Emily Dickinson
Amherst College Archives

A Celebration of the Life
& Work of Emily Dickinson

Soul at the White Heat
Reading of poems & letters

Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
Wednesday, January 30, 2008, 7:00-9:20 pm

By Peter Y. Chou

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Emily Shadow Box (1938)

"Navigating the Imagination"
Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, Massachusetts

Preface: On January 25, I received an email from Stanford Continuing Studies announcing three free events celebrating the life and work of Emily Dickinson. The picturesque flyer had a quote from Emily: "Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it." Before I could share this info with friends, I received an email from my friend Peter Robinson on January 28. He told me about this Emily Dicksinson Event along with a poem with fresh insight on poetry. I was inspired to write a response poem and six haikus for January 28. I also found some postage stamps to illustrate his poem and mine for a web page celebrating Emily Dickinson's poetry. I arrived at Dinkelspiel Auditorium around 6:40 pm and there were already over 100 in the audience. I found an aisle seat four rows from the stage in the central section. The 6-page program brochure was informative with Director's Notes by Amy Freed, 8 short biographies of the performers, and a list of 33 Emily Dickinson poems with Poem #s from Thomas Johnson's The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson (1960). A handout on Emily Dickinson from the Academy of American Poets with her photo, biography, and selected bibliography was delightful reading before the evening's performance. Professor Charles Junkerman introduced the event saying that in 2001, Stanford honored Herman Melville's 150th anniversary of Moby Dick. In 2005, Stanford honored Walt Whitman's 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass. Emily Dickinson's poems were published posthumously in 1890, but she created 40 fascicles from 1858-1865 containing nearly 800 poems, that was discovered after she died. So this could be the 150th anniversary of Emily's 1858 fascicles of poems. The evening's program was staged like a drama of Emily's poetic life beginning with Thomas Wentworth Higginson (acted brilliantly by Professor Hilton Obenzinger in 19th century attire and top hat) receiving a letter from Emily Dickinson written on April 16, 1862. Julie Eccles, Kay Kostopoulos, and JoAnne Winter played the three Emily's taking turns reading Emily's poems that gave us a glimpse of her life and mind. Here are my notes for the evening of the poems and letters read. The second half of the program was a panel discussion with Albert Gelpi, Hilton Obenzinger, and Amy Freed, followed by a Q & A session. The program ended at 9:20 pm with huge applause from the audience. I've typed the 33+ poems read at the celebration below. Commentaries from Joseph Duchac's The Poems of Emily Dickinson: an annotated guide to commentary published in english, 1890-1977 (1979) have been added to elucidate these poems.

Poems Read at CelebrationJoseph Duchac, Poems of Emily Dickinson
Guide to Commentary 1890-1977)
(1) Poem 320

We play at Paste—
Till qualified, for Pearl—
Then, drop the Paste—
And deem ourself a fool—

The Shapes— though— were similar—
And our new Hands Learned Gem-Tactics—
Practicing Sands—

1951 Patterson, Riddle, pp. 77, 259
"Paste" describes Dickinson's early friends;
her friend Kate Scott is the pearl.
1968 Sherwood, Circumference, p. 177
"The word tactics... reflects Emily's belief that the Creator does not endow His creature with immortality but 'qualifies' him to achieve it."
1972 Talbot, Child, Actress, p. 107
The poem is about "being ready and eager to write great poetry, and finding with relief that the minor earlier work is the same in tactics if not in material."
(2) Poem 216

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection.
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,—
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

1965 Alexander, Poetry of ED, pp. 82-83, 85, 103, 104
The poet appears to say that "people who are blinded by a narrow religion suffer twice": they will not let themselves experience the earth while they are alive, and when they are dead, it is too late.
1967 Pickard, Emily Dickinson, pp. 2, 44, 119-21, 124
The poem "examine vaious attitudes on death and immortality"; it "moves from the linear, closed images of the tomb into circular, expanding ones of crescents, scoops, and arcs, away from temporal limitations to the grandeur of years and worlds and finally into the firmament itself.
1975 Mudge, Home, pp. 101, 213-214
"It is not so much that this poem expresses Dickinson's cynicism about the resurrection hope that that in the length of time and the order of nature the dead are forgotten on this earth, in this world."
1975 Weisbugh, ED's Poetry, pp. 109-13, 191
The poem is "a terrifying vision of the grave as a possibily permanent hell." Compares versions. "The revised poem is designed to make both life and death condemn themselves and each other."
(3) Poem 318

The nearest dream recedes, unrealized.
The heaven we chase
Like the June bee
Before the school-boy
Invites the race;
Stoops to an easy clover—
Dips— evades— teases— deploys;
Then to the royal clouds
Lifts his light pinnace
Heedless of the boy
Staring, bewildered, at the mocking sky.

Homesick for steadfast honey,
Ah! the bee flies not
That brews that rare variety.

(4) Poem 670

One need not be a Chamber— to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors— surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far Safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body— borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

(5) Poem 371

A precious— mouldering pleasure— 'tis—
To meet an Antique Book—
In just the Dress his Century wore—
A privilege— I think—

His venerable Hand to take—
And warming in our own—
A passage back— or two— to make—
To Times when he— was young—

His quaint opinions— to inspect—
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind—
The Literature of Man—

What interested Scholars— most—
What Competitions ran—
When Plato— was a Certainty—
And Sophocles— a Man—

When Sappho— was a living Girl—
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante— deified—
Facts Centuries before

He traverses— familiar—
As One should come to Town—
And tell you all your Dreams— were true—
He lived— where Dreams were born—

His presence is Enchantment—
You beg him not to go—
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize— just so—

(6) Poem 1400

What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far—
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar

Whose limit none have ever seen,
But just his lid of glass—
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss's face!

The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands next the sea—
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.

(7) Poem 328

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,—
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless, as they swim.

(12) Poem 448

This was a Poet— It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings—
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door—
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it— before—

Of Pictures, the Discloser—
The Poet— it is He—
Entitles Us— by Contrast—
To ceaseless Poverty—

Of Portion— so unconscious—
The Robbing— could not harm—
Himself— to Him— a Fortune—
Exterior— to Time—

(29) Poem 465

I heard a Fly buzz— when I died—
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—

The Eyes around— had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset— when the King
Be witnessed— in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes— Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable— and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

With Blue— uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light— and me—
And then the Windows failed— and then
I could not see to see—

(31) Poem 712

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

We slowly drove— He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess— in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather— He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
The only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet— only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling in the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice— in the Ground—

Since then— 'tis Centuries— and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

One of the most powerful definitions of poetry and my favorite may be found in Emily Dickinson's August 16, 1870 remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) on his first visit to her in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was published in The Atlantic (October 1891), twenty-one years after his interview with Emily and five years after her death. Higginson precedes her quote with "this crowning extravaganza":

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire
  can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically
  as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
  These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Edited by Thomas H. Johnson)
     Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1958
     (PS1541,Z5.A3.V2), Volume 2, pp. 472-474, Letter 342a


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