Myself was formed—a carpenter—
An unpretending time
My Plane—and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came—
To measure our attainments—
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed—He’d hire us
My Tools took Human—Faces—
The Bench, where we had toiled—
Against the Man—persuaded—
We—Temples build—I said—
#488 is a poem Emily Dickinson composed right before her most prolific writing period. She had just reached out to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a writer of politics, a composer of poetry and prose, whom would become her greatest literary confidant. Their exchange of letters would last from 1862 until Dickinson’s death in 1886.
It is through these letters, that we gain a greater understanding of Dickinson’s faith and doubt. Dickinson doesn’t shy away from sharing her disbelief despite the fact that Higginson embraces his own.
The book, White Heat, documents other correspondence as well; there is Sue, her sister-in-law; and a friend, Abiah Root. These help to shed light, that despite Dickinson’s Christian upbringing, she rejected the notion of belief. As reported in “White Heat,” she states to Root: “I was almost persuaded to be a christian…” She goes on to explain that she felt at peace until her mind took over. Dickinson writes to Higginson that she was, “grateful to whatever highest power produced a consciousness capable of doubting it”. (White Heat, p. 50)
Poem #488 is interesting. Here is a very well read, intuitive woman who could compare herself to a sundry of professions, yet she chose the carpenter. Her implications regarding tools to human faces; and the building of temples, seems too akin to Christ to ignore. I continue to question if she felt god-like, or that she was at least of the same plane, in her mind. One could even infer that her strictly alabaster attire she wore later in life, ascribed to this notion of a pureness of that of a deity.
Adrienne Rich posits that poem #488 is more a signifier that Dickinson realizes her skill, her gift, as a poet, and expresses it with confidence. I don’t object to this notion, I just feel that it is another example of Dickinson’s poetry expressing her individuality. Perhaps, one could infer that she felt she was as gifted as any creator.
Does Dickinson’s need to voice her disdain for religion; to declare she may or may not ‘see’ death a sign of anger at God, or at the Westernized structure of religion?
Dickinson’s struggle reminds me of the oft used, “dark night of the soul”. There seems no end to this dark night. The seclusion, albeit one self-imposed; the unbelievable creative spirit that dwelled within her psyche; and her bouts of depression (I’ve not read much regarding this, but there has been inference in many poems). Was Dickinson’s answer was to object to a God she felt powerless against? She was a woman of vast intelligence who understood ‘place’; who felt the injustices of the world; ergo, were her poems to lash out only, or to draw a boundary to make clear that she would not be a part of any doctrine?
Perhaps I am interjecting too much of my own wranglings with faith. I’ve stated before that my study is not of literature or writing. I lacked confidence to pursue my writing, ergo, I followed my second passion, science and research. However, I do understand the human condition; I don’t paint roses where there should be thorns. I am not as wise as Emily Dickinson, but I know what it is to ‘see’ what others miss, to ‘feel’ what others don’t want to recognize. It Can tear at your soul; it can certainly tear at your belief system.
What is one to do when they come up against a brick wall of ‘authority’ that does, or doesn’t, hold the keys to the kingdom whom you may, or may not, believe is a ‘fair’ creator? If you are a writer, you write.
Emily Dickinson wrote of nature, but rarely in a flowery way. Emily Dickinson wrote of darkness, but never in a way that would conjecture a ghost or Grimm fairy tale. She grappled with a depth that most of us shall never understand. I believe that is why she remains, and shall remain, a great mystery to our American canon of the great poets.
I shall leave with another poem that moves me deeply. It is one that Rich also was moved by for years. I’m most grateful that my job of transcription has been eased after I found the full essay of Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home” online via Parnassus. (I’ve not had time to even read this new find, but I’m quite excited to bookmark and pursue later.) If you’d like to read Rich’s full essay, please do!
Rich states that poem #754 is Dickinson acknowledging her daemon. Again, I understand her reasoning, however, when I read it the first time, off in the margin of my copy I wrote without even thinking, “Did Emily fight with God?”
Rich regards #754 as a study of a woman’s power as woman and as artist. I see it more as an examination of Dickinson’s ability to be immortal. Either way, Ms. Dickinson was indeed a Loaded Gun, thank god for that -
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away—
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him—
The Mountains straight reply
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through—
And when at Night—Our good Day done—
I guard My Master’s Head—
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow—to have shared—
To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—
Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
P.S. I am most grateful to you all who have taken the time with your thoughtful commentary. I hope to comment on those later tonight. Despite being without work today, I had work to do, so I’m a bit behind in comments and commenting. As you are busy bloggers too, I’m certain you understand, and will hopefully offer me a bit of a grace period. ~ a