Twisting New England Tradition

Guest post by Martha Carlson-Bradley

Because I’ve been writing a collection of poems inspired by the New England Primer, I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for the way Emily Dickinson both built upon her New England heritage — and subverted it. And although Isaac Watts will never be my favorite poet, I’ve gained a new appreciation for his work also. Listen to the very Dickinson-like slant rhymes in the last two stanzas of “God Our Shepherd,” Watts’s common meter version of Psalm 23:

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!

There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.

Here God is a slant rhyme with abode; come with home — all comforting associations. Listen for a rhyme almost identical to Watts’s come/home at the end of Dickinson’s “Tis not that Dying hurts us so”:

’Tis not that Dying hurts us so –
’Tis Living hurts us more –
But Dying – is a different way –
A kind behind the Door –

The Southern Custom – of the Bird–
That ere the Frosts are due –
Accepts a better latitude –
We – are the Birds – that stay.

The Shiverers round Farmer’s doors –
For whose reluctant Crumb –
We stipulate – till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home

We can only imagine how Watts might have responded to this poem. The “provider” in Dickinson’s poem — the one “we” must depend on for survival — is less generous than Watts’s God. We stipulate for his help: Dickinson gives us the idea of Puritan “covenant” without much comfort. In the end, what is more gentle and persuasive are the snows that take us, in this context, out of the world of the living.

Dickinson’s attention to music goes far beyond end rhymes. One fine example of her skill is “Apparently with no surprise”:

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at it’s play –
In accidental power –
The blonde Assassin passes on –
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God –

The amount of internal music in such a short poem is astounding. Virtually every line has sounds that echo within it and often with other lines: the p sound in the first line’s Apparently and surprise, for example, recurs in all but the next-to-last line; the h and f sounds of the second line repeat in the third (Frost and behead so much less innocuous than the happy Flower); the m in unmoved appears again in measure in the next line. In one of my very favorite lines of poetry, the blonde/on rhyme surrounds, encapsulates, the short a and s sounds of Assassin passes. The final slant rhyme comes down especially hard, I think, on God. And even before that, the first, capitalized syllable of Apparently recurs in and emphasizes Approving before God’s name. What remains is the power of Watts’s God without human certainty of his absolute benevolence.

What a close reading like this gives us is not the tools to sound like Dickinson but the opportunity to educate our ears and our intuitions. We come away with a deeper and broader sense of what poetry can do—and how we can use and, yes, subvert “tradition” to expess our own individual voices.

Sources

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Watts, Isaac. The Psalms of David, Translated in the Language of the New Testament. Ed. Robert Goodacre. London, Francis Westley: 1821. Accessible at http://books.google.com.

This essay was originally posted on Martha’s blog.

Biography

Martha Carlson-Bradley, a native of Massachusetts, is the author of four collections of poetry: If I Take You Here (Adastra, 2011), Season We Can’t Resist (June 2007, WordTech Editions), Beast at the Hearth (Adastra, 2005), and Nest Full of Cries (Adastra, 2000). A fifth collection, Sea Called Fruitfulness, will be released in 2013 by WordTech Editions.