He fumbles at your Soul

by Elouise

Hurricane Harvey’s recent visit brought me back to this poem from Emily Dickinson. My comments follow.

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your Brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –

c. 1861

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

A disclaimer: I don’t think this poem from Emily is to be figured out. It resists. Emphatically.

Yet after more than a year of pondering it and the events of the last weeks, I’m ready to comment on it. Strangely, I’m sticking with my first impressions.

I’m a musician. A pianist. This poem is about music and a lot more. Not everyday music, but music that happens rarely in a lifetime.

I hear Emily describing a pianist, the power of music in the hands of a gifted performer, and the effect on the listener. This isn’t just any music, but the kind that begins innocently enough and ends with power that stuns the soul into silence. Not applause, but silence.

Some musicians were masters at this. Chopin comes to mind. I’m thinking about what’s called ‘the Raindrop Prelude.’ You can watch and hear Vladimir Horowitz perform it here. It doesn’t follow the flow of Emily’s poem precisely, but the opening raindrop notes, repeated throughout, set the stage for what’s coming. In the finale, Chopin doesn’t end with a flourish, but with a gradual distancing of the storm, raindrops still falling and fading into the distance.

I hear Emily describing the music of Nature. The kind that begins with the far-away sound of approaching thunder, and the first erratic fall of rain. Hammers, set in motion by fingers hitting piano keys, strike strings hidden from view. We hear the storm approaching. Sometimes waning, yet always moving our way.

The music draws us in, adding voices and turns of phrase, shifting and turning from here to there, sometimes lulling the listener into a reverie. Then, without warning, like the closing bars of Beethoven’s Pathetique, comes that unanticipated bolt of thunderous lightning followed by utter silence. You can watch and hear Daniel Barenboim’s performance here.

After that, nothing else matters. The music/storm has undone you. Totally. Silence is the only appropriate response. All the standup applause and shouts for more mean nothing. The finale already said everything.

Emily believed in God, and seems to have had a healthy on-again, off-again relationship with God. She also believed in the power of nature to reveal truth about us and about God. I wonder what Emily would make of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.

I can’t help noticing that the Winds in Emily’s poem take Forests in their Paws, not in their teeth or claws. Perhaps there’s an invitation to see more than cruel destruction here, or a vengeful God who is somehow punishing us.

Maybe God wants our attention, and is offering us another chance to attend to each other. Strangers as well as friends and family. Costly? Yes. No matter how you look at it. Pain free? Never.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 September 2017
Photo found at Shutterstock

Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Anticipate