ONE BIRD ONE CAGE ONE FLIGHT, 1982
Roger White's poetry, for all its unmistakable religious flavour, is
part and parcel of world literature. Like Pushkin and his work, which
signalled the emergence of Russian literature on the world stage, White's work
possesses a balance and harmony, an artistic and intellectual versatility, a
formal perfection and vigour, "not to be found in the details of his
biography."a It was White, among several other writers in the twentieth
century, who helped to forge what could be called a Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature. This consciousness has certain special peculiarities, a
certain spiritual identity, a certain global perspective, a particular
wide-angled lens. The emergence of this consciousness became apparent at the
very moment when the Bahá'í Faith was itself emerging from an obscurity in
which it had existed for a century and a half. -Ron Price with thanks to aMarc
Slonim, The Epic of Russian Literature: From Its Origins Through
, Oxford University Press, NY, 1975(1950), pp.96-7.
In 1983 White's novella A Sudden Music
appeared from George
Ronald and One Bird One Cage One Flight
was published by Naturegraph
Publishers Inc., Happy Camp in California. This was the slimmest of White's
volumes thusfar, although a collector's edition of a small selection of his
, also came out in 1982 under the name of an editor,
Reuben Rose, who lived in Haifa. An equally slim account of martyrdom, The
Shell and the Pearl
, was published in 1984. White was consolidating the
newfound popularity of his poetry with little volumes.
One Bird One Cage One Flight
however slim gave White, in what he called
on the cover a "homage to Emily Dickinson," an opportunity to commune across a
century of time with the spirit and the mind of a person who may very well have
been the greatest female poetic genius that America and the world has ever
produced. Perhaps it was more an effort to resolve some of the questions about
her poetry, about her metaphysical perspectives and about his own soul's
aspirations. Perhaps it was part of White's way of dealing with the beguiling
leisureliness of life's journey to death, his various preoccupations associated
with death and its deceptive, always somewhat obscure but potentially wondrous
purpose. Perhaps it was his identification with a poet who tried to distil
"amazing sense/From ordinary Meanings,"
in the words of Mircea Eliade, tried to reveal "the essence of things,"
life's immense and many mysteries with an
obsessive devotion to her vocation as poet. Perhaps it was simply White's way
of expressing what was a qualitatively different poetry than any of the verse
written by Bahá'ís before.
Whatever White's purpose, One Bird One Cage One Flight
clever and original addition to the White corpus and to the literature written
on Emily Dickinson in the first hundred years since her passing in 1886.
There remains for us, for our world with its insatiable interest in the
psychology of the individual, a corpus of poetry in which White speaks in his
own person or for Emily Dickinson. One is never quite sure. But, more
importantly, for many of his readers anyway, he speaks for us. The poems are
intensely personal, often moralizing and peculiarly characteristic of White.
He often dramatizes a spiritual situation in which he is participating and
speaking in the first person, though the other actors and the setting belong to
the world of story, metaphor or parable. White puts into practice here an
approach to poetry of one of the twentieth century's great poets William Carlos
My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme, to convey it, one
stick to it......Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic, or what
everything adjusts to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a
in flux, as it should be for the poet. But to fidget with points of view leads
to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility. A single
or mood thoroughly matured and exploited is that fresh thing.
There is in these poems a mastery of repetition. The full effect of the poetry
comes from this repetition, a repetition of what could be called a
'Dickinson/Bahá'í perspective.' There is an extraordinary evocation of aspects
of the life of Emily Dickinson and of the Bahá'í Faith. Poem after poem
interlaces Dickinson, the Bahá'í Faith and White himself. The repetitions are
of course variations. Readers, I'm sure, will find a sameness in these poems
but the change comes in the context of this sameness. It is, as Williams notes
above, "a single manner or mood thoroughly matured" in such a way that it
becomes, again and again, "that fresh thing."
I have found over the last twenty years, since I first began reading White,
that some of his lines have become memorized simply by the force of repetition.
Sometimes, when out walking for example, quite involuntarily a stanza occurs to
me and, if I am alone, I recite it. There is something mysterious about the
reciting that keeps the poem fresh. The following stanza is perhaps the most
commonly recited of White's poems in this volume:
I wind my
thoughts in knotless skein,
Unspoken mile by mile-
A league from immortality
Lay down my wool and smile.
