American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Dickinson, Longfellow, and Arab Nationalism

leave a comment »

(part one of an essay; part two here; part three is here)

Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan

Khedive Tewfiq, 1883

There are holes in time, call them events, around which a poet’s words leave the most intriguing traces. Not powder burns or blood spatter, but smudges, odors, rubble; signs that somebody lingered where others pass quickly. Events, of course, take many shapes, and some indeed are wounds. But the holes I have in mind are peepholes, or entranceways; moments of understanding set at a distance from the thing understood.  And yes, I know that this metaphor is faulty. But how else evoke the special character of moments when a castoff sentence draws our attention, leading us to see what is always there anyway: history. And the closer we look, the farther we see.

Call the above a hypothesis; I’m not sure it is really workable as a model of understanding. Holes of time rimmed with language quickly enough become holes of language rimmed by time. The reversibility is beffudling; the fact that texts can be “in,” “of,” and “about” history, all at the same time, makes nonsense of all prepositional knowledge. And knowledge of history is indeed prepositional: it establishes direction, articulates relationships, arranges an order. Where is poetry, or a poet’s language, in all this?

These speculations were provoked by a brief penciled note by Emily Dickinson, though now that I’ve written what follows I’m even more uncertain about the hypothesis. At any rate, when I began, the note seemed a perfect example of what I had in mind: an event that poked a hole in time, allowing other things to be seen; a trace of language giving shape to the hole, thereby drawing our attention. Here, the trace accommodates yet another trace: a quote from Longfellow that gave shape to the hole for Dickinson herself, leading her to linger on an episode from Egyptian history — the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, fought in 1882 between British troops and Arab nationalist forces.

What interests Dickinson in particular is the restoration of the Khedive to power, Muhammad Tewfiq Pasha, momentarily dislodged by the nationalists (“Khedive” was the title for Egypt’s governor under Ottoman rule). At the time, Egypt was caught within overlapping circles of foreign influence: still part of the Ottoman Empire, but now beholden to European financial interests as well. Debt had forced the previous Khedive, Ismail, to sell off Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal, and later to accept European control over Egypt’s economy. When further controls were resisted, Britain and France had the Ottoman Sultan replace Ismail with the latter’s son Tewfiq. A nationalist movement arose in response, led by Ahmed Arabi (a colonel in the army and Tewfiq’s Minister of War), leading the British to send their navy in order to safeguard the canal.  The issue was decided at Tel el-Kebir, where the outnumbered nationalists had dug in.

Dickinson’s note is a response to Arabi’s defeat. Signing herself “Khedive,”  she cites a line from “The Day Is Done,” one of Longfellow’s best-known poems, to suggest that the nationalists should have known better than to make a stand against the British. Dickinson’s identification with Tewfiq is complex, and witty to the point of viciousness, but her ultimate subject is probably not Egypt. The note was sent to her sister-in-law, Sue, whose name is echoed in the cause of the conflict, Suez. Here is the entire text:

Had “Arabi” only read Longfellow, he’d have never been caught —

Khedive                                                   .

“Shall fold their Tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away” —

The Longfellow passage is well-chosen, and not only for its counsel of dispersal. “The Day Is Done” is a poem about setting aside the practical worries of day, newspaper stories of foreign wars being a prime example of what Longfellow has in mind. Necessary occupations while the sun is up, these worries are liable to leave one anxious at night. The solution for this anxiety is poetry, and not God forbid something “sublime”; nothing with “martial music.” This would only exacerbate the problem, summoning up “Life’s endless toil and endeavor.” What one needs instead is a poem able to “soothe,” able to “banish the thoughts of day.”  Poems of that sort, he writes, are “simple and heartfelt,” yet their long-lasting echoes “have power to quiet / The restless pulse of care”; they “come like the benediction, ” he writes, “That follows after prayer.” For Longfellow, then, the nomad Arabs are a figure for daytime worries that keep to their proper place.

In Egypt, of course, the “power to quiet” belonged to Britain, not the Khedive, but one can well imagine Tewfiq praying for that power, and for the benediction that follows, which, in Arabi’s case, did assume the shape of banishment. Though Tewfiq sentenced Arabi to death, the British — afraid of making him a martyr — pressured for an exile in Ceylon.

