I felt my life with both my hands

YouTube Video

(I don't know who the pretty girl pictured above is!  I found this video to have a good sound recording)
 
This is a poem that tells of the need for the the greatest resilience in life in face of the major traumatic events that we all have to face at some time. Life has to go on and, in the words of Jerome Kern’s song, it is a question of “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”. 

Critics most usually prefer not to speculate too closely about the nature of the trauma which has often been undergone by the poet in Emily Dickinson's verse. There are often different possible explanations. For example, in "I felt my life with both my hands", many commentators see a description of the aftermath of a major romantic disappointment and yet there is at least one other likely interpretation.

The study of Emily Dickinson's biography certainly shows that she had been unlucky in love and was probably left deeply wounded:
It was in 1858 that Emily had first made the acquaintance of Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican. After this, he and his wife, Mary, became regular visitors at the Dickinson homestead. As time went on, Emily’s relationship with Samuel became very close and she sent to him about 40 letters and nearly fifty poems. It is believed that three famous love letters that Emily wrote were for him.

The break in their relationship came in 1863. Her father banned Bowles from their house and she did not see him for twelve years until after her father’s death. It is possible therefore that this poem describes the subsequent personal trauma and her deliberate efforts to put her life together again.
I suspect that Carla Bruni recognised this as the theme and was drawn to this song. She like Emily had loved powerfully and lost, notably with "Raphael ". The story of this failed romance is told in her song with her lover's name as the title. As Carla Bruni turns Emily Dickinson's poem into her song, she no doubt strongly empathises with another young lady living through and recovering from the destruction of her romantic dreams.

The alternative interpretation of the circumstances of this poem.
There is, however, an alternative explanation for the trauma suffered by the poet, and this is that a severe bout of illness might explain this poem. Once again, Emily Dickinson's biography supplies strong evidence in support.

Emily suffered from a lifelong affliction, which she and her family tried to cover with a veil of secrecy. (I elaborate on this later in this post). 

Traditionally critics have been very reticent on this subject, reluctant, perhaps, to be too intrusive about this very personal aspect of the medical condition of one of the world's greatest poets. However, the touching account of a brave woman’s deliberate efforts to restore her mind and her body and recover her identity in the aftermath of her traumatic bout of illness gives an intimate picture of human suffering of another kind and the lyrical quality of the poem remains the same.

In the table below, I print the text of the poem in column one and set myself the task of giving my interpretation of the words in column two. I find that I have the second alternative - the illness - in my mind as I do this

 

I felt my life with both my hands

351

I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there—
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler—

 

After a violently traumatic experience, she doubts whether she exists anymore as a person  and, holding her head in her two hands, she looks in the long looking glass to confirm with more certainty that the woman that she was is still alive.

I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner's name—
For doubt, that I should know the Sound—
To ask the Owner's name—
For doubt, that I should know the Sound—

Then she turns her body around slowly, pausing at each small movement to ask the name of the person in the image, doubtful whether she will recognise the name

I judged my features—jarred my hair—
I pushed my dimples by, and waited—
If they—twinkled back—
Conviction might, of me—

 

She shook loose her hair.  She examined her face and tweaked where her dimples should be.  If this characteristic feature  came back,  that might convince her.

I turned my Being round and round

And paused at every pound

To ask the Owner's name—

For doubt, that I should know the Sound—

To ask the Owner's name—

For doubt, that I should know the Sound—

The second verse has become the refrain

Then she turns her body around slowly, pausing at each small movement to ask the name of the person in the image, doubtful whether she will recognise the name

 

I told myself, "Take Courage, Friend—
That—was a former time—
But we might learn to like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home!"

She told herself to take courage- what has happened is over and done with, but she might learn to like the previous surreal experience as much as her familiar old home she is accustomed to.

(I discuss this verse below.)


I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner's name—
For doubt, that I should know the Sound—
To ask the Owner's name—
For doubt, that I should know the Sound—

 

 The second verse has become the refrain

Then she turns her body around slowly, pausing at each small movement to ask the name of the person in the image, doubtful whether she will recognise the name

 
 
 Dispelling the myths surrounding Emily Dickinson's life and her art 

 

Emily Dickinson chose to spend her life shut off from the outside world, with face to face contact only with those of her household. As a result of this behaviour, some people have burdened her with with an unflattering  reputation that intrudes on the appreciation of her character and her literary works.  

