I have enrolled for a Coursera offering entitled Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, which will probably inspire some of my choices for the upcoming weeks. This morning, I’ve been listening to some of the thoughts on Emily Dickinson offered by the faculty of the course. Right now, I’d like to consider Dickinson’s poem number 466.
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
In the hands of the Ivy Leaguers who are hosting the course, this poem yielded a very rich quarter hour of close reading. In the end, the group’s leader, Al Filreis, fixed himself on what he takes as the most critical word in the poem: “This” in line ten.
Certainly that pronoun, like many pronouns, is a slippery and dangerous creature. Filreis riffs enthusiastically on its possibilities. “This” could be the poem or the reading of the poem–that is, what the readers were doing just then–or the writing of poetry. He pointed out the difficulty in parsing that Dickinson created through her use of a dash at the end of line ten. Had it been a colon, then we would know with fair certainty that that “this” refers to what follows: “The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise–“
But what Filreis then does is completely ignore the possibility that the dash after “This” should be read like a colon. While his other readings create interest, especially for the stripe of literary critic who believe every poem to be a composition regarding poetry, they ignore the ungrammatical nature of that final phrase if “This” is taken to refer to something other than what follows it.
As I read this poem, I’m reminded of the constantly metaphorical nature of Biblical texts. Whatever else it is, the Bible is not primarily prosaic. How much more straight-forward would Isaiah’s oracles be had he written in that less fair house of prose? But Isaiah did not. Even the prose portions of the text–the narratives of Genesis or Matthew for example–abound with ambiguities. In Matthew 13:34
, we read
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.
How much does this describe Emily Dickinson, who tells the whole truth but tells it slant? While she might be simply writing an ode on poetry, she might just as readily be relating the transcendent experience of privileging questions over answers and possibility over certainty. That sort of embrace for mystery seems to me the very heart of both meaningful religious experience and meaningful literary experience.
That final image–“spreading wide my narrow Hands to gather Paradise”–is effectively ignored in the Coursera reading, and yet its imagery suggests a far larger experience than simply the wonders of poetry. Here is the diminutive Dickinson in her relatively provincial Amhearst, staying notoriously close to home and yet spreading wide with narrow Hands to embrace a far wider world through the acceptance of possibility.