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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 October 2018

Malcolm Guite beholds Emily Dickinson’s desk

I WAS reflecting the other day on Emily Dickinson’s famous lines about effective truth-telling:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.

That first line is quoted in many different contexts, and I fear that some of those who quote it are more interested in the slant than the truth. Perhaps they forget that the first phrase in that poem is “Tell all the truth.” Like all great poets, she will have no truck with those who are “economic with the actualité”.

She is right, though, about the need to circle, to embody, and give gradual form to apprehensions too bright for sight. In the less frequently quoted second verse of that poem, she speaks of “Lightening to the children eased”, and says that truth must “dazzle gradually Or every man be blind”.

Perhaps the grace and kindness of the gradual is one of the reasons why we are in the world at all, why we experience things through the medium of time, moment by moment: we cannot cope yet with the fullness of the eternal now. Perhaps, too, that is why the Light himself became “Lightning to the Children eased”, and was born in a stable.

There is a special pleasure to be had in visiting the studies or writing-spaces of authors whom we admire, and, occasionally, such a visit brings new insight. So, when I was speaking at a conference in Amherst, I took the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s house, now beautifully preserved as the Emily Dickinson Museum. It is just as she left it: it has the same furniture, the same well-worn stairs, and the same spare and beautiful New England architecture — a combination of restraint and grace.

And so I came, at last, to stand in that “mighty room”, as she called it, the room she scarcely ever left, the room where all the poems were written; and there, plain and simple, and, strangely, paradoxically small, was her little desk: a square writing-table that would hardly hold the width of a modern laptop.

I was filled with wonder at how much great poetry had flowed from so small a space, but then I thought about Dickinson’s characteristically concentrated and terse verse forms: those compact and concentrated little quatrains with the emphatic dashes linking and yet binding-in the energy of her phrases, and it seemed to me that the smallness of the desk was, itself, part of the form of the poetry, part of her gift.

The whole experience stirred me on to this little poem about that writing desk, for which I borrowed her terse and condensed verse form:

So slight and spare a square of wood
Sustains so great a muse —
How plain and flat the door is made
To such a subtle maze.

Perhaps the limits of this desk —
— Its strict restraint of space —
Informed the poet’s take and task,
And turned restraint to grace.

Here in this narrow paradise
She pledged and kept her troth —
And trimmed her lamp and trained
her verse —
And — slant-wise — told her truth.

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