Poetry Survey Series Post 1
Here is one of the more extraordinary poems of Emily Dickinson, numbered 480. My understanding is that the dash marks are breaths that interrupt the meter (Emily’s own exclusive technique.) It may interest readers to remember that Emily died a spinster and a near-recluse.
“Why do I love” You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.
Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—
The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—
The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
I love Thee—
This poem exactly captures the feeling of the chaste woman in love, whose feelings are something like those of the worshipper.
In order to preserve the true spirit of the poem from misunderstanding, I want to speak briefly of possible misunderstandings involved in the poem.
Some people have misinterpreted this feeling as the expression of a social force that tries to subjugate the woman to the man. That interpretation ignores something subtle, but very important about this feeling. The woman who experiences these feelings does so because she feels herself worthy of the man she adores. You might say that most women (in a fairly natural and healthy condition) come stocked with these feelings, and go through the world looking for the man who is worthy of them. Her soul looks for a man whose goodness and tenderness are of such a scope that they match the magnitude of her capacity to appreciate and receive goodness and tenderness. The rapture of finding that man, and rendering to him these feelings (even secretly from him) is the summit of feminine experience. Woe betide the man who proves, on further acquaintance, unworthy of those feelings. Often then, unless her soul is tainted with some strain of addiction or infatuation, all idea of the second-class female who adores her man no matter what, is completely disproved. The fine-ness of her feeling judges him and she turns her back. It can be difficult, then, to ever give the same feelings to another man. (If a marriage has already been contracted, and the worthiness not too insurmountable, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and recognition of one’s own flaws, often tempers this judgment.)
Another misinterpretation of these feeling belongs to men who have been miseducated as well as the prudish women who become the enforcers in those sub-societies set up by such men. Here, this feeling is misinterpreted as lust, as appetite, as passion (in the imprudent, morality-dissipating sense.) Yet, I know of no other natural feeling that so disposes a woman to modesty, to profound stillness of perception, and to self-sacrifice. This was my unfortunate experience among the Baptist fundamentalists, who judged me a “Jezebel” despite the fact that I dressed only in loose-fitting skirts, was too socially simple to flirt (!) and remained profoundly virginal until I found my husband. My pure and innocent admiration was taken for something dirty.
This feeling, which I have described as both the most common feeling among women but, in its fulfillment, the summit of feminine experience, is only possible for women who are still capable of admiration. Women whose education has stripped them of that capacity (the pernicious effect of much modern education) and men whose education has instilled an unshakeable sense of shame for their masculine energy (the pernicious effect of both modernity and religious fundamentalism) will always look askance at this feeling.
I have described the delicate feeling of the pure and innocent woman in love. What is the masculine equivalent of this feeling? I would like to read a man’s account of that experience.
Although I have tried to describe the feeling, it is left to a poem to convert that feeling into an imaginative entity that can pass from mind to mind. Although, in the poem, we only experience the feeling in its imaginative equivalent, the power of thoughts is such that we can never remain wholly outside someone else’s mind when they open themselves in art like this.
Are you confused by the wording of the poem? I was confused at some points. Here is my best attempt at a prose translation.
“Why do I love” You, Sir? Because (the thing I do not say.)
The wind does not require the grass to answer – it simply acts upon it. For that reason, when he passes she cannot hold still.
So He knows—and don’t you know in the same way?
But we (the grass and I) don’t know. The wisdom of things being like this is enough for us.
The lightning never asked an eye why it shut when he was near, because He knows it cannot speak. Similarly, there are reasons that are not contained by speech and these reasons are preferred, as reasons, by Daintier Folk.
The Sunrise, my king, compels me, precisely because he is the sunrise, and I see.
So this alludes to the reason I love thee (which I have adroitly avoided directly saying.)
I think the quote marks in the first line around the words, “Why do I love?” but which do not extend to the whole line, indicate some occasion that is personal to Emily. Someone has asked her this question (or she is writing about the experience of being asked this question, for some other woman or for her imagined experience.)
At the age of nineteen, I wrote a poem with some similarity in imagery, but more despairing and less skillful!
“The Explanation Never Given”
If I should look once honestly into your eyes
I fear to see therein your sure surprise
At my unlidded glow.
