Tag Archives: spiritual life

Define the Divine

We are gliding toward that full moon in Leo (drama!) which is followed a couple days later by the Saturn-Pluto square. Here, to quote an informed observer of the planets, “immovable object (Saturn) meets irresistible force (Pluto).” Which role will you play? Me? Count me out of the whole scene. I am the thing with feathers these days. You can find me at the top of the pine tree with Emily.

#797, c. 1863

By my Window have I for Scenery
Just a Sea — with a Stem —
If the Bird and the Farmer — deem it a “Pine” —
The Opinion will serve — for them —

It has no Port, nor a “Line” — but the Jays —
That split their route to the Sky —
Or a Squirrel, whose giddy Peninsula
May be easier reached — this way —

For Inlands — the Earth is the under side —
And the upper side — is the Sun —
And its Commerce — if Commerce it have —
Of Spice — I infer from the Odors borne —

Of its Voice — to affirm — when the Wind is within —
Can the Dumb — define the Divine?
The Definition of Melody — is —
That Definition is none —

It — suggests to our Faith —
They — suggest to our Sight —
When the latter — is put away
I shall meet with Conviction I somewhere met
That Immortality —

Was the Pine at my Window a “Fellow
Of the Royal” Infinity?
Apprehensions — are God’s introductions —
To be hallowed — accordingly —

She can look out her window and see an entire ocean where the rest of us would find a pine tree. The question that stays with me is: “Can the Dumb define the Divine?” She answers the question in the next line two lines: “Definition is none.” There is no way to attach words to something that springs from the mind of God. We keep trying. Writing poems about it. In the end, Emily draws us nearer and nearer to the non-verbal experience of the words, if that’s possible. Sounds and syllables that move us like a gentle tide toward a sensed apprehension. If it weren’t so lovely, the tree, the wind, the fragrance of the pine, it would be maddening to know it, while also knowing simultaneously, the definition falls short.

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Proof of Love

What a day for Emily. I thought we were going to have a regular biscuits-and-eggs, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”- morning. Nope. Today’s topics are love and crucifixion.

#549, c. 1862

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived — Enough —

That I shall love alway —
I argue thee
That love is life —
And life hath Immortality —

This — dost thou doubt — Sweet —
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary —

Emily is having an argument, either with someone else or with herself. She brings proof and arguments as if to a court of law. The integrity of her love stands in the docket. Someone doubts her heart. Emily advances an argument to this doubter with the statement that her capacity to love is a function of her ability to live, both in body and in spirit. As in earlier poems, she offers that her love (as a verb) is not something she directs or controls. It emanates out of her with the same spontaneous force as her spirit. Love exists with the same involuntary movement as Emily’s lungs drawing breath.

Let’s assume for the moment that this is a discussion between Emily and another person. We can construct the detractor’s claim. That person is asking to know how can he or she be the sole and extraordinary object of Emily’s love. The doubter has questioned whether Emily’s love is the eternal, specific and steadfast truth that she claims.

Emily’s fidelity is on trial here.

Someone has accused her of trifling with her affections. (There could only be another woman on the opposing side of this argument. They need so much reassurance, all the time.) Emily’s defense is to say: “My love is bigger than time or circumstance.” This is the classic guy-style argument that Shakespeare advances in some of his sonnets. The summary message being: “Get over it!” Emily takes it one step farther. She closes with a dramatic flourish, equating her own suffering at the feet of this doubting lover with the pain of the crucified Christ. (Shakespeare would never nail himself to the cross, I’m pretty sure.) Just to illustrate how really, truly vast and immortal is her love, she equates her love, the loss, the transcendence that comes after the excruciating passage through the abyss . . . to the Passion of Christ. No other analogy will do.

Her point in selecting this image is to underscore that either they both believe in this love or she will suffer the agonies of slow death. Not just any death, but the ultimate sacrifice, which is the voluntary death so that others may live. That’s how much she loves. For the sake of love, she is willing to die to grant life to others. That’s what she’ll do to shape her own life around the acceptance and belief in this love. There must be absolute acceptance. Nothing less than the fate of the world depends on it.

Emily can be very convincing when she wants to be.

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Panther In the Glove

Begin where you are.

Trust Emily to put a Panther in a Glove. How did the Panther get into the Glove? Trouble put it there. Only the sort of trouble that a sensitive girl poet could find.

#244, c. 1861

It is easy to work when the soul is at play —
But when the soul is in pain —
The hearing him put his play things up
Makes work difficult — then —

It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind —
But Gimlets — among the nerve —
Mangle daintier — terribler —
Like a Panther in the Glove

Even when she doesn’t feel like work (terribler! and curiouser, too) Emily is working. She can’t help it. The factory between her ears never shuts down. Well, maybe after she’s dead. Although knowing her, she’ll find a way to continue producing a poem a day even after that change in management.

Yet even when her soul feels like a panther tearing at the inside of the glove, her skin, she writes her daily missive from the darkness behind her eyes. She does this by bringing her attention to what is, instead of dwelling on what she’d rather be. Imagine the force of will it takes to come to the task and craft a sensible work of beauty, when you feel as though the underside of your entire body’s worth of skin is opening to shreds beneath the claws of a wild animal. We have each felt that way at one time or another, although we might not have pulled that precise image from the darkness: a panther inside a glove. Most of us would not be able to make coffee in such a state, let alone write a poem.

Emily sits down to work and makes work out of the thing that wants to stop her work. Even the most ugly, most threatening, all these are fit for her pen because she is writing herself always.

It’s a good thing she is so complex, otherwise this self-interest could become sterile. Sometimes I think Emily withdrew from society because she knew her inner life was so rich, too rich really, that it would require all her attention to investigate. The world must have shrunk into trivial chaff by comparison.

She is sometimes criticized for being self-absorbed and not writing about the worldly events of her time. For example, she lived through the Civil War, but does not take this as material for her poems. My sense is she was after a form of purity by compulsion. A mind seeking an unadorned sense of itself. Anything that did not contribute to that investigation undermined the work.

Not merely a miniaturist, Emily telescoped into the war within herself. When you can conceive of your own soul as a panther, you are locked in a psychic civil war. Not the quivering mouse, her soul is the wild hunter (characterized here with the masculine “him”) driven by pain to ferocious attacks on its own container. The image of the panther does not make concrete the “pain” of the poem, not the cause of the distress. The panther is the soul transformed by pain.

That such a slip of a girl could envision her own soul as something so enormous, destructive, savage, intractable, muscled, fur-covered, ravenous, crazed with pain . . . (Here again is that spiritual hunger for the communion table but now enlivened, shocked, made violent and huge.) All this strikes me, not as self-absorbed or self-indulgent, but astonishingly self-aware. Subtle difference. What an intimidating revelation of Self to Self. Daunting because she knows that once she names it and claims it, she has to hold that panther, live with it, feed it. She has to find a place at the communion table for this ravenous animal.

It must be exhausting to be Emily all day.

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