Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Teaching "Ample make this bed," Finale

What to do once you have made this bed ample and with awe? Let's go to line 3:

“In it wait till judgment break.” Is this the bed we'll die in? What word seems out of place or, I don’t know, poetic or nonliteral in this line? “Break," obviously. 

How can "break" be the predicate for “judgment”? By being an implied metaphor, an invitation to a metaphor if you will: By that I mean Emily has led the reader to picture an image that she, Emily, never actually drew.

Let’s return to the literal world for a moment and imagine Emily lying in her bed. There was one window to her left and one straight ahead (I’ve been in that room). What might she see as she waits, as she delays her getting up? Daybreak. The sun rises and a new day breaks. And this new day is Judgment Day. 

Patiently waiting for Emily to come outside

Therefore, this bed must be made ample and with awe.

The phrase “Judgment Day” does not make honest Christians' hearts leap up with joyful anticipation. Especially for those of us who are wicked, it is threatening, portentous, ominous, the day when there is no longer anywhere to hide, when we are subjected to a Divine and final CAT scan, and all our filthy little secrets are read back to us by the Creator of the Universe or one of his divine clerks, and our sentence -- in both senses of the word -- is revealed.


But in this poem, it sounds more like a beautiful spring day. It will break “excellent and fair.” Something excellent is “remarkably good, possessing outstanding quality.” And fair? 
Who doesn’t want her judgment to be fair? Before anyone answers, Buffy, could you look up "fair"?

While we wait, Irving, when you turn in an essay, do you want the teacher to assess its value fairly?

Irving: Yes.


Seriously?


Irving: Yes. Why not?


Think about it. Absolutely fair. Exactly what you deserve.


Irving: Hmm. Maybe not.

Buffy, did you find ‘fair’?


Buffy: Yeah, but there’s like 50 different definitions. Do you want me to read’em all?

I guess not. Just give us a sampling and see if that helps.


Buffy: "Free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.Proper under the rules. Moderately large."Whoa! It gives "ample: as one of the synonyms!

Sweet. Please continue.

Buffy: “Neither excellent nor poor. Moderately or tolerably good. Likely, promising. Fair, sunny, cloudless, not stormy. Free from blemish or imperfection. Seemingly good or sincere, but not really so."

That’s enough! Irving, you want to say something?

Irving: Yes. I decided that when you grade my essays, I prefer grace over justice. Please don't be fair.

Nicely put. Soooo. Someone paraphrase what we have so far. It's only one short stanza. Okay, Basilic, go.

Basilic (takes deep breath): You create or make ready this resting place or marital relationship or bottom of a river or lake and do it in a way that is plentiful and fully sufficient for the purpose, so that the bed is spacious and roomy, and you accomplish this with a mingling of fear, reverence and dread. 

Basilic continues: Then you wait there until the following breaks: outstanding, remarkably good judgment, neither excellent nor poor, just moderately good, but ample, proper under the rules and, actually, only seemingly good or sincere, but not really so.

(Class cheers with sincere admiration, some hurling Granny Smith Jolly Ranchers in Basilic's direction.)

Way to go, Basilic! I don't have anything to add to that! Emily’s diction really is heavy, isn't it? Her language is compressed, uraniumesque in its density. She is saying more than can be said with that handful of words. 

Some Dickinson scholars believe her diction was so heavy that when she wrote, she actually wore one of those Velcro back supports used by people who move pianos or refrigerators for a living. (Students reluctantly deliver token chuckle.)

But anyway, together we have managed to “lift” her first stanza. (Students unable to generate follow-up chuckling.)


Before we go to the second one, does this thing rhyme? “[B]ed/awe/break/fair.” Anyone see a rhyme there? No one?


Emily’s poems typically do rhyme, and many of them rhyme in the abcb pattern. If that’s the case in this poem, “awe” rhymes with “fair.” And, trust me, it does. That’s called “slant rhyme,” also called half rhyme, near rhyme, oblique rhyme, or imperfect rhyme. These are all names for using either assonance (repetition of vowel sounds: shed/bell) or consonance (repetition of consonant sounds: head/round) to create a rhyme, but this one – “awe” and “fair” -- is a bit of a stretch.


Okay, those of you who are still here, get up and move around, do a jumping jack or two, maybe do some deep breathing. Then we'll to attempt finish off this little jewel before the bell rings and you race happily to AP Economics.


*****

Enough with the jumping jacks, but, uh, Heathcliff, now you know why wearing those baggy pants isn't always a good idea. On to the second stanza!

Look at the odd wording of those first two lines: “Be its mattress straight / Be its pillow round.” Your mom would’ve never said it this way. It’s still the imperative mood, but it’s elevated, exalted. 

