A Bird came down the Walk

emily dickinson“A Bird came down the Walk” is a short poem by Emily Dickinson that tells of the poet’s encounter with a worm-eating bird.  It was first published in 1891 in the second collection of Dickinson’s poems.

 

 

A Bird came down the Walk
by Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit a Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And 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.

Emily Dickinson was a prolific private poet, however, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime and the work that was published while she was alive was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.  Her poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation.

Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality.

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse— For Madmen Only!

Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse, is a stirring account of the battle between the opposites that intersect human nature.

In this Novel the protagonist, a middle aged man named Harry, tries desperately to find contentment in himself and his own life.

As Harry’s journey into the interface begins, he is confronted with “signs” pointing him in the direction to the answers he so desires and to his potential freedom from his own discontent.

At one point he runs into a man holding a sign, “For Madmen Only”.  This man gives him a booklet; the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” which Harry feels describes himself perfectly.  This booklet becomes a literary mirror for him.  It describes the dilemma between the needs of sophisticated man and the animalistic, lonesome nature of the wolf.  Harry believes that these two entities battle within him and are the cause of his great dissatisfaction and unhappiness in life.

Harry’s dilemma reaches culmination after a visit to a  former academic friend’s home with whom he often discussed mythology.  While there, Harry is disgusted by the nationalistic mentality of his friend and offends the man and his wife by criticizing the wife’s picture of Goethe; which Harry feels is poorly done, highly sentimental and an insulting photo of the genius.

After this debacle, Harry rambles through town trying to find the courage to go home (where he planned to rendezvous with a razor).  During this nighttime wandering, the hero finds a beautiful young woman in a dance hall (who is also dualistic in nature) that Harry calls Hermine.

Hermine instantly recognizes Harry’s desperation and both comforts and mocks him for it.  Through his relationship with Hermine, Harry is introduced to the indulgences of the “bourgeois” such as dancing and casual drug use; she finds him a lover and forces him to accept these as worthy aspects of life.  Through this meeting, the hero comes to understand that his existence is more than his self-battle between Man and the Wolf.

While Harry’s interaction with  Hermine opens him up to other parts of himself and in some ways helps him gain freedom from his battle between loneliness and acceptance; he also finds in her more questions, more dichotomies yet to be understood.

Although this novel is full of intense and moving scenes, one of the most poignant happened in the “The Magic Theatre”.  In this place, the lines between reality and fantasy become completely blurred.

Harry enters a room of the theatre that has a stage in front.  At first he sees a man with a whip and a wolf– skinny and beaten.  The man does all sorts of tricks with the wolf- gets him to sit, roll over, etc.  The man brings out a lamb and a bunny and sticks the wolf between them.  Even though the wolf is salivating, he obeys and does not touch the frightened animals.

Next Harry sees a wolf standing with a poor man on all fours at his command.  The wolf orders the man to do tricks- to sit, roll over etc.  The wolf then puts the man between the lamb and the bunny.  This time, the man is ordered to kill the frightened animals and he rips them apart- spouting blood everywhere.  The hero is shaken by this site and runs from the room.

The Man and the Wolf are part of the mirror reflection that is Harry’s person.  He sees their duality, their interplay and comes to understand that he is neither of them.  Rather, he is both and in being both- becomes something more- something eternal and immortal.  This allows Harry to finally be free from the constant circle that both engulfed him and trapped him.

While in the “Magic Theatre” Harry is confronted with a myriad of dichotomies (rooms) of himself.  He is guided by the immortals themselves through these rooms of duality until he is finally reunited with Hermine (and perhaps himself) where he stabs her in the heart, right under the breastbone.

It is notable that the very existence of Hermine in the novel is never confirmed.  In fact, when Harry asks Hermine what her name is, she turns the question around.  When he is challenged to guess her name, he tells her that she reminds him of a childhood friend named Hermann, and therefore he concludes her name must be Hermine.  Metaphorically, Harry creates Hermine as a fragment of his own soul.

Hermann Hesse published Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf) in Germany in 1927.  It was first translated into English in 1929.  Steppenwolf is a combination of autobiographical and psychoanalytical elements and was named after the lonesome wolf of the steppes.  This story largely reflects Hesse’s own spiritual crisis that he experienced in the 1920s.

Edgar Allan Poe– Death of Annabel Lee

“Annabel Lee” is the last complete poem composed by Edgar Allan Poe.  It was written in 1849, but was not published until shortly after his death that same year.

This poem follows Poe’s favorite theme: the death of a beautiful woman; which Poe called, “the most poetical topic in the world”.  His frequent use of this topic most likely stems from the repeated loss of women throughout his life, including his mother, Eliza Poe, his foster mother Frances Allan and his wife, Virginia (who died two years prior to the composition of this poem).

It is unclear who Annabel Lee is, however, local legend in Charleston, SC tells the story of a sailor who met a woman named Annabel Lee.  Her father disapproved of the pairing and the two met privately in a graveyard before the sailor’s time stationed in Charleston was up.  While away, he heard of Annabel’s death from yellow fever.  Because he did not know her exact burial location, he instead kept vigil in the cemetery where they had often secretly met.

 

Annabel Lee
by Edgar Allan Poe

 
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulcher
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half to happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of  those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darkling–  my life and my bride,
In her sepulcher there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Donne’s The Flea…

John Donne’s poem, The Flea, is a somewhat humorous, but heroic, attempt by the speaker of the poem to convince his beloved to “lay” with him.  Donne’s ability to compare unlikely images (premarital sex and a flea) as symbols of love and romance exemplify metaphysical poetic mode (conceit).