It seems to me that we can say of White's poems in this volume, if not in all
his volumes, but especially in this volume, that they are at once
autobiographical and universal, personal and impersonal, ironical and
passionate, wounded and integral. White does not hide behind some literary
mask, some persona. For the most part, the "I" in White's poems is White
White recognized in Dickinson his twin, at least someone whose inquiring mind
was excited by the unknown expanse of immortality, its perplexity, its mystery
and, ultimately, its intimacy. Indeed there is an intimacy in Dickinson's work
that the reader finds in White's, but White's is gentler, simpler, far more
penetrable. The intimacy is paradoxical in both cases because what we actually
learn about the person, the poet, has little to do about their daily life in a
direct, explicit sense. There is an anonymity about the person, the poet. The
focus is squarely on the poem, on the poetry, not on the poet's daily life.
The reader does not learn what White did during the day, the year, the decade,
during his middle age, with his wife, inter alia.
But, however simple
White's poetry is from time to time, it needs to be read and re-read far more
carefully than its not infrequently humorous, deftly-drafted surfaces suggest.
Then, too, there is no getting rid of a certain apprehension that not all of
his ore will have been extracted by a cursory read. White changes a poem's
direction in a few lines or a few words. He may, in fact, be pursuing a wholly
different direction to the one you are ostensibly following.
But whatever direction he is going in, the reader feels,
as Dryden did of Chaucer, that here is God's plenty,
here is a perpetual
fountain of good sense.
Poetry has been described by one literary critic as `a unique representation of
some mental situation, some acute awareness, part of a cult of sincerity.'
Inspite of this representation, this
exposure, of their heart's and mind's most subtle secrets, the examination of
the phenomenon of their individual consciousnesses, the persona in their poems,
at least in the case of White and Dickinson, frequently address us with
perceptions that we sense are ours as well as theirs. There is what you might
call an externalization of the poet's experience in an attempt to make it valid
for others. This is how Joyce Carol Oates sees Emily Dickinson and her work.
And there is some value in this perspective
for our study of White. It is in this way that the poet, in this case White,
defines or makes an epoch, perhaps the third and forth of the Formative Age.
Here is an example of what could be many of White's poems. He writes the poem
as if the persona could be himself, dickinson or the reader. This is the
book's first poem, Spring Song:
My hope put out white
In tentative delight
But twice there came convulsive frost
Which, blotting out my April,
Stirred wisdom in my root.
Should another burgeoning come
Will twig renew? 'Tis moot.
In the poet's wondering there is a tone of purest anonymity or perhaps
universality, as if the poet, speaking out of his "tentative delight" with
"wisdom in (his) root" were speaking of our condition as well. There is in
White's words a speaking from the interior of a life as we might imagine
ourselves speaking, gifted with White's delightful way of putting things and
not bound by the merely local and time-bound nature of our life. "If anonymity
is the soul's essential voice," as Oats writes describing Dickinson's, "then
Emily Dickinson is our poet of the soul." And White is for me--and my
particular perspectives--the poet of my soul who addresses and helps create my
unknowable interior. And this is no small achievement given the importance of
that "inner life and private character" upon which the very success of our
teaching Plan depends.
White, like Dickinson, offers readers riddlesome, obsessive, haunting,
sometimes frustrating poetry. But, for the most part, White's poetry is much
simpler and easier to understand than Dickinson's. White does not ram words
onto lines with a force that in Dickinson often shatters the syntax, cramps the
structure and "pinches the words like a vise."
There is a romance of epic proportions in both poets
but, with White, the heroic sense is softened by the humour which runs through
poem after poem. The far simpler language and word patterns and a focusing of
the heroic in history amply mixed with White's(and ours) ordinary self give
these epic proportions a human, an everyday, touch. The world that White lives
in certainly requires a heroism, but it is of such a different kind than the
one which required martyrs in Iran in the nineteenth century and the one which
Emily Dickinson occupied in her intense and private poetic, in her clearly
eccentric life-style of virtually total isolation.
White creates a poetry of transcendence, the kind that outlives its human
habitation and its name. In One Bird One Cage One Flight
White does this
through a repeated focus on Emily Dickinson and her life. The following poem,
is a good example.
So much simpler than so much of Dickinson, who is also interested in
transcendence, this poem begins:
Had hearts the art of
The mending were small feat
But I have owned one whose repair
Earth's craftsmen can't complete.
Had love asked only giving
The donor were content
But I have known a stealthy hand
Twice prove our loves are lent.
