Review of “Two Butterflies went Out at Noon” (1862/1863)

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Emily Dickinson (writer).

Read in 2022.

Dickinson visibly struggles here to articulate a conclusion as, in “A Dying Tiger — Moaned for Drink” (1862/1863). It was a brave move for such a terse poet to—again—make a strong start, follow it up with a second stanza that leaves the poem complete by conventional standards, and then keep building on it, despite having seemingly nothing further to say.

If I had not seen her do this before, and seen her shorten poems like “It Sifts From Leaden Sieves” (1862), I would have thought that she was doing this to round out a formal three-part structure, or that she had failed to see that the third stanza repeats the second. Instead I think she was trying to break through the limits of nature poetry, to step “straight through the Firmament” as her two butterflies do in an allusion to the Sumerian idea of the sky as a second ocean above us, reflected in Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE). She doesn’t really succeed, but nor does she plunge into the pool of bathos like “I Dwell in Possibility” (1862) and other mysticist poems. She stops at confirming, rather pointedly, that her own knowledge is incomplete. It is almost dysteleology, which would be compatible with a Darwinian worldview.

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