Happy Letter

So there is good news in no particular order. The broken oil well in the Gulf has been plugged finally. The temperatures have dropped to around 90 degrees after cooking us in the hundreds for a while. Before During After, a book of Katrina photos and essays (some of which I edited) has been published and looks beautiful. Geoff and I are reading Emerson with the Lyceum group. We read On Self-Reliance a few weeks ago, and this week we’ll read The Over-Soul. I skipped my report on our reading of Beyond Good and Evil because my brain goes into lock-down when faced with Nietzsche. Emerson is such a breezy tonic by comparison.

Emily writes today with peculiar urgency.

#494, Version II, c. 1862

Going — to — Her!
Happy — Letter! Tell Her —
Tell Her — the page I never wrote!
Tell Her, I only said — the Syntax —
And left the Verb and the Pronoun — out!
Tell Her just how the fingers — hurried —
Then — how they — stammered — slow — slow —
And then — you wished you had eyes — in your pages —
So you could see — what moved — them — so —

Tell Her — it wasn’t a practised writer —
You guessed —
From the way the sentence — toiled —
You could hear the Bodice — tug — behind you —
As if it held but the might of a child!
You almost pitied — it — you — it worked so —
Tell Her — No — you may quibble — there —
For it would split Her Heart — to know it —
And then — you and I — were silenter!

Tell Her — Day — finished — before we — finished —
And the old Clock kept neighing — “Day”!
And you — got sleepy — and begged to be ended —
What could — it hinder so — to say?
Tell Her — just how she sealed — you — Cautious!
But — if she ask “where you are hid” — until the evening —
Ah! Be bashful!
Gesture Coquette —
And shake your Head!

My hand landed on the above poem, which is called Version II. The one that comes just before it is Version I. The two are almost identical except that this version uses the third person singular pronoun “Her” and Version I uses the “Him”.

The poem’s voice speaks directly to the writer’s own letter, asking it to “speak” to the letter’s recipient. This is a familiar literary conceit, to direct the poet’s message to the written paper as if it were a living entity, directed by the poet’s hand to convey some part of the writer to the reader. Also quaint is the faux modesty, pretending that the letter is a poor representation, spoiling the page, a waste of good paper, etc. (Shakespeare’s sonnets follow this tradition.) These faulty words written by this wretch of a poet, possessing a mind dulled by the sickly taint of overwhelming love, can never rise to the task of expressing to the beloved the full breadth of the poet’s true feelings. These are too vast and words alone too small . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. Emily, you are sooooo romantic.

The only problem here is that Emily can’t decide who should be the recipient of her letter, whether a “Him” or a “Her”. It looks like someone at some point made an arbitrary decision to call the Him version the first and the Her version the second. It’s difficult enough to assign dates to Emily’s work, so I imagine it’s fairly impossible to say for sure which of these she wrote originally and which was the amended version. Mainly scholars have settled on the dates of certain poems by the type of handwriting. They assumed that her handwriting style changed with age, so the poems appearing to match the style or slant found in Emily’s handwriting in dated letters, were given that same date. This process, although inexact, more or less helped to pinpoint when the poems would have been written.

So many, hundreds, were written in the 1862 handwriting that it appears she either had an astoundingly prolific year in 1862. (Possible.) Or that she revised and re-copied a large portion of her already existing collection of poems into a “fair hand”, perhaps in preparation for publication. Possible, although not likely given her dour view of publication. Or it may have been that she wanted to assemble a final or “fair” copy of her best work for her own records. She was sewing many of these into booklets, fashioning her own “publishing” house by hand.

Most likely this was so, but now we have these two highly stylized romantic love poems, almost exactly alike, written apparently at the same time in the same “fair hand”. One speaks to man and one speaks to a woman. What was she up to?

Did Emily seek to obscure her lesbian love affair by disguising the recipient of the poem’s letter as a man in one version? Then later did she decide to “come out”, at least to herself, by re-writing the poem to a woman? Maybe. Although I find it hard to imagine that Emily would be ashamed by any part of herself or hide from herself. She was too self-directed to start with. Plus it seems to me that a woman so sheltered from the world would be naive about sexuality and the social mores around sexuality, that it seems unlikely she would hold this conventional condemnation against herself. In addition, it was commonplace and accepted for women in this Victorian period to use passionate, overblown language to express affection for each other in their letters. Not hard to imagine that this afforded plenty of social latitude and a vocabulary for women to locate their sexual longing for each other as well, if they felt so moved.

Another possibility is that she was experimenting with voice and persona, both in her life and in her work. Emily would write the same poem twice and change the channel for each just to see what it would be like. That sounds more like her. Curiosity would push her to stand on both sides of the looking-glass, for no reason other than she’d like to know what it’s like over there. The lover’s perspective is by definition warped and one-sided. I can imagine Emily looking at that and wondering how it would sound to express the same sentiments to either one sex or the other. Emily the gymnast can take the stance of either.

The result is intriguing and varies depending on the disposition of the reader. Version I sounds like something out of a Bronte novel, a wild woman in the throes of passion beyond her control. Version II sounds like a Victorian girl, reaching for a literary model to channel her feelings toward a safe subject. The whole thing hangs on the letter being a failure due to its grammar. It is only syntax, says the poem, which is to say only the empty frame is there. The speaker/writer left out the verb and the pronoun, which is to say there is no action and no human presence. No life, no movement. How can love flourish in this place?

The poet with any sense of responsibility to her own curiosity wants to push her poem this way and that, just to see what it might do. Also to see how just a couple of letters changed here, makes all the difference in the world.


Filed under Emily Every Day

2 responses to “Happy Letter

  1. Barbara

    Thank you for your ongoing analysis of Emily’s poems… I’m learning so much from you!

    • Constance Adler

      Hi Barbara, I am so pleased to hear you find any of this useful. I’m just doing what I’m doing. Thanks for the moral support. best, Constance

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