Guest poem submitted by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1761) Further in Summer than the Birds
Further in Summer than the Birds Pathetic from the Grass A minor Nation celebrates Its unobtrusive Mass. No Ordinance be seen So gradual the Grace A pensive Custom it becomes Enlarging Loneliness. Antiquest felt at Noon When August burning low Arise this spectral Canticle Repose to typify Remit as yet no Grace No Furrow on the Glow Yet a Druidic Difference Enhances Nature now
It is a compliment to the Wondering Minstrels when a standard of the canon has not yet appeared, but so it is and I here remedy the default, provoked by the recent other Dickinson offerings. It is easy to patronise "Emily," as her academic critics invariably rather astonishingly call her - not "Dickinson"; not even "Miss Dickinson" or "Emily Dickinson" - does one ever hear of "Twain" or "Whitman"? Nope: they are always "Mark Twain" and "Walt Whitman"; fair enough, but why is Emily Dickinson always "Emily"? Well, she had a rather sheltered sequestered small town Old Maid Yankee existence. And her poems are all in 86 86 Common Metre, like the 19th century hymns that would have been familiar to her at Sunday Congregational church meetings. One wonders just how wide her reading could have been, not to speak of her acquaintance: she might, after all, be simply an astonishingly sensitive and acute original. Certainly her real life experience was extremely straitened; she took her reclusiveness very seriously - her poetry was mostly found after her death sewn up in "fascicles," as she called them; in 20th century terms she would doubtless be regarded as a pathological case and have been locked up like Robert Lowell; and in, say, 4th century terms she would undoubtedly be in the canon of saints. But in her poetry - it is most certainly not mere "verse" - she pushes CM to its outermost limits: she makes me think of William Cowper and John Newton with their very fine CM hymns a hundred years earlier ("God moves in a mysterious way/his wonders to perform"; "Glorious things of thee are spoken/Zion, city of our God"; "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me"), and Wordsworth's reverie on the disciplining confines of the sonnet form in "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room." The thing that's so amazing about her poetry is, continuingly, "How did she know?! How COULD she know?!" A queer old maid Yankee just couldn't have known about Catholic liturgical and exegetical niceties but yet, astonishingly, she did. (T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, with backgrounds not wholly dissimilar to hers, went whole hog into small- and large-C catholicism, respectively, but Emily Dickinson seems to have grasped everything they did and found that route unnecessary.) And so the hum of grasshoppers on a hot, dry August afternoon is the celebration both of insubstantial quiddity and a sacramental rite. The "Grace" that is imparted to faithful (well, say, to Boston Irish Catholics in Emily Dickinson's world) in the Mass, some time after the "gradual" (ie not just slowly-slowly, but also the scriptural tract recited or sung between the epistle and the gospel) - in the case of the August insect liturgies isolates and excludes rather than gathering and including. But HOW did she know all this? An "antiquest"? It's perhaps an antiphon - the responsory chanted by a monastic choir, but it's also a vain endeavour to find involvement in nature and obviate loneliness and isolation. A "canticle"? It's the liturgical term for the biblical hymns chanted in the monastic office - magnificat, nunc dimitis, benedictus, benedicite and so on; but again, how did she know? And they typify repose: they represent rest; but "typology" is the hermeneutical term for supposed Old Testament anticipations of New Testament fulfilments, such as the rod carried aloft before the Israelites in the wilderness and the cross of Jesus. And yet again, how DID she know? But clearly she did, for her closing reference to a "Druidic difference" means, certainly, that she has considered all these liturgical resonances before rejecting them as the appropriate metaphor; nature is certainly sacramental, but the appropriate sacerdotalism is pagan. And exclusionary. "Further in summer than the birds," it seems to me, is a companion to, an amplification of, that splendid other nature poem of hers, "A narrow fellow in the grass," and its arresting concluding image of feeling "zero at the bone" comes to mind here - as Wordsworth (to return to the opening of this little discussion) with his sentimentality about nature most certainly does not. Mac Robb. Brisbane, Australia.