Bright Knots of Apparitions: Transcending Reality in Fascicle Sixteen
In the early eighteen sixties, many Americans were concerned with the national fracture that manifested itself in the Civil War. Northerners, galvanized by the Compromise of 1850, which held them punishable by law for aiding escaped slaves, had come to realize that this conflict involved all Americans. The nation seethed with factionalism and looked outward for direct and active solutions to a moral crisis.
Emily Dickinson, as far as her biographers can determine, seemed unaware of or unconcerned with the national conflict. Instead, in the same time period, she would experience a tremendous period of artistic production, writing three hundred sixty-six poems in 1862 alone, a six-fold increase over her output in 1858. Eleven of her 1861-1862 poems she would bind in the little hand-sewn bundles she kept in a box under her bed; this collection of terse, conflicted lines is now called Fascicle Sixteen.
Our knowledge of significant events in her life is severely limited. She was not a diarist, and many of the most wrenching moments were purely internal and seemed to have little relationship to outer happenings. She was in her early thirties when Fascicle Sixteen was produced, a time of crisis for many women, especially for unmarried ones a century and a half ago. A decade earlier, she had been deeply influenced by Benjamin Franklin Newton, a law student in her father's office, who was a daring, unconventional thinker. Then, in 1854, on one of her rare excursions from home, she heard Rev. Charles Wadsworth preach, and in the opinion of most biographers, fell deeply, obsessively in love with this married man who likely had no idea of her fixation on him. In an 1862 letter to her friend Thomas Higginson, she is believed to be referring to these two men when she wrote, "I had a friend who taught me Immortality, but venturing too near himself, he never returned...I found one more but he left the land."
Whether or not it was her unwanted distance from these men that she perceived as a sundering from life itself, we shall probably never know. However, a close reading of the poems in Fascicle Sixteen seem to describe an apocalypse of understanding, a breaking through of normal sensory bounds into a cosmos of enhanced insight and meaning. This process of breaking through is one of such dimension and pain that it is equated with death. After the severing of the quotidian life, the spirit is no longer constrained and can commune with those who are otherwise alienated; there is no longer a separation, only "Leagueless Opportunity." (Poem #7)
In the first poem, the transforming, violent event is the putting out of an eye. Sight is a recurrent theme in the fascicle: ordinary sight ("my finite eyes") with its appreciation of the natural beauty of the world, and expanded spiritual sight which occurs after the "putting out." This new sight allows the mind to comprehend the very nature of nature, encompassing and internalizing its wonder in a fearful expansion. There is the first introduction as well, in the last paragraph, of another theme on which she plays variations in the fascicle - the transparent boundary ("the windowpane") that always exists, somewhat permeable but there, between the individual and the other world.
Dickinson did a curious thing in her poems, maybe because she intended them for no-one's eyes but her own. She wrote alternative lines and phrases and referenced them to their counterpart with a plus sign, as if to amplify the possibilities by creating two alternatives. Michele Ierardi has an interesting website on which she has used a computer program to cause these alternate phrases, which she calls hypertexts, to interchange before your eyes.
In Poem #1, one of these alternative phrases is "The lightening's jointed road" or "Morning's Amber Road," as the second line of the fourth stanza. If we choose to think about the lightning image, it juxtaposes with the previous line's graceful birds, in what seems a Blakeian contrast. But is the beauty of the dawn equally devastating to human sight as lightning?
Poem #2 (my favorite) is openly gothic. The separation of the living present from the dead past sometimes lessens, and the soul can distinctly see what has been lost and transform it from a "Mouldering Playmate" to a "Bright...Apparition." Divided by the world, robbed by the passage of years and by the grave, the sundered soulmates are restored to one another, but with haunting ambivalence as to who was actually lost, the living or the dead?
Poem #3 recounts the dangerous yet exhilarating ride in Death's coach as the soul bids the world farewell and fearlessly undertakes the journey. Poem #4 celebrates the honesty of death, and in the phrase "homely Anguish" makes the dreadful pain of the transition somehow mundane, comfortable and benign. In Poem #5, the soul experiences its own funeral, and in a new exploration of the idea of a "wake," breaks through the floor literally into a cosmos where knowledge is no longer finite. Interestingly, because the body is enclosed in the coffin, all the sensory references in this poem are to hearing: the clomp of the mourners' feet, the drumbeat of the service, then the tolling of space, a sound so revolutionary that it includes its opposite, perfect silence.
Poem #6, a weird jumble of Poe-like images and Hopkins-like ellipses, explores through a series of paradoxes, the freedom that results when the soul embraces sorrow, terror and death and thereby gains security from them. Poem #7, however, seems to bemoan the fact that those lost are "o'ertakeless," and cannot be retained; an ironic heaven smiles and offers no alternatives. This seems the most hopeless and bitter of the poems in the fascicle.
Poem #8 offers a restoration of order, sight and sound comprehending the universe from an elevated vantage point, undeterred by lightning, the glare of noon, or the spottedness of the world. An alternative reading in the last line describes this unified cosmos as held together by either an axle (mechanical) or a muscle (human). This is Yeats' widening gyre, held together by man's creation or by his brute strength. Poem #9 contrasts this detached, spiritual perspective with the "view" from the coffin, this time as it passes by the autumn harvest fields on its way to the grave. This time the point-of-view is human, ordinary: the dead person reflects on her absence at upcoming holidays and foresees the time when her family and friends will be reunited with her in death.
Poem #10 boldly professes no fear of death, life or resurrection; she is "comprehended" by the universe, no matter what her state. The last poem is a broken, chaotic dialogue between the soul and the Other (Death, the lost friend, God?) in which she for some reason cannot welcome him as a Guest, but from this negation a Light (of revelation?) is achieved that seems to intensify as she withdraws. This poem seems very jarring to me. It appears to refute the message of the other ten poems; the soul refuses the climb and the subsequent breakthrough, yet achieves the enlightenment anyway. Though the Other "brake his Life," and she then acquires access to the light, it seems impersonal in a way that the other poems' view of the lost one do not.
The form of the poems is somewhat consistent throughout the fascicle, quatrains, some of them not rhyming, others with an imperfect rhyme linking the second and fourth lines (for example, "way" with "me," "world" with "held"). Many of the poems have a fairly consistent meter, alternating eight and six syllable lines in a way that is superficially reminiscent of hymns (for example, "We've no less days to sing His praise/Than when we first…