Friday, June 13, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

A Dying Tiger

By Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A Dying Tiger—moaned for Drink—
I hunted all the Sand—
I caught the Dripping of a Rock
And bore it in my Hand—

His Mighty Balls—in death were thick—
But searching—I could see
A Vision on the Retina
Of Water—and of me—

'Twas not my blame—who sped too slow—
'Twas not his blame—who died
While I was reaching him—
But 'twas—the fact that He was dead— 

As Dickinson is very well-known and often quoted, I've chosen a poem and a picture which are not as widely disseminated as some others. (Although Wikipedia tells us that the best-known portrait of her is the only authenticated one, this is so like that I'll take a chance on it.)

She has become legendary as a reclusive spinster who was in poor health, did not live into old age, and was acclaimed as a poet only after her death.  There is truth in these details, but perhaps less truth in the supposition that she must have been frail and timid. An article in The Guardian in February 2010 suggests that she was a more lively character than that (and that her mysterious illness was possibly epilepsy).

Certainly the poems are strong and lively. You can read them at PoemHunter. Also her Complete Poems and various other volumes of her poems and letters are available from Amazon, and from Amazon U.K.

Her first editors cleaned up her idiosyncratic punctuation, changing her dashes to more conventional commas and such. The "corrected" versions are sometimes still published today. Luckily her original punctuation was later restored, and critics agree that the poems are better that way.

Try reading this poem aloud as it is written, with the dashes signifying longish pauses. You'll see that they also provide emphasis. Also note that they don't just automatically separate every phrase from its neighbours; obviously they are precisely placed. If you read it this way, the poem works. It springs to life.

Perhaps the tiger is a metaphor. If so, I don't think we're meant to know the underlying meaning. For me the poem is powerful even if I suspend disbelief and take the story literally.

Dickinson, along with Walt Whitman, is credited with giving American poetry a new voice — its own voice. What do you think?


  1. i think it a very moving poem...if literal, wow...even if not...the tension of death and not reaching...thinking perhaps we could have done something...but absolving ourselves and them of blame...its an intriguing poem...

  2. Yes. The two, whether intentionally or not, strayed from Euro formalities that even the transcendentalists honored. And they persisted. And read how they make you climb inside your soul. Tiger references Blake. Given the time and place I read from, I say this is God's creation. Let us arrive in time, or there will be no time for vindication. Our own existence is terribly tied to that of the Tiger. She uses so few words, and so many breaths to rise into Awe. A giant step from her innocent cynicism leads to Mary Oliver's gentle healing love. Just saying.

    Thank you, Rosemary fort the Living Dead. What is eternal can not die.

    1. Thank you, Susan, for giving me a new understanding. Emily was deeply Christian, so your interpretation may well be close to the poet's intent.

  3. This is an excellent poem, Rosemary. I had never seen this one before, and it is a powerful and moving choice. It was not until the past year or so that I became aware that Emily's poems were edited / changed by editors before they were published. I am glad that the originals are now available & hope that in textbooks of the future her originals will be used instead of the 'cleaned up' versions I learned. A fellow poet of mine gave me the new book "The Gorgeous Nothings," which features poems of Dickinson's as she wrote them on scraps of envelopes. Fascinating, as it is true to the way Dickinson wrote them; and is a treasure of a book. Dickinson has always been a favorite poet of mine. I think you might be right that we are not supposed to know the underlying meaning of the poem you shared. We can each find our own meaning in it, I think. Either literally or figuratively. Either way, the poem is intriguing.

  4. Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing yet another great (and unknown to me) poem. I agree that in Dickinson's case, the reader will find a meaning which makes sense to her/him since the poet's intentions will probably remain a mystery to us.

  5. Emily is always a wonderful choice, and I had not come across this poem either. I love her dashes and am so glad they were restored..............thanks, Rosemary, for The Living Dead feature, which reminds us that some of the world's most glorious poetry has already been written!

  6. Again, an excellent "find," Rosemary. I dare say Emily found her own voice, and she opened the door for others to find theirs, although no other American poet has been another "Emily." She is absolutely unique.

  7. In this crude day and age, one can't help wondering about the balls in the poem of such a refined poetess. But apart from this I am surprised how modern she comes across. I have never read any of her work, and as usual, you are leading me into fresh pathwaysof literature.

    1. Perhaps she was not so much the "refined poetess" as we have been led to believe.

  8. I think the balls refer to eyeballs, as she goes on to describe retina, and the thickness, I think, has to do with the dulled vision of the dead. I'm not sure that balls even had a meaning of testicles when she was writing. But this is just my sense. She is a wonderful poet. K.

  9. Thankful for such interesting info about famous poet!

  10. Thank you for this feature on the great Emily Dickinson. I used to read her stuff back in high school where I learned that she was reclusive...just as I am at the present time. It's nice to have her honored on here because Emily's talent was celebrated after her death. Very sad but her posthumous fame makes her admirable and eternal.

  11. I read this poem for the frst time... and yu were ryt.. wen yu read with the dashes and pause it comes to life... I could almost imagine the vivid green eyes with reflection ... its just soooo beautiful... its unbelievable almost!!!


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