H.D. and Sappho

Hey all, I told my small group last Thursday that I would post this website that relates H.D. to Sappho, citing the fragments she’s referring to and then presenting H.D.’s take on them.

I also came across on Google Books the original copy of Sappho translations that H.D. was working with. Here it is.

There’s a certain Slant of light,

I know this is kind of going way back into the past, so I’m going to do a kind of quick and dirty interpretation of one way in which I read this poem, completely and unabashedly formed by my other readings going on at the time (Plato and Thoreau).

So one of the things that I thought of when reading this poem was how, sometimes, when I’m alone and just sort of spacing out (perhaps on “Winter Afternoons”) I can become prone to self-reflection. Metaphorically that’s what I saw the “Slant of light” as, something that is visible when this is prone to occur.

It may be “like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” in that it “oppresses” us by arresting our attention. I see the “Cathedral Tunes” as oppressive not only by virtue of being music, which seems to me to be one of those things that you cannot stop from entering into you (and for someone like Plato, Thoreau and perhaps Dickinson, entering directly into your soul), but through the content of the music, which is the divine. I recognize fully the urge to read this sarcastically in that cathedral tunes oppress one just as religion does, but I’m not sure that’s what’s going on because of the start of the next stanza.

I felt, when reading this, that Dickinson was very serious when she describes what “it gives us”–“Heavenly Hurt.” The capitalization of both words (as well as “Cathedral Tunes” and others throughout the poem) indicate to me the seriousness of the sentiment. One of the ideas that Plato bats around is that it can be painful, or that it might “Hurt” one to examine oneself (as you can see in Meno). One of the consequences of this is that there, of course, would be “no scar” visible, but rather some kind of “internal difference / Where the Meanings, are.” Of course, the comma in that line might seem to foul things up because, although the sentence would still be about internal meanings, one might suspect what follows (an explanation of what those meanings “are”) to be inconsistent. But, really, it just gets even better.

“None may teach it,” as Plato’s Socrates will tell you. He doesn’t claim to teach anything (which he starts to talk about in Apology around 19e and states explicitly at 33a). The ambiguous “Any” separated by two dashes syntactically seems to me to mean one of two things in the context of this interpretation: 1) an emphasis on the “None,” as in “not anyone” 2) simply anyone as in “None may teach it to anyone else.” Either would fit nicely, so, why not both? Again, the “Despair” would be the kinds of losses one must make if one is to take part in the kind of self-examining life one makes (although that gets more into Aristotle–thinking of his discussion on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics), again an “imperial affliction” could be one worthy of royalty, or perhaps one that conquers to expand its empire, etc. which would not be incompatible with either Plato or Aristotle here, while “Sent us of the Air” could mean that it was literally seen in the air, or perhaps, since the line gives agency of the air, it could relate to a Thoreauvian or Emersonian idea that Nature itself is something we’re a part of and that it is, in that way, part of ourselves, thus making the air our own reminder of the true nature of our being insofar as we are humans.

The last stanza definitely seems to be departing from the kinds of thoughts that Plato and Aristotle are having and delving deeper into the Thoreauvian-Emersonian territory of things. Of course “the Landscape listens,” as it is not only you, but something that would resonate and hear this “Slant of light,” which by now has now taken on a multi-sensational quality (sight and sound) and so too would “Shadows – hold their breath,” with that little dash included to even given the reader the effect of holding one’s breath as one reads over (or out loud) the words on the page. And lastly, “the Distance / On the look of Death” that comes “When it goes.” Well here we’re back to Plato, but really I think we haven’t left Thoreau or Emerson, but whatever. Something that philosophy forces one to do is to try and figure out who one really is and what one really thinks. One of the ways that one is suggested to do this, primarily in Plato, is to act and think your thoughts as though you were facing your own death at every moment (mainly because we all actually are. None of us can be certain when we shall die or in what manner, so, for Plato, to act as though we know it won’t be within the next minute is a mistake and, for someone like Thoreau it might constitute not living deliberately). So to put this all together, when this feeling leaves, the self-reflection that is ceases, it would putting a kind of “Distance” between oneself and “the look of Death,” which would not only be one’s looking at death, but it’s look at you, for if you are truly connected to eternity (to bring back Thoreau/Emerson) by virtue of being connected to who you really are, then you’re also connected to your own death and are, in a sense, facing it, and it gazes long into you (just to throw a little Nietzsche in here, since his ideas might help to clear up certain parts Emerson, especially since Emerson influenced Nietzsche’s thought immensely).

So, quick and dirty summary of one of my readings of this poem. What do you all think? I don’t really like it ultimately and I think it kind of misses the point in a sense. Really I think any kind of strict interpretive move when dealing with Dickinson tends to confine her poetry, her thoughts and thus herself in more ways than I’m comfortable with.