It would be but the image, though
Of your own flaming speech
The brilliance of your mind
The glowing grace in each
Of all your ways. The light I find,
Most generous friend, in all you do,
Would turn and startle you
If I should look once honestly into your eyes.
So for you the dullish glance of steeled-over eyes
When for others I may smile if I will
Irony! But I only know to be this wise.
My eyes are mirrors and you shine upon me still.
I don’t see despair here. Awkwardness, embarrassment, self-disappointment, attraction, praise–yes. Despair, no. It’s a beautifully honest account of how complex the beginnings of love are.
And regarding the voice in the poem, I don’t think it is only yours. First of all, you would never say this to the person, would you? Second, even though you no doubt pictured the person as you were writing, you probably also idealized him in some ways. Third, if you ever did share, or would have shared this expression of feeling with him, it would only be in a letter, right? So he could experience the full effect slowly, without interrupting or diluting the specialness of the communication. Fourth, even if you never gave the poem to him, it still has importance, and could be given by me to someone I cared about. Fifth, you could revise the poem right now, as some poets–maybe all–do with early work, and it would convey the same experience, more satisfyingly, even if you completely lost track of the person who inspired it.
All this makes me think that you got yourself “in a zone,” as they say about sports–or in touch with a muse, as some used to say about art. (I still say it, because something like that happens when I work at and eventually succeed in writing a poem. Of course the success is only mine at first. Others have to participate in making, or denying, the poet’s real success.) Sure, your mind worked, and made decisions, but I’m guessing that those decisions had to be approved, finally, by a sense, or feeling, of rightness.
I say all this to test it’s validity. That is, it’s what happens when I write poems (sadly, not that often these days), I’m pretty sure. But I don’t really know. I do know that I prefer reading other people’s poems only if I feel that I am not eavesdropping or snooping. I think it’s a voice larger than the author’s that lifts the poem into a public space which can then become private and special for each person who reads it.
Tablet changes, aaacchhhh. I don’t proof read,. Sorry.
I could have said what I like about your poem, instead of trying to imagine how you made it. I do like it. The images are apt, vivid, and succinct. The flow of lines from one to the other emphasizes the feeling of being overtaken. The word “once” packs a lot of meaning in a perfect single lingering sound. The only word that distracts is “therein” – – too formal & distant. What would you change if you decided it could be improved?
I’m guessing: not a thing. I wouldn’t either. It’s finished. A complete record of a moment in time that is now eternal (in the way of art),
As I contemplate this poem, I think that there’s something ironic about the whole thought. She is basically saying, “You’ve asked me why I love you, but you should know, far better than I! I am the one acted upon, and you are the one acting. So, you can know why I love you, but I can never say.” It’s hard to imagine a more profound expression of that particular type of feminine passivity that I have referred to elsewhere. Passivity is not inertia – it is being moved. It is closely related, both in form and in meaning, to “passion” which itself is almost (in some languages) like “suffering.”
I would also say that it is not feminine passivity. It is actually quite active, akin to Mary’s “let it be done unto me according to your word”. It is an active acceptance which from there (if the man does his part) allows something to be born, grow and develop.
She accepted me into her heart and her soul — the process of becoming one flesh was begun. From a male perspective it was a bit like being told to put up or shut up.
In the case of my marriage, my wife’s active acceptance has born fruit well beyond the two of us.
It has been awhile since I’ve read Job. I need to go back to it and see what else comes out.
I get what you are saying, but I don’t think I’ve really gotten across what I mean by the passive feminine and the active masculine. All activity is active of course; that much is a tautology. To speak is an action – thus Mary’s acceptance was active in that sense. On the other hand, she didn’t create the life that became Jesus’ humanity in her own womb!
Feminine has no meaning apart from masculine; and masculine has no meaning apart from feminine. The last woman on earth, if there were no men, would still be a woman but she would never perform a feminine action sexually. Masculine and feminine are complementary activities or energies. That means, in those specific activities in which someone someone is playing the feminine part there must be someone or something playing the masculine part, or it’s not really a feminine activity. And vice verse.
