On December 11, 2017, I attended an event in honor of Emily Dickinson's 187th birthday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. That evening, poet and literary critic Sandra Gilbert read and discussed Dickinson's poems around the theme of death and grief.
Information about and pictures from the event are HERE and HERE.
My initial post on Gilbert's presentation is HERE, and related posts are HERE and HERE.
In my initial post on Gilbert's presentation, I posed the question, "If you were to present ten poems on death and grief by Emily Dickinson in a tribute to the poet, which ten poems would you select?" In that post, I discussed Gilbert's first selection, "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House."
The second poem was "How many times these low feet staggered," a heavy, gloomy poem about the death of a housewife.
In this poem, Death is not the “kindly” gentleman who “stops for me” with a carriage in a later poem. No, this look at death is much more intense for the "Indolent Housewife" now lying in the daisies.
Gilbert loved the image of the "adamantine fingers" which "Never a thimble – more – shall wear." With that and the other images in the poem, one wonders if this housewife ever found much peace or had much rest and solace in life at all.
I was not familiar with this poem, but I found interesting the reference to the buzz of the "dull flies – on the chamber window" and its connection to another later poem, "I heard a fly buzz – when I died."
How many times these low feet staggered –
Only the soldered mouth can tell –
Try – can you stir the awful rivet –
Try – can you lift the hasps of steel!
Stroke the cool forehead – hot so often –
Lift – if you care – the listless hair –
Handle the adamantine fingers
Never a thimble – more – shall wear –
Buzz the dull flies – on the chamber window –
Brave – shines the sun through the freckled
Fearless – the cobweb swings from the ceiling –
Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!
The next poem presented, "That it will never come again," opens with two lines of Dickinson's that are now familiar if not proverbial. However, with a gruff laugh, Gilbert made a succinct observation about the poem, "It certainly conveys a skeptical point of view of an after life," and moved on.
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don't believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate –
This instigates an appetite
I once saw an analysis of this poem that summed the whole thing up with, “Better a glimpse within the tavern caught than in the temple lost outright.” It’s no wonder that Mount Holyoke's headmistress, Mary Lyon, labeled young Emily Dickinson as a "no hoper."
More on Gilbert's tribute to Dickinson in later posts!