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Of course birds eat worms, but their relationship to them isn’t “culinary” in a strong sense.

December 6, 2009

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke in late 1846 or early 1847

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an 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.

I’ve always regarded this poem as an education in metaphor, among other things. As unprepossessing (or merely amusing) as its first eight lines may seem, what follows on them, from them, is rich and strange in the usual Emily Dickinsonian ways. Consider stanzas one and two, bearing in mind how often poets prior to Dickinson, even unto the point of tedium, had written about encounters with birds:

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an 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 –

The usual thing is for the poet to identify, somehow, with the bird, even to personify it, to attribute to it, as with fellow-feeling, the sort of stereotyped “affects” we associate with poets: keen observation, “singing” (which meant “writing” long before Whitman ever said “I celebrate and sing myself…”), mournfulness, what have you. Dickinson does, in fact, “personify” her bird. She speaks of it as out for a stroll, along a path beside a wall, for all the world like any other stroller on promenade. And better still, her bird is polite, and gives way to the beetle, who, it would appear, is also out for a stroll. But the personifications are ironic, which is lucky for this reader anyway, because students are typically taught, in American high schools, two things: that all essays have five paragraphs, in which the first person pronoun is assiduously avoided; and that there is a thing called “personification,” and that the reason for reading poetry is largely to find instances of it. Dickinson’s ever so slight derangements of grammar and sense make us aware that her personifications are quite consciously and whimsically indulged in. The bird gets its angleworm, but then is said to eat the “fellow” “raw.” As against what other way? Well, as in the “I’ll be your server tonight” sort of way. Sautéed? Pan-seared with deep fried garlic chips? Have a look at the board for our specials. Anyway, if “cooked” is what this worm is implicitly not, then it must be regarded as a kind of sashimi. As to why anyone should find it worth noting that birds do not cook their worms, the poet remains silent. Of course birds eat worms, but their relationship to them isn’t “culinary” in a strong sense. Another bit of humor, of course, involves Dickinson speaking of the worm as a “fellow,” as if to say: “What a nice chap he must be. Pity he should suffer the fate of being eaten raw.”

Near you, doubtless, or soon to be.

Next the bird is said to “drink a dew” from “a” convenient “grass.” The collective noun “grass” doesn’t take an indefinite article of course, unless for the purpose of distinguishing one species of grass from another. “I need a good grass for my lawn,” the man says at his local Home Depot or Lowes. “Got a nice fescue for me?” What’s meant is a blade or leaf of grass, of course. The point, quite obviously, is to bring to mind “a glass” when we read “a grass,” and not for the purpose of mocking anyone’s accent either; the point is to have the humanized alternative (glass) present to the mind but denied in print (grass). (It’s rather like printing the word blue in red.)

Your local meteorologist.

Your local meteorologist might speak of “a dew,” of course, but not of one a bird or anything else might “drink.” That would be “a dew-drop.” Note that our bird is also a gentleman, not a pigeon: he hops side-wise to let a beetle pass. (Why not bite that in half also, and eat it raw? Our bird must be on the smallish side.) My point is that Dickinson goes about her “personifications” (if use the word I must) in such a way as to make a reader feel them as personifications. The whole business is somehow done as within what we now style “air quotes.” So much for the first two stanzas, whose rhetorical and figurative modes are not really complex: here’s a quasi-post-Romantic poet having a bit of fun with the (Romantic) notion of “personifying” a bird—that word again. But then things get better:

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 . . .

It is possible for eyes to glance “rapidly,” I suppose; nothing figurative there. But eyes, though “rapid,” do not really “hurry all around”; they aren’t trying to get anywhere fast. Such movements are autonomic anyhow, whereas the imputation of motive and purpose somehow slightly hangs about the idea of “hurrying.” Then we are told what these rapid, hurrying eyes look like: “frightened beads.” I think there’s a double metaphor here: eyes as “beads” (an old one, to be sure: beady eyes). But grammatically we are required to think of the beads as frightened (that’s what the adjective “frightened” directly modifies). I’ve never seen a frightened “bead” and wouldn’t know how to go about intimidating one. Of courses, it’s simply a matter of Dickinson taking an attribute of the bird (fear) and transferring it the “beads” to which eyes are so often compared anyway. That’s what I mean in speaking of a double metaphor, or perhaps better still, of overlapping metaphors (we haven’t to do here with “mixture” of metaphor). That a bird may have a “velvet head” is only slightly odd. The fine feathering on its head might well feel, to the touch, like velvet. And yet I like the idea of a “velvet head.” Say it a few times over and feel its strangeness.

