Vladimir Verov

Polemics Session: Rosemary in Retort

Published in: 30. On the Way

(Greg Darms, “Certain Uncertainties: Speculative Readings of Emily Dickinson’s ‘This World is not conclusion'”, AB No. 29, “Career of Freedom”)


(letter to the editor of Apraksin Blues)  V. Verov

(See also V. Verov, “Sorcery Required: On Translating Emily Dickinson” )

In the seventh issue of the magazine Libra for 1905, Valery Bryusov published an article, “Violets in a Crucible,” dedicated to poetic translation. As a preamble, he chose a quote from the incomplete treatise “A Defense of Poetry” by the great English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower — and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.” Bryusov further noted that “rarely is any poet able to resist the temptation to throw whatever violet he likes, from foreign fields, into his crucible.” Alchemists’ crucibles have long since given way to sophisticated laboratory tools, and it would be strange to compare Emily Dickinson’s verses with violets. But the chemistry of poetic translation has remained unchanged.

As an aromatic symbol for Emily Dickinson’s poems, I would suggest rosemary, and there are good reasons for this. She herself stated them in the poem “Essential Oils – are wrung” (Fr. 774 1863).



Essential Oils – are wrung –

The Attar from the Rose

Be not expressed by Suns – alone –

It is the gift of Screws –

The General Rose – decay –

But this – in Lady’s Drawer

Make Summer – When the Lady lie

In ceaseless rosemary

Literal translation of translation:

Summer gives us the aroma of flowers.

Hoping to hold it forever

We squeeze roses heartlessly

Trying to extract using a vise

An ephemeral gift – a drop of perfume.

The ethereal symbol of the transient meeting.
And the letters of the Lady in the old chest

Perfume with eternal rosemary.


The 29th issue of Apraksin Blues magazine features Greg Darms’ essay “Certain Uncertainties: Speculative Readings of Emily Dickinson.” The essay notes that Emily Dickinson often used declarative, indisputable statements as the first lines of her poems. Presumably, she wished to make readers urgently want to keep reading to the end.

The famous American scientist and writer Edward Wilson in section 5 of his work “The Origins of Creativity” describes a common, in his opinion, technique for all types of art, which he called “aesthetic surprise.” He notes that “Serious art, whether expressed in score, script, or image, seizes you on first encounter. It then holds and distracts you long enough to lead your mind away and through the remainder of its content – perhaps to understand the whole intended meaning, perhaps to revisit a fragment for sheer pleasure.” Wilson describes how some of the characteristic features of creativity cause not just aesthetic surprise but aesthetic shock. The best way to trigger such an effect is to immediately propose completely the opposite of each statement. Surprisingly, to illustrate this technique, Wilson chooses the first two lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson: “It was not Death, for I stood up, / And all the Dead, lie down -” (Fr. 355). Certainly, she was a master of aesthetic shock and her work to date has a special magnetic force.

As an example of paradoxical poetics, Greg Darms, with impeccable taste, chose Emily Dickinson’s poem “This World is not conclusion” (Fr. 373) and accompanied it with detailed comments. In Ushakov’s explanatory dictionary, two meanings of the old word “interpreter” are indicated: an interpreter is a translator, an interpreter, and a commentator. It can be argued that Greg Darms has translated the poem, yet not from the source language into a foreign language, but from the “dark” paradoxical language of poetry to the prose of common sense.

The editors of Apraksin Blues magazine kindly provided for readers of the Russian-language version an interlinear translation of the poem as close as possible to the original source.



This World is not conclusion.

A Species stands beyond –

Invisible, as Music –

But positive, as Sound –

It beckons, and it baffles –

Philosophy, don’t know –

And through a Riddle, at the last –

Sagacity must go –

To guess it, puzzles scholars –

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of generations

And Crucifixion, shown –

Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –

Blushes, if any see –

Plucks at a twig of Evidence –

And asks a Vane, the way –

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –

Strong Hallelujahs roll –

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –

[Fr 373] 1862

Literal translation of Editorial translation:

This World is not a result.

