Blog Post

My Life Withstood a Yellow Rose

My relationship to poetry took a sharp turn for the worse the day I learned that Emily Dickinson's poetry could be recited to the tune of the "Yellow Rose of Texas."  (This observation is far from original, and there are scores of other tunes that work as well for the Dickinsonian canon for reasons that are well explained elsewhere, but the moment in which this unfortunate coupling occurred to me was nonetheless a shock to my system.)

The force of "My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun," whose power derives from the reader's knowledge that the poem's central threat and inescapable trauma lies in the dilemma of having the "power to kill, Without --the power to die," is rendered impotent when the mind's ear hears the first stanza reduced to this:

There's a yellow rose of Texas
That I am going to see,
No other fellow knows her,
No other, only me.
("Yellow Rose")

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

(Dickinson)

Or my other former Dickinson favorite:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality. 

The lengthening of the first, third, and fifth syllables of "Immortality" when put to this tune makes it difficult not to imagine these words being sung by an elementary school choir on parents' night. ImorTALiTEEEEE.

That said, I have recently given more thought to Wordsworth's definition of poetry, which holds that the verse form, particularly the meter, of poetry is what keeps explosive emotion in check; the pattern of rhythm and sometimes rhyme provides aesthetic distance from feelings that would otherwise overwhelm.  Even "The Yellow Rose of Texas," whose aural saccharine may be all too cloying for listeners for whom the song does not express a particular, nostalgic association, has other, older sets of lyrics that bear a stronger charge, especially when imagined within their wartime contexts and their connections to chattel slavery. The song's lyrics speak to the alternation between feelings of hope and those of humiliation that mark the churning pain of the soldier or slave as he fantasizes about bridging the physical and emotional distance between himself and the object of his desire.  The homecoming itself does not take place within the bounds of the song; singers and listeners are never freed from the tension of not knowing whether the speaker will ever arrive at a place that he will experience as home.  Some versions preserve more optimism; they envision the moment in which, as the singer approaches home, his beloved also takes up the song and their voices sound together in harmony:

Oh! now I'm going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,


And we'll sing the song together, that we sung so long ago;


We'll play the banjo gaily, and we'll sing the songs of yore,


And the yellow rose of Texas shall be mine for evermore.

Others keep a narrower focus on the promise of release after forced separation:
Oh my feet are torn and bloody, and my heart is full of woe,
I'm going back to Georgia, to find my Uncle Joe,
You may talk about your Beauregard, sing of General Lee,
But the gallant Hood of Texas, played hell in Tennessee.

While I maintain a salutuary mistrust of Wordsworthian poetic theory (here I find myself siding with Northrop Frye) and the equally jaundiced view that this tune does not present Dickinson's poetry in the most favorable light, my understanding of how form can affect feeling has deepened.

Also in a Wordsworthian tradition, I now find that these remarks on Dickinson and the "Yellow Rose," which were meant to provide a brief preface to my discussion of a different poem and a different song, has expanded such that my intended prelude has become a blog entry unto itself.  (This was supposed to be an entry on an innovative adaptation of a Thomas Gray poem.)  I take heart, though, that much of Wordsworth's finest poetic output came from writing under exactly this condition:  clearing the poetic ground for thing that he wanted to write.  This preparatory ground-clearing drove Wordsworth's poetic output for decades because it allowed him to maintain the belief that he would eventually get to the thing itself.  And although that thing never materialized, Wordsworth's poetic oeuvre doesn't seem any the worse for it.

So I raise a glass to the promise of the thing itself!