Posts Tagged ‘If I should Die’

Posterity

June 17, 2017

O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
     Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
     Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
     Love is best

Robert Browing, Love Among the Ruins

What has posterity ever done for me?
Groucho Marx

You did it
For the People
Is what you
Told yourself

You thought
You were
Bigger than
Everybody else

You ruled
You conquered
You told people
What to do

Now you’re just
As dead
As everyone
You knew

Time
Gurgles on

It’s gonna
Wash away

Everything
We ever do
And everything
We say

Existence
Is a gift
Will you squander
Your ration?

Or will you
Live your life
For love
And compassion?

by Richard W. Bray

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

August 11, 2012

Emily Dickinson

Louise Bogan

There is no professionalism, in the worst sense, here; and it is interesting to note that, although she sought out Higginson’s advice and named herself his “scholar,” she never altered a poem of hers according to any suggestion of his. She had, at one time, perhaps been willing to be published, but, later, she could do without print.

Louise Bogan on the “pleasure” of reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson “from beginning to end” from Twentieth Century Views: Emily Dickinson (141)

 

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.

Adrienne Rich from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (160)

 

Emily Dickinson’s idiosyncratic relationship to words enables her to find the perfect phrase to many thoughts.

At first reading, Miss Dickinson’s word choices can jar the reader’s expectations. Her unconventional grammatical constructions often feel like typos and many of her word choices seem bizarre. But there is much sense in her method; she wrote the poems she wanted to write.

Consider the following lines:

To fight aloud is very brave—
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

She’s saying, of course, that active, probing reflection and contemplation are a far greater indication of courage than boisterous displays of belligerence. And the words “very brave” are delivered with verbal irony that cuts deeply into our preferred notions of “gallantry.”

But I am also interested in her choice of the word “who” at the beginning of the third line. Grammatically speaking, the word “to” is the more obvious choice. However, because “who” stands for “all those who would,” the compacted might of this syllable is delivered with considerable heft.

Dickinson’s poem If I Should Die is about the silliness of human cupidity and acquisitiveness contemplated against the backdrop of eternity:

’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—

Here’s some more caustic verbal irony: There’s nothing “sweet,” or comforting about this knowledge; it doesn’t render anyone any less dead; it doesn’t tell us that we shall be remembered fondly by loved ones.

(Note: Like many poems by Dickinson, If I Should Die is in common meter, which means it consists of alternating iambic lines of four and three feet. Here’s a quick common meter test: try singing the poem to the tune of Amazing Grace.)

The conventional metaphor about time “marching” conditions us to think of it as an unalterable, deliberate, rhythmic force, which is why the word “gurgle” in line three flusters the reader’s expectations. The poetess is reminding us that time will continue to proceed in a soft, unpredictable, melodious fashion no matter what we do.

Dickinson’s employment of the word “usual” in line six is also compelling.

Adjectives aren’t supposed to modify verbs, that’s an adverb’s job. (Of course, this is putting it rather crudely. A word is not a part of speech, a word acts as a part of speech, and usual usually acts as an adjective.) Curiously, the poem would not have suffered metrically if she had used the word usually because both usual and usually can be pronounced as trochees (two-syllable words with an accented first syllable.) Usually can be enunciated as a two-, three- or four-syllable word. However, using the word usual suggests that beaming is the sun’s quotidian task whereas usually would have implied that beaming was the sun’s normal condition. Great art is the result of such apparently minor distinctions.

The meaning-per-syllable metric is one tool for assessing a poet’s endowment; Emily Dickinson extracts riches from words with an efficacy that the greatest prospectors should envy.

 

If I Should Die

If I should die,
And you should live—
And time should gurgle on—
And morn should beam—
And noon should burn—
As it has usual done—
If Birds should build as early
And Bees as bustling go—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!

by Richard W. Bray