A certain species stands outside –

Invisible as Music –

But explicit, like Sound –

It calls out – and fools around –

Philosophy – doesn’t know –

And through a Riddle, in the end –

Wisdom is forced to leave –

To guess – is trouble for scholars –

To gain it – takes carrying

Generations’ contempt

And Crucifixion shown –

Faith slips away – and laughs, and perks up –

Blushing if anyone sees –

Clings to a bough of evidence

And asks a Weathervane about the way –

Abundant Gesture from the Pulpit –

Hallelujah’s power rolls –

Narcotics can’t calm the Tooth

Gnawing into the soul.

[Fr 373] 1862


My aim here is to supplement the two available translations with a third “free” translation, also showing by example how far the interpretation of a poetic text can go in a “free” translation.

Before proceeding to a translation, I have formulate for myself the main thing in the poetics of Emily Dickinson. As noted in the already cited work of V. Bryusov: “The appearance of the lyric poem, its form, takes shape from a number of constituent elements, the combination of which embodies the artist’s sense and poetic idea more or less fully – these are: language style, images, meter and rhyme, verse movement, the play of syllables and sounds. … To reproduce, when translating a poem, all these elements in full is surely unthinkable. The translator usually seeks to convey only one, or at best two (mostly images and meter), changing the others (style, verse movement, rhyme, word sounds). … The choice of the element to consider most important in the translated work is the translation’s method.”

The main thing for me in the poetics of Emily Dickinson is the meaning. Neither rhythms nor rhymes are decisive. In saying “meaning” I have in mind the totality of the meanings of the words of the poem. Emily Dickinson masterfully uses the polysemy of living language. She weaves an elaborate lace pattern from these possible, but not shown to the reader, meanings.

Greg Darms writes in his essay: “Dickinson subverts and complicates her initial aphoristic statement, effectively opening a can of worms concerning the actual meaning of the first statement, offering reversals and negations as well as different perspectives. Dickinson develops the poem by opening to possible new meanings, preferring to modify, alter, refute, question, and mock, rather than explain, verify, or substantiate.” In the above quote, it should be noted that Emily Dickinson DEVELOPS THE POEM. This subtle and deep maxim can be expanded into a vivid and convincing picture.

Suppose that Emily Dickinson and translators and interpreters of poems live in a flat world limited to two dimensions. And suddenly a tree grows on their plane, striving into the third dimension. Those living on a plane can only observe the shadow of the tree’s crown, like a chaotic set of disconnected spots. And if there, in higher dimensions, a wind picks up, then the spots commence an inexplicable causeless movement. Scientists of the flat world can describe these spots in groups and separately and find certain patterns in their movements. The mystics of the flat world will hypothesize their divine origin with their own particular explanatory mythology. But when viewed from the third dimension, it becomes apparent that the spots observed on the plane are interconnected by an obvious causal relationship.

In his essay, Greg Darms draws attention to a particular hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. He refers to a quote from an article by Patrick J. Keane: “we may still, in venturing an interpretation, only approximate an absolutely definitive reading. Nevertheless, there is a considerable difference between utter verbal indeterminacy (the deconstructionist’s play of infinitely diverse readings) and a reasonably determinate meaning — even if, in some instances, the latter will prove to be a meaning determinately ambiguous.” Greg Darms notes that the fundamental impossibility of a final interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s poems in their paradoxically closed and internally contradictory integrity follows from this.

But even if the problem is not solved as a whole, it remains possible to solve it in parts. Translators in the “flat world” cannot comprehend the semantic pattern of the poems of Emily Dickinson in its absolute completeness and perfection. But these same translators can isolate in it individual threads of semantic variations and reflect them in their own interpretation. In this case, the rhythm, rhyme, alternation of lines of translation must obey the general task of manifesting and preserving a single semantic thread, the only one of hundreds possible. Another translator-interpreter will choose another thread close to him and will convey different meanings in his translation.

The poem begins with a declarative statement: “This World is not conclusion”, which, as Greg Darms rightly points out, serves as a “framework, or a kind of beginning speculative thesis…a key element in her poetics.” The first main word of the poem is “World”. Its interpretation will determine which of the “threads of Ariadne” the translator will follow. He needs to choose between meanings: philosophical – universality; natural science – the earth and its inhabitants; religious – the result of creation, the world of the living in opposition to the world of the dead, and many more possible options. Any of them may be represented by the word “World,” but the further translation of the poem depends on this choice.