The speaker in his poem is extremely interested in experiencing relations with his love; his love is not.

In a last ditch attempt to attain his goal, he contends that the flea that bit him- bit her too; therefore, they are already joined in the marriage bed through a blending of their blood, “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is”.

His love eventually kills the flea, despite his protests.  At this, he again turns the argument around, telling her that her killing of the flea (and the high minded ideals that come with the blending of their blood) did not hurt her honor; therefore, neither would it be harmed by sleeping with him.

 

The Flea, by John Donne

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
The flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, has thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triuph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
‘Tis true; then learn how false fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yeild’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

 

This poem was published posthumously in 1633.

John Keats…TO AUTUMN and his own inevitable winter

To Autumn was one of John Keat’s last poems; he died one year after it was published.  What makes this particular poem so moving is the context in which it was written.  Keats was dying, slowly, from consumption as he wrote this piece.  His focus on autumn, the ripest of all seasons… the time when all life reaches fruition… corresponds with his own condition in such a way!

Keats attempts to trap autumn in all its fullness; to stop the apple from falling from the tree… as he desires to keep himself from his own inevitable winter.  Alas, as the apple falls… so does he.

Happy Birthday John Keats!

To Autumn
by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid they store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

And I, cut off from the world, remain… Alone with the terrible hurricane.

William Cullen Bryant is considered one of the most accomplished and popular American poets of the first half of the 19th century.  He was an early proponent of Romanticism in American literature and his work is often compared to English Romantic, William Wordsworth.

    

The Hurricane
by William Cullen Bryant (1854)

            Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!
 
            And lo! On the wing of the heavy gales,
Through the boundless arch of heaven he sails;
Silent and slow, and terribly strong,
The mighty shadow is borne along,
Like the dark eternity to come;
While the world below, dismayed and dumb,
Through the calm of the thick atmosphere
Looks up at its gloomy folds with fear.
 
            They darken fast; and the golden blaze
Of the sun is quenched in the lurid haze,
And he sends through the shade a funeral ray—
A glare that is neither light nor day,
A beam that touches, with hues of death,
The clouds above and the earth beneath.
To its covert glides the silent bird.
While the hurricane’s distant voice is heard,
Uplifted among the mountains round,
And the forests hear and answer the sound.
 
            He is come! He is come! Do ye not behold
His ample robes on the wind unrolled?
Giant of air! we bid thee hail!—
How his gray skirts toss in the whirling gale;
How his huge and writhing arms are bent,
To clasp the zone of firmament,
And fold at length, in their dark embrace,
From mountain to mountain the visible space.
 
            Darker- still darker! The whirlwinds bear
The dust of the plains to the middle air;
And hark to the crashing, long and loud,
Of the chariot of God in the thunder-cloud!
You may trace its path by the flashes that start
From the rapid wheels where’er they dart,
As the fire-bolts leap to the world below,
And flood the skies with a lurid glow.
 
            What roar is that?—‘tis the rain that breaks
In torrents away from the airy lakes,
Heavily poured on the shuddering ground,
And shedding a nameless horror round.
Ah! well known woods, and mountains, and skies,
With the very clouds!—ye are lost to my eyes.
I seek ye vainly, and see in your place
The shadowy tempest that sweeps through space,
A whirling ocean that fills the wall
Of the crystal heaven, and buries all.
And I, cut off from the world, remain
Alone with the terrible hurricane.

Legend of Halloween…. a usurped Samhain?

The origins of Halloween come from the Celtic “Festival of the Dead” called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This is the biggest and most significant holiday on the Celtic calendar and marks the New Year and the beginning of winter.

Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living; because the souls of those who died during the year traveled into the otherworld during Samhain.

In much of the Gaelic world, bonfires were lit and people would often walk with their livestock between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual… bones of slaughter livestock were cast into its flames.  Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place at the table was set for them.

People also took steps to protect themselves from harmful spirits, which is thought to have led to the custom of guising.  It is said that the sidhe, fairy mounds and portals to the fairy world, were always open at Samhain.  Fairies were often thought to steal humans on this holiday and people took steps to ward-off these harmful spirits and fairies.  Fairy mounds were avoided, people stayed close to home and if forced to walk in darkness, they turned their clothing inside-out and carried iron or salt to keep the fairies at bay.  Offerings of food were left at the door for the fairies to ensure favor in the coming year.

Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were common.  Their purpose is said to be threefold:  they were used to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night; to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings; and to protect one’s home from them.

Divination was also performed at Samhain.  The most common uses were to find out the identity of one’s future spouse, the location of one’s future home and how many children one might have.  Season foods, like apples and nuts, were eaten during these rituals.  Apple peels were used to divine the first letter of the future spouse’s name, nuts were roasted to predict if a couple would stay together and egg whites were used to tell how many children someone might have.  Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from the number of birds or the direction they flew.

Christians, in an attempt to convert “natives”, effectively and majorly transformed the holiday.  In 601 AD, Pope Gregory the First issued the famous edict to his missionaries; if group of people worshiped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.

While the method of converting holidays to facilitate conversion was effective, Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted.  To offset this, the church made these creatures not only dangerous, but malicious and followers of the old religion were branded as witches.

Through time, the old beliefs never died out completely.  All Hallows Eve is still a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings are now all thought to be evil.

It is still common for children and adults alike to dress like these dreadful creatures; performing antics in exchange for food and drink.  To this day, witches, ghosts and skeletons remain among favorite holiday disguises.

Trick-or-Treat!