In Emily Dickinson’s powerful tribute to the fine arts, “I Would not Paint a Picture —”, she avows that she would rather look at paintings than paint, would rather listen to music than play an instrument and would rather hear poetry than write it. These are my sentiments, exactly! I would rather be the audience than the artist myself.
The artist is an active, tactile participant in the creation and those of us who “observe” these works envy the “bright impossibility” that the artists experience:“To dwell —delicious —on—/ And wonder how the fingers feel/ Whose rare—celestial—stir—/ Evokes so sweet a Torment—”. In this poem, Dickinson yields to her imagination as an “endued Balloon…raised softly to the Ceilings—”. She is describing the euphoria that one can feel when stumbling upon a painting, a song, a poem, etc. that touches the soul. For me, as is evidenced by my blog posts @ www.frenchquest.com , these creations would derive from paintings by Vermeer, Van Gogh, Caillebotte, Cassatt and Renoir; poetry by Hugo, Whitman, Longfellow, and Dickinson; and novels by Balzac, Hugo. Consequently, while history and non-fiction do not fit into the “fine arts” category, I am equally “Enamored—impotent—content” to read these “delicious” chronicles of fact as well.
In addition, I have found that reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry requires a different discipline from reading other nineteenth century poets. First, the reader needs two or three surveys to understand her meaning. Her writing achieves power and brevity through paradox. It is very hard to identify this in a first reading. While Dickinson’s speech is frequently directed at the reader, it is also implied. Her imagery and missing words and punctuation also require much attention and therefore cannot be hurried over.
Secondly, it is very helpful to “hear” her poetry to appreciate the beauty in each verse, as well, and not be rushed in the recitation. There is such a lyrical quality to her poetry; it can be like listening to a symphony or perhaps YoYo Ma play the cello (“Gabriel’s Oboe” is my favorite).
Finally, it is important to note Dickinson’s unique writing style in her verses. It is helpful at times to distinguish her verses as couplets, or even/odd verses, and to pause at the em dashes to identify significant emphasis. Her rhyme schemes vary and, as in this poem, she utilizes the “eye rhymes” such as in the 1st and 2nd stanzas. Dickinson also emphasizes capitalization and de-emphasizes punctuation, except for her common em dashes, to help her versus flow freely.
In the final stanza of “I Would not Paint a Picture—”, Dickinson shows her humility in, “Had I the Art to stun myself” as a poet. Sometimes another person’s work will always surprise us more than our own.
“I would not paint — a picture —”
I would not paint — a picture —
I’d rather be the One
It’s bright impossibility
To dwell — delicious — on —
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare — celestial — stir —
Evokes so sweet a torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —
I would not talk, like Cornets —
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings —
And out, and easy on —
Through Villages of Ether —
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal —
The pier to my Pontoon —
Nor would I be a Poet —
It’s finer — Own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts — of Melody!
by Emily Dickinson
Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)