Monday, July 18, 2011

Emily Dickinson abhorred boundaries

Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as One returned, I feel
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores – 
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by Eye – 

Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal – 
Slow tramp the Centuries,
And the Cycles wheel!
Dickinson dwelt in prolepsis.  Her 1844 Webster’s defines the word as “anticipation”; our own describes it as “a figurative device by which a future event is presumed to have already occurred.” As in I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –; as in And Finished knowing – then –.  From the beginning, her vision was trained on the other side.
Just lost—when I was saved is a glimpse of and a grasp at the proleptic. An early work, from 1860 (#132 in the Franklin numbering, which I’ll use throughout; #160 in Johnson’s) it anticipates—in its theme, its narrative, its lexicon, and its meter—the poetic terrain which Dickinson would fully stake out over the next couple of years. It conveys the calling, but doesn’t yet announce the election.
The reader can tarry a while in the old-hymn sway of those first lines, sussing out the figure/ground of lost and saved.  It’s a near-death narrative: at the point of crossing over, within view of Eternity, breath blows her back. The poem is charged with almost, with this close; her vision of what is beyond infuses what is caught betwixt-and-between the Just Now and the Next Time.  There are hints, too, of future poems here: those centuries will wheel again in #151, and there’s a hovering of #340 I felt a Funeral in my Brain in the tread of centuries, and in And Being, but an Ear.
If it’s a proleptic primer, it’s also a metrical sampler, stitched in dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and—that rarity for Dickinson—pentameter.  The method is unique and deliberate:  a metrical advancing, a kind of tacking leeward and then skirting—disappointing—the pentameter shore. Cynthia Griffin Wolff  has provided a useful historical context, citing the tales of seamen who had “sailed the line,” whose instruments had suddenly became unreliable along the equator (238).  Dickinson’s moored / unmoored calibrations similarly shift.  The first stanza of trimeter (I’ll count line 3 as trimeter twice; she wrote it as two lines in manuscript in fascicle 10) resolves into split and then full pentameter.  The second stanza’s Therefore anchors us in hymn meter, ‘long meter’—tetrameter— for three lines before sailing once again into a five-beat line:  Some pale Reporter, before the awful doors –) and closing with emphatic dimeter: Before the Seal! The third and fourth continue again in split pentameter, couplets cleaved in twos and threes.
Before the Seal:  Faced with that barrier, confined to before, anticipation subsumes the poem.  The bottom drops out in the simultaneous motion (steal, tramp, wheel) and suspension (to stay, to tarry) of that next-time.  Present tense turns into infinitives; the glimpsed and lost become the vast and boundary-less Imagined—the interior universe she would continue to explore for the next 26 years.
Therefore, as One returned, I feel  / Odd secrets of the line to tell.  The haunt and freight, the so-cold-no-fire-will-ever-warm-me of those lines (the isolation of One, indeterminate agency of returned, inchoate inarticulate feel, the expansive echoing interior of the entire next line)—that’s what returns me to this poem.  Here is where the poem’s spinning compass points true north; here is the plumb line.  It feels burdened and ignited both, disoriented and exhilarated. “One has to imagine that Emily Dickinson was inhabited,” Charles Wright has said. “How else could she know those things (31)?”
Dickinson abhorred a boundary.  Just as the seal as limit (closed door, barrier) will by poem #411 become the sign of her election (Mine – by the royal Seal! ), she rewrote the restrictions imposed by her time and her poetic inheritance, and anticipated something new.  In crossing the line between lost and saved, earthly existence and death, traditional verse or “spasmodic gait,” obscurity or immortality, she inhabited and subverted it, told it from within.  Sailor and Reporter, her line became circumference. – Debra Allbery