Sunday, November 23, 2008

11 (67)

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
to comprehend a nectar
Requires a sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Hosts
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

as he defeated - dying -
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

Final Harvest, Emily Dickinson's Poems
Ed., Thomas H. Johnson
Little, Brown & Co., 1961

In this poem the speaker is lamenting her/his own defeat or, out of some deeper loss suffered that restricts her/his ability to "win" graciously, is mocking those defeated . So at once the poem is the defeated's bitter lament, and the bully's vicious, bitter crowing. We can't know Dickinson's intention exactly, but her point is crystalline: the loser clearly knows the anguish of defeat, and at the same time, clearly knows the definition of success. We all lose at some time in our lives: maybe it's a lover, a beloved spouse, a child, a brother or a sister to death, or to worse; maybe it's our innocence, our faith in government, our resilience, our sense of fair-play.
Sometimes we are the "purple Hosts:" we do demonstrate how much we love someone or want something by trying, with all of our might, to comprehend that person, achieve that something-- "the nectar," as Dickinson says. But to no avail. And sometimes, (go ahead, "write it" as Elizabeth Bishop says), we, for whatever reason, want to add insult to injury: we know the defeated is hurt, but we're too hurt by losing whatever it is we lost to be able to care. How agonized and clear those strains of triumph burst on the forbidden ear.

Here's another poem by Emily Dickinson:

310 (761)

From Blank to Blank-
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet-
To stop-or perish-or advance-
Alike indifferent-

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed-
I shut my eyes-and groped as well
'Twas lighter-to be Blind-

Same source as poem above

The phrase "indefinite disclosed" coming right after acknowledging "gain" always "ends", is masterfully despondent. And the tag "as well" tells us the speaker is so "Mechanic" in this "Threadless Way" that she/he may as well "grope" around in willful blindness too. The pun on the word "lighter" is sardonic. To say it's "lighter -to be Blind" is to say it's less of a burden to choose to "not see" what you're doing, what's being done, or, simply, what is. Again, we can't be certain of Dickinson's intention. We do know, however, that this is an intense grief, and that neither of these poems is a recollection in tranquility. Poems that are simultaneously personal, private correspondence and open correspondence with the world are what the writer wants to achieve. Dickinson has achieved this in both poems.

Fresh snow on the mountains this morning, chiffon clouds

1 comment:

The Campbell's said...

I have always loved that top poem.