with or restrained by conventional ideas. But there is a tension between freedom and moral support. Sometimes the price you pay for freedom is a freaky sense of dislocation. The price you pay for moral support is restraint by the expectations of others. There must be some happy balance. Don’t know if Emily ever found it. Or if it exists. This is not her divine discontent, but an ongoing debate. A hell tailor-made for independent thinkers who also yearn for the comfort of loving connection.

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