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06 May 2012

I've known a Heaven, like a Tent –


I've known a Heaven, like a Tent – 
To wrap its shining Yards – 
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear – 
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail – Or Carpenter – 
But just the miles of Stare – 
That signalize a Show's Retreat – 
In North America – 

No Trace – no Figment of the Thing
That dazzled, Yesterday,
No Ring – no Marvel – 
Men, and Feats – 
Dissolved as utterly – 
As Bird's far Navigation
Discloses just a Hue – 
A plash of Oars, a Gaiety – 
Then swallowed up, of View.
                                                F257 (1861)  243

Some people, and I suspect Emily Dickinson is one of them, can find a little bit of heaven in a sunset, a soiree, a garden, or a dusty path through a meadow. In this poem she compares the lush ephemerality of these brief heavens to a circus. Amherst would no doubt have seen a few traveling circuses and the shows would have been great attractions. The circus would arrive with a parade: beautifully outfitted prancing horses, carriages pulling caged lions and tigers, acrobats marching and twirling, and elephants plodding along with their tenders. The tents would go up overnight and then the magic would begin – only to be taken down and removed a day or two later when the circus moved on.
Everyone watches as the circus leaves town
            The poet’s heaven came and went like that except that it was more silent. There was no sound of hammers or all the hustle and bustle of packing up and leaving. Instead, the Heaven wrapped “its shining Yards,” plucked itself up by the stakes, and disappeared. It left “No Trace – no Figment” of what was so dazzling the day before. The acrobats and feats of courage and skill were gone.
            The poet likens the absence of the divine circus to “miles of Stare” – a landscape you might stare across for miles without seeing the hoped-for thing. The phrase implies longing and wondering, “stare” being more intense than “gaze.” This stare might characterize the children staring after the circus train and carriages disappearing from sight – its “Retreat.” The children might have the same sense of awe and loss as the poet searching the horizon for the lost heaven.
            In the second stanza Dickinson frames the absence as the last glimpse of bird in flight as it is “swallowed up” in the distance. She characterizes this as a dissolving: the bird is first visible and then begins to fade against the clouds and sky as it flies away. Finally it is just a hint of color, a slight indication of movement. She describes this as the “plash of Oars” as if the bird were rowing through the sky. She will use similar imagery in 1862 in the familiar poem, “A Bird, came down the Walk.” In this poem the narrator feeds the bird a crumb and then -
… he unrolled his feathers,

And rowed him softer Home – 



Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam,

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,

Leap, plashless, as they swim.  

The last fleeting sense of the bird before it dissolves from view is “a Gaiety.” I picture the flowing, bounding flight of a song sparrow – gay as can be! Once the bird is gone, all that remains is the “View.”
            Dickinson’s treatment of absence as “miles of Stare” and of as a swallowing “View” is slightly disturbing. It is as if our eyes are looking into some vastness that is not empty as it appears but somehow full of potential presence. We see something marvelous or delightful. It disappears without a sound but the air has changed; something still lingers from the circus disappearing in the horizon, the birds fading against the sky. A space has been made that is now empty, much as the empty corner still contains something of the easy chair that once sat so comfortably there. 

5 comments:

  1. I've just stumbled upon your blog and I absolutely love it.

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  2. This is a beautiful reading of one of my favourite Dickinson poems. Might I ask what prompted you to start on this journey of blogging all the poems and where you are in this process? I would also be interested in communicating offline should you wish to do so.

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    1. Thank you -- it's one of my favorite's, too. A contact form is on the bottom left of this page -- messages go directly to my email. You are welcome to contact!

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  3. I think she is saying it is time for another Jesus show! I second that emotion.

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