In his essay, Greg Darms prefers a religious interpretation and, in support of this thesis, cites an article from Shira Wolosky, “The Metaphysics of Language in Emily Dickinson (As Translated by Paul Celan)”: “This World” is just that – living, being, thinking, experiencing – and is not meant to be (only) the necessary prerequisite and counterpart to another life after death.” His choice places a further interpretation of meanings in the sphere of the personal religiosity of Emily Dickinson and gives the translation a “theo-linguistic” direction.

Without underestimating the validity and productivity of the direction chosen by Greg Darms, I would like to point out the possibility of another, philosophical, version of interpretation. In this, the word “World” represents the World in opposition to the Absolute, where the World is the whole aggregate reality in time and space, and the Absolute is transcendental being in relation to the World. In Plato, the illusory World of sensory being is opposed to the Absolute of eternal and perfect ideas. According to Aristotle, the Absolute acts as the prime mover, an actual and formal cause of everything in the World. In Plotinus, the World is the intelligible realm of being, as opposed to the Absolute, standing above reason, space and time, but generating them in the process of emanation. One can comprehend the Absolute only through ecstasy. For Kant, “the world for us” is a construct of our mind. The Absolute, unknowable by the mind, is the “world for itself.”

The choice of philosophical meaning has a decisive influence on the translation of the second main word of the first line of “conclusion”. In the Editorial translation, “conclusion” is “result” (or “outcome”), which corresponds to some of the Webster definitions of “conclusion.” But, having chosen a philosophical meaning for the word World, one should also ascribe the philosophical meaning to the word “conclusion”: “a reasoned deduction or inference”. Then the first line will really express a declarative philosophical judgment about the impossibility of a final rational cognition of the World, in which the unknowable “world for itself” is hidden behind the comprehensible “world for us.”

The second line of the poem, “A Species stands beyond -” is defined by Greg Darms as opposed to the first line: “the second line, ‘A Species stands beyond -‘ cannot for sure be taken as the logical continuation of the first line, but may be read as another declaration opening a new line of investigation.” This conclusion is based on an interpretation of the term “Species” as “A distinct sort, form, or kind of something specifically mentioned or implied,” taken from Webster’s dictionary. For a more detailed account, Greg Darms refers to the etymology of the term, derived from the Latin “specere” – initially from “appearance, kind” to “behold.” He also mentions the writings of Linnaeus and Darwin, in which “Species” corresponds to the classification concept of “species,” referring to a class of biological objects.

For a philosophical version of interpretation, other possible meanings of the term “Species” should be pointed outThese meanings are present in Webster’s dictionary:

: the consecrated eucharistic elements of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Eucharist;

3a : a mental image also : a sensible object;

3b : an object of thought correlative with a natural object.

It should be noted that the term “Species” is itself taken from the Latin term Species, which has an impressive theological and philosophical history. An article by G.V. Vdovina “SPECIES IMPRESSA: On intentional forms in the cognitive concepts of post-medieval scholasticism” (Philosophical Journal 2016. V. 9. No. 3. P. 41–58) notes that the Latin word Species, formed from the root with the meaning “vision,” was first introduced to a philosophical context by Cicero, who used it to convey the Greek εἶδος. The Greek term “eidos” can be interpreted as a type or idea. In the treatise of Augustine Aurelius “On the Trinity,” in paragraph 5 of Book 11, Species alternately means the natural form of the visible body, and the form printed in the sense, which, in relation to the first, material form of the visible body, serves as its image. Analyzing the treatises of medieval scholastics, G. Vdovina emphasizes that their authors reject the essential formal equivalency of object and species. The quote from Thomas Compton Carleton’s treatise cited in her article is telling: “When it is said that species impressae are of the same kind as objects, this should not be understood in the sense that they are of the same physical form, but that they are of the same intentional kind. Namely, they virtually and as producing causes vividly express the object and represent it” (Thomas Compton Carleton. “De anima”. Disp. XVI, Sect 4?Num 2).