Longfellow’s poem is just the sort of poem that Longfellow recommends for when the day is done, which gives a particular wickedness to Dickinson’s citation, in fact a triple wickedness. Her Khedive is gloating, taking satisfaction in Longfellow at the proper time, when the toils of day are over, while chiding Arabi for having put off his reading until then. The right time is too late! Second, however, Dickinson’s Khedive is chiding Arabi for having not been Arabic enough, a wicked rebuke given the fact that Tewfiq is the one who is aligned with Europe. And this makes her citation of Longfellow wicked for yet a third reason: learning his enemy’s culture would not have brought Arabi victory, she suggests, but it might have made him into a better Arab. How? By reminding him to pack up in the night.

This last, vicious twist of colonial wit is not imposed on Longfellow’s poem, but draws out a meaning embedded within it. Consider the full quatrain in which the quoted line appears:

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

The word “infest” is ugly, but even without it the plain meaning of the passage has unfortunate implications. One might summarize them this way: “Kindly be gone, Arabs, and don’t make any noise when you go or you’ll spoil our music.” And lest this be thought a forced reading, let me cite one curious fact about the poem’s afterlife given by Christoph Irmscher in his wonderful book Longfellow Redux. In 1917, in the Menorah Journal (where Charles Reznikoff would soon be publishing), Israel Zangwill proposed “that the Arabs of Palestine…be encouraged to ‘fold their tents,’ as is their ‘proverbial habit,’ and ‘silently’ leave their lands, traveling expenses to be footed by the Jews.”

To be fairer to Longfellow — or anyway to put this early poem into broader context — his interest in the Middle East was generally more accommodating, and more respectful. His “Sand of the Desert in an Hour-Glass” is a charming fantasia, paying tribute to all three peoples of the book; his “Haroun Al-Raschid,” named for an eighth-century Persian Caliph, is a poignant variation on the Ozymandias theme. More noteworthy still, Longfellow’s mammoth anthology, Poems of Places, devoted hundreds of pages to Arab nations, as well as to Persia, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world.

The Ottoman world, for its part, held Longfellow in high regard, or anyway it regarded him. Dickinson was not being far-fetched in imagining an Egyptian ruler who knew “The Day Is Done.” There is a corroborating anecdote on this point, recorded by Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and it is precious to imagine her knowing that story, although it was only published after her death. In his 1902 biography of Longfellow, Higginson writes:

The editor of one of the great London weeklies said to an American traveller not many years ago, “A stranger can hardly have an idea of how familiar many of our working people, especially women, are with Longfellow. Thousands can repeat some of his poems who have never read a line of Tennyson and probably never heard of Browning.” This passage I take from an admirable recent sketch by Professor Edwin A. Grosvenor of Amherst College, one of the most cosmopolitan of Americans, who spent seven years as professor of history at Robert College, Constantinople. He goes on to tell how, in the largest private library in the Ottoman Empire, the grand vizier showed him as his favorite book a large volume of Longfellow, full of manuscript comments in Turkish on the margin, adding that he knew some of the poems by heart.

I had a fleeting thought that Dickinson, as a resident of Amherst, might have learned this anecdote more directly from the source, but Grosvenor joined the faculty too late. I then had a fleeting thought that the opposite might be true: that the anecdote might be a fiction and owe something, somehow, to Dickinson. Her note, after all, was sent to Sue, and Sue was alive until 1913. Who knows what conversation might have passed between her and Grosvenor after Dickinson’s death, that is, between the college treasurer’s wife and the new professor. A charming idea to me, though an unlikely one for sure.

Charming also to think of Dickinson as reading the newspaper with an eye toward conversational jokes. Imagining this imparts a sharp sense of what her “Table Talk” must have been. Had she only been willing to write it down (or only been blessed with an admirer willing to write it down for her)! It is the relative rarity of such topical jokes, however, that makes them aggregate, or seem to aggregate, around holes in time. Reading them, we become like the boy in Dickinson’s snake poem, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” who reaches for one thing and discovers another. The Khedive note is our “Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun”; once we stoop to grasp it, we experience something else emerging in consciousness: a fanged meaning, one that can easily wrinkle and be gone.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 19, 2009 at 5:33 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: