Tag Archives: Devil

Devil’s Play

Recently I dreamed that the Devil was erasing my words as quickly as I wrote them.  I could see a line of type running across the surface of my eyes and my own hand inscribing them. Before I could grasp the words, they dissolved and evaporated like the morning fog.

Here is what Emily said:

#1287, c. 1873

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much — how little — is
Within our power

 

In the dream, I tried several times to remember and write the closing couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “If this be error and upon me proved,
/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Whenever I wrote “never writ” the typeface began to disappear.

The first 12 lines of the sonnet did not appear for some reason. The Devil assumed we knew it already and didn’t need to have it spelled out: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” . . . yadda, yadda, yadda . . . “It is an ever-fixed mark,” etc., etc. No, we telescoped into the last couplet.

Something that has always troubled me about those last two lines is the double negative: “nor no man ever loved.” If he had written what we expected: “nor any man ever loved,” the iambic pentameter would have gone off beat. He needed a single syllable there. Okay, fine. But then taken literally the double negative cancels itself out. First, he asserts that if love is not the “ever-fixed mark” then he “never writ.” Well, here we are reading his poem, so that is the written proof that his statement about love is true. Then he adds the twist at the end: nor no man. That means if he has loved men then his claims about love are false.

Verily the Devil doth play at tricky grammar! The poet reveals in the end, by way of this fiendish turnabout, that everything he claimed about love in the previous lines is false. Or at least that he has never experienced the idealized love that everyone craves. He tells us that his love for various men is nothing like the vision of unswerving devotion he describes—the marriage of true minds. Instead, we can assume that his love is the more commonplace, crazy-making, erratic philandering that never makes anyone happy. I experience the ambiguity in that last flourish as snarky. It is a bitter and sly denunciation of love’s false promise, masquerading as a tribute to love’s lasting truth.

I am left with only one question: Why does the Devil want to make these words disappear from my mind?

Emily, being perhaps the more gentle soul, hovers over the exquisite dividing line: “How much — how little” The only thing that saves her little poem from the Hallmark dungeon of clichés is the balancing phrase “how little”. There she allows that the truth stands in the paradox of feeling powerful and knowing your own powerlessness at the same time. Being both gigantic and insignificant all at once. Be amazed by yourself! Get over yourself—no one’s looking. Write an extraordinary poem. Throw it in the trash—there are enough poems. Both are true.

Every time you write something, let it disappear. Now there’s an interesting experiment. Why this mania for making an ever-fixed mark? And then demanding recognition. Really? What does that serve?

Emily’s poem brings us back to the central question and abiding mystery of her life and her work, which is that she left behind a lengthy record of her extraordinary artistic vision. That she intended for no one. Nor no man ever to read.

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Devil’s Work

The crape myrtle overhead has exploded with pink blossoms.  Ah, guilt-free beauty.  Here’s the poem (c. 1865) for today:

#997

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
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.

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