August 27, 2014 Leave a comment
(NOTE: This writing began five days ago. It’s a meager attempt at academic poetry “analysis” of a sort that bores me—and everyone else—and an attempt to wax philosophic that sounds pretentious and corny to me. But it’s what I’ve been writing, so here it is.)
Emily Dickinson’s Poem number 510, “It was not Death, for I stood up,” is about despair. Its simple structure encompasses from start to finish the image of a despair so pervasive the poet can see no cause for it. The poem declares even awareness of her own death is not cause of the poet’s despair.
The cause cannot be the cold because she feels warm southern winds on her flesh. It is not the fire because she seems to be an indestructible marble statue in the chancel of a cathedral.
Despair has no cause, not even preparation for her own burial. Her despair is formless, like chaos. It has no anchor—like a ship lost at sea. It has not come even by “chance.” Unlike a ship, it has no spar, no mast guiding it.
The poet’s despair has no justification. It simply is.
World news is dominated by horrors—a video of the beheading of an American journalist. Reports of police overreacting to protests of citizens after the killing of an unarmed black boy by a white cop. News from Ukraine of the war between its government troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east. Frightening reports from West Africa about the spread of the Ebola virus. Disturbing images of a juggernaut of bombs destroying lives and infrastructure in Gaza while helpless Palestinians try unsuccessfully to protect their children.
For Dickinson, none of these horrific events is enough “to justify despair.”
For every story of devastation in the news, each of us has our own personal story of destruction, physical, mental, or spiritual, public or intensely, guardedly private.
For Dickinson, all of these events taken together, do not “justify” her pervasive despair.
A technical observation: This poem sounds delicious—how’s that for a self-contradictory unscholarly word? How can a poem about despair sound “delicious?” Dickinson’s meticulously chosen words create the sense of the poem through its sounds. The most obvious example is the combination “death” and “dead,” two words from the same root, similar in sound and meaning. The sounds of other pairs of words are significant—Chancel and Chance, Space and Spar, Frost and Flesh, Fire and Feet and Figures, Night and Noon, Stopped and stopless, space and stares.
The poem is structured by the repetition of the letter “D.” From the words “death” and “dead” at the beginning to the last word—“Despair.” No other word in the poem begins with “D.” And so, even though the poem says death is not the reason for the poet’s despair, the two are unequivocally linked.
The first time I read the poem (perhaps 20 years ago), I translated it in my mind into melodrama, the perfect poetic expression of despair for a clinically depressed queen who thought from time to time about suicide. I took it as my own and ignored what it actually says.
I’ve been thinking about despair. Have I despaired in my incipient old age of a world in which I can live peacefully, with equanimity? If so, is despair born of my hatred of the terrors in the news or the private terrors in my mind?
Thinking about the news was certainly in the background of my possible despair. I was jarred into a conscious contemplation of despair a deliberate choice—a choice that almost led me to watch the beheading of James Foley on Youtube. I found the video. I don’t why. For the same reason I would guess millions of people around the world have watched it—morbid (“suggesting an unhealthy mental state or attitude”) fascination. Insane morbid fascination. Depraved morbid fascination.
I did not watch it. Some higher sense prevailed. I think it is not melodrama to say I would have been disturbed for the rest of my life had I watched it—both at what I saw and at the thought that I had purposefully watched it. It would have sealed a frenzied despair in my mind.
My drama-queenly morbid desire to watch the video came from the same place in my mind my deliberate misappropriation of Dickinson’s poem as melodrama originated. The place that invents reasons outside myself for my “despair.”
My mind wants to equate “depression” with “despair.”
My depression is mine, and it’s simply a malady.
I am told “despair is presumptuous.” Eastern Ukraine, Gaza, James Foley, Michael Brown. Who in their right mind is not despairing? Is it presumptuous to despair? to assume there’s no way out of any of these horrors? to assume “the complete loss or absence of hope?” to assume that because these situations seem hopeless, they are hopeless?
Or is there another kind of despair that is not the opposite of “hope?”
Is it possible that this despair—grievous as it may be—is not negative but the beginning of understanding who I am?
I’ve had an idea all my life that, if I were a tad smarter, a bit more “driven,” a tiny thirty pounds lighter, and on and on and on, I would be happy. I could figure “it” out. This thing I’m calling “despair” (and perhaps—but how would I know?—what Dickinson means) is the certain knowledge that I don’t know. I can’t figure “it” out. I can’t even know, ultimately, whether or not I should despair at the certain knowledge of my death.
Not living as if I could somehow understand, as if I know what it means to be a human being
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
might mitigate despair. It’s my seemingly genetic compulsion to live “as if my life were. . .” of which I despair. Because it destroys any ability to experience the world and my life as they are.
“It was not Death, for I stood up,” (510) by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down—
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos—crawl—
Nor Fire—for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool—
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine—
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ‘twas like Midnight, some—
When everything that ticked—has stopped—
And Space stares all around—
Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground—
But, most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—