Saturday, April 23, 2016

`I May Be Elsewhere'

A fellow lover of metaphors shares a few:

“Dickinson’s poetry is full of [them]. She is fond of beginning her poems with a startling metaphor: `Hope is the thing with feathers,’ `Remorse is memory awake,’ `Presentiment—is that long shadow—on the lawn / Indicative that suns go down—.’ I’ve always liked this one, the almost cavalier way she tosses it at us: `Death is a hard night and a new road.’ Aye, that it is—and more too.”

I didn’t recognize that line and had to look it up. It’s from a letter the poet wrote in October 1869 to her cousin Perez Dickinson Cowan. My friend’s memory is a little off, but here is the original: “It grieves me that you speak of Death with so much expectation. I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road.” I think of Dickinson as a metaphysical comedian, and here she is in high gnomic mode. I wonder: did her cousin find solace in her words? Cowan’s older sister, the wonderfully named Nannie Cowan Meem, had recently died, and he anticipated a joyful reunion with her in the afterlife. Dickinson writes: “You speak with so much trust of that which only trust can prove, it makes me feel away, as if my English mates spoke sudden in Italian” – not exactly a hearty endorsement of immortality.

Dickinson’s wisecrack reminds me of Chico Marx. One can admire her honesty and forthrightness – and the quality of her prose (“more Peace than Pang”) – while questioning her tact. What does she mean by “wild Night”? Probably not what we mean. The phrase for her was not new. In a poem written some eight years before the letter, Dickinson exults: “Wild nights - Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” God? Death? In a blindfold test, most of the lines quoted above from Dickinson might be mistaken for the work of Stevie Smith, another condescendingly misunderstood, death-smitten poet. Here is a typical couplet from Smith:

“If I lie down upon my bed I must be here,
But if I lie down in my grave I may be elsewhere.”

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