At its most cruel, she is caricatured as "the New England nun", a strange most eccentric recluse.  Even in her lifetime, she was known as the “Myth of Amherst” - but, in those days, no-one outside her family knew the explanation of her individual lifestyle, and it was, in fact her loving family and close friends, who ensured that these matters were kept strictly secret.

 The modern scholar has the advantage of access to the voluminous personal writings that she left behind.  Now that the facts of her life have been disclosed, we are in position to fill in the details – or should be able to.  Yet scholars tend to remain hesitant about offering a categorical explanation for her reclusiveness and unusual habits.  It is generally accepted that Emily Dickinson had a major health problem that affected her life and her literary work, but many commentators are wary of giving it too much emphasis and prefer not to give her illness its name.   Instead they give weight to other defining elements observable in her personality and her life.

One modern critic, however, abandons this reticence.  In her recent book, “Lives Like Loaded Guns”Lyndall Gordon, fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford University, shows that the medical condition of which Emily Dickinson was the victim,  provides, in itself, sufficient reason for the lifestyle that she adopted.

Lyndall Gordon  unequivocally names the illness as some form of epilepsy and shows that its devastating symptoms determined Emily’s housebound life.  The fact of this illness explains the “highly eccentric” habits for which she became notorious. Her so-called “mania for wearing white" was dictated by the need for total cleanliness and her "reclusiveness" by the family anxiety that she should stay no more than the briefest time in company.  As Lyndall Gordon tells us: “A seizure can happen with little warning: in about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.”

it was essential for Emily and close family and friends who cared for her to keep her secret. At that time, there was great stigma associated with epilepsy. In the nineteenth century, epileptics were sometimes put into asylums and so people colluded to keep the epilepsy of a member of the family secret.  (For further detail, see paragraph 5 in the Appendix below).

Emily Dickinson had no illusions about the disease.  It was known to be in the genes of the Dickinson family and two close family members were also sufferers in Emily’s lifetime (For further detail, see paragraph 2 in the Appendix below).

Although Emily would not speak the name of her problem, she records in a number of her poems  details which can be recognised as symptoms of  epileptic seizures. The poem "I felt my life with both my hands" can be interpreted as the description of her recovery from an epileptic seizure(For details of other poems, see paragraph 4 in the Appendix below)

Having recognised the illness which played an overwhelming role in Emily Dickinson's life, we would do her and world literature a disservice  if we presented the illness as the meaning of her poetry.  Even in poems that may spring from such a distressing episode, the poet translates the personal into universal experiences of sudden and unforeseen setbacks, emotional disappointments, and more positively in fight backs against adversity, with confidence in recovery. Most positive of all, there is, in her poems, her sense  that she can share, through these, her privileged glimpses of enlightenment.  

(For further detail, see paragraphs 7 and 8 in the Appendix below).

In one of the poems that Carla Bruni put to music, "I went to heaven," Emily Dickinson describes how she has had the privilege of being transported to paradise and then has been allowed to return.

Two of the other poems where Emily Dickinson expresses the idea that she actually gains from her distressing illness are;

1)

My first well Day—since many ill—
I asked to go abroad,
And take the Sunshine in my hands,
And see the things in Pod—

With the last verse:

My loss, by sickness—Was it Loss?
Or that Ethereal Gain
One earns by measuring the Grave—
Then—measuring the Sun— 

2) 

She wrote 'As One does Sickness over' when she was recovering from another attack of her illness in early 1865.  She thinks that it could prove to have been to her benefit, granting her the opportunity for the emergence of a new identity as a poet and visionary, which health (blessed health) would have obscured.  The first verse reads:

As One does Sickness over
In convalescent Mind,
His scrutiny of Chances
By blessed Health obscured—

Conclusion _ The therapeutic effect of her poetry to Emily Dckinson

In an eloquent conclusion to her book “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” Lyndall Gordon sums up how Emily Dickinson’s affliction played its part in her genius:

"So it was that art and life converge at this point, when poetic immortality is certain. Poetry is not only celebrated for its explosiveness; it's also the protective gun that guards the `head' by night (art's ability to protect against outbreaks of sickness), and this guardianship is preferable to the shared pillow of matrimony….. Contained further in her own domestic order, propped up by her protective father and sister, Emily Dickinson saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use."

