In the top pane of glass in a professor’s door is a mark which looks, to me, as if it could only be the mark of lips: a kiss. I sit a distance from it, and the morning light is just right to make it show up. On the next door, someone is cleaning the glass panes. Will he come and wipe this kiss away? Who put it there? Has anyone seen it but me?
We read Emily Dickinson today in class. Literally read. My notes of preparation consisted of one penciled word: “Manzanilla,” which I neglected to look up before class. (Quite candidly, in the anthologies I studied, Emily Dickinson’s “little tippler” was “leaning against the sun,” not coming “from Manzanilla.” I prefer that she leans against the sun.) But we read the poems and talked about them.
I also had the students write explanations of Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest.” Most, it seems, interpret this as a poem about the sweetness of victory, when, in reality, it is a poem about the ache of defeat:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated–dying–
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Can our instant-gratification culture understand the sweetness of things untasted?
It reminds me of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” the sweetness of “unheard melodies,” the sweetness of the Lover’s almost-kiss, in anticipation of which he will love “for ever” while she is for ever “fair.”
Dickinson echoes Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in a different poem. Here, she says, she “died for Beauty” and met in the tomb “One who died for Truth,” who tells her that Beauty and Truth “Themself are One.”
Death for beauty? Yes. But there is also this, Luci Shaw, who says that “Sometimes beauty becomes almost a matter of survival. Without it, a part of us shrivels and dies” (“Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” The Christian Imagination, 2002). Do we die for beauty and for lack of beauty? We die either way?
To live in hope of success, of a song, of a kiss, may be sweet, and yet “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desired fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). Life lies in the fulfillment, not in the wishing.
Beauty, goodness, is meant to be tasted. The longing may be sweet, but it exists because it is meant to be filled. (C. S. Lewis, anyone?)
The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent (yesterday) in The Book of Common Prayer begins “We beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants.”
He looks, yes, and He summons us to “taste and see” His goodness (Psalm 34:11), not simply to imagine and long for it.
His goodness exists to be tasted. It can be depended upon. In the sweetness of His goodness is no matter of everlasting waiting for a song, a success, a kiss. It is not simply the sound of distant victory, heard while weltering in the blood of defeat.
While Lent is a season of lacking and longing, yet He is good. Now. Today. Unstintingly. Unapologetically. Good because He won the victory for us by weltering in His own blood, our blood, the blood of Satan’s defeat, and rising, for us, to end the anxious waiting, to end the necessity of death.
Taste. See. Comprehend this nectar which comes to soothe your sorest need. This is Beauty. This is Truth. This is a sweet success, a kiss of love which no window-wiper can erase.
©2013 by Stacy Nott