Had death comprised mere dying
The handiwork were sweet
But I mark its keen audition
In every eye I meet.
There is for many readers the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying
White's work, classic
poetry in the right meaning of that word, work
belonging "to the class of the very best."
There may, of course, be weaknesses, failures, poems that come short, poems
that slip out of the net of the very best either because of an immense
complexity and obscurity as in the case of Dickinson, a similar complexity or
an irrepressible tongue-in-cheekness as in the case of White. If the reader or
critic is enabled to obtain a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of a poet
through some negative criticism then, as Arnold argues, that activity is no
mere "literary dilettantism."
enjoyment of the poetry should be that much increased, refined, deepened. Not
every poem will delight or stimulate the intellectual and sensory emporiums to
the same extent. The personal proclivities, affinities and circumstances of a
reader have great power to sway the estimates of a poet's work and often attach
more importance to a poem than it really possesses. The language of praise,
for example, that I attach to White's work may be somewhat exaggerated or
overrated, what Arnold calls a 'personal fallacy.'
All physical activity is capable of revealing mysteries. Like Dickinson, White
is fascinated by the mystery of death. Perhaps that is ultimately why he has
chosen to focus on Dickinson in this volume of poetry. White, like many poets
of old, is charting his, and our, progress toward his/our ultimate destiny.
Here is an outline of more of that journey in the last three stanzas:
Had heaven held sure solace
To hasten there were wise
But I, grown timid, cautious,
Search for ambush, man's and sky's.
One day I'll meet fate's boldest stare
And ask its harsh command
My apron full of gentian and
Lone daisy in my hand.
Till then, like Jonah in the dark,
I ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies my doubt.
It has been the view of many writers throughout history that literature is the
voice of a particular soil. The voice of the Russian soil was for long the
power of abstract ideas over concrete reality. The flood of illumination in
relation to the work of a particular writer comes to some readers only after
intensive study. Middleton Murray's study of Dostoevsky was one such example.
My own study of the poetry of Roger White is, for me anyway, another. The
poetry of White is not so much the voice of a particular soil as it is the
voice of a participation in the life of a community "which preserves in living
shape certain treasures of the past and certain expectations of the future."
These treasures have multiple roots in an
environment, a community, where White and his poetry now form a natural part.
White deals with abstract ideas but they are contextualized in history, in the
lives of people, in nature, in the seasons and in the ordinarily ordinary. For
White philosophy, ideas, the text and texture of his poetry are a species of
voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious autobiography. That is why
White urged his readers to read his poetry if they wanted to know about him.
The poem, Emily's Song
, tells a great deal about how White found the
journey of life. But he tells about his journey 'slant.'
In the process he tells the story for many of his
readers, many who have come to love his work because he speaks so
quintessentially of their own lives.
In many of his poems it does not matter whether the reader shares the same
religious faith as White. The poems are universal in the fullest sense. But
many of White's poems, both in this book of verse and in his others, will
simply be uninteresting and irrelevant to people for whom the very idea of
commitment to a religion--and in this case the Bahá'í Faith--is inimical to
their tastes. They will not make much of a good deal of White's poetry. That
was also true of the work of Emily Dickinson--and she had no commitment to a
specific religion at all. The reader, as in reading any poetry, must be willing
and able to assume the perspective of the person writing the poem.
Art is, at least some of the time, an experience of tension and the poetry
White writes is an art of strain, the nerves held tight but relaxed from time
to time due to the presence of some dispassionate intellectual tentativeness, a
tentativeness where humour can make its appearance free of what is often the
dangerous romance of passionate intensity. It is as if White was saying
"perhaps" after every expression of conviction: 'perhaps' the wisest word of
all the words, 'Abdu'l-Bahá once said in a story for children. It is not a
matter of the free expression of truth, but more a matter of how to work toward
the truth. In the case of White's poetry, the language is: private, allusive,
teasing, idiosyncratic, delicate, partly unfathomable to the ordinary mind.
So, too, was the poetry of the nineteenth century American poet, Emily
So White would agree with Dickinson's sentiments in her poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With expression kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--
White is the poet who comes at things, at readers, with indirection, with
glimpses, through the subtly distorting mirror of art. But he comes at things
after he has thought long and hard and what he gives, as Wordsworth once wrote,
is "the spontaneous overflow," "an emotion recollected in tranquillity" and,
finally, "a release from emotion."
a lifetime of pondering some of the questions regarding the afterlife and this
one(White had another dozen years to live after he wrote most of the poetry in
this volume ) , after some thirty-five years as a Bahá'í, White does not parade
his simple certitudes before us in these stanzas. He approaches the next world
with: caution, doubt, timidity, some grief, daily readiness, humility. Should
one ask more?
