THE LITTLE CABOOSE OF THE EMILY DICKINSON EXPRESS
by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates Home Page
Coming at the end of so varied a collection, I feel rather like the little caboose of the Emily Dickinson Express. . . .But I'm very honored to be here.
I had intended to discuss several Dickinson poems of high seriousness, and these are, should you want to reread them, "After Great Pain..." (JP 341), "'Hope' is the Thing With Feathers..." (JP 254), and "The Brain Within its Groove..." (JP 556). But it might be a more felicitous idea to conclude these ruminations with poems in a somewhat lighter vein, since there may be some readers who are unaware of another side of Dickinson. For all the gravity, and beauty, and heartrending precision of her insights she could be, upon occasion-- upon, in fact, numerous occasions--sly, mischievous, impious, and subversive; simply very funny; her characteristically small female voice used to enormous advantage.
For instance, here is a poem that is a valentine, both metaphorically and literally. Its comic rhymes suggest a virtuoso talent at play--and the poet is only nineteen years old. Most of the Dickinson poems with which we are familiar are the great poems of her maturity in the 1860s. This is Dickinson in 1850:
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.
All things do go a courting, in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single but thee in His world so fair!
The bride, and then the bridegroom, the two, and then the one,
Adam, and Eve, his consort, the moon, and then the sun;
The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,
Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.
The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,
None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;
The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives,
And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;
The wind doth woo the branches, the branches they are won,
And the father fond demandeth the maiden for his son.
The storm doth walk the seashore humming a mournful tune,
The wave with eye so pensive, looketh to see the moon,
Their spirits meet together, they make them solemn vows,
No more he singeth mournful, her sadness she doth lose.
The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide;
Earth is a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.
Now to the application, to the reading of the roll,
To bringing thee to justice, and marshalling thy soul:
Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,
Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap'st what thou hast sown.
Hast never silent hours, and minutes all too long,
And a deal of sad reflection, and wailing instead of song?
There's Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maiden sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower--
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum--
And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!