A Freight of Feathers – 50 Brief Poems by Emily Dickinson

emily-dickinsonEmily Dickinson  (1830 – 1886) was an American poet born in Amherst, Massachusetts. She  spent most of her life, after a conventional education in Amherst, as a highly introverted woman. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. She never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. In November, 1885,  she was confined to her bed for a few months, but managed to send a final burst of letters in the spring. What is thought to be her last letter simply read: “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily“. In May, 1886, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55 of Bright’s disease. If these biographical details seem sparse, the details are well known and, if necessary, can be supplemented by the Wikipedia profile.

While she was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her 1,775 poems were published during her lifetime. Her poems are unique – they contain short lines, lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalisation and punctuation. Many of them  deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends. My own favourite of the tweet-sized poems below is this:

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Faith, in inverted commas, is the subject of many of her poems. But the topic remains inverted, remains a mystery. She was constantly writing in a religious manner, but without any secure sense of Faith. Calling it an invention, particularly a fine invention is a masterstroke. It is almost as remarkable a line as the amazing I felt a funeral, in my brain, one of the most memorable lines of poetry I have ever read. She writes in a genteel world, a world of Gentlemen, in a far from genteel manner. Even Death, in that celebrated poem, Because I Could Not Stop for Death, is seen as a gentleman. Hers is a microscopic view of life, as exemplified in another superb poem A Narrow Fellow In the Grass and in that brilliant nature poem, A Bird came down the Walk. And prudence is a stylistic mode. It could be argued, and I would argue, that she lived her poetic life In an Emergency. When I read her best poems, even this brief poem, I am reminded of a passage in George Eliot: That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. If anyone could hear the grass grow, or hear a squirrel’s heart beat, it was Emily Dickinson.

 

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CALLED BACK

If Emily Dickinson’s poems are pithy, so is the epitaph inscribed on her tomb. (See image right.) It is based on that last letter toCalled Back her cousins quoted above. Dickinson’s original tombstone simply had her initials, “E.E.D.,” inscribed on it. That headstone was later replaced by her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who included Dickinson’s birth and death dates as well as the phrase “Called Back.” It may seem religious and maybe it had a religious connotation when she wrote it on her death bed. But Called Back was also the title of a popular novella  written by Hugh Conway (real name John Frederick Fargus). In a January 1885 letter, Dickinson called the book “a haunting story … ‘greatly impressive to me.’

 

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EMILY DICKINSON TWEETS HER POETRY

Despite being “called back”, despite death, Emily Dickinson continues to tweet her poetry on a daily basis at @EmilyEDickinson . Each day, when I open my timeline in Twitter, I get a new poem or a new verse from her. She is the ideal Twitter poet. Quotations from the poems and letters also appear at @E_Dickinson. She also tweets some of her letters and poems along with favourite international and multilingual quotes at @Emily Dickinson. There are other Twitter sites: Emily Dickinson Now  and the Emily Dickinson Museum. The microscopic approach to life and poetry, as identified in her poem “Faith” is a fine invention, is perfectly suited to modern social media such as Twitter. I have selected fifty of her poems below which she could have tweeted. I could easily have picked three times as many. Enjoy.

 

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Brief Poems by Emily Dickinson

We lose — because we win —
Gamblers — recollecting which
Toss their dice again!

***

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit — Life!

***

It’s such a little thing to weep —
So short a thing to sigh —
And yet — by Trades — the size of these
We men and women die!

***

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

***

Least Rivers — docile to some sea.
My Caspian — thee.

***

If What we could — were what we would —
Criterion — be small —
It is the Ultimate of Talk —
The Impotence to Tell —

***

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins
The Positive — of Bells —
When Cogs — stop — that’s Circumference —
The Ultimate — of Wheels.

***

Least Bee that brew —
A Honey’s Weight
Content Her smallest fraction help
The Amber Quantity —

***

Not “Revelation” — ’tis — that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes —

***

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn —
Indicative that Suns go down —

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness — is about to pass —

 

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To wait an Hour — is long —
If Love be just beyond —
To wait Eternity — is short —
If Love reward the end —

***

I could not drink it, Sweet,
Till You had tasted first,
Though cooler than the Water was
The Thoughtfullness of Thirst.

***

An Hour is a Sea
Between a few, and me —
With them would Harbor be —

***

The Robin for the Crumb
Returns no syllable
But long records the Lady’s name
In Silver Chronicle.

***

Fame is the tint that Scholars leave
Upon their Setting Names —
The Iris not of Occident
That disappears as comes —

***

Love — is anterior to Life —
Posterior — to Death —
Initial of Creation, and
The Exponent of Breath —

***

Partake as doth the Bee,
Abstemiously.
The Rose is an Estate —
In Sicily.

***

The first We knew of Him was Death —
The second — was — Renown —
Except the first had justified
The second had not been.

***

To die — without the Dying
And live — without the Life
This is the hardest Miracle
Propounded to Belief.

***

‘Twas my one Glory —
Let it be
Remembered
I was owned of Thee —

 

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It was not Saint — it was too large —
Nor Snow — it was too small —
It only held itself aloof
Like something spiritual —

***

To Whom the Mornings stand for Nights,
What must the Midnights — be!

***

Had we known the Ton she bore
We had helped the terror
But she straighter walked for Freight
So be hers the error —

***

Soft as the massacre of Suns
By Evening’s Sabres slain

***

In thy long Paradise of Light
No moment will there be
When I shall long for Earthly Play
And mortal Company —

***

Soul, take thy risk.
With Death to be
Were better than be not
With thee

***

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

***

The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise —
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise —

***

Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But Light a newer Wilderness
My Wilderness has made —

***

The Butterfly in honored Dust
Assuredly will lie
But none will pass the Catacomb
So chastened as the Fly —

 

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White as an Indian Pipe
Red as a Cardinal Flower
Fabulous as a Moon at Noon
February Hour —

***

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

***

Nature assigns the Sun —
That — is Astronomy —
Nature cannot enact a Friend —
That — is Astrology.

***

Take all away —
The only thing worth larceny
Is left — the Immortality —

***

Touch lightly Nature’s sweet Guitar
Unless thou know’st the Tune
Or every Bird will point at thee
Because a Bard too soon —

***

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight.

***

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —

***

A Dimple in the Tomb
Makes that ferocious Room
A Home —

***

Of whom so dear
The name to hear
Illumines with a Glow
As intimate — as fugitive
As Sunset on the snow —

***

All things swept sole away
This — is immensity —

 

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The stem of a departed Flower
Has still a silent rank.
The Bearer from an Emerald Court
Of a Despatch of Pink.

***

Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee —

***

There comes a warning like a spy
A shorter breath of Day
A stealing that is not a stealth
And Summers are away —

***

Tried always and Condemned by thee
Permit me this reprieve
That dying I may earn the look
For which I cease to live —

***

How slow the Wind —
how slow the sea —
how late their Feathers be!

***

Morning is due to all —
To some — the Night —
To an imperial few —
The Auroral light.

***

Within that little Hive
Such Hints of Honey lay
As made Reality a Dream
And Dreams, Reality —

***

Not knowing when the Dawn will come,
I open every Door,
Or has it Feathers, like a Bird,
Or Billows, like a Shore —

***

The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee ;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.

***

Sometimes with the Heart
Seldom with the Soul
Scarcer once with the Might
Few — love at all.

 

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LINKS

The Complete Poems are available through Wikisource.

The Wikipedia page on Emily Dickinson.

The Poetry Foundation page on Emily Dickinson.

The Modern American Poetry site on Emily Dickinson.

The Emily Dickinson archive.

 

emily-dickinson

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