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Drab Habitation of Whom?

Emily Dickinson

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Added by: Michael Robinson
First note the sound: the end of every line echoes the word "cocoon"
(whom, tomb, worm, gnome); same
for the words "dome", "porch", and "some", and all the "Or"'s. Why?
In what mood would a person write like this; what might it suggest about
her attitude toward the subject? Back to that later. Poets, and so the rest of us, have always looked at nature and painted it over with meanings of our own. The odd whimsy of "gnome" and "elf", and the balancing of "tabernacle", "dome", and "porch" by "tomb" and "catacomb", suggest an ambivalence about the "message" that we derive from nature. Perhaps the tone suggests almost an anger: we persist in seeing "elves" and "gnomes", fantasies, distorted projections of ourselves, where in fact there are only worms and tombs. Thus the rather dismissive "some elf's" catacomb.
But why is every image architectural? Habitation, tabernacle, tomb, dome, porch, catacomb? Places we build to live in, and places we build to contain death, houses and tombs, perhaps not contrasted, but identified. Perhaps everything we build is simply an attempt to contain and to domesticate death, and perhaps the poem reveals some impatience, a touch of scorn, or anger with respect to this need, or the futility of it? But we also have to consider that the poet may be imagining the actual r contents of the cocoon: the unfinished insect that occupies the place. That is perhaps a gnome-like, worm-like, or elf-like being, just as a gnome or elf is the distorted projection of a human being. Perhaps the strange, grotesque, and unfinished or in-between figure thus evoked is the poet, any human being, always in process...and is the thing alive or dead? Will it ever hatch? Perhaps there's a question as to whether the "resurrection" will ever take place. Back to the sound of the thing: if I had to guess, and a guess is all it would be, I'd say that the poem suggests impatience with the whole business of projecting meaning onto nature and then drawing comfort from that meaning, insofar as that process is really an attempt to answer the question of who lives in the cocoon, of who we are...
Drab habitation...
Added by: Joel Emery
Michael brings out the variations in architecture, but I question some of his conclusions. The buildings dealing with living things are associated with a gnome or a worm, while the tomb or catacomb is associated with an elf. In my categorization a gnome is a twisted, misshapen creature who buries his treasure in the gnarled roots of trees, guarding it against those who would sieze it. On the other hand, an elf is generally considered to be a playful if mischievous creature who helps man.As with reading any poem, to speculate on Emily's motivations and attitudes toward religion and life is interesting but not necessarily warranted by the contents of the poem. The riddle poem may well be her chance to blow off steam about religion and love (See "A visitor in marl..")but I think that the emotions or intellectual guessing games they inspire are mainly the creations of the reader and should be noted as such. "Reading into" is one of the main problems of the poetry lover. We all do it, but we should be aware that we are doing it.

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