 

 APPENDIX


Below are additional notes that I jotted down from  the fifth chapter of Lyndall Gordon’s “Lives like loaded guns”- the chapter entitled “Snarl in the brain” Pages 114- 136 .  


They give addition information relevant to my essay above


(1)The sickness was some form of epilepsy

Lyndall Gordon tells us her illness was Epilepsy

Bottom of page 116 Allowing for the poet's resolve to `tell it slant', through metaphor, are we not looking at epilepsy? The word, from the Greek, means seizure

In childhood Emily had mild symptoms of epilepsy

135 para 3 The mildest manifestations are so-called "absences". A friend of Dickinson's youth, Emily Fowler (later Mrs Ford), recalled that she dropped crockery. Plates and cups seemed to slide out of her hands and lay in pieces on the floor. Mrs. Ford related this story to illustrate Emily's eccentricity for, it was said, she hid the fragments in the fireplace behind a fireboard, forgetting they were bound to be discovered in winter. This memory is more important than Mrs Ford realised because it leads us to believe such "absences" were symptoms of epilepsy, either related to the condition or part of the condition itself.

There was no real treatment for epilepsy in Emily’s time

Page 131 2nd para- If the guess about epilepsy is right, then the reason Emily's treatment failed is because epilepsy was not curable. Drugs, developed later, merely suppress seizures which often happen with the depression of consciousness at night

(2)Epilepsy was in the genes of her family. Two close family members were also sufferers

top 132 - Epilepsy has a genetic component, and two others in Emily's family were subject to seizures. Cousin Zebina Montague, immured at home - he, too - across the road into town from the Homestead was a son of Irenc Dickinson ('Aunt Montague'), sister to Emily's grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  …. He became engaged at the age of twenty-nine. His blue-eyed fiancée, aged nineteen, came from a family of wealth and social standing.

In his letter, he says that he will draw a veil over what happened next,  for it was then, in 1839, that 'dreadful disease' struck: he was disabled and the marriage was off. The veil consists of one inadequate word of explanation: he was 'paralysed'. Whatever actually happened, it left him 'blank', and when he could not recover, a devoted slave (whom he'd taught to read and write) undertook to convey the sick man a distance of some fifteen hundred miles-an interminable journey in bumping coaches - to a sick and ageing mother in the Montague homestead in Amherst.

…this supposedly sick man went on living for a very long time - another forty years. His paralysis was said to be 'partial', without indicating, as people usually do, what (if any) part of his body was visibly affected

133 2nd para - From his late twenties until his seventies Zebina rarely left home, and t herefore needed that sort of support in which one member of family puts her life at the service of another. Zebina's sister Harriet did this. He didn't marry and neither did his sister.

The second member afflicted

Then another member of the family turned out to be afflicted: young r Edward (Ned) Dickinson, born to Austin and Sue in 1861. At the age of fifteen, in mid-February 1877, Ned had a fit, to his family's dismay. 'It seems he went to bed as well as usual Sunday night,' a caller was told, '- in the night was taken with a fit, followed by another on Monday morning' while the doctor was present.

135 1st para - Austin kept a record of Ned's seizures in a diary of 1880 when his son was nineteen and a student at Amherst College. The eight seizures that year happened at night, about one hour into sleep. At the sound of Ned's awakening cry, Austin would leap over the rails at the bottom of the bed he shared with Sue and rush upstairs. It was always Austin who went and he never got used to the groans from Ned's room, the foaming mouth, the spasms of mouth, neck and chest, and the strained breathing that followed convulsions `distressing to see'



(3) How her father, elder brother and younger sister protected her,  sought treatment for her and tended her

114 Sickness is always there, unnamed, shielded by cover stories. In youth, a cough is mentioned

Para3 119 From her schooldays, when Emily was not well, she stayed for long periods in Boston with her Aunt Lavinia and little cousins Loo and Fanny Norcross. Between 4 and 22 September 1851, when Emily was twenty and staying with her aunt, she consulted Dr James Jackson, a man of seventyfour,

Para 3 120 Dr Jackson … warned against experiment. Once the disease had begun, there was no stopping its course. The best practice was to avoid whatever might aggravate or prolong attacks: agitation, fright, fatigue and excitement.

Top page 121 It could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern. Here was just the person to help this young woman devise the way of life to which she adapted with such extraordinary results.

