Friday, 27 September 2013

Emily Dickinson -- There is no Frigate like a Book

Philip Harvey

There is poetry that renders absurd the wordy efforts of readers to explain and analyse its contents. In forty-one words, Emily Dickinson says things about books and reading to make interpretation of the poem look like a drag on the spirit. So allow me to indulge in a laborious labour of love by remarking on the words in her following rapid flow. We see the familiar features come into view, the capitalised words big with meaning and occasional dashes of punctuation that seem like chances to draw breath, and so we begin:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry -
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll -
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
The concept of the book as something that takes us places without moving an inch would have been well-known in Emily Dickinson’s time. The concept of that something being a frigate is well-nigh unique to Emily Dickinson. A frigate was a swift water vessel, a boat designed to move quickly and effectively to its destination, which is Dickinson’s thought: the book takes us places in what is an instant. Likewise, a courser is not your average horse but a fleet stallion, a horse for racing and chasing, the strongest and fastest kind of horse for battle. So to say a book is even better than a frigate and a page of poetry better than a courser is to give high praise indeed, if agility and speed are highest values.
Now if that wasn’t enough, the second half of the poem shifts gear up. Reading books and poetry is something anyone can do, including “the poorest” who cannot afford a frigate and would not be able to own a courser. They may be able to travel without any fear of costs when they read. She then introduces a third rapid transit vehicle, the chariot, which is an even more archaic and poetic mode of transport than a frigate or a courser. Furthermore, we are presented with the ironical idea that such an expensive ancient imperial car could be “frugal”. Frugal because books and poetry cost next to nothing and yet may take us where we want to go. And when we reflect on the three modes of transport, we see that they would have been, even in Dickinson’s time, book words, words more likely to be encountered in her library than heard on the streets of Amherst, Massachusetts. Yet the immediacy of the language and thought scarcely gives us time to judge the words as anachronistic. We accept their veracity in real time. We are transported into her world of thought.
The shift in the second half of the poem is not just about the practice of reading, either. Ultimate questions of meaning are subtly introduced into the context. The “Traverse”, a reference to travel and a pun on poetry itself, also holds the deeper meaning of life’s passage, our time alive in this world. That we may make the Traverse without cost, or judgement, would seem an impossibility, and yet it is in our reading that all of this can be done. Dickinson would have us believe that a book is a very cheap way of getting us where we might like to be. A book may even contain the human soul. The human soul? At the end of the poem we are brought up short. What precisely does she mean, it may bear a human soul? We seem a long way from the positive noises about reading made in the opening lines. For while we may read the second half of the poem as being an extension of the list of qualities of a book, the grammar suggests that the subject of the second half is “This Traverse” and not books as such, at all. While the chariot may be a book, it may also be read as the human body. Read in this way, we suddenly see that she could be talking (and who knows whether ironic or not) of the Bible, or perhaps of the book as the means to wisdom. The poem argues for a poverty of spirit familiar to readers of Scripture.
We are not surprised to know this poem was written by someone who did not leave her house. It is an apologia for staying put and reading, a justification for the book as of equal if not greater value than the lived experiences presented inside the book itself. For these reasons the poem must be read with a caution. The thrill of reading is lauded while the implication that that need be all there is to life, is also implicit in the poem’s worldview.

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