Our Promiscuity

That could be an interesting topic, but in this case I mean something academic.  In doing some rudimentary thinking about a paper I have to give in a month, I’ve been thinking about the theory of reading for which Susan David Bernstein coined the term “promiscuous identification.”  What it means, really, as it is applied in various places, is a reading practice that too reductively collapses the actually unbridgeable distance between the fictional subject/speaker and the author, between the fictional and historical subject or world, or possibly between the fictional speaker/subject and the reader herself or himself, making a holistic identification that overlooks or ignores the actual noncoincidence of the two.  ED is such a fascinating figure as The Myth of Amherst, and so many readings of her work seek biographical parallels– maybe due to the tendency I mentioned by Shanea’s Bridge post, that the privacy of her life makes us assume there is no external, is no public or theoretical, that comes into play.  I guess what I’m struggling with is wanting us to avoid the traps of promiscuous identification or of shallow biographical interpretations but also not to pretend that the lyrics exist in a pure isolation as mere artifacts of beauty.  This is a hard line to walk, isn’t it?

Bridge to the Blog: The only certain things in life are death and…marriage?

Today in class we began our discussion with poem 185, but I felt like it never really concluded–probably because we continued the discussion about its prominent themes into the other two poems (194 and 225). Something that interested me were, of course, the two most prominent images in the poems and trying to determine which is the metaphor for which in each situation. The idea was also tossed around that maybe there’s a switch within the poems, specifically in 185 between stanzas. I guess I want to flesh out what the implications of each metaphor my be and try and give a reading of these poems with that in mind and then this post can serve as a gateway for others to put forth their own readings.

So my first instinct is that death is the metaphor for marriage. If that’s the case then marriage is the cessation of life, in this case, the bride in particular. I don’t think it is necessarily what kills the bride besides the fact that this death obviously has agency since the woman cannot pursue a marriage and force a man to marry her. This would imply that after a woman is married what follows is a lifeless existence and that brides are no more than images of death walking around and speaking when spoken to in the private sphere and not at all in the public sphere. This obviously does not bode well for the marriage in the eyes of Emily Dickinson. Or does it? Let’s look at it the other way. If marriage is the metaphor for death, this may be a good thing. There’s the curious use of the word “Victory” in 185 and 194, but from her dripping sarcasm in 194, I’d have to say we might apply the same to 185–especially since the second half of that poem and it’s creepiness definitely seems more like a bad thing than a good thing. Plus, as we’ve seen from her letters, she clearly is very suspicious of the marriage institution. In regards to it switching mid-poem or between stanzas (at least in regards to 185), I don’t think the text supports it. What I mean is that I think it’s running through both stanzas–the wife in the first stanza, the child in the second; the passing “Unto the East” in the first stanza and “The Angels” bustling in the second.

So my candidate is that death is the metaphor for marriage here. But what I’m wondering is what does that do for her poems that are primarily about death and it doesn’t seem as though marriage enters into it? Does this change your understanding of how Dickinson’s relation to death is something that might be very real to her–a lurking possibility, just around the door? What do you all think?

Choke of the Day: Dropping the Dickinson doll–both times–was hilarious, complete with the readings outside the door and little Emily Dickinson hovering in the crack to “read” her poems to us.

Class MVP: Alyssa for initiating the motion to do something about it whenever someone drops the Dickinson doll and (I think) coming up with our first plan of action against The First Dude. We’re counting on you Snape!

Quote of the Day: [Insert Gary Richards’ Dickinson parody poem here]
The only one I remember in full is:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
Enough said.

Ask Dr. Scansion (Reprise)

Q:  Dear Dr. Scansion,

I am new to formal analysis of poetry and am anxiously wondering: what terms do I really need to know? Can you help me navigate this new period in my education?



A: Dear Lavinia,

The terms of formal analysis and prosody are numerous, and some people may be comfortable taking on a more complex set, but for the most part you should have a vocabulary that includes the following:

1) basic accentual patterns: iamb, trochee, spondee, pyrrhic, anapest, and dactyl (Note: some people think that the pyrrhic doesn’t exist in English.  You will need to resist peer pressure and decide what seems true to you.  For my part, I believe.)

2) common metrical feet: trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter

3) common stanza names: couplet, triplet, quatrain, sestet, octave

4) useful ways to characterize sound patterns: rhyme, half- or slant-rhyme, assonance, consonance, dissonance, alliteration

5) terms that describe line/sentence formations: end-stopped, caesura, enjambment

You may want to be comfortable with a handful of other terms, for example:  sonnet, sestina, blank verse, free verse.

Lavinia, there are resources for people like you.  This site has a wealth of information about prosody and form, or you can turn to sites like the glossary on  for better for verse, which is less exhaustive but has clear definitions.  In either case, don’t forget that reliable friends and grown-ups you trust can be helpful in working through these tough times.  Eventually you may even come to see formal and prosodic analysis as an important part of how you think.

All best wishes,

Dr. Scansion

A Resistant Writer–No Kidding

I can definitely see what Scanlon means when she said that Dickinson (and H.D.) at times actively resist the reader.

Take poem 42.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about this poem and, though I am much further along than when I started, I still don’t know if I can make the whole poem fit together. Dickinson starts with a kind of riddle, which the reader is left to guess: “There is a word…” (1) and, by the end of the poem, she seems to have given at least three possible answers. The word is either, the most obvious contender, “‘forgot'” (18), which she places in quotation marks, or perhaps “Time,” which takes center stage in the final stanza as “the keenest marksman! / The most accomplished shot!” (15-16), or it could be something that the poet has not identified and has left for us to conjure. My candidate is “forgot,” which would seem to make sense at first, since that would seem to be the greatest harm to a decorated war hero, rather than time which “harms” everyone in the sense that it ultimately leads to death.

