In recognition of National Poetry Month which wraps up today, I am celebrating Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most innovative and unique poets. She is known for the economy of her verse, her unconventional use of grammar and punctuation and blatant disregard of poetic conventions.
She is first and foremost a nature poet who through robins, bees and flowers expounds profound truths about love, life, death and immortality. Her concise poems manage to pack the hardest punch. Typically one or two metaphors are enough to convey the message or the emotion. I have chosen to highlight three poems on love and loss explicitly for their novel use of figurative language.
To lose thee — sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
‘Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!
The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.
This bittersweet poem on pain going hand in hand with pleasure illustrates Tennyson’s famous lines that ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Where there is love, there is loss but there is something sweet about the loss too. The speaker is bereft but she was lucky enough to have had something to lose. Being in drought makes her appreciate the dew or the contrasting emotion of elation she once enjoyed.
In this particular poem I was intrigued by the image of the Caspian Sea as a metaphor of life, love and vitality and the dry sand the pain of loneliness and desolation. Marine images feature in many of Dickinson’s poems. In fact there are other poems that allude specifically to the Caspian Sea like this succinct two line poem on submitting to her beloved :
Least Rivers — docile to some sea.
My Caspian — thee.
The Caspian sea interestingly is not a boundless sea but a landlocked body of water. It could not exist without its boundaries. Everything has its limits and must end somewhere. The sand marks the end of the sea. Similarly love must end too. Loss is a necessary part of life. Without the sterile desert, there would be no appreciation of the sea. It is fascinating how Dickinson employs a topographical feature to illuminate the workings of the mind.
I held a Jewel in my fingers—
And went to sleep—
The day was warm, and winds were prosy—
I said ”Twill keep’—
I woke—and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone—
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own—
The speaker/poet thought her love as rare and exquisite as a jewel would last forever but it was evanescent and only memories remain. She went to sleep lulled by the comfort that she was secure in her relationship but maybe she took it for for granted. She blames herself for when she wakes up her precious treasure has slipped away and what remains with her are her cherished memories. Love is fleeting and is synonymous with loss but there is a vague triumph in the loss. I interpreted “Jewel” to denote love but the jewel could mean life, possessions, dreams or anything we held on to dearly. The nostalgic tone of the poem is accentuated by the use of innumerable dashes which could denote a pause in her thoughts as she strives to recollect her past.
This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems as I love the image of ” an Amethyst remembrance”. An amethyst is a semi-precious stone compared to the precious jewel. So one could argue that what remains is definitely less precious than what one has experienced. But it could be the opposite too. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have a precise picture of the jewel but the description of the memory is more concrete? Our memories are often idealized versions of a past that was far from perfect. The colorful, lustrous and sparkling picture of the amethyst evoked at the end of the day and perhaps at the sunset of her life suffuses the poem in a violet glow. What a gem of a poem!
We outgrow love like other things
And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
Like costumes grandsires wore.
We outgrow love like other things. What a cynical start to the poem! Love and everything else in life is temporary. Sometimes we hold on to letters and photographs of an ex even if we no longer have any feelings for that person. We don’t want to completely destroy the evidence of the past even if it were painful or even if we are totally indifferent to the person now. We put our feelings in the drawer as we don’t want to deal with them but do we really outgrow love if we are putting it away? There is some lingering affection or sentiment attached if not to the person then at least to the experience or why wouldn’t we just throw it all away?
The object we once desired loses its appeal and charm and becomes an antique that is out of fashion. Again, the use of figurative language is striking. These objects are not necessarily heirlooms that we cherish or that even have a sentimental value but things that get tucked away in a drawer forgotten and possibly never removed ever again “like costumes grandsires wore.”Grandsires” is an archaic word to describe male ancestors. Was love just a short-lived performance? Did we wear love like a costume to be discarded after the act? We want different things in different stages of our lives and what we once prized is now devoid of any value.
Emily Dickinson is my bedside companion. Along with some other cherished books by favorite authors that have found a place on my bedside table, I have an edition of her poems that I turn to for a quick read when I am too tired to read something long or when I am in between books. Dickinson’s poems are just the perfect size for me to savor and to indulge in some introspection. Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Every day is poetry day and every month is poetry month for me but just like we honor our mothers on Mother’s Day or our significant others on Valentine’s Day though we love them throughout the year, it is wonderful to have a whole month dedicated to poetry appreciation.