Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Teaching "Ample Make this Bed," Part One

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.

The teachers who taught me Emily Dickinson also taught me to hate her poetry and, by extension, all of poetry.

Mrs. Morse, my English and algebra teacher in junior high, probably read it aloud in class, or worse, had one of us backwoods goobers do the honors. I don’t know who read it, but I remember the sound: “Because I could not stop for death / Death kindly stopped for me.”

Only extant photo of Emily*

Hey, at least we learned iambic pentameter from it, but we weren’t told to pay any special attention to “kindly” in that context, or even to think about the meaning of not being able to stop for death, or the meanings of the poem as a whole, for that matter.

Emily’s stock didn’t go up much when I got to high school and Mrs. Faught read the same poem through her half-frames attached to her neck with a delicate silver chain. She taught us that we should like Dickinson a lot because she was one of our great poets. Here, she said, listen: 

“Because I could not stop for death /Death kindly stopped for me.”

After this moving recital, we were told to get out a piece of paper, put our names and the date on it and write  English III in the upper right-hand corner and then answer the questions underneath this poem in the Adventures in Literature text. This would be graded.

Mrs. Faught would've also told us a little about Emily’s reclusive nature, but as a teenage boy, I didn’t give a crap if she came out of her room or not. I just wanted all of her poems to be suddenly destroyed by flames before I had to listen to one more of them.

Many years later when I had stopped hating poetry and starting worshipping it, I was reading William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice one summer, and when I got to the part where Nathan Landau reads “Ample make this bed” to Sophie, I got the feeling that Emily was saying more than my teachers heard or were willing to hear, or she was saying more than they could understand, or were allowed to understand given the conservative and sheltered nature of 1950’s rural north Florida.

And readers of Styron’s book will also recall how the poem was turned into a eulogy and how fitting Emily’s words were in that context. Those of us who saw the film version will have a hard time erasing from our memory the sound of a teary-eyed Peter MacNicol, in his best southern accent, reciting the lines while standing at the foot of Sophie’s and Nathan’s bed.

Sophie’s Choice, then, persuaded me to take Emily’s poems more seriously, and it wasn’t long before I fell madly in love with those fresh creations of her brain and with all the wonderful meditations prompted, at least in part, from the view through the small windows of her bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts.

So recently, I was rummaging through a dusty old trunk in the attic of a Custom House and happened upon this well-worn manuscript. It seems, in fact, to be a transcript recording a classroom discussion led by a well-meaning teacher. The level of discourse displayed both by the teacher and the students leads me to believe the discussion took place in a high-school classroom.

The following covers the poem's first two lines: 


Let’s begin our poetry unit by going through Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this bed” pretty much word by word. It’s very short and shouldn’t take long, and it will give you an idea of the kind of thinking poetry invites and maybe introduce you to a few poetic terms.

First, let me point out, just so you know, she didn't give her poems titles, so editors have chosen to identify them by their first lines. Okay, let’s get started:

“Ample.” What does that mean? Anyone? “Enough?” Yes, but also more than enough. Webster says it's “fully sufficient or more than adequate,” “plentiful, enough,” “of sufficient or abundant measure,” “liberal, copious,” or “large, spacious, roomy.”

“Make this bed.” In this context, what are two possible meanings for “make”? 

Jethro, student one:  You can make a bed with a hammer, nails, saw and a carpenter’s level. 

That's right. But in the morning when your mom says, “Don’t forget to make your bed before you leave,” you don’t need those tools. She means for you to “fit it with sheets and blanket” or straighten it, bring it back to order, make it neat.

So let’s keep both those definitions in mind as we proceed.

“This bed” tells us Emily’s not talking about just any bed, only about the one in this poem. This is the one that should be made “ample,” or should that be “amply”? We know, by the way, Emily didn’t mind occasionally ignoring the rules of grammar in the interest of saying something exactly the way she wanted to say it.

Can “bed” have more than one meaning? 

Ruthie, student two: Yes. Not just the kind we sleep in, but, like, a bed of roses, and it can also be the bottom of a lake or river. 

Well put, Ruthie! So that’s the first line, but wait. Something’s missing. What or who is the subject? 

Fizzit, student three: You?

Right! So we could paraphrase it,  “You create or make ready this resting place or bottom of a river or lake.” 

That’s called the imperative mood. It’s a command. She’s not suggesting or “just saying.” She’s insisting: Do it!
Buy some tissue, see this film.

But how? Here’s the second line: “Make this bed with awe.” First, notice the repetition. Any freshman-composition teacher worth her salt would cross out “Make this bed” in line 2 and write “rep” or “unfortunate echo” in the margins, so you’d have a tidier “Ample make this bed with awe.” 

So why the repetition? Is she pleading? Is it a chant? A prayer? Certainly it’s not the implied monotony of Robert Frost’s “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” Is it?

In any case, this bed must be made with “awe.” Chedra, could you look up “awe” on your handheld, cellular-powered, pocket-sized, Internet-connected, telephonic device, please? Thanks. 

Chedra: It says, “An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear . . . produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful”; “power to inspire fear or reverence”; “fear or dread.” 

Well, that seems to rule out the mom-telling-you-to-make-your-bed scenario. You don’t feel like that in the presence of your bed, do you, Chedra?

In just six words, “Ample make this bed . . . with awe,” Dickinson has seemed, on the one hand, to demand that the reader do a very concrete, everyday thing that carpenters do occasionally and that some people do daily, but, due to her first and last word, she has also placed us in the presence of an unnamed something greater than ourselves. Of course, we wouldn’t have noticed that had we not looked up “ample” and “awe.”

So what bed must we make more than adequate, plentiful enough with a combination of reverence, admiration and dread? Anyone? No one? Well, we haven’t finished reading the poem yet. Keep thinking while we do.

*Scholars now believe they've discovered another.

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