Poems from the academy

August 26, 2005

A Precious - mouldering pleasure - 'tis - poem 371, by Emily Dickinson

A precious - mouldering pleasure - 'tis -
To meet an Antique Book -
In just the Dress his Century wore -
A privilege - I think -

His venerable Hand to take -
And warming in our own -
A passage back - or two - to make -
To Times when he - was young -

His quaint opinions - to inspect -
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind -
The Literature of Man -

What interested Scholars - most -
What Competitions ran -
When Plato - was a Certainty -
And Sophocles - a Man -

When Sappho - was a living Girl -
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante - deified -
Facts Centuries before

He traverses - familiar -
As One should come to Town -
And tell you all your Dreams - were true -
He lived - where Dreams were born -

His presence is enchantment -
You beg him not to go -
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize - just so -

Few retorts are more brutal than the late 20th-century invention "Get a life". Emily Dickinson (1830-86) knew about social brutalities and how to contain them, and about life and how to get one.

The men in her life were not bookish although they loved books. (Take her encourager Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, author of Army Life in a Black Regiment .)

It was with writing - her own and others' - that she kept best company. The writers were mostly dead, European, white and male, but Sappho is there in the poem, and not on sufferance.

"A precious - mouldering pleasure - 'tis - ": and what a positive achievement, positive pleasure, it is to have shown that "mouldering" can be an acclamation. Few things can more educatively mould us than a due pleasure in the mouldering.

The "Antique Book", at once the perfect guest and host, is not dressed to kill, but nor is he dressed to die. For to write, as Milton knew, is to "leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die".

Dickinson sees the meeting of minds as the shaking of hands and, in the end, as the shaking of heads, but not negatively. "Old Volumes shake their Vellum heads/ And tantalize - just so - ". For Volumes (its letters speak volumes) partially rearranges its clothes, tantalisingly, as vellum.

Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry at Oxford University, and professor of the humanities at Boston University, US.

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