Saturday, April 26, 2008

Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone. Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,--
Ah, what sagacity perished here! Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Marcinec, once asked our class, "Can poetry be judged on merit alone, or is the life of the poet applicable?" Easy answer. Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts of goodly parents. She grew up with the irrational, deeply held conviction that all lives are equal. Years after the Civil War, she wrote the lines above on a scrap of paper and sent it to her longtime correspondent and friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Higginson was a pre-war abolitionist who became the first commander of African-American troops in 1864, the South Carolina Volunteers. It was he who documented their Gullah dialect, wrote Life in a Black Regiment in 1870, and later recorded their spirituals. Dickinson wrote the poem as a memorial to the escaped slaves who had died assaulting the Vaubanite earthworks in the South as cannon fodder, and to whom some white monuments were eventually erected around Cambridge after the war. The poem doesn't make much sense unless you've stood in front of one of those monuments, and in front of Higginson's house.


Vincent said...

Funny you should say that Marc because I read the poem and found it of the highest quality and worth my time (unlike lots of bloggers' poetry)

Now I know it was Emily Dickinson, and she wrote it in the circumstances you mention, it makes no difference to my appreciation of its quality or content.

Well I thought the alabaster chambers might have been a standard type of coffin or tomb at the time: a bit expensive but well, it was probably referring to America.

Sorry to be so thick (English English equivalent of "dumb")

MarcLord said...

Hi Vincent,

Oh, neither thick nor thin. My rough phrase, "doesn't make much sense unless" was not precise, only meaning to convey you can't infer from the words what group specifically inspired them.

The poem is technically flawless, as perfect as anything I've ever laid eyes on, and may achieve even greater effect without knowledge of its circumstances. That is, as applying to all the dropping diadems, not to just fallen ex-slave volunteers. But I would prefer to know whom it was written for, even if that context changes and constrains the meaning.

Bruce said...

Hey Marc, you may appreciate the poetry of a buddy of mine: Ray Sweatman.