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Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature and today we’re going to talk
about this lady, Emily Dickinson. By the way, we don’t have a book today because
she’s on my Nook. Emily Dickinson was a great 19th century American poet who--
Mr. Green, Mr. Green. I already know everything about her. She was a recluse and you can sing
all of her poems to the tune of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Like, “Because
I could not stop for death / He Kindly stopped for me”
Stop, Me from the Past, you cannot sing. Fortunately, your inability to sing does insulate us from
copyright claims because I, for one, did not recognize that as “If I could buy the world
a Coke.” Also Dickinson’s meter is more complicated
than you’re making it out to be, but yes, you could sing most of her poems to “If
I Could Buy the World a Coke” also “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
More importantly, these poems have a lot to say about the relationship between death and
life, between faith and doubt, between the power of God and the power of individuals.
So let’s focus on that, because it actually might change your life and stuff.
Intro So Joyce Carol Oates[a][b] once called Emily
Dickinson “the most paradoxical of poets; the very poet of paradox.”
And this can really frustrate students and literary critics alike, particularly when
Dickinson seems to contradict herself within a single poem. Take, for example, this bit
of light verse: "Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see— But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency. So, this seems to be a pretty pro-science,
anti-religion poem, right? I mean, faith is put in quotation marks and called an invention.
But she also implies the possibility of a different, and valuable, kind of sight only
available to some people at some times—when gentlemen can see.
And this is where it becomes important to look at how Dickinson—for lack of a better
phrase—sees sight. Dickinson often imagines seeing as a form
of power, so much so that seeing--not just literal sight but also the ability to witness
and observe and understand--becomes the central expression of the self.
Like, her famous poem that begins "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died" ends with the line
"I could not see to see," associating the lack of sight with death itself.
Dickinson also often played with the fact that this I and this eye sound the same; her
poem beginning "Before I got my eye put out" is about death, for instance, not just monocularization.
In that poem, she clearly associates sight not just with the power to observe but with
ownership, she writes: "But were it told to me, Today, / That I might have the Sky / For
mine, I tell you that my Heart / Would split, for size of me – / The Meadows – mine
– / The Mountains – mine –" Of course, in 19th century America, the idea
that an I--possibly a FEMALE I--could own the mountains, the meadows, and the sky was
a little bit radical. I mean, all that stuff was supposed to be
under the control of God, not any human being who could see it.
All of this is made even more complex and interesting by the fact that Dickinson’s
poems sounded like hymns. And throughout her life, you could see her faith waxing and waning
in her poetry. In short, I don’t think you can make easy
conclusions about microscopes and faith in Dickinson’s poetry, but that’s precisely
what’s so important about it. Dickinson’s work reflects a conflicted American
worldview. I mean, we’re a nation of exceptional individuals who believe that we control our
success and our happiness, but we are also more likely to profess a belief in an omnipotent
God than people in any other industrialized nation.
Alright, I know you guys want all the creepy macabre details of Dickinson’s biography,
so let’s go to the Thought Bubble:
So, Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 to a prominent family—her father became a U.S.
congressman—and lived her whole life in Massachusetts.
She was haunted by what she called the “menace” of death throughout her life, although then
again, who isn’t?
Between 1858 and 1865, Dickinson wrote nearly 800 poems. But, she also became increasingly
confined to her home in those years, and eventually rarely left her room—
she usually talked to visitors from the other side of a closed door, and didn’t even leave
her room when her father’s funeral took place downstairs.
Dickinson published fewer than a dozen poems in her lifetime; in fact, no one knew that
she’d been nearly so prolific until her sister discovered more than 1,800 poems after
Emily’s death in 1886.
Dickinson was considered an eccentric in Amherst, and known locally for only wearing white when
she was spotted outside the home.
In fact, her only surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress.
This image of a pale wraith clad all in white has become a symbol of the reclusive brilliant
poet, but it’s worth noting that for Dickinson, white was not the color of innocence or purity
or ghosts. It was the color of passion and intensity.
“Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then crouch within the door,” she once wrote.
She called red, the color most associate with passion, “fire’s common tint.”
For Dickinson, the real true, rich life of a soul—even if it was physically sheltered—burned
white hot. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Oh, it’s time for
the Open Letter?
An Open Letter to the Color White. But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh, it’s a Dalek. Stan, more flagrant pandering to the Whovians.
Dear White, You’re a complicated and symbolic--ah! Dalek!
They’re not very bright. So, White, you’re often associated with
purity, like wedding dresses. You can symbolize heaven or the creepy infinite
nowhere where certain parts of Harry Potter and all of Crash Course Humanities take place.