Dr Jackson's authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. Instead, he indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo (named after St John Rivers's dog in Jane Eyre) and her taste for gardening. For her sake Mr Dickinson added a conservatory in a corner between the dining room and the library, with indoor access through the library, so that she might continue to garden during the winter.

123 3rd para Epileptics are often attached to a member of family, who makes it their lifelong task to care for them. In the Dickinson Homestead, Lavinia took this on.

Top 125 - She was fortunate in her father. Traditional and formidable though he was, he supported her, we might guess from the respect and security she enjoyed in a home she always called `my father's house'.



 (4) Detailed references to the symptoms of seizures in her poems.

115 1st para - Collectively, in her poems, there's a history of a mechanism breaking down, a body dropping, in one of her clock poems, when the ticking stops. It `will not stir for Doctors'. In 'A Clock stopped' it's a clock with miniature figures that appear on the hour. The figures dangle, hunched in pain, like puppets bowing. Not the clock on the mantel, Dickinson says, pressing her point: it's the body that seizes up.

115 2nd para `Agony' is her truth in a poem about telling the truth:

`Men do not sham Convulsion,

 Nor simulate, a Throe -'.

Could her volcanoes and earthquakes, the unexploded Bomb in her Bosom and her life as Loaded Gun, repeat this truth?

116 Dickinson's poetry is replete with information about dysfunction and recovery. Here is what she has to tell: `I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'. A plank in reason broke, she says, and 'I dropped down, and down -'. She feels a `Cleaving' in her brain, as though the lid of the brain gets `off my head' and can't re-attach. Logic and its sequential language are disrupted.

 I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -

As if my Brain had split -

I tried to match it - Seam by Seam –

But could not make them fit

The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before -

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound –

Like Balls upon a Floor -

116 One poem records what seems like a Throe: its slow but relentless onset, its drumming in the head, its deceptive pause before, again, a full-on bolt `scalps' its victim.

Bottom 117-118 In the poems that recount the various stages of `Dying in the night', the horror lies in the onset and aftermath. The Throe itself is brief - `The Maddest - quickest - by -', and in its course the body sheds the flesh and becomes an immortal soul. A sign of divine favour, she would not wish to exchange this for what we call normality.

Afterwards, the brain sinks into a `Fog'. A dimness envelopes consciousness, she says, as mists obliterate a crag. In this state, the soul seems to abandon the body to a death-in-life she calls `Languor' or `the Hour of Lead'. Languor and visions, Throe and art co-exist in ways understanding of the brain can't, as yet, follow.

Fits! 

Top 133 When Emily, aged eleven, heard that her male cousin, Zebina, aged thirty-two, had bitten his tongue in the course of a fit, secrecy was not preserved – not at least within the family. The word `fit' was in the air in 1842, and an alert child picked it up

125 2nd para . Emily turns over this word-'fit'- in her mind, trying to adapt herself to the diagnosis:

It don’t  sound so terrible -quite - as it did –

 I run it over -'Dead', Brain -'Dead' .. .

How like `a fit'-.

She plays on the ambiguity of `fit' in the context of wearing an outfit. `Murder -wear!' She will `fit' herself to `Murder', another code word for `dying in the night'. In a later poem, `I fit for them', she again draws on the double entendre of fitting herself to certain conditions, as though she had chosen them. At thirty-five, helplessness becomes agency: `I fit for them - I seek the Dark Till I am thorough fit.'

Page 126 top - And yet she never got over her fear of `it' and in time her constant apprehension of `a Fitting' turns out to be 'terribler' than when it's on - when she's `wearing it'. She was forty-three when she set this down in the first person; the fair copy shields `I' with `we':     

 

While we were fearing it, it came-          

But came with less of fear          

Because that fearing it so long 

 Had almost made it fair -

There is a Fitting -a Dismay-                      

 A Fitting-a Despair

'Tis harder knowing it is Due

Than knowing it is here

 The Trying on the Utmost           

The Morning it is New  

Is terribler than wearing it         

 A whole existence through



(5) The stigma associated with epilepsy

117    Marriage for epileptics was discouraged and some American states prohibited it by law.* She saw herself `by birth a Bachelor'.