But when confronting the second half of the first stanza, it’s no longer certain. If “[t]he saved will tell / On patriotic day” then how could one forget him? I’ll grant that their memory seems woozy (“Some epauletted Brother” [9], emphasis mine), but the remembrance is still occurring. Besides, what do we then make of the second stanza in which it seems that Time is in fact the word? The first reference of “it’s noiseless onset” (13) seems to refer to the same “It” of line four, the word, and yet, if one associates the exclamations (as I do), then the “marksman” and “most accomplished shot” would be aiming for the “target,” which “[i]s a soul ‘forgot'” (15-18).  Now it looks like Time is the word which is the ultimate culprit and forgetting just a consequence.

But Dickinson isn’t through complicating all of this–she decides to make “Time’s sublimest target” (17) the word “forgot.” What?? I thought that the word was a bad thing? It “bears a sword” and “[c]an pierce an armed man” (2-3). That doesn’t sound very sublime, nor does “hurl[ing] it’s barbed syllables” for that matter (4). And yet, perhaps, as I thought earlier, it is after all “forgot,” which, of the two particular candidates, is the only word with “syllables” (plural). But that just leaves us right back where we started–what do we make of this whole time business at the poems close? How could forgetfulness be so deadly if people seem to still remember?

Now of course I recognize that this is just my understanding. I’m eager to see what other people make of this poem (and the others) as I imagine many of us will have different interpretations.

Thoughts on this one?


So, it’s really interesting that Dickenson included alternate words in her poems, unable or unwilling to decide.  She offers alternate readings and understandings about her poems by doing so.  With “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” she cannot choose between the “art to kill” or the “power to kill,” questioning her ability to have agency and never answering the question.  She also ends so many lines with the dash, even ending this poem itself with a dash, as if everything is hanging, waiting for resolution that never comes.  The ambiguity itself adds to the poem and perhaps what Dickenson was thinking when she wrote it–as much as I hate psychoanalytical readings, I’m guessing Dickenson didn’t like to make decisions.  Her poems are a window into her own thought processes.  Perhaps this could even help explain why she had such strong social anxiety.

On another note, I was telling my mom about ED and how she was a recluse, but continued to connect with some people (Mom liked the factoid about putting baked goods out her window for the children in the neighborhood).  My mom (55 years old) theorized that Dickenson’s seclusion was due to hormones and that the era’s lack of explanation & therapy for the anxieties that overwhelm aging women was too much for the poet to handle, so she just stopped dealing with the world.  I’m not sure if this is true, but I don’t think she was as crazy as some say.

Dickinson Handout

A couple of thoughts and observations on the handout.

On page 208, the paragraph that is continuing from the previous page seems to imply that the gun doesn’t live a meaningful existence because it isn’t a “self-actualizing animate being.” However, from the poem, it seemed to me that the gun itself was drawing this conclusion precisely because it “[has] but the power to kill, / Without — the power to die –.” Thus the gun draws the conclusion that it cannot really live, not because it is contingent on the “Owner,” but rather because it cannot die, for the only things that “live” must die. This to me would provide a much more interesting gloss on what was, for me, the most interesting interpretation the writer gave of this poem–that of the word and the poet. The word never literally lives because it cannot “die” per say. However, while this author is saying that that grants the word or the poem a kind of eternality “that is not anything terrible” (210) the author of this piece is still questioning the role that the actual poet, Dickinson, plays in this. The writer claims that it has to do with satire, but I thought it was simpler than that.

While the word-poem maybe be the speaker, the writer-poet is still the creator and imbuing the word with whatever she wants. For me, this explains the despair that this writer is observing well. The poet is in some sense, in my reading, despairing over the very fact that only her word will survive–something that has never really lived and never will is what her own life will be remembered through. Talk about injustice.

I don’t know if I’m making this clear at all or not and I haven’t thought through the other suggestion that this writer did not get into, but which I do not doubt is very interesting–that of “consider[ing] the speaker as the poet and the owner as the muse in terms of an inspiriting idea” (210). That sounds just fascinating to me.
And, while I think both of these interpretations are valuable and enlightening to ponder, I’m still trying to work out all of the possibilities that are open just from taking the gun and owner literally. The dashes leave so much open for interpretation even on the most literal level that it’s overwhelming for me sometimes. Looking forward to hearing more about what people make of the dashes.

And one afterthought: this writer interprets “Yellow Eye” as a kind of malarial reference, but I don’t know if that makes sense in conjunction with the “emphatic Thumb” that seems to me to be some kind of aggressive behavior. Are people with malaria really that aggressive? I looked up “yellow” and “eye” on the Dickinson lexicon and the possible combinations was sometimes intriguing, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes ambiguous–but I saw the “Yellow” as a harsh color, in the way that laying an eye on the sun would be harsh in some sense. I dunno. Couldn’t really make sense of that bit. What do you all think?