Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):
Poems #111, #1129, #1212, #1755 (1859-1872)

When giving her Craft Lecture at Squaw Valley Poetry Conference (July 1989), Sharon Olds talked about reading an anthology of American Poetry as a child. "The oval portraits of those poets on the cover were all men, with the exception of Emily Dickinson," she said, "I imagined those ovals were the portholes of a ship. I wanted to climb aboard that ship and hoped that Emily would make me her friend." I too wish to be Emily's friend. Her simplicity of style appealed to me, especially those insights that sound like a Zen satori experience. In her letter to T. W. Higginson, Emily wrote "Perhaps you smile at me. / I could not stop for that— / My Business is / Circumference—" I see Emily and Einstein having tea together, each enlightening the other on the expanding universe— she riding on a bee, he on a butterfly, both travelling at the speed of light! Emily seems in tune with nature in Poem #111, communing with the Bee & Butterfly as well as the Brooks & the Breezes. She would have gotten along well with Saint Francis calling Brother Sun and Sister Moon. When Emily says in Poem #1129 that "The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—", she's probably thinking of Semele, the mortal wife of Zeus, who insisted on seeing the Olympian God in all his glory, and was reduced instantly to ashes. Hence, the first line "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—". In Poem #1212, Emily has an insight about completed works of art that lives on after the artist put the finishing touches to his labor. Tolstoy says in What Is Art? that the finished painting interacts with the viewer and becomes enlivened in the process. Maxine Kumin takes Emily's Poem #1755 To Make a Prairie as the title of her 1980 book of essays on poets, poetry, and country living. I like especially Emily's vision of how things that are minute (one clover and a bee) could make something so grandiose and monumental (prairie). But if these are lacking, try revery— for there is nothing grander than our imagination. This is why I love Emily Dickinson's poems so much. (Peter Y. Chou)

POEM 111 (circa 1859)

The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially—

The Brooks laugh louder when I come—
The Breezes madder play;
Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists,
Wherefore, Oh Summer Day?

— Emily Dickinson, Poem 111,
     Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
     Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1960, p. 53


POEM 1129 (circa 1868)

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

— Emily Dickinson, Poem 1129,
     Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, pp. 506-507


POEM 1212 (circa 1872)

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

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

— Emily Dickinson, Poem 1212,
     Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, pp. 534-535


POEM 1755 (circa ?)

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

— Emily Dickinson, Poem 1755,
     Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, p. 710


Emily Dickinson Poems Online

The Poems of Emily Dickinson
(Edited by R. W. Franklin),
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
Variorum Edition, Volumes 1-3, 1998


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