The choice for a meaning of “Species” as “idea” (in the Platonic sense) or “reason” – which naturally follows from a philosophical orientation of translation, turns the second line into a logical continuation of the first. The world is finally incomprehensible because our consciousness reflects only its illusion – a “world for us,” which conceals the world-forming primary cause of all existence being inaccessible to our knowledge – a “world for itself.”

The next two lines, “Invisibleas Music – But positiveas Sound”, illustrate the two previous lines with the concepts of “sounds” and “music” as an example. Our auditory organs can perceive sounds, but the Species, their invisible root cause, is inaccessible to us. We can create its speculative image for ourselves, but we can never establish its truth. In more detail, Emily Dickinson develops this example in the poem “Split the Lark” (Fr. 905):



Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music –

Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled –

Scantily dealt to the summer morning

Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood – you shall find it patent –

Gush after Gush, reserved for you –

Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!

Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

Literal translation of free translation:

If you subtract a bird from the trill of a lark,

There will be music – a silver tremolo,

Adhered to the ear on a summer morning.

It will sound even when the harp is silent.

Bring out flesh and blood,

And you will comprehend the intended signs.

Skeptic Thomas, hide the bloodied fingers.

Not every truth is given to the touch.


The meaning of the lines “Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old” strikingly coincides with an excerpt from the second volume of the treatise “The Person and Teachings of Blessed Augustine” by I.V. Popova: “When a string vibrates in a lyre, other strings that are equally tuned to it sound sympathetically. They move from potency to energy, from rest to vibrations, but these vibrations do not freeze immediately, but gradually. So the tension of the soul, connected with sensory perception, persists for a long time even after the termination of the activity of the senses.” It is no less amazing how its lines are consonant with a famous Basho haiku, translated by V.N. Markova: “The bell fell silent in the distance, / But with the aroma of evening flowers / Its sound floats.”

In the next five lines, Emily Dickinson methodically states the impotence of philosophical wisdom in front of this problem: It beckons, and it baffles – / Philosophy, don’t know – / And through a Riddle, at the last – / Sagacity must go – / To guess it, puzzles scholars -“. The meaning of these lines is so obvious that Greg Darms does not find it necessary to comment on them.

The following six lines of the poem are dedicated to Faith: “To gain it, Men have borne / Contempt of generations / And Crucifixion, shown – / Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – / Blushes, if any see – / Plucks at a twig of Evidence – “. Greg Darms notes that: “Faith is introduced as a new theme midway in the poem.” From the point of view of the philosophical approach, this is no accident halfway in. Consistently and logically stating the impotence of a scientific approach, Emily Dickinson seeks help from Faith, which she advocates as having rights equal to science’s. The mutual equality and interconnection of these methodologies is illustrated by the poem “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” (Fr. 202).



“Faith” is a fine invention

For Gentlemen who see!

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency!

Literal translation of free translation:

For discerning gentlemen

“Faith” is a great invention!

But in dire need

And a microscope to save!


But what in this context can the word “faith” mean? Greg Darms, in his essay, quotes a letter from Emily Dickinson (letter to Otis Lord 3:728, 1882): “We both believe and do not believe a hundred times per hour.” According to the subtle remark he cites from an essay by Patrick J. Keane, she “keeps faith nimble.” Not attempting to delve into an analysis of the religious beliefs of Emily Dickinson, it is nevertheless worth noting the presence in her poems of elements of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Perhaps their source was the work of the Cambridge Platonists and, in particular, R. Cudworth’s repeatedly reprinted True Intellectual System of the Universe. The poem “These are the days when birds come back” (Fr. 122) contains a poetic description of the secret mystery, and in the poem “Between the form of Life and Life” (Fr. 1123) Dickinson refers to ecstasy as a means of moving between the spiritual and physical worlds.



Between the form of life and life

The difference is as big

As liquor at the lip between

And liquor in the jug

The latter – excellent to keep –

But for ecstatic need

The corkless is superior –

I know for I have tried

Literal translation of free translation:

Spirituality and its physicality –

It’s like wine in your mouth

And the wine is in the bottle.

The latter guarantees

The contents’ safety

But for immersion in ecstasy

Physicality should be thinned –

I know, I tried.