, among his many poems involving the subject of death, and
Dickinson's words above, are an honest expression of White's inner life, his
inner attitude to much that is life and death and, for many of his readers, of
White distances his poems from his personality, as Robert Hayden had done
before him. Poetic thought and emotion should have their "life in the poem and
not in the history of the poet: such was White's view regarding the writing of
poetry. The emotion of poetry, for White, was essentially impersonal."
This was the position of the New Critical
Movement in poetry that had its beginnings at the turn of the century. The
writer of the poem is not delivering a personal letter but, rather, he is the
medium of an experience. He ceases to exist and it is the experience that
belongs to all who can read and understand. The poem often, if not always, has
its origins in the history, the life, of the poet, but the poet tells it
'slant,' indirectly and his words become, for the attentive reader, theirs.
Virtually all of White's poems are a reflection of this spirit, this critical
attitude. In The Sermon
22 and Ladies' Verse,
one could site many more examples, like Dickinson, White
frequently writes of death, the afterlife, heaven and hell, God, the soul. Some
might say that, like Dickinson, he is obsessed with these subjects. But, given
that this book of poetry is a "homage to Emily Dickinson," it is only fitting
that White should be concerned with the same subjects that concerned Dickinson
in her 1775 poetic oeuvre. White often sees things in ways his readers have
not seen before. He asks readers to look at things they might not want to, face
realities they might not want to. Without quoting from poem after poem, I
shall content myself with some simple ideas and perhaps a few illustrative
In The Traveller
throughout most of the poem of the excitement, the pride, the cheering, the
jostling throng, the enthusiasms associated with much of life's short-term
goals. For me, I could not help but reminisce over the rich experience that has
been my Bahá'í life since the 1950s, but White finishes the poem on a note of
quiet realism. For the generation of Bahá'ís who, like White, have been working
in the Bahá'í community for between thirty and fifty years or more the note,
expressed in the last two lines, is just right:
seeks New Jerusalem
And knows the journey long.
Anyone who has worked in this Cause for most of the last half of the twentieth
century knows that the road is 'long, stony and tortuous.' The wondrous new
buildings on Mt. Carmel are certainly a sign of the 'New Jerusalem.' There is
much reason for celebration, for cheering but, in the end, he or she knows the
journey is long and will require all they have in the midst of the darkness
both in the world and, from time to time, in they own dear lives.
Ostensibly, so much of White's poetry is, as I said above, about immortality,
death and eternity. But Bahá'ís learn a great deal about their Faith or, to put
it more precisely, White writes so superbly about their experience that they
understand their lives more fully than before. And that is enough to make
White a much loved poet. In the poem Disclosure,
for example, White begins by describing the
process of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation perhaps as beautifully as anyone has
hitherto described it:
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
And the purpose of this Revelation, these hieroglyphics, White tells us
Are given as our library---
Bahá'u'lláh has 'ordained for our training every atom in existence and the
essence of all created things,' as He writes in the Hidden Words; or, as He
writes in another context, if we look at the atom we will find the sun. There
is wisdom both 'from on high' in His Words, in the Revelation and in all of
existence. White continues:
We, star-affrighted, gaze to
Where furnished in an atom's tome
Is erudition of the sky---
The reader can interpret these words in various ways to translate their
meanings. For my money I see the 'star-affrighted' individual turning to the
world of phenomenal existence, the 'land', where he will find a world of
learning and meaning. Such an individual turns to this material existence and
away from the stars, the Writings, because they are too awesome, too
mysterious. The individual finds 'erudition' in the land and misses the
erudition of higher forms: the Writings, the stars, the sky. The reader, of
course, can unpack these lines in other ways. To each his own. This is part of
the very beauty of poetry.
The dust-affronted student lifts
A blank uncomprehending eye.
We are one and all 'affronted' by the 'dust,' the overwhelming, the pervasive,
aspect of our existence and we, thus, exhibit 'A blank uncomprehending eye.'
One can only understand a small portion of the entire world.
And swivelling will not read the book
From which his glance will dart again,
Though it's indexed in his jugular
Where love annunciates its name.
