from The Butterfly Nail: Prose Translations of Emily Dickinson
I SHALL know why—when Time is over,
And I have ceased to wonder why—
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky—
He will tell me what “Peter” promised—
And I—for wonder at his woe—
I shall forget the drop of anguish
That scalds me now—that scalds me now!
A delicate confection is true revenge. Anger has no recompense, nor is resentment justified, but sweet is the moment in which they clear—if it can be said to be a moment. Knowing transcends a state, as jealousy was, or fear. It is not passed through but crosses over that old roadblock, time. The lesson is a lifting of the veil of isolation. The sense one makes redeems confusion, tears. It is no promise, which would keep alive the “wonder” E.D.ʼs speaker at last escapes, but a result. When the question of why is dead, the situation reveals its logic: the other part(ies) feel.
Peter promised not to leave Jesus, which might have hurt Jesus immediately, knowing Peter would deny him “that very night.” Imagine! Itʼs enough to shrink your sorrow to appreciate anotherʼs hurt. Christ’s eventual instruction is tucked now within the poem, came tucked within the parable of the treasonous disciple. Empathy for the devil—to paraphrase the Stones—is divine.
Anyone is a time-traveler who is hurt, but any road one follows might end. After which, one stops moving backward and forward along that line. The phrasing of the first stanza is not so simple as it first appears. Dickinsonʼs speaker does not suggest she will wait for Christ to explain her past hurts via some esoteric logic written on the blue blackboard of the sky. When that wonder ceases, it includes wonder at his explanation. It too would participate in time.
Watching the verb tenses, she shall know when wonder ceased, not when it is ceased. The slight gesture emphasizes that the poem moves fluidly between past and future as they roll toward that final scalding “now!” The end of the poem answers its own cry. The present discomfort can only be alleviated by the ending of time promised in the opening line. The progression of the poem makes clear that relief cannot come in the future—where it is only a promise that the speaker “shall know.” There is another state in which even that hope has ended. When the psychological conception of time drops, one knows already what she will—that this pain of anguish is only a “drop.” Quick as it burns, it is small. It scalds only the surface. She has gained perspective, schooling herself. There is no need for Christ, or anyone, to explain each anguish that is so soon-to-be forgotten.
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—
A dazzling image E.D. leaves us with, one that overpowers the vision if we imagine it. I read the poem six or seven times before I made myself see it as she dares. I have not watched a blacksmith heat ore, but I have stood by a potter’s kiln and watched a glassblower string sand into rope. I have stared long into a campfire such that I can see the ore’s vanquishing entrance smother the red flames like a hickory log, and I can imagine how it would gulp the heat darkly before it began to glow. When the hammer of iron on anvil grows hot enough for branding, alive as any heart, I am lulled by anticipation of an endless work. It is an almost domestic scene the flash of the finale disrupts when the “Designated Light” comes pouring out, blindingly declarative, on its own.
This poem is in conversation with a conscious and unconscious tradition to communicate the reification of the soul. Sören Kierkegaard describes it as being inside a copper kettle being shaped; Denise Levertov expresses hesitation to walk knowingly into war. “Good God, ya’ll,” Edwin Starr asks, “What is it good for?” A history of the lyric could be traced in relation to this process of what Carl Jung calls individuation—language waxing and waning to accommodate the cultural comfort level with spiritual value. Verbicide is the murder of a word. If “soul” is not dead yet, it is getting close. But if the term be uncomfortable, the curiosity remains for the personal narratives of evolution, and the image Dickinson fossilized retains one 19th century woman’s.
E.D. implies the view is best if you volunteer yourself. At first one sees red, but stick around: the flames die down and a colorless light “quivers from the Forge.” The etymology for forge indicates force and workmanship at this furnace where metal is “wrought.” With its connotations of being wrung or “wrought-up,” the metaphor indicates an extreme activity few would sign up for if they hadn’t been drafted by an inner “tug.” It sounds elitist if one wants to feel left out, but E.D. is certain the selection is democratic. Every town has a smithy. Any listening villager hears a bell, a chime, a text—ringing invitation to be extracted from the ore, pulled like a blade from the rock.
The word “Forge” appears three times in the poem, undergoing permutations. In the first usage, it is the furnace a soul “quivers from,” as when a single wick is lit from parent flame, or a soul is separated from God. As yet an “unanointed Blaze,” this spark is alloyed metal, colorless light. It flickers in its nubile independence but steadies by the second furnace with the accompaniment of the forger who mimics the rhythm of the “finer Forge” until it can hear its own “even ring…within.” A third level is indicated in the last two lines, whereby the soul disowns the forge “as a son,” which the definition of repudiate suggests, making the decision to separate its own.
Michelangelo no doubt wanted to find David, but David was not impatient to come out—though to say so creates a vision of the sculptor at work, splits him into two component parts, one who urges and one who curls marble chips. The anvil-wielder illustrates that drive “to press forward slowly but steadily,” as the verb forge indicates. But the soul is not a sculpture. Both forger and Forge go up in smoke when the raw urge emerges, the “Designated Light” now what was always entitled to cast off everything but itself.
I reckon—when I count at all—
First—Poets—Then the Sun—
Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—
Then—the List is done—
But, looking back—the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole—
The Others look a needless Show—
So I write—Poets—All—
Their Summer—lasts a Solid Year—
They can afford a Sun
The East—would deem extravagant—
And if the Further Heaven—
Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them—
It is too difficult a Grace—
To justify the Dream—
To count, compute, calculate; also, to esteem—E.D. reckons the order of heaven from the dream prepared by poets, worshiped by readers. It is a “Further” one than God’s, which becomes a “needless Show” of sun and season, contained and augmented with future gains and present glories. Their summer is more reliable, their sun almost shamelessly brighter. The requirement to reach this distant heaven is no leap of faith taken from a knee-buckling standstill up a tower, like does.
If it “Be Beautiful,” it is also unknown. Poets have their world within the lines, which “so seems” enough. Those worshipers ready themselves to meet it, language-borne and swept, but the grace it takes is not attained by reading. “Promises, promises,” Naked Eyes sings: “Why do I believe?”
What gives one sovereign right to refuse or undertake authority that fortifies E.D. to reckon, “Poets—All,” and herself one? A credence-lending goad is to find others in the wrong. Easy to right oneʼs parents on financial relations or love from the high perch of hindsight. An itinerant idealist may even throw in the towel—like a boy born in the last six months of the year in Canada. A disproportionate number of January-March birthdays caused Malcolm Gladwell to note favoritism in hockey recruiting for nine-year olds with those extra months of physical development on their frames. Sometimes the advantage is clear. Those poets who precede E.D. ill prepared her for the travails of grace because she met them on her own.
She has no bone to pick with them who would compass heaven, but the dream even as it draws must be released. There is a path one finds oneself so far along, even to turn back is to find one’s way out.