In which we dare to discuss a small yet very complicated poem

The Emily Dickinson Project, Day 2: Pam and I discuss a poem via messenger. Here is the full text in all its thorny glory:

When I hoped I feared,

Since I hoped I dared;

Everywhere alone

As a church remain.

Spectre cannot harm,

Serpent cannot charm;

He deposes doom,

Who hath suffered him. ~Emily Dickinson

And here is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity. Our credentials: one of us has an MFA in poetry and one of us once played Emily Dickinson in a play and still gets kind of emotional about it.
P: Dickinson XL, yes?
B: Yes! Dickinson XL sounds funny. 😀
P: Doesn’t it? It sounds very millennial.
B: It sounds like athletic wear.
P: I have no idea about the ending of this one. I understand it for four lines, and then it takes a train elsewhere. But I love that opening line. That “when.”
B: Dangit. When I picked that one as an option, I was hoping you were going to go all MFA on it and explain it to me.
P: Because there’s no if there–it’s not a question of whether the speaker hopes, it’s a fact. Fear, too, is a fact. It’s like following the thread in the labyrinth and getting lost for those last four lines. What does the speaker dare to do? Why is the speaker alone? Because of what’s been done? (And why alone as a church? Wow, do I love that.) So: hoping, fearing, daring, doing, alone. And THEN.
B: I like that opening, too. The fact of fear going hand in hand with daring to hope or do anything. And “everywhere alone as a church remain.” That really is fantastic–it’s that idea that you can carry your solitude, your loneliness, with you, everywhere, and be alone even in the midst of a crowd. And there is nowhere lonelier than an empty church–no place that feels more desolately void.
P: Yes–you can be lonely even in places where nobody should be lonely. Because God should be there, yes? “Spectre cannot harm, serpent cannot charm”: speaker remembering that the previous fear is toothless? But the spectre speaks of a ghost (whom?) and the snake of temptation (whose?). And the last two lines: you can depose doom if you can suffer…doom?
B: I like what you said about toothlessness and temptation–that makes a lot of sense, and helps me understand that bit better. I love those two lines–“Spectre cannot harm/ Serpent cannot charm”–so incantatory. It’s like she’s chanting the words to some ancient ward. And if a church is lonely, what’s happened to her faith? It reminds me of the poem about keeping the sabbath by staying at home and going out into nature vs. being in a church.
P: I hadn’t thought of them that way, but I do see that now and I love that reading. Exactly! What is the speaker hoping for which could inspire fear?
B: I guess anything we really, really want can also be a source of fear–like how the idea of failing at being writers is terrifying to us, but the idea of really making it is also pretty freaking horrifying sometimes.
P: I like this poem because it requires me to put myself into it in order to find these motivations. I guess that doesn’t make it unique, and I can’t put my finger on it, but the poem seems to invite the reader in that way.
B: It does! That is well said. Is she leaving it vague for just that reason–so that we’ll have to put ourselves into it? Does she even imagine that lifetimes later anyone is even going to be reading this?? Or is this just E. D. shorthand??? “Note to self: feeling Big Feelings about Things.”
P: I wish we knew these answers. I wish I knew how personal this poem was to her, or if it was ever intended for public consumption.
B: Yeah–I guess we know that some of it definitely was intended for readers, since she did send poems to people/attempt to get things published. But how much of it did she mean for anyone to read? Literary mysteries like this delight and confound me.
P: One assumes that it would be easier to be open, to speak plainly, in what would possibly have been a private poem. But she wasn’t. So whom is she hiding the meaning from? God? Herself? Something that can’t be admitted in a poem?
B: I could see E. D. thinking it was somehow possible to hide something from God. 😀 Even maybe from herself….
P: Isn’t it wonderful how we attempt to conceal things from the all-knowing, for the benefit of unknowing readers?
B: Aaaa!!! It’s hard to know anything about this woman!! I mean, she IS pretty wonderful. But infuriating, too–or maybe it’s the lack of deep context that gets to me.
P: The end rhyme is interesting, too. Feared/dared, slant. Alone/remain, even slantier. Harm/charm, perfect. Doom/him, slant.
B: “Tell all the truth/ But tell it slant.”
P: The end sounds match within the couplets, but the rhymes aren’t exactly nursery-rhyme perfect.
B: The charm rhymes, because charms are rhyme-y. They’re nursery-rhyme-y, but her poetry isn’t. I think that’s what really makes it feel like a spell at that point to me.
P: Yes! That perfect line within those images of the spectre and serpent. So if I’m throwing my 21st century interpretation in, I’m saying: this reads like turmoil.
B: Ahh. Yes. I feel like E. D. was a little ball of turmoil.
P: Aren’t we all? Seriously, though!
B: And the juxtaposition of “spectre” (with the suggestion of “ghost” and maybe even “Holy Ghost”) with “serpent,” which is also “Satan.” This is what’s so gorgeous about poetry. You can cram a gazillion shades of meaning into a single word. It’s like spiritual shorthand.
P: Yes! And we can have a gazillion different interpretations. I love the Holy Ghost/Serpent connotations.

My full interpretation, that I can’t really back up or fully explain: the speaker is struggling with religious faith and, possibly, temptation to sin or leave faith. Alone as a church: nothing left there for the speaker. So, having thrown that off, so too goes the idea of doom: perhaps the idea that hell is not waiting (because they don’t believe).
B: I like your reading–that makes a lot of sense. If the poem is turmoil–I keep coming back to those two incantatory lines–then the “serpent”/”spectre” bit is like her attempt to charm it, to impose some kind of control on the turmoil with that one perfect rhyme–but then that control inevitably slips and she’s back to slanty turmoil again. It’s those last two lines that throw me–or really not so much the lines as the last word. The idea of deposing doom is so resonant and powerful. I like your idea that deposing doom is throwing aside the strictures of faith–but who is the him??
P: Why is doom male? I’m assuming that’s what we’re suffering.
B: Well, I mean, why not? 😀
P: 2019 has been put on notice.
B: By this poem??
P: Yes. Doom has been male for long enough.
B: Doom is scary. Like a lot of guys?? Back to your interpretation of the poem as the turmoil of the abandonment of faith (if I’m summing that up fairly)–the hoping at the beginning. Was the hope the hope that goes along with faith? And if so, does she equate that hope with leading to fear? The notion that you should fear God? But then she dares to cast that off, chuck that religious judgment/doom and go her own way? Or is she hoping to get free of the constraints of her faith, but she’s afraid, and still she dares to cast it off? This poem is like a one-page Choose Your Own Adventure.
P: I don’t know! It could be any of them! Or none, or all! And what did she dare? This is the sticking point for me. I don’t understand the dare.
B: Yeah–did she dare to hope? Dare to abandon hope? I wonder if it even matters what she dared. If the poem is for readers beyond herself, it could refer to anything anyone dares–anything we hope for, and make a bid for despite fear. It doesn’t matter what it is–pursuing our hopes will be scary.
P: To eat a peach!?
P: 2020: the year of Prufrock.
B: How would we make Prufrock into an entire year? Word by word??
P: Line by line? I think the answer is: poorly and with great fun. 😂

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