Monday’s Poem 4/20/09

Emily Dickinson – “Split the Lark”

Split the Lark–and you’ll find the Music–
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled–
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood–you shall find it patent–
Gush after Gush, reserved for you–
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

This poem has a rather sinister tone to it, doesn’t it? But then again, this Emily Dickinson here.

Despite whatever symbolism is present in the first stanza, I can’t help but see a rather gory image of a bird cleaved in half, its bulb-shaped organs gleaming with a silvery sheen.

There’s also something challenging about the tone. The basic idea I’m getting here is that the speaker is addressing someone whose mistrust or doubt has resulted in the destruction of the thing he had faith in/loved/found beautiful.

I don’t see the poem as a warning against unbelief in God, as some have suggested. The poem is too visceral to be talking about that; I can’t see skepticism of God as a splitting of a lark. Rather, the allusion to “doubting Thomas” works more because of the physicality of that story, of Thomas putting his fingers in Christ’s wounds.

I’m stuck wondering about the “when Lutes be old” line. What does she mean by this? As far as I can interpret, she’s saying that when the artificially made music (or perhaps that which is orderly and rational) fails to impress any longer, the pure “physical” music of violence will replace it.

Despite the grisly imagery, I suppose one can have a more upbeat interpretation: the speaker is talking of discovery, of the startling journey from doubting the power of art to encountering the “gush after gush” of aesthetic blood.


3 Responses to Monday’s Poem 4/20/09

  1. Angele says:

    Yes, this is the “sinister” and “gory” Dickinson, whose “Hope is the thing with feathers” lies brutally dissected on the cold, “silvery” table of reason.

    As science began to supplant religion in the 19th century, a number of writers started criticizing the hubris of scientists (such as Mary Shelley in Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the short stories “Rappacini’s Daughter” and “Ethan Brand”). I think that in this poem, Dickinson is focusing on science her famous scepticism toward religion, not making a case for belief versus unbelief. The sin that the speaker decries is a sin against the wholeness and beauty of nature–a living, singing being–not against a remote God.

    “Bulb after bulb/In Silver rolled/…Saved for your ear when lutes be old…” The first player piano was invented in 1863, when Dickinson was at the height of her poetic powers. I wonder if she was thinking of this mechanical device when she composed these lines–not in admiration, but in criticism of an unsatisfactory imitation (like the fairytale about the mechanical nightingale that supplants the Chinese emperor’s live nightingale–until the bejeweled impostor breaks down).

    “Loose the Flood–you shall find it patent–
    Gush after Gush, reserved for you–”

    “Patent” as in the archaic sense of “exposed” (with a sly reference to the patents granted for inventions by the U.S. Patent Office)? And is there bitterness in referring to the “Gush after Gush” of blood spilled in this process as “reserved for you”?

    This leads me to another interpretation of this poem: the poet/speaker is the lark, the singer–and the dissector, the “Sceptic Thomas,” is an insensitive mentor/friend/lover who, in probing the poet’s psyche and attempting to dissect the source of her creativity (“Split the Lark–and you’ll find the Music”), destroys her. “Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?”

    • staringatangels says:

      Interesting ideas. But I fail to see how she would be talking about science – it’s hard for me to think of science being in search of music. And the last line wouldn’t work, either; why would science try to find out if a bird is true or untrue? Science is about observation, not value judgment. Nor does most of the other imagery make sense to me. How would you interpret the “when lutes are old” line under this, for example? If this is supposed to be a criticism of science, it’s not a very effective one.

  2. Angele Ellis says:

    A number of scholars have noted Dickinson’s interest in science from her early school days, the frequent use of scientific terms in her poems, and the fact that she lived in an age of great scientific experiment–including the dissection and collection of birds and other animals.

    For a brief online bibliography of criticism on the connections between Emily Dickinson’s work and science, see below.

    Back to the poem and its possible interpretations. The image of the dissected lark is both literal and metaphorical. How many “[s]carlet [e]xperiment[s]” have been conducted on birds (to determine their mechanism of flight, to give one example), and in recent years, their descent from dinosaurs?

    Is it difficult to imagine the poet seeing the silenced source of “music” in the exposed “[s]ilver” lungs or heart of a “[s]plit…lark”? Or for her to compare the dissected bird’s organs to flowerlike “[b]ulb[s]” of generation, or to rolls of mechanical sheet music–as your humble correspondent, among others, has suggested?

    So much of Dickinson’s work is about the limits of perception–particularly of elusive experiences, such as death and the afterlife. Why not apply that critical perspective to the limitations of science? What is more elusive than this image of a dead songbird, its secrets bloodily revealed–“Gush after Gush”–but the source of its fascination, its music, its soul as it were–irretrievably broken and lost?

    How would I interpret the line “Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old”? As a taunt–the music of the dissected lark has been destroyed, not “[s]aved”–and as a lament for music itself. The lute, as you know, is a venerable stringed instrument (its name comes from the Arabic word al-ud, “wood”); lutes appear in religious writings and medieval ballads, and the sound of the lute is close to birdsong. So, the “experiment[er]” is being accused not only of obliterating a natural source of music, but of turning away from art–“when Lutes be old” (“old” in the sense of neglected, unfashionable, old-hat, of no interest to the “you” of the poem).

    As I said in my earlier post, I think that the speaker identifies intensely with the lark in this poem, and that the poem’s final lines are a cry of pain and outrage to the mentor/friend/lover whom she feels has violated her soul, her source of creativity, her art.

    But in linking these lines to a scientific interpretation of the poem, think of the variety of meanings of the word “true” (which, interestingly, traces its origins to the Sanskrit daru, wood). True can mean loyal, honest, ideal, legitimate, accurate, or strict. “True north” is a scientific term for direction determined by the earth’s axis, not the magnetic poles.

    How does the meaning of the poem change if one interprets “Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?” as “Now, do you doubt that your Bird was legitimate?” i.e., exactly what it appeared to be before you dissected it?

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