Friday, 21 September 2012

The woman in white

Picture a young woman living in her childhood home, with memories, comforts, sorrows all about her. At the back is a garden that grows and changes through the year, blazing and subsiding, following and moulding her moods.

As she grows older, it’s the sorrows that grow with her. Death haunts her. She chooses men as mentors rather than lovers, but they die around her, some of them lamentably young: one who had been sending her the books that fuelled a blossoming imagination, at only 25. ‘Some of my friends are sleeping,’ she sighs, ‘sleeping the churchyard sleep.’

She is hemmed in, at first metaphorically but soon literally. And voluntarily. She stops leaving town, even for short journeys. Next it is her house. Increasingly, it is her room, except to return to the garden. She starts to dress only in white: ‘a solemn thing – it was – I said – a Woman – White – to be.’ She would rather conduct conversations with visitors from behind a door than face to face.

And yet, she’s a social being. But at a distance. She prefers to correspond with her friends, her tutors, her companions in thought. And correspond she does, prolifically, hundreds of letters. With one in later life she exchanges letters every Sunday, since they both prefer communicating with each other to communing with their co-religionists. ‘Tuesday,’ she says, of the day after she receives his letters, ‘is a deeply depressed day.’

For words are her consolation. Words that well out of her, words that capture essence, words that express what escapes most of us.

Yet generally we need a subject before we can produce words. In her room, what could she find to talk about? Certainly, hers was a life not marked by dramatic event. Except of course for death, and mortality, immortality and eternity are recurring themes.

But spellbinding words don’t have to have grand themes. From her window, in her garden there was more than enough to paint: the slow effects of time, the changing of the light and the colours, the succession of the seasons. And with her words she painted them all.

The summer came late in England this year. Not fashionably late, to ensure that we were all ready and waiting before it arrived. Practically at the end of the party, with some of the guests already drifting away to more congenial settngs, it showed up like someone who has been out to dinner with more favoured friends before making a token appearance among us.

That hasn’t stopped it dazzling us with its charms. The summer’s far too vain to turn up looking less than its most impressive, if it turns up at all. Here in the South of England we’ve had the pleasure of warmth, without the oppression of heat; sudden blazing sunrises; floods of horizontal light in the afternoon; majestic sunsets flowing into balmy evenings. 

But summer's late arrival has not been free of consequences. Glorious they may be, but those sunsets come much too soon. I need a bike light these days for the ride home from the station. And when I take my dog Janka for her morning walk, as often as not I have to wait for the sun to show itself.

The sun keeps Janka and me waiting in People's Park
So it was with a shiver of recognition that I listened, out on a walk, to these words of the woman in white:

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

There is a strange poignancy in hearing a poem that expresses the very feelings you're experiencing.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

Summer was a gentle guest here too, so welcome when it turned up at last. But now it
’s leaving us just as it left her. A melancholy moment, and yet less so because I know I’m sharing a sentiment so delicately expressed by that wordsmith in white, a century and a half ago, sitting in her room or in her garden in Amherst, Massachussets.

For that consolation 
  thank you, Emily Dickinson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely blend of great poetry, in this case Emily Dickinson's fall sentiment, with your superior story telling and linguistic skills. I enjoy your writing style, David. Thank you for sharing this, and for being an interesting and challenging person to correspond with on Twitter!