The Tao of Emily, the Calm of Lao Tzu, and Trouble from Blake

Below are two couplets of flower power yin-yang from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,” written in 1850 when she was aged nineteen. Insofar as anybody knows, it’s the first poem she’d ever written (and also her longest, clocking in at 40 lines):

The high do seek the lowly, the great do seek the small,

None cannot find who seeketh, on this terrestrial ball;

The bee doth court the flower, the flower his suit receives, 

And they make merry wedding, whose guests are hundred leaves;

According to the nineteen year-old Emily, our terrestrial ball’s diversity of things conceals a puzzle of ultimate unity that can be worked out with effort. And moving about on such a ball, you cannot help but bump into what (or who) will match and complete you sooner or later, fitting you most perfectly into that unity.

So be the bee and get to buzzing.

Here’s another union-of-opposites couplet from her poem:

Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,

For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain.

But here’s a warning:

The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,

Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.

The sovereign here, by implication, is the Greek god Dionysus (the god of wine and therefore of the dissolution of the rational, armored, and sovereign individual). He calls the single to life’s messy dance of risk-taking, but carries with that invitation a warning to those who stand along the walls:

Thou art a human solo, a being cold, and lone,

Wilt have no kind companion, thou reap’st what thou hast sown.

Don’t do that. Instead, find one with whom to make a particular union–“seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!”–and bring that one deep into the dark heart of one’s wilderness:

Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,

And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower–

And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum–

And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!

“And bid the world Goodmorrow, and go to glory home!” is the poem’s last line, and so it leaves us with an ongoing tension between isolation and union, for Emily advises union not with God or the world as a whole, but with a singular other, which then turns into its own singularity–a singularity of two–where each person in the dyad functions as a port to the other in the harsh and indifferent storm of existence.

Put another way, God and nature as a whole do not answer to our longing–they are silent–but another person might.

In this sense, the Tao of Emily is not the Tao of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, for Emily’s Tao includes entering into the Sturm und Drang of passions via the insight that the union and dissolution of opposites is the way of the world, whereas Lao Tzu calls for us to chill our passions via that very same insight. Here’s Lao Tzu at the beginning of passage 5 of the Tao Te Ching (as translated by R. L. Wing):

Heaven and Earth are impartial;

They regard All Things as straw dogs.

Evolved Individuals are impartial;

They regard all people as straw dogs.

Talk about a romance buzzkill! These are not the lines you want to recite on a first date. But Emily would agree with Lao Tzu that the world is burning, though she wouldn’t draw an impartial implication from this. And both Emily and Lao Tzu share the view that to conceive of oneself as singular, not really embedded in a larger and dynamic system of things, is a mistake.

In light of this, should one quell passions or ramp them up, falling under the rapturous but ultimately painful spell of the god of hot intoxications? Is William Blake–and by extension Emily–right that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), or is the palace of wisdom reached by Eastern routes of stillness, self-control, and meditation?

During WWII, Britain’s propaganda office famously produced a poster that quite stoically and eloquently admonished the following: “Keep calm and carry on.” The Buddha or Lao Tzu could have said the same thing. But Blake and Emily give one pause about such advice.

In the below lines from “Auguries of Innocence,” written in the first decade of the 19th century, Blake makes the claim that suffering and joy are necessarily woven together—and are, metaphorically, the clothing of the soul. But why suffering must accompany joy–and vice versa–the poet does not explain (55-62):

It is right it should be so:

Man was made for Joy & Woe,

And when this we rightly know

Thro the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

Blake is very near to Buddhism’s “Middle Way” here, and as Freudian psychology this sounds right (sublimated beneath every no is a yes; behind each pain lurks a pleasure). Blake is also sympatico with Liebnitz—the philosopher parodied in the character of Dr. Pangloss by Voltaire in Candide for insisting that the world as it is, with all its absurdity and suffering, is, nevertheless, ”the best of all possible worlds.” Blake is also in line in this instance with Nietzsche (who embraced suffering as necessary to the assertion of one’s ecstatic will).

Yet, contra Blake, how could, for example, the Holocaust possibly be incorporated as part of the “right” functioning of the universe and the soul’s “Joy”? Emily’s retreat to the bower with one other person and Lao Tzu’s dispassionate matter-of-factness about the cosmos’s indifference to humans as straw dogs seem a bit more sane than Blake’s mystical Christian and Hindu-like confidence that love and bliss (ananda) are at the deepest heart of creation.

So who sees it right, and which path should we take? Should we be ironic and lifelong connoisseurs of inward bliss and pain, the mind’s doubts, and death’s ambiguity, heightening our experience of them and singing of them, finding occasional sanctuary in loved ones (Dickinson); keep calm and carry on (Lao Tzu and Buddha); or express an optimistic faith that all is ultimately well and will be well (Blake and T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets)?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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