the art of communication

Instead of selling the chalk of illusion for the cheese of reality, the expert should better point at the metaphor. Saying : “seek, and you will find what the poet has, especially for you, hidden within that metaphor.” In case you haven’t noticed : there is a marvellous discovery waiting for you in the final line of Dickinson’s poem.

Seek, and you will find, and the metaphor is the poem’s key. Which defines poetry as an encrypted means of communication. The last thing a poetry lover, according to this definition, is waiting for, is the deciphering already been done. Meaning that Judith Farr, and literary criticism as a whole, is rather to be praised for avoiding the metaphor than rebuked. From which one may gather that there evidently is some wisdom in the expert’s habit of keeping a poem’s message obscured. And the same for avoiding the problem that, once known, the metaphor will be recognized whenever it occurs. A complication that in the long run is to make literary criticism completely redundant.

Nevertheless, this drawback is not going to leave this branch of science unoccupied, because, for a proper understanding, a text has to be read within context. Lays cannot be expected to figure this context out for each single piece of literature. And for that reason the encounters which Dickinson placed at the centre of her poem can make perfect sense to her countrymen only. If unbraiding whips are still common finds in the New England countryside, that is.

The identification of that linchpin metaphor is not always the easiest of jobs. In the next poem, for instance, it is too near for detection. Even if the poem offers its metaphor in full view. And thus Dickinson effectively denies access to all readers of her poem but the really attentive. Which makes its deciphering even more rewarding.

The previous poem came with a visitor’s guide. One that has been written by decyphering the message with the advantage of websearching. This learned me in the process that ‘A narrow fellow’ is in Dickinson’s Poems : Second Series (1891) enlisted in Section III ; ‘Nature’. Have you made that discovery in the final line, you may agree that Section I (‘Life’) would have been the better choice. And pending that discovery, the metaphor insists on Section IV ; ‘Time and Eternity’. The section that opens with :

edited version (1891)                                          original

LET down the bars, O Death !                           Let down the Bars, Oh Death —
The tired flocks come in                                     The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat,                     Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done.                                 Whose wandering is done —

Thine is the stillest night,                                  Thine is the stillest night
Thine the securest fold ;                                     Thine the securest Fold
Too near thou art for seeking thee,                  Too near Thou art for seeking Thee
Too tender to be told.                                         Too tender, to be told.

Read this a couple of times aloud. Which will make you experience what little impact the additions to the punctation do make on the phrasing of the ‘melody’. And how awkward that final comma is placed, that the editor didn’t approve of. Dickinson’s dashes, on the other hand, are exactly where they, judged by ‘A narrow fellow’, are to be expected. So there is no reason to doubt that she put her second comma into position with good judgment. The missing punctation marks may therefore be marking this comma out as important. And it indeed marks the spot where your respective wordsubstitutions for the editor’s version and the original are going to fan out. Metrical ones at least. A substitution of English poetry for, say, Dutch prose, only does suggest that the editor knew his business. Something already made evident by the phrasing of the ‘melody’ :

edited version (1891)                                          original 

Laat neer het hek, O Dood !                               Laat neer het hek, Oh Dood —
De Kuddes trekken in                                         De Kuddes trekken in
Wier eind’loos blaten nu verstomt,                  Wier eind’loos blaten nu verstomt
Wier zwerven is gedaan.                                     Wier zwerven is gedaan —

U biedt de stilste nacht.                                      U biedt de stilste nacht
U het beschutste Oord ;                                      U het beschutste Oord
Te na zijt Gij dat men U zoekt,                          Te na zijt Gij dat men U zoekt
Te teder dan verwoordt.                                     Te teder, ‘t moet verwoord.

          literally:                                                                 literally:
Te teder om (van) te vertellen.                          Te teder…  om (van) te vertellen. 

         poetically:                                                              poetically:
Too tender to be expressed.                               Too tender…  to be exposed. 

Or something like that. The visible metaphor, meanwhile, is a perfect fit to its task of separating the sheep in Dickinson’s audience from the goats. And the poem even has a stray line. One that only catches the eye that averts the metaphor’s glare (and that recognizes a metaphor when it sees one). And while you are reading this poem once more with utmost attention, it is the duty of Literature Studies to provide some background information that may be important for its correct interpretation :

The shepherd metaphor does not agree with using the opening words as a figure of speech. And where bars come down literally, a passageway gets blocked. Not always and everywhere, perhaps, but while the portcullis still is a familiar feature of American cattle pens, the concept of turning the grate into a treshold was in Dickinson’s days unheard of. The poem’s internal logic therefore forbids the use of present tense in the second line. That same present tense, however, is indisposable to the poem as a whole, which invites to explain the anomaly of a sloppy grammar away as a cosmetic necessity. A tempting option, because it avoids the problem of explaining why Dickinson tells The Shepherd of Souls to deny his flocks access to the night’s pen.

The metaphor in the stray line opens the eyes for the key to correct interpretation (in case you have given up ; the stray line does not fit in with the shepherd metaphor, but refers to another personification of Death, one to which this line’s entire stanza is tailored). And because the equation ‘shape equals contents’ goes a long way back as the central dogma of Western Art, the poem actually opens with this key (haven’t found the stray line yet ? it is the key to this key, therefore try the other central dogma : ‘balance’). In its original version at least, because the editor has once again managed to alter the meaning of the entire poem. This time by interfering with the melody of the ‘spoken music’ :

O body, he thinks of his own.
Oh body, when he’s thinking of hers. 

Kimberley Grey 
from : The Difference Between Oh and O 

The opening exercise of rehearsing the ‘music’ was not principally prescribed to get the feel of Dickinson’s phrasing. It rather offered you the key to a perfect interpretation directly from the composer’s hand. And no matter how badly a romantic sound agrees with the opening stanza, it fits the first line’s figure of speech like a glove. Like it fits the second stanza throughout.

This implies that the poem’s composition as spoken music in a single move disqualifies the glaring metaphor as a mere cover story, and establishes the covered one as the linchpin. But the real value of interpreting Dickinson’s poetry as a love song is in the resulting melody of speech : it makes the designed rest halfway the final line to sound perfectly natural. By which means Dickinson has once more underlined the comma’s importance, and, if we want to understand her message, we better make sense of it. Even if there is no way to do so without disqualifying the newly identified linchpin metaphor as just another cover story.

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