This 'uncomprehending,' 'dust-affronted' individual---and there are hundreds of
millions of them---swivels away on his chair from the Bahá'í book he was
loaned. Or he looks at the book for a short time, but 'his glance' darts away
'again.' The idea that the Bahá'í message is meant for everyone to hear is
expressed so graphically in the phrase 'indexed in his jugular.'
And, finally, the last stanza:
Will not admit
Which looms a startled blink away
To bleach with gold the retina
Resigned in arrogance to grey.
I find the metaphorical significance, even beauty, of what White writes here
helps to put in focus the teaching process that I have been engaged in for over
forty years. White is easy to underestimate because his metaphors are so
stunning, so gentle, so elegant. The Bahá'í writings, White is saying here, can
' bleach with gold the retina,' but most people are 'resigned in arrogance to
grey' because they "Will not admit' the wonder, the grandeur, the
'magnificence' of this newly emerging world religion. What a world of meaning
in the words resigned in arrogance to grey!
Disbelief is a rejection of
divine reality; it implies a refusal of grace. White is expressing here, in
words that echo Bahá'u'lláh's utterance in one of His tablets: Woe betide
him who hath rejected the grace of God and His bounty, and hath denied His
tender mercy and authority."
Like Dickinson, White knows that the highest perceptual ecstasy comes just as
the object vanishes from sight.
fleeting our perceptions the greater their distinctiveness. The transience and
formlessness of experience give lustre to what we do achieve. Expressing that
lustre in the form of a covenant, an "exquisite bond,"
and introducing his poem with the words from one of
Emily's letters: "everyday life seems mightier," White writes:
Life gives so strong a covenant
Who shall not sign in trust?
Its smallest clause empowered to
Bind atom-sun or dust.
To all-compelling contract
Though codicil be pain
Adheres the constant signatory
Till only God remains.
All that fidelity attracts
A lenient bench reviews;
Sealed by the very hand of God
Exquisite bond renews.
Unlike Dickinson, who "delineates a oneness that is really a seething
competition of irreconcilable opposites,"
who can not see any divine plan in this overwhelming, omnipresent cosmic
oneness, for whom unity collapses under her genuinely tragic gaze,
White has found such a unity, a basis for
unity, and has examined its basis for over thirty years before he came to write
this poem. He has believed and sought to understand in the context of a quite
literal 'covenant,' a covenant that binds all of creation. He accepts that pain
is at the heart of life, at the heart of this covenant and that fidelity is a
crucial aspect of this 'exquisite bond,' this covenant.
For White there is no separation of the "active" and the "contemplative" facets
of our lives, no more separation of "mysticism" from "practicality." There is a
oneness of vision and form and he gathers the powers of his mind and
imagination to serve the establishment of a spiritual kingdom. He strives to do
this in a language that is "moderate, tempered and infinitely courteous," and
not filled with "dissent, discord and disdain." In so doing he whispers in our
bones and arteries and "the isolated and speechless elements in a community"
can find their voices in his poetic harmony. White becomes, for many of his
readers, "the clear song of the hidden bird" in their own hearts. Part of his
ability to do this derives from the grounding of his awareness in his own
shortcomings, his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This tempers his voice
and trains, in the words of Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, "his vision with compassionate
The 'death poetry' of Dickinson and White needs to be given some special
attention in any essay on One Bird One Cage One Flight
. Both poets
characterize death with images of light.
In the last poem before the epilogue, a poem entitled Last Words
example, White writes about a radiant, unbearable and burning light
and a rank, radiant as light,
a rank of angels--
Oh what a dear confusion!
and God's face bright, not angry
and the gleaming City, white and past imagining,
Dickinson frequently balanced the visionary optimism she occasionally expressed
with a rather grim picture of death. Not so with White. He often muses on
death with a sadness and a tongue-in-cheek:
Left her portrait on the pillow--
Detail complete, save breath.
my thought in knotless skein
Unspoken, mile by mile,
A league from immortality
Lay down my wool and smile.
Like Dickinson White explores the affects of death upon human perception. The
ability to perceive is the most cherished aspect of human identity so that,
when perception is gone at the point of death, what might the experience after
death be like when we are 'sucked into its deep'? White offers us none of 'her
secrets.' Death's lips are sealed 'with stone.' This is about as cold, as
indifferent, as horrific, as White gets.
Death is like the
The scaled beast it gives keep
Will, careless, swim its dark coil's length
Till sucked into its deep.
