When Emily Dickinson wrote “Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music –” what did she mean? On Thursday, during the fourth installment of the Close Readings series, professor of English Mary Biggs approached this question before an audience of students and faculty.
Dickinson possesses an instantly recognizable style with trademark idiosyncrasies. Her works are some of the most popular and frequently analyzed pieces of writing that exist in literature. Biggs explained that “Split the Lark” could be read in innumerable ways and suggested that a 160-minute class period would be necessary for a real close reading of the poem.
Without an introduction, Biggs read the poem, explaining the most agreed-upon interpretations and focusing on three important images, one reference, two adjectives and the conspicuous ending question in the poem.
Dickinson was well aware of the common depiction of the poet as a bird figure and might have been using the image for some aim in “Split the Lark.” One line of the short poem reads, “Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!” As blood is scarlet, the image of blood encourages associations with the life force and the heart, love, sex and fertility, as well as violence, mortality and the destruction of life, Biggs said.
The reference to Thomas could signify several different men, Biggs said. It perhaps represents Thomas of the religious tradition, also known as Doubting Thomas. Doubting Thomas was the man who questioned Jesus’ resurrection until he touched Jesus’ wounds. Another Thomas that Dickinson may have referenced is the prolific scientist Thomas Brown, who dissected a human corpse in order to find its soul. When he didn’t find a soul there, he claimed that it was proof of faith.
The poet perhaps wanted to criticize scientific belief in favor of poetry, Biggs said. Another possible Thomas referenced is Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom Dickinson corresponded for many years until her death. Dickinson sent Higginson her poetry and the man criticized her harshly, sometimes telling her that her poetry was “wayward” and “should not be published.” “Split the Lark” could easily be read as an emotional expression of anger at her friend, the critic, Biggs said.
The word “patent” is used in the poem to mean “spreading widely from the center” so that the “flood” can be seen wildly moving forward, Biggs said.
The poem concludes with the line “Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?” The word “true” has several connotations, meaning fact, material existence, spiritual belief and loyalty. This last line is a significant statement by Dickinson, according to Biggs. For some, it is a confident declaration: Dickinson has proven the truth of the bird and her song. In this sense, Dickinson may be asserting the supremacy and indestructibility of the imagination or poetry.
Another reading sees the concluding line as a query for which the poet desires an answer. However, the question may be deeply ironic, an attack on scientific positivism and suspicion of unanswerable questions. Dickinson believed that some things, like the existence of the soul and the reason for the impenetrable beauty of poetry, could not be proven by dissecting what produced them.