But, by the nature of complementary activities, both cannot be doing the same thing. If the masculine and the feminine are doing the same thing, they are acting in concert, and not acting upon one another in a complementary manner. So a man and a woman who are doing dishes together are not engaging in complementary (sexual) activity. They are acting as two persons, and not as embodiments of feminine and masculine. But if they are acting upon one another in a complementary manner, then they cannot be doing the same thing. The masculine must do one thing, and the feminine another, and what they are doing they must do to one another. Without meeting these requirements, neither action is feminine or masculine.
How then can we describe what activity or power or energy the masculine has in relation to the feminine? And how can we describe what activity, power, or energy the feminine has in relation to the masculine? How can we distinguish the two? I have done so with the words, “active” and “passive.” I have chosen these words simply because we must have a pair of words, and that pair of words must be capable of describing different ways of acting. And no other pair of words that I can think of so extensively describes the feminine activity and the masculine activity. When acting in a complementary manner, the masculine action is an active action, and the feminine action is a passive action.
I think you recognize this yourself, because you said, “active acceptance” which is simply another way of saying “active passive.” If you feel that those words contradict one another, than you aren’t using them in the same way I am.
So it’s not as if everything a woman does has to be passive (in the sense of inactive) or else she’s not feminine enough. That’s just a confusion of ideas which happen to use the same words. There are certain situations in which women embody the feminine in relation to which the men embody the masculine. But “the feminine” is not the whole story of a woman’s life. I can’t go around performing feminine activities all the time, because that would mean I could only act in relation to some man’s masculine activities at every moment – and that’s absurd. Sometimes I have to play the active role. Sometimes I even have to play the active role with my husband.
I see better what you are getting at. I have no disagreement. I just have trouble with the word passive. To me it implies being totally acted upon with no sense of synergistic participation. You don’t use the word that way. Sorry for not catching that earlier.
Oh, that’s all right, no need to be regretful. You made me clarify. In fact, this responsive writing is working so well for me that I’m thinking of trying to finish a novel that way. Post a scene, let people ask questions, and then write the next scene based on the questions.
In a related topic, I’m really sad that most people see the word “passive” as meaning “inactive.” I suppose the confusion comes in where ‘active’ can either be a term that is opposed to ‘passive’ or a term that is opposed to ‘inactive.’
The loss of the real meaning of ‘passive’ is religious in nature, like most modern losses. Without the family of words that come from Greek pathein, we have lost that within our own language which makes it fit to relay religious meaning.
These words include “pass” (with all its meanings but especially with the meaning of “go through” – as in passing through the Red Sea) and “passion” and “passive” and “pathos.”
There should be a pathein-related word that means ‘suffering’, but unfortunately “passion” serves this function (as in “the passion of the Christ”) along with its twin function of referring to “movement toward one’s natural resting place.” The idea of passion as a strong feeling is really a very small part of the idea of passion as a movement of the soul toward something that is actively attracting it, but it’s the part that has come to dominate our contemporary usage, thanks to romance novels.
Movement is the singular idea that unites all these words, and it is the source of all the theological issues surrounding all these words. To move and to be moved, to move through something, and to have that which moves through the gates and channels of ones own soul… these are the issues that define many of the classical questions about the relationship between God and man, between man and woman.
I am saying, in case it didn’t come across, that not every action performed by a female human being is or should be a specifically feminine action. It may simply be a personal or a human action. Same thing for male humans.
I can not render it in poetry but when my wife, when we were courting, looked at me with both love and the unwarranted admiration and said, “I want you to be the spiritual head of our family” — I felt both challenged and liberated–a bit like pulling the sword from the stone. Christian headship demands unselfishness.
There is much for men to learn from the book of Job.
BTW my wife was 61 at the time I was 60 both widowed and whose spouses though loved and loving had had major issues that proved difficult in our marriages. It was those difficulties though that brought us to the place we could recognize wonder and truly begin to love more fully, by God’s grace.
Thank you, Michael. I think I understand a little.
It is unselfishness on both parts. Considering my wife’s history and what a short time we had known each other, her declaration was a remarkable act of faith. She has the ability to bring out the best In me–even against my own desires sometimes. She is a great and undeserved blessing of God in my life.
Of course! (To all of that!)