Who'd tell its gulping treachery,
While down indifferent centuries
The blanching Sphinx looks on
And none may pry her secrets--
Her reason overthrown--
The horror fixed her mindless stare
And sealed her lips with stone.
In another context, somewhat softer, when death comes with its 'fang,'
It gives no cause to weep
That greater pen enfold the lamb
In everlasting keep.
Here our perception of death, our view of its meaning, is the very source of
our identity. Death has no horror; indeed, it is inviting. As the poem closes
death turns us toward life and forces us to admire and cherish it:
Then ring the bell and call the flock
Ingather all that stray
But mark the beast intractable
The fields invite to stay.
White's unflinching acknowledgment of death provides him with a tragi-comic
view of life. With Dickinson the reader is presented with her enhanced
perceptions of life. With White we laugh and, almost in the same breath, we
view the tragic but the tragic has soft edges:
like Jonah in the dark
I ride the journey out
And count truth's ribs, bemused that faith
So multiplies my doubt.
Doubt for White is, as it clearly is for William Hatcher in his several
articles about science and religion, the logical concomitant of faith.
Explanation does not dispel mystery and
doubt. Progress is the product not only of transcending the old, but it is also
an appreciation of perspectives old and new. So often it is how we view things
that inhibits our capacity to wonder. White, viewing things sub specie
, views them with irony in a context of eternal struggle, an
eternal struggle, that is accepted as part and parcel of the reality of life
Across his soul's scarred battlefield
Where all his pride was slain
The legions of his enemy
Prepare to strike again.
The lines he writes are only a slight "palliative" for the "ravages of grief"
when they come. He will continue to "hobble on the page for ease"
and doubt will continue to be part of his
A mosquito buzzes round my faith
I think to name him doubt.
This small book of poems is divided into four parts of between twenty-five and
thirty-one poems each with an epilogue of three poems. Fifteen pages of notes
and a bibliography are included to guide readers through the life of the woman
whose journey and poetry has inspired White. Each section opens with a
quotation from the Bahá'í writings and the Bible. A simple drawing also
embellishes both the cover and the opening page of each section. A tone of
childlike simplicity is conveyed by these drawings. It is a tone that is also
one of the many outstanding qualities of White's poetry.
Many of the poems are preceded by quotations from the more than seven hundred
extant letters that Dickinson wrote between 1865 and 1885. It is not the
purpose of this essay to examine the life of Emily Dickinson, rather the
purpose is to examine the poetry of White and Dickinson, to the extent that
each of their respective works throws light on the other's.
The first section of the book, some twenty-nine poems, takes us through Emily's
years eleven to nineteen and is called 'Spring Song.' Most of the poems are
written in the abcb rhyme pattern and some in the aabb style. The rhythm is
iambic tetrametre and trimetre. They are usually quite easy to read compared
to Dickinson's poetic complexity, ambiguity and her often seeming chaotic
meandering. While Dickinson's universe often seems to be 'a cosmos in tatters,'
White presents a world that seems
balanced, cogent, elegant, elevated, graceful and, most importantly, familiar.
Humorous, perspicuous, satirical and sentimental, his poetry rarely seems far
away. On a clear day White can smile forever, especially through the mundane:
Deliver me from cooking stoves
From kitchens, pots and pans;
The only meal I select
Is that which heaven plans.
Only unbearable stress can extract the precious essence of life.
Dickinson and White both know this. White puts it this
Attentive is the scholar
That Master, pain, instructs;
A vivid erudition
His tutelage inducts.
White knows life is a battle. In the following stanzas he shows his
understanding of the battle in life and a desire to be rid of it:
Long has the chaffing struggle raged
And God alone can know
When might the captive, fervour gained,
Slip his lax chains and go.
There is an anguish, a depth of passion in the occasional tormented lament.
There is the story of pain endured and of life's travail in White's poetry
but, for the most part, this experience seems to have bred "an ancient
and some amalgam of that robust
quality that is part of the
very stock of White's ancestry and that gentleness and wisdom which has come,
it would seem, from a lifetime's association with the newest of the world's
Dickinson's attitude to God was, at times, suspicious, fearful and resentful.
White's is one that sees a danger in death, but a warmth and fulfilment in the
long haul, in the heavenly experience. He contrasts death's "stone" and "iced,
mean bone" with heaven's "kinder home" and its "pillows with fulfilment."
And meanwhile, in this earthly life, death
"stalks across" his "choicest day" and plunders everything he sees. There is
clearly a gentle side to death's ambience in White's poetry.