Greg Darms discovers a comic aspect in the lines of the poem devoted to faith: “Personified as a waif or inexperienced traveler, faith ‘slips,’ ‘laughs,’ ‘rallies,’ and ‘blushes’ as it seems to seek its way. Reminiscent of Don Quixote, it ‘Plucks at a twig of Evidence’ [perhaps the Cross?] and ‘asks a Vane, the way.’ None of this seems to work, and while faith is not entirely discounted, it is presented as being comically unsuccessful in approaching or apprehending the ‘Species.'”

But, based on the accepted philosophical interpretation of the meaning, it would be unreasonable to suppose a sudden change in style. It might be conjectured that Emily Dickinson personifies not “faith” in its traditional sense, but the carriers of the secret teachings of the Gnostics, who were persecuted from the time of early Christianity up to her time. It should be mentioned that the teachings of the Gnostics also include Jesus Christ himself as a “consecrated redeemer.” The image of the “Prophet” from M. Lermontov’s poem of that name fits surprisingly well: “I began to proclaim love / And truth, the pure doctrines: / All my neighbors / Frantically threw stones at me.”

A special meaning is contained in the line with the image of the weathervane: “And asks a Vane, the way – “. Its symbolic meaning can be represented in three mutually non-contradictory versions. In a first version, it is a symbol of a secret doctrine’s crushed adept that has lost his beliefs. Having renounced his own beliefs, he becomes a toy in the hands of a hostile society. In a second version, it is a symbol of absolute freedom from public opinion, changing only under the influence of emanations of natural forces, in particular wind. This image is close to the image of a cliff from the poem “I do not want the light to know” by M. Lermontov: “His forehead is between the clouds, / He is a gloomy tenant of two elements / And, except for storm and thunders, / He will not entrust thoughts to anyone …“. In a third version, the weathervane is a person who has cleared his consciousness of the entire personal medium, who has become a guide between the world of people and the world of spirits, and who translates the questioning will of forces of a higher order.

In the final lines of the poem, “Much Gesture, from the Pulpit – / Strong Hallelujahs roll – / Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul – “, Emily Dickinson notes the impotence of official church doctrine, which relies on external ritualism in the face of significant philosophical and religious issues. From the depths of her time, she is trying to point out, to those living now, the vicious practice of treating serious social diseases with narcotic painkillers. The phonetic game between the English word “Pulpit” and the Latin  Pulpitis,” meaning “inflammation in the area of the neurovascular bundle of the tooth,” is not accidental.

The above study of one of the possible semantic threads in Emily Dickinson’s poem has resulted in my free translation.


Source :

This World is not conclusion.

A Species stands beyond –

Invisible, as Music –

But positive, as Sound –

It beckons, and it baffles –

Philosophy, don’t know –

And through a Riddle, at the last –

Sagacity must go –

To guess it, puzzles scholars –

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of generations

And Crucifixion, shown –

Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –

Blushes, if any see –

Plucks at a twig of Evidence –

And asks a Vane, the way –

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –

Strong Hallelujahs roll –

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –

[Fr 373] 1862

Literal translation of free translation:

The world is not fully comprehended by the mind

It is a consequence and a trace of the root cause.

We clearly hear the sounds of the harpsichord

But we will not find music in it.

No matter where the trail leads, it’s in vain to rush.

Love fools us into wisdom, maybe.

On its trail, imperceptible for the eye

The philosopher of wisdom left to drink,

And so he disappeared, collecting puzzles of hypotheses.

Seekers of Reasons Condemned

By contemptuous offspring to the fullest.

They heard them shout – “Crucify!”

And they cried for the persecuted Faith.

Blushing, approved of arbitrariness,

Did not dispute foreign opinions,

And chose the lesser of evils,

Changing direction with the weathervane.

A drug is a remedy if a tooth aches.

But if the soul is tormented by pulpitis,

Hallelujah will not give it healing.

(Fr. 373) 1862


In conclusion, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Greg Darms, whose essay “Certain Uncertainties: Speculative Readings of Emily Dickinson” served as the motive and basis for my reasoning on the subjects he’s considered, and to the editor of Apraksin Blues magazine Tatyana Apraksina, whose benevolent perseverance prompted me to timely completion of this work.

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