Words of Dickinson

I found the words to every thought
I ever had — but One —
And that — defies me —
As a Hand did try to chalk the Sun

To Races — nurtured in the Dark —
How would your own — begin?
Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal —
Or Noon — in Mazarin?

While there is a lot going on in this very short poem that requires a line-by-line analysis to understand it, I can’t say I have succeeded in completely getting it; still, I will offer my best pass at it.
It seems to me this poem is about the art of writing poetry. It is an ars poetica piece. But there is corruption in this poem as well, corruption by editors trying to make sense of it. Some editors attempt to create this poem:

I found the phrase to every thought
I ever had, but one;
And that defies me,–as a hand
Did try to chalk the sun

To races nurtured in the dark;–
How would your own begin?
Can blaze be done in cochineal,
Or noon in mazarin?

Dickinson used hyphens as a standard for punctuation, and regularly capitalized nouns. These preferences have divided editors between those who see the value in the original and those who feel the poems are great but can use an editor’s hand in the final for better understanding.
Unfortunately, the latter group has failed in this particular piece completely.

Let’s start with the first line – “words” alliterates with “one” in the second line, but editors have chosen to use “phrase” because several words = phrase and “phrase” alliterates more closely with “found”; however, “words” does not necessarily equal a group of words that make up one phrase. It could be several words independent of each other. Furthermore, there is the negative singular — “but one” — one word or one phrase? Singular “word” is first of all capitalized. This could be the result of capitalizing nouns, and so changing it to lower-case makes sense. After all, what “word” is capitalized? I’ll tell you: “In the beginning was the Word…” Is what she didn’t find God? So now we have a dilemma: is this “word” supposed to be capitalized or not? Is God defying her, or her art?
The hand that chalks keeps the meaning ambiguous. “To chalk” is “to sketch”. This hand could be God’s hand as S/He creates the universe in seven days, but it could also be the artist’s hand, trying to sketch the sun. And if it is the artist, is the artist sketching the sun on paper? Maybe; I don’t think so. Perhaps it is the artist’s hand trying to color in a star billions of miles away using nothing but chalk and an appendage only a couple feet long. It won’t work. The attempt is defied by the impossibility. Chalking here may mean trying to physically shade in the brightness of light coming from the closest star.

And why would she try to do this? The first line of the second stanza provides the answer: “races” could be “games where people run”, but I think it is a race of humankind. What race is nurtured in the dark — artists are. Writers and visual artists stereotypically work at night, an stereotypes exist because there is an element of truth to them.

But back to the first stanza for a moment. Traditional ballads worked in iambic feet: four feet in the first and third line and three in the second and fourth line of each stanza. Dickinson knew this — she was a master of the ballad — and yet she chose to ignore this rule. This stanza goes four-three-three-four not four-three-four-three. Why? Because she wanted to put the “defies” in a line all on its own for extra emphasis, and she didn’t want to break up the next thought, so she put the hand on the same line as the chalk for a fluid complete idea on one line. Yet editors in keeping with the traditional have changed this, and I think it a poor choice.

Back to the second stanza. She is asking for some answers from fellow poets and artist to help her in her own art. How do you begin…what? To be successful? Probably not. How do you begin when all you have is a blank page? Maybe. But she is also asking visual artists too. Blaze equals fire. What color is fire? Yellow and red. Cochineal is a red dye originally made from crushing female Cochineal insects — which are bright red in color. Now she is asking rhetorical questions. It is the last question which baffles me most. Mazarin is nowhere to be found in any dictionary I have seen. Nothing on the Internet either. Is the “M” supposed to be capitalized or more of Dickinson’s eccentricity? As it turns out, the only Mazarin I can find is a famous French Cardinal who lived in Rome and acted as an ambassador. Jules Mazarin was a politician and died pretty wealthy. Noon not only means midday but “highest point”, or “zenith”. Noon was also the hour of midday prayers (originally three o’clock and only became twelve o’clock later). So noon could be a play on the zenith of the day, and the zenith of Mazarin’s long career; she may be inserting another religious reference here.

So is this a poem about religion or a poem about poetry? Both. For Dickinson, her poetry was her religion.

Postscript

I have since learned that Mazarin may be a kind of indigo. A Mazarine Blue (with an “e”), is a butterfly of an indigo color. And instructions for making Indigo from about 100 years before Dickinson, the directions state: “beat briskly until liquor is of a Mazarin color”.

This revelation works well with the “artist” and the “cochineal” imagery, and makes more sense within the context of the stanza. Admittedly, it weakens the religious aspect of the poem, however slightly. The way I see it, the second stanza is made a bit stronger, and the religious context is still alive in the first stanza. Looking at Mazarin as a color simply means the poet didn’t close the poem with the same imagery she began it with. Two distinct sets of imageries broken up by a clean stanza break.

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