The Poets Light But Lamps

By Robert Pinsky on 4.08.09

One theory of Dickinson’s dashes is that they were related to a once-popular system of notation for dramatic recitation or speaking: a system of pauses that rose or fell in pitch. I don’t think the theory has gained a lot of acceptance, but there’s a kind of figurative usefulness to it. The dashes often have the effect of pausing on a rise in pitch: the pressure of meaning gathering itself for a moment, but always headed onward. Together, the short lines and frequent pauses create a feeling of tremendous, volcanic pressure under a taut or stony surface.

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Wild Nights—Wild Nights (249)

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!

Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee!


The Poets Light But Lamps (883)

The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference—


The Soul Selects Her Own Society (303)

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—

Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat—

I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
Choose One—
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone—

An architect or builder will still speak of the doors and windows of a structure as its “valves”: the parts that open and close. That architectural reference seems to govern “the Valves of her attention” in the final stanza of “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” “Her” is not necessarily autobiographical or feminist; the soul (alma) is a feminine noun in Latin and the Romance languages, and in other languages as well. That is why George Herbert says, in his great “Church Monuments” (page 362 of Essential Pleasures) “While that my soul repairs to her devotion” and that his body (corpus, grammatically masculine noun) “may learn / To spell his elements and true descent.” (The association makes a certain sense—though Herbert is by far more conventional in his religion, there’s something similar in the way both poets combine delicacy and audacity.)

In #883, with her idea that poets light lamps, then are themselves extinguished by mortality, while future ages become lenses “Disseminating their / Circumference&mash;” Emily Dickinson articulates the idea of my new anthology, Essential Pleasures: the poem happens each time a reader says it, or imagines it, renewing its light in a new voice, transformative as well as preserving.

topics: Essential Pleasures