Top 119 Traditionally, epilepsy had carried a stigma. In the Middle Ages it was seen as a form of demonic possession and seizures played a part in convicting witches. In the nineteenth century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill. Females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson's poetry speaks of a `reticent' volcano: although its explosiveness would be relevant to her condition, the volcano's still,

Last para page 121 There is a bit of paper with a prescription which survives that is a crucial clue to Dr. Jackson's diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water. Glycerine has many uses, but one of the medical uses in those days was for epilepsy

Page 122 Dr Hirschhorn asks an extremely pertinent question: why did Emily persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst? This practice was sanctioned by her father, who carried the prescription to Boston on at least one occasion.

The undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with `hysteria', masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to `epileptic insanity'.*

134 para2 - . It was nineteenth-century practice to conceal shaming diseases: madness (in Jane Eyre) and syphilis (in Ibsen's Ghosts) as well as epilepsy.



 (6)Emily’s so-called “eccentric” behaviour is fully explained

117 If Epilepsy, at least in part, was the secret illness, the conditions of Dickinson's life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: in about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.

Her permanent white dress – Bottom 122 - The main regimen recommended by authorities was what they called hygiene, and central to this was cleanliness


(7)Famous epileptics in history

118 - In “Julius Caesar” it's called `the falling sickness', as Emily, a constant reader of Shakespeare, would have known:

 CASCA: He fell down in the market-place, and foam'd at the mouth, and was speechless.

BRUTUS: 'Tis very like, he hath the falling sickness.

CASCA:... And so he fell. When he came to himself, again, he said, if he had done or said any thing amiss, he desir'd their worships to think it was his infirmity.


Sufferers like Dostoyevsky can be visionary, as well as plumbing hellish depths.


 (8)These frightening experiences sharpened her vision.  Emily Dickinson regarded the epileptic throe as a privilege

116 To faint, she says, is to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves. A jolt projects her from an abyss into an uncharted region of the mind, a purified alertness

Top 118 see above: ….in its course the body sheds the flesh and becomes an immortal soul. A sign of divine favour, she would not wish to exchange this for what we call normality.

114 DNA can be a form of tragedy. Yet during these blazing years of the early 1860s, Emily Dickinson transformed sickness into a story of promise:

 

My loss, by sickness - Was it Loss?

Or that Etherial Gain

One earns by measuring the Grave –

Then - measuring the Sun -

 Convalescing after another bout of sickness early in 1865, she mulls it over ('As One does Sickness over'), still open to Gain: the 'Chances' of an emergent 'Identity' (as poet and visionary) which health ('blessed health') would have obscured.

Bottom 123 – (Partly quoted above) - Whatever Emily may have endured in loss of control before, during and after a Throe, some part of her brain remained, as she said, alert. Sufferers like Dostoyevsky can be visionary, as well as plumbing hellish depths. The range of experience opened to the gifted can't he tabulated.* Dickinson's oxymorons defy definition: calm bomb; quiet earthquake; reticent volcano. Still, if she did suffer from epilepsy it would explain her claim that Existence struck through the daily ticking of her life. `Struck, was I, nor yet by Lightning-/ ... Maimed-was I

We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the `Torrid Noons' of her early thirties had `lain their Missiles by-', though the Thunder that once brought 'the bolt' did rumble still.

135-136 - What's clear, on the evidence of Dickinson's writing and the sheer volume of her output, is that she coped inventively with gunshots from the brain into her body. In 'My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -', the `power to kill' makes the gun a `deadly foe', but since this gun outlives its

Master it's no ordinary gun. Can it be the poet's art?

 

By late 1863, when this poem was probably written, the poetic force is sure of itself, exultant when it dares to expose its 'Vesuvian face'. To write this kind of poetry is a form of action, an act of pleasure `every time I speak for Him' - `Him' (the owner or Master) being the mortal self.

 

 

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

 

 

So it was that art and life converge at this point, when poetic immortality is certain. Poetry is not only celebrated for its explosiveness; it's also the protective gun that guards the `head' by night (art's ability to protect against outbreaks of sickness), and this guardianship is preferable to the shared pillow of matrimony.

 

In this way, `My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -'turns an explosive sickness, its recurrent dramas of `Revolver' and `Gun', into well-aimed art.  


The secret is on her lips or,  in some of her poems, it is kept like a bomb in her breast- a timebomb ticking softly , yet `calm'.


Art is made at the interface of abandon and decorum: the abandon of mind and feeling, held under the control of form. This form is tight,  like Dickinson's four-line stanza, like the beat of hymns thrumming in the veins of her forebears. Emily Dickinson was contained further within her own domestic order, propped up by her protective father and sister and thus saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use.

 
 
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