As you might be able to tell from the dearth of posts here of late, I've been absorbed in the new semester -- as well as having my attention turned to a couple of writing projects whose deadlines seemed to come looming up out nowhere, though of course I'd only been pretending that I still had time to work on them. Those are finished now, but I find myself more deeply drawn into the seminar I'm team-teaching with my colleague Meredith McGill. Because we're reading Dickinson, I've been thinking about the remarkable powers of wrenched or unexpected syntax, and the ways in which meaning is disrupted, complicated, and made multiple by the sheer power of ordering sentences.
This is poem 285:
The Love a Life can show Below
Is but a filament, I know,
Of that diviner thing
That faints upon the face of Noon
And smites the Tinder in the Sun --
And hinders Gabriel's Wing --
'Tis this -- in Music -- hints and sways --
And far abroad on Summer days --
Distills uncertain pain --
'Tis this enamors in the East
And tints the Transit in the West
With harrowing Iodine
'Tis this -- invites -- appalls -- endows --
Flits -- glimmers -- proves -- dissolves --
Returns -- suggests -- convicts -- enchants
Then -- flings in Paradise --
The first three lines of the poem might open many a piece of Victorian verse, with their comfortable assertion that earthly evidence manifests some portion of divine love. But the examples Dickinson chooses to show use the power of that over-arching spirit are peculiar ones indeed, if love darkens noon, smites the sun's own fuel, or halts the wing of an archangel, it's a powerful and disruptive force indeed.
The stanza that follows grows even more emotionally ambiguous. That filament of the divine is what provokes us in music, and what may, in the middle of a summer day, bring an unnameable pain; that filament of love may be what troubles and frightens in the medicinal color of a sunset. Divine love seems here to do anything but comfort;
the promise of the larger life discomfits, unsettles, wounds.
And this leads to the remarkable final stanza. Could there be another nineteenth century poem in which 12 verbs appear in 4 lines? How wildly modern this stanza seems, these verbs flung upon the page, each set out by attendant dashes, making a list full of opposites, a list that "hints and sways" as Dickinson says music does. What's above us, what the world larger than the visible one is as appalling as it is enchanting, as condemning of us (it "convicts") as it is endowing. Has anyone ever written such a bristling, contradictory, gorgeous list of verbs? The poem seems to explode, syntactically, in this final stanza, as if what Dickinson has to say about the world behind the world is so overwhelming, has placed such pressure on her speaking voice that she's become a stammering speaker, seized by this multiplicity of verbs.
And what to make of that final gesture? "Flings in Paradise" refuses any singular sense. If we take "flings" as another in that chain of verbs, then "fling" is an action performed by that filament of divine love that we csn apprehend on earth. Does it toss Paradise into our awareness, into the mix of actions that the other verbs have set in motion? Or do we take "flings" as a way the filament is moving, swaying as it does in music, a glimmering thread of the other world? Or is to "fling in" a gesture of relinquishment; like flinging one's sword to the ground, so that here Paradise is being tossed away, abandoned? The phrase seems to exist just beyond the edge of sense, forever floating in a zone of ambiguity the poem's created through the agency of Dickinson's daring construction of the sentence. If they should even be called sentences anymore, these deceptive and shimmering constructions of speech moving down the page.