But many 19th century writers inverted those associations, like Meville’s famous great
white wall of whale, the terrifying blankness of nature.
And to Dickinson, White, you were the color of passion and intensity.
This reminds us that our symbolic relationships aren’t fixed. We’re creating them as we
go communally. I mean, other than daleks, which are universally
terrifying no matter what color they come in.
Best wishes, John Green
Okay, let’s take a close look at a poem we’ve already mentioned, sometimes called
Poem 465 and sometimes known by its first line, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.”
Speaking of which, here in the studio, we’ve had a genuine plague of flies in the last
few weeks. I mean, in the lights up there, there are thousands of fly carcasses.
Okay, let’s put aside the fly carcasses and read a poem together...about flies.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz – Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see –
Okay, first, let’s talk about the dashes. Some critics think that Dickinson’s use
of the dashes as punctuation is just eccentric handwriting or else an accident. I mean, they
point out that Dickinson also used similar dashes, for instance, in her cake recipes.
Others argue that the use of dashes are a typographical attempt to symbolize the way
the mind works, or that the dash is used as a punctuation stronger than a comma but weaker
than a period. Regardless, though, the appearance of a dash
at the end of this poem, at the moment of death, is a very interesting choice.
So, in this poem, the speaker is dying, or I guess has died, in a still room surrounded
by loved ones. A will is signed and then the fly, with blue
uncertain stumbling buzz, comes between the light and the speaker.
This makes it so the narrator cannot see to see, and by now you know what happens in Dickinson
poems when people can’t see: They’re dead. So Dickinson was just a smidge obsessed with
death, which means that she got to imagine death in a lot of different ways—as a suitor,
as a gentle guide—but here death is a buzzing fly.
So everyone in the room is awaiting the arrival of the King—which, before Elvis took over
the title in 1958, was a reference to God. But, instead of the quiet, peaceful arrival
of God they’re expecting, it’s a dirty little fly, with uncertain stumbling Buzz,
that gets between the narrator and the light. So, this poem features Dickinson at her most
formal. The lines are very iambic: i HEARD a FLY buzz WHEN i DIED / the STILLness IN
the ROOM. And they alternate between tetrameter (four
feet) and triameter (three feet). The rhyme scheme throughout the poem is ABCB,
which means the first line ends with one sound, the second line with yet another, the third
line with another still, and then the fourth line rhymes with the second line.
But Dickinson employs her famous slant rhymes here: like, in the first stanza, room is matched
with storm; in the second, Be with Fly. These words sort of almost rhyme, like “room”
and “storm” both end in mmm sounds. “Be” and “Fly” both end in hard vowel sounds.
But they don’t rhyme. And this discomforting lack of closure is
a hallmark of Dickinson’s poetry. Also of most of my romantic relationships.
Only in the final stanza, when death comes, do we get a full rhyme: Me, the I, is rhymed
with See, the thing the I can no longer do. So is this a peaceful death? Hardly. I mean,
the stillness in the room is broken by the buzzing fly.
And yet, with that final full rhyme, Dickinson offers us a bit of peace and closure that
we didn’t get in the first two stanzas. To return to an old theme, even though we
live in an image-drenched culture, this is a good reminder that language is made out
of words. And it might sound like overreading to you
to say that a full rhyme brings peace, but I’m reminded of the story of Mozart’s
children playing a series of unfinished scales in order to taunt their father, who would
eventually have to go to the piano and finish them.
Poetry isn’t just a series of images. It is rhythmic and it’s metric and we crave
the closure of a good rhyme at the end of the poem; that’s why sonnets end with couplets.
Dickinson gives us that closure. And then she gives us a Jose-Saramago-ing dash.
The poet of paradox, still haunting us. Thanks for watching our Crash Course Literature
miniseries. Next week, we begin a year of learning about U.S. History together.
Now begins the complaining by non-Americans that we’re shallow and self-interested and
call ourselves Americans even though, in fact, THIS is America.
But, my friends, even if you don’t live here, the history of the United States matters
to you because we’re always meddling in your affairs. Thanks for watching. See you
next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
And the show is written by me. Every week instead of cursing, I’ve used
the names of writers I like. That tradition is ending, but a new one will begin next week.
If you have questions about today’s video, you can ask them down there in comments and
they’ll be answered by our team of literature professionals, including Stan’s mom. Thanks
for watching. And as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
LIT 8 Poetry [a]I wanted to do a talking unhistoric here
but couldn't find a large enough photo on wiki. If you have any luck Stan let me know,
otherwise this works as a type moment too. [b]She's tough. I haven't found anything.
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Before I Got My Eye Put Out - The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Crash Course English Lit #8

3252 Folder Collection
Sofi published on July 29, 2014
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