Emily could have said “Make the mattress straight” or “Be sure the mattress is straight.” Instead, the syntax has a priestly air, a hieratic or hortatory tone, i.e., as if the lines are a formal exhortation.

I’m probably missing something, but the content of those lines seems clear enough: Be sure the different elements of the bed are as they should be.


And now we’ll take the final two lines together: “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.” 
Why the apostrophe after the “sunrise”? It’s possessive: The “yellow noise” belongs to the sunrise.

Anyone know what figure of speech “yellow noise” is?  No? Who was your English teacher last year? Don't answer that! Just kidding!

Yellow comes to you through the eye, noise through the ear, so noise can’t literally be yellow. The senses have inextricably mingled, and this is called synaesthesia, even though your spell-check would prefer synesthesia, or maybe it would prefer you just say “union of the senses.”

(The 19th-century poet John Keats was a big fan of synaesthesia and used it so often he would be the cover boy of Synaesthesia Monthly, if such a publication actually existed. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of Keats’s biggest fans, used it frequently and beautifully, especially in some of the more poetic passages of Great Gatsby.)


Okay, “noise” is the last word of the second stanza's third line. What word occupies that space in the first stanza? “Break,” which also suggests sound – it’s almost onomatopoetic, but not quite. Judgment breaks and the yellow noise interrupts, adding to the poem’s coherence by intimating that the noise in stanza two is that of judgment day breaking in stanza one. "Judgment breaks with the sun's yellow noise" -- something like that.


Notice how the imperative mood continues in these last two lines. But who is the audience this time? We, the reader, can make our bed ample and with awe (or at least try our best to do so) and we can wait in it. Doing something about “sunrise’ yellow noise,” however, is trickier.


We cannot keep the sun, with its yellow light, from rising. Who can?


We can keep our eyes closed or wear special Wake-No-More eye covers, as if we were trying to get some sleep on a flight to Japan. Will that keep the sunrise from interrupting us?


Picture Emily on her little bed in her snug, tidy bedroom in Amherst when the sunrise breaks through her window. While you’re picturing that, let’s go to the final line. Don't stop picturing it!'


The last two words are “this ground.” The last two words of line 1 are “this bed,” linking these two images just the way Emily linked “break” and “noise.” Unless there was some sort of transformation between the first and last lines, “this bed” is “this ground.”


Considering the poem as a whole and nothing but the poem as a whole – as if that were possible – what bed or ground is she talking about? Tarleanna?


Tarleanna: Well, this is a somewhat literal guess: it could be her death bed or, by extension, her burial plot. So she’s telling undertakers, gravediggers and other cemetery workers to prepare the body and the plot carefully as the deceased will wait there until Gabriel blows the Last Trumpet to wake the dead. But in a way she’s also demanding that Gabriel mute his horn.

Oh, that's good stuff, Tar. You have something different, Seymour?


Seymour: A less literal and a more big-picture guess: The bed is her entire life. If she makes her life enough, plentiful, sufficient for the purpose, and does this with a mix of reverence and dread, there will be no need to interrupt her rest with judgment’s great reveille.

I like "great reveille"! Thanks, Seymour and Tar. You’re on to something, both of you, I'm sure of it.

Notice there is no “if,” no conditional in the poem. Maybe there's an implied “then” between “Be its pillow round” and “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise," but we can't be sure. Emily is forcing us to co-create this bed, this poem.


Why don’t we just brainstorm for a moment: Daybreak is implied in line 3; the day breaks in the east; east reminds Christians of Easter; Easter celebrates the resurrection of the body of Christ and, by extension, his followers; but the sound of the sun (Son?) rising is nothing but a disruptive “noise” in this poem; therefore, the body continues to rest . . . or wait? Or what?


The narrator/Emily insists, commands "Do not disturb my rest."

Demeter: So what do you think she's saying?


What do I think? First figure out what you think, and we can talk about it later. Maybe Emily’s wish was to jump start our thinking apparatus, to invite us into an intelligent dialogue, to take another look, think again, ponder, all the marvelous things we can do because our brains are still alive.


Personally, I would distrust a teacher or mentor who told me what this poem means. To overdo an arboreal metaphor, almost all of Emily’s poems are the size of acorns, transformed, through careful readings, into mighty, sprawling, towering oaks. Why, then, try to shrink this thing back down to an acorn? Why bundle its extraordinary potential into the confines of a definitive theme?

So keep thinking about it. That’s what it’s for.


Class dismissed. Thanks for coming to high school today.

21st-century sunrise. Still beautiful. Palm Sunday? Photo courtesy Jadyn Lalich

Ample make this bed
Make this bed with awe.
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

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