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    Emily Dickinson: Un Poete Manque

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    Chapter 12
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    IN the first volume of Miss Dickinson's poetical melange is a little poem which needs only a slight revision of the initial stanza to entitle it to rank with some of the swallow-flights in Heine's lyrical intermezzo. I have tentatively tucked a rhyme into that opening stanza:

    I taste a liquor never brewed In vats upon the Rhine; No tankard ever held a draught Of alcohol like mine.

    Inebriate of air am I, And debauchee of dew, Reeling, through endless summer days, From inns of molten blue.

    When landlords turn the drunken bee Out of the Foxglove's door, When butterflies renounce their drams, I shall but drink the more! Till seraphs swing their snowy caps And saints to windows run, To see the little tippler Leaning against the sun!

    Those inns of molten blue, and the disreputable honey-gatherer who gets himself turned out-of-doors at the sign of the Foxglove, are very taking matters. I know of more important things that interest me vastly less. This is one of the ten or twelve brief pieces so nearly perfect in structure as almost to warrant the reader in suspecting that Miss Dickinson's general disregard of form was a deliberate affectation. The artistic finish of the following sunset-piece makes her usual quatrains unforgivable:

    This is the land the sunset washes, These are the banks of the Yellow Sea; Where it rose, or whither it rushes, These are the western mystery!

    Night after night her purple traffic Strews the landing with opal bales; Merchantmen poise upon horizons, Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.

    The little picture has all the opaline atmosphere of a Claude Lorraine. One instantly frames it in one's memory. Several such bits of impressionist landscape may be found in the portfolio.

    It is to be said, in passing, that there are few things in Miss Dickinson's poetry so felicitous as Mr. Higginson's characterization of it in his preface to the volume: "In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry pulled up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth clinging to them." Possibly it might be objected that this is not the best way to gather either flowers or poetry.

    Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and bizarre mind. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson. The very gesture with which she tied her bonnet-strings, preparatory to one of her nun-like walks in her garden at Amherst, must have had something dreamy and Emersonian in it. She had much fancy of a quaint kind, but only, as it appears to me, intermittent flashes of imagination.

    That Miss Dickinson's memoranda have a certain something which, for want of a more precise name, we term quality, is not to be denied. But the incoherence and shapelessness of the greater part of her verse are fatal. On nearly every page one lights upon an unsupported exquisite line or a lonely happy epithet; but a single happy epithet or an isolated exquisite line does not constitute a poem. What Lowell says of Dr. Donne applies in a manner to Miss Dickinson: "Donne is full of salient verses that would take the rudest March winds of criticism with their beauty, of thoughts that first tease us like charades and then delight us with the felicity of their solution; but these have not saved him. He is exiled to the limbo of the formless and the fragmentary."

    Touching this question of mere technique Mr. Ruskin has a word to say (it appears that he said it "in his earlier and better days"), and Mr. Higginson quotes it: "No weight, nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought." This is a proposition to which one would cordially subscribe if it were not so intemperately stated. A suggestive commentary on Mr. Ruskin's impressive dictum is furnished by his own volume of verse. The substance of it is weighty enough, but the workmanship lacks just that touch which distinguishes the artist from the bungler--the touch which Mr. Ruskin, except when writing prose, appears not much to have regarded either in his later or "in his earlier and better days."

    Miss Dickinson's stanzas, with their impossible rhyme, their involved significance, their interrupted flute-note of birds that have no continuous music, seem to have caught the ear of a group of eager listeners. A shy New England bluebird, shifting its light load of song, has for the moment been mistaken for a stray nightingale.
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