But then we light upon one of those moments in Dickinson’s poetry where the same lines may be construed variously into differing sentences: 1) “He stirred his velvet head, like one in danger. Cautious, I offered him a crumb.” 2) “He stirred his velvet head like one in danger, cautious. I offered him a crumb.” 3) “He stirred his velvet head. Like one in danger, cautious, I offered him a crumb.” Read the poem aloud, and you must take one of the three; you have to know what to do with your voice when you say it. #3 I rule out on principle: it is hardly likely that the speaker feels herself in danger, in the presence of so gentlemanly a bird, even if he doesn’t cook his food—a bird, moreover, with a velvet head. #2 is certainly possible: caution and fear often accompany one another. But I prefer #1, so much so that I always read the poem this way. The “caution” almost certainly belongs to the speaker offering her “crumb.” This problem arises, of course, from our poet’s eccentric habits of punctuation. (The first stanza of one of her best known poems—”The Soul selects her own Society”—may be read as either a single sentence; as two sentences, each different from the other; or as three.) But let’s say that it is “no accident” that the grammar and figurative language of the latter three stanzas becomes ever more strange; and that the turn out of the easy ironic personifications of the first two is “occasioned” by the offering of the crumb, whether it be raw or cooked, as if in fellowship. Aren’t birds and poets supposed to be in fellowship? The British Romantics abused the notion unconscionably, though we can’t lay its invention at their feet, of course. Here we are reading a counter-Romantic poem about a bird. Our sweet singer offers this velvet-headed, frightened bead-eyed, uncooked worm-eating bird a crumb and, and—

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.

Not the feathers, but the wings are deployed, of course—that’s the first liberty with reason taken. Bony things, wings are, but here they may be rolled and unrolled. He’s taking to the wind, to the air, of course, so let’s imagine that the wings are implicitly likened to sails, which we do furl and unfurl, unroll and roll.

Republican campaign poster of 1896 attacking Free Silver.

But no, these wings are oars, which keeps them in the “nautical” bin, as Kenneth Burke might say, but which also specifies them in ways easier to map out: wings are to birds what oars are to rowers; movement on the air is like movement on the water. But no again: These oars “divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam.” Bad rowers make seams, leave wakes, waste energy, “plash” about. (I know because I am a bad rower.) And just how silver must a thing be so as not to leave a seam? Are the keys to my office too silver for a seam? They are certainly silver in color, if not in composition. Is “silver” in the William Jennings Bryan sense “too silver for a seam”? What precisely is both “silver” and “seamless” in its “division” of “ocean” water? Well, a fish is, or anyway a few dozens species of them. So now the bird moves through the air as a fish does through the water, and we are done with any vestigially “nautical” metaphors. We are out of culture altogether. In fact, we are in nature.

Swimming, flying, writing. Let’s have Kenneth Burke‘s word on these in Language as Symbolic Action:

A B-2 bomber taking pleasure in a 1994 live-fire exercise near Point Mugu, California.

Kenneth Burke, as featured in the logo of the Kenneth Burke Society.

“As for poetics pure and simple,” he says, “I would take this motivational dimension to involve the sheer exercise of ‘symbolicity’ (or ‘symbolic action’) for its own sake, purely for the love of the art. If man is characteristically the symbol-using animal, then he should take pleasure in the use of his powers as a symbolizer, just as a bird presumably likes to fly or a fish to swim. Thus, on some occasions, in connection with aesthetic activities, we humans might like to exercise our prowess with symbol systems, just because that’s the kind of animal we are. I would view the poetic motive in that light.” I find the latter motive underlying stanzas one and two in the poem before us here. Dickinson is using certain “symbols” to talk of exchanges between poets and birds that compel the reader to feel them “as symbols,” as “tropes”; and moreover, she does it to compel us to do things like read “glass” for “grass,” and to take pleasure in making light of poems in which birds are likened by poets to people—usually for self-flattering purposes: “singers” in “fellowship,” set apart in depth of feeling from the rest of us. But what of stanzas three to five? Do fish take pleasure in swimming “too silver for a seam,” and do B-2 bomber pilots take pleasure in flying too silver for any seam that radar might detect? Are birds wing-using animals, and take pleasure in the use for its own sake? I think cats enjoy being feline, and dogs canine, so why not let birds enjoy being avian?

