To many individuals, old books can seem imposing, unapproachable curmudgeon
s. The old masters' manners of writing can seem obtuse
, even alien to the modern reader. Subject matters dwell on topics to which one might find oneself entirely unable to relate, imposing still further challenges to comprehension
. Emily Dickinson
attempts to assuage these misgivings and express through her speaker the subtle joy of settling down with an old book, perhaps in a library or a den. In a conversational, free-flowing style, Emily Dickinson sets a mood of reserved excitement and veneration
of the elderly tomes whose messages from "where Dreams were born-" (24) she is so eager to hear. Poem #371 evokes Emily Dickinson's poetic theme of the timeless, edifying nature of literature by utilizing language
, temporal structure
, and rhythm
Through respectful and pleasurable language, the speaker expresses her delight in learning from an old book personified. She demonstrates her esteem of the old book she is reading by polite pronouncements, for example, "A privilege- I think" (4) to make acquaintance with the book, or her assertion that, "His presence is Enchantment" (25). By making her regard for the book plain, she helps to establish it as a worthy tutor. Not only is the book's presence honored by the speaker, however, it is also enjoyed. She makes this clear in the very first line of the poem when she declares, "A precious- mouldering pleasure 'tis" (1). The contradiction between "mouldering" and "pleasure" in her praise serves to reinforce that the book's age is no detriment to her ability to learn from and enjoy its company; in fact, it's an asset. Another example of pleasurable language is found when she ends the poem saying that old books, "tantalize- just so-" (28). She clearly is enamoured with them, making the books more than just stodgy old pedagogues, but pleasant companions whose guidance is readily sought. A final element of the language that cinches the speaker's expression of the delightful edifying nature of books is her use of personification. She frames her book as an elderly traveler by using such descriptions as, "the Dress his Century wore-" (3) and "Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads-" (27). Emily Dickinson humanizes the books through personification, giving them elements such as heads, hands, and clothes as well as addressing them in third-person as if they were men by repeated use of the pronoun "he" instead of "it." One can more easily identify the books as teachers when they are given human characteristics, a technique that along with polite language and expressions of delight helps Emily Dickinson argue convincingly for the edifying nature of old books.
Temporal structure in poem #371 allows Emily Dickinson to express the timeless revelations her speaker can gain from reflection on the distant, narrative past. The first three stanzas of the poem express their action through infinitive verbs like "to meet," (2) "to take," (5) and "to ascertain" (10). Her use of verbs in a non-temporal tense gives the first three stanzas a timeless quality. The actions her speaker takes; picking up a book and settling down to learn from it, can be done at any time; they are not firmly rooted to the past, present, or future. Midway through the poem, focus shifts from the timeless to the distant past, the realm of the book's distant narrative memory. She refers to old legends of literature, and mentions luminaries such as Plato from the 10th century BCE, Sappho from the 7th century BCE, and Dante from the 14th century CE instead of more recent authors to stress the great age and experience of the books from which she seeks wisdom. To close the poem, the last two stanzas are spoken in the present tense, "He traverses- familiar" (21) and "You beg him not to go" (26). Again Emily Dickinson expresses an aura of timelessness, but in a different manner, narrating habitual actions. It is a final manipulation of temporal structure that expresses the timelessness of consulting old, experienced teachers in the forms of books as well as revelations from the distant past.
By writing in a conversational, steady pace which flows smoothly from beginning to end, poem #371 allows the reader to be easily drawn in. The rhythm of the language evokes neither old fashioned usage nor pretentiousness, helping to emphasize the timelessness of the poem. In lines such as "His quaint opinions- to inspect-/His thought to ascertain" (9-10), Emily Dickinson uses a rhythmic stress pattern alternating between heavy and light syllables. She takes care to ensure stress falls on 'content' words like "quaint," "thought," and "ascertain." This usage reflects standard spoken English, which uses a sentence-stress system unique in Germanic languages to differentiate low-content grammatic words like definite articles and prepositions from high-content nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Through the mirroring of colloquial spoken English's stress pattern, Emily Dickinson allows poem #371 a conversational rhythm. Keeping her writing grounded in everyday speech patterns prevents feelings of pretentiousness or old-fashioned usage to seep into the poem. In this way the reader can more easily identify with her sentiments, displaying a timelessness of writing that extends from her time to today and preventing a negative reaction to her assertion about the joy of old books.
Rhythm, personification, temporal structure, and language all contribute to evoking Emily Dickinson's poetic theme of the timeless, edifying nature of literature in poem #371. Her mood of tranquil revelry in the revelations of the past are smoothly conveyed to the reader in an easy conversational pace. She takes authors seemingly remote such as Dante, Sappho, and Plato into the familiar as she expresses a journey into the dream-like past with her "venerable" (5) companion, the antique book. It is a significant reflection of Emily Dickinson's poetic talent that she clearly, cleanly expresses her emotions on an obscure topic. The reader cannot help but be charmed by the whimsy of a book in "the Dress his Century wore" (3) shaking his "Vellum Head" (27), and perhaps attracted to the idea of meeting the old gentleman himself.