by Sandra Gilbert

Page 2

For there's some way in which what we're dealing with here is a poet who can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, what would seem to be the daily, the domestic, in the miraculous and the magical. And I want to read tonight in tribute to Dickinson, four poems of Dickinson's which seem to me to emphasize her concern with difference, her yearning for a different world that would be mythical and magical; her concern with the problem of writing poetry as a woman; the issue of what kind of muse a woman poet has, and, if a woman poet has a muse, what is its sex; and finally, her conscious relationship to the female literary tradition. So I'm going to read four poems of hers, and then, alas, I'm going to four poems of my own, although that feels like an absolute desecration to me to be reading poetry of mine in the same session in which I read poetry of hers. But at least I can claim that my poems were consciously or unconsciously written in some way in response to themes and ideas that I found in her poetry, and that they are an effort to pay tribute to her magic and her mythology. So the first poem of hers that I'm going to read is an early (I'll read these poems pretty much in chronological order; one is going to be slightly out of order). The first one that I want to read is an early poem which is about, as I said, her yearning for a different world, a world in which female difference could be liberated and celebrated. This is a poem--well, with Dickinson you have the problem of the titles, it's like the joke convention--this is going to be Poem 24. A name to conjure with right? But we call them by their first lines, so this is a poem we call, "There is a morn by men unseen - ":

There is a morn by men unseen -
Whose maids upon remoter green
Keep their Seraphic May -
And all day long, with dance and game,
And gambol I may never name -
Employ their holiday.

Here to light measure, move the feet
Which walk no more the village street -
Nor by the wood are found -
Here are the birds that sought the sun
When last year's distaff idle hung
And summer's brows were bound.

Ne'er saw I such a wondrous scene -
Ne'er such a ring on such a green -
Nor so serene array -
As if the stars some summer night
Should swing their cups of Chrysolite -
And revel till the day -

Like thee to dance - like thee to sing -
People upon the mystic green -
I ask, each new May Morn.
I wait thy far, fantastic bells -
Announcing me in other dells -
Unto the different dawn!

(JP 24)

It's important that that different dawn is in some way continuous with the world that Dickinson is reinventing when she puts raisins in one pocket, and cracked nuts in another, and say "Knock" and "Come in" and transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. The next poem of hers that I want to read is, to go on giving you the numbers in case you're taking notes, is number 103 (Johnson Edition), further along in her career. And it is about the issue of a kind of muse; she doesn't specifically say she's writing about a muse, but I think when you listen to the poem that she really is and here she imagines the muse as a silent, in some ways, sort of censorious male figure:

I have a King, who does not speak -
So - wondering - thro' the hours meek
I trudge the day away -
Half glad when it is night, and sleep,
If, haply, thro' a dream, to peep
In parlors, shut by day.

And if I do - when morning comes -
It is as if a hundred drums
Did round my pillow roll,
And shouts fill all my Childish sky,
And Bells keep saying "Victory"
From steeples in my soul!

And if I don't - the little Bird
Within the Orchard, is not heard,
And I omit to pray
"Father, thy will be done" today
For my will goes the other way,
And it were perjury!

(JP 103)

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