Anyway, there is a further bit of strangeness to be dealt with: Those “Butterflies,” who “leap” “off Banks of Noon,” “plashless as they swim.” In one sense this is easy work: flight has already been likened to swimming. But in what sense does “noon” have “banks”? The occult metaphor must be something to do with the “stream” or “current” of “Time,” or some such thing. The “banks” of morn lie upstream, and the “banks” of evening downstream, where the fireflies leap off of those, I suppose, “plashless” as they “swim” through the air, making their bioluminescent love (and hate).

What have I said, then? First, Dickinson enjoys her own prowess in this poem, according to the “poetic motive” as Burke describes it. (That Burke takes birds and fish as his parallel examples is merely a happy coincidence, all the more useful for my purposes here. I  enjoy availing myself of Burke & his symbols anyway in doing what I “characteristically” do in the Era of Casual Fridays.) Second, I’ve suggested that at precisely the moment when the poet makes her gesture of “fellowship” with this fine chap of a bird by offering it a crumb—from some “cooked” thing, doubtless (how appalling!);—I’ve said that at this point the poem becomes, as I hope I’ve made clear, much stranger in its metaphors, its grammar, and its rhymes, which fall out of the fellowship of full rhyme harmony (saw/raw) into half or quarter rhymes (seam/swim), and possibly into no proper “rhyme” at all in one case (“around” and “head” share a terminal consonant, but “-nd” and “-d” make different sorts of sounds). In sum, Dickinson has given us that rarest of things: a new poem on an ancient theme. She is always out of the general rut.

N.B. For a link to the Dickinson Electronic Archives (executive editor, Martha Nell Smith), click here. For a link to the Kenneth Burke Society, click here.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ian Wolcott permalink
    December 7, 2009 10:04 PM

    I like this.

    Free assocation:

    “Velvet Head” – By comparison, according to Fleet Foxes, meadowlarks wear fleeced gowns:

    http://www.lyricsmania.com/lyrics/fleet_foxes_lyrics_24306/fleet_foxes_lyrics_79012/meadowlarks_lyrics_783292.html

    “Angleworm” – There’s a wonderful little book within a book near the end of Tove Jansson’s novel The Summer Book. It’s written by the granddaughter character and titled ‘Angleworms and Other Pitiful Creatures.’ Halved and eaten raw in Dickinson’s poem, the angleworm doesn’t get much better treatment here, but does duty as a sort of Cosmic Everyman.

    • December 7, 2009 10:32 PM

      Thanks, Ian. The Fleet Foxes I know well. In fact, for some reason I couldn’t stop listening to them around Christmas time last year. That song called White Winter Hymnal, is it? They’re still on my “play-list” (there’s a con-valley spawned logism). “Angleworms and other Pitiful Creatures”? That I must look into. I suppose a tome might be written on literary uses of what Empson once spoke of as the “miraculous Elizabethan corpse worm,” down through Walton’s “Compleat Angler,” and so on. There’s a fine poem by Hardy called “The Aerolite” which (in a Schopenhaurean vein) speaks of “consciousness” as a curse that serves only to make us more fully aware of “the worm that gnaws vitality here”–i.e., here on earth.

      • Henry permalink
        December 9, 2009 9:07 AM

        And of course – right up your street – Darwin’s last book, ‘On the Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Earthworms’. Not the most promising of titles, but a bestseller. Gillian Beer has a good essay on it in, I think, ‘Open Fields’.

      • December 9, 2009 8:38 PM

        As it happens, sitting at the Gael last night, after Yanay caught the last bus out, I read a bit, again, from “Darwin’s Worms,” by your countryman Adam Philips. Never read Darwin’s book, but mean to. See you at the Gael tomorrow? Our informal bonnenkai? No, not the last. Yanay & I will go to Sannomiya & fetch you out.

        Remember: Yo La Tengo, 12/14

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  1. Kinds of Rhyme: “She Walks in Beauty,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Base Details,” & “Blighters” « The Era of Casual Fridays

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