In the latter stages of Dickinson's life 'the pearl' comes to occupy the
symbolic centre-stage of her poetry.
Dickinson seems to deal more effectively with existential loss in her latter
years. In White's work light comes to occupy the centre of his mise-en-scene.
These, too, are White's latter years. Nothing stains the white radiance of
eternity in this climactic poem Last Words:
Father, calling, calling--and the light!
The light of immolation! Unto Thee lift up mine eyes...
Oh this lifting, lifting--
lifting beyond sense,
past doubt and why and how!
Bright Presence, lift me now!
Between this consummation in part four and many of the opening poems discussed
above in part one we have the core of the book: the summer and autumn seasons.
The most prolific years of Dickinson's life were the 1860s, especially the
early 1860s. White gives us some thirty-one poems in this section, the years
1860 to 1869, the most of any of the four seasons. They were also Dickinson's
most prolific years.
"The life of action," says Stephen Spender in his The Making of a Poem in
the Creative Process
, "always seems to me an act of cutting oneself off
That was unquestionably true of Dickinson who is now seen down the corridors of
time as the eccentric recluse who increasingly shut herself off from the world
as she got older. White captures the terror of her reclusiveness and the
elusiveness, fear and potential intimacy of the Divine Who is always waiting at
our metaphorical door with His 'hello', as The Caller:
The lady's tread upon the step,
Her hand upon the bell,
And all the rattling house grows wise
As when a solemn knell.
The lady, here, is the Divine Caller Who comes for us at our death. When She
My heart knifed by insistent ring
I steel myself to go
With dread swamped pulse to swing the door
Upon her fraught hello.
White gives his readers, through the window of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, a
series of perspectives on death that are consistent with the Bahá'í writings
but provide insights that are refreshing in their profundity, their wisdom,
their sheer delight.
"Talent perceives differences," wrote W.B. Yeats, "genius unity." A major
concern in Yeats' life was to hammer his thoughts into unity. 
Whites, possessing a philosophy of unity, draws
quintessentially on the everyday and articulates a poetic with unity at its
centre. But it is a unity surrounded by an immense diversity and a certain
To everything but anguish
The mind will soon adjust:
Uninvited, that marauder,
Invading, trails with dust
About the scrupulous household
The tidy mind maintains
Sets soiling boots on ottoman,
Remotest chamber gains--
Wrenches down the damask curtains,
Break's housewife's favourite bowl
And storms up faith's chaste stairway
To bed the baulking soul.
The context for this anguish is the simple everyday reality, a reality we all
understand only too well, for anguish is unquestionably a universal
Part two(1860-1869), Part three(1870-1879) and Part four(1880-1886) deal with
their respective sections of Dickinson's life. Her particular cosmology, her
world view, plays with a Calvinistic Christian orientation and a personal
vision embodying the imagination at its centre. White's play is with an
imagination sharing "a path or circuit of things through forms and so makes
them translucid to others."
attempts to wed the powers of mystic and poet in a process of perpetual motion
back and forth across all points of the sphere, so to speak. He tries to fuse
vision and form. Light for him is a unifying idea. Some of his work can be
appreciated quickly, but the depths do not reveal themselves quickly. His
poetic art only opens up to readers with patience and time. White had another
decade of poetry to give to his readers. Many had been hooked on White before
reading this his third main book of poetry. But most of his readers had yet to
arrive on the scene.
There is a humility that graces so many of White's poems. It has nothing to do
with a creeping submissiveness.. Although he is quick to point out his own lack
of loyalty and obedience to the divine Message, he takes no perverse pleasure
in making himself out to be a scoundrel. Sober self-knowledge, a low estimate
of his own worth, a reliance on God's love that is so confident that it
overcomes his despondency, a beauteous character that shines through his poetry
like light through clear glass, an ingenuousness, qualities that, for me
anyway, produce a complex human being. He had his inner conflicts, as we all
do, and his poems are partly an expression of these conflicts. Yet at times he
wrote with a childlike, lucid, simplicity with the voice of true innocence, an
innocence that one can only find on the far side of experience.
He did not simply acquiesce in his creed. He grasped it imaginatively and
presented it to his contemporaries with a storehouse of symbols familiar to
their worlds. In the process he forged for himself a style that was
unmistakable and inimitable. If a poet can do this, he is not obliged to do
 Emily Dickinson in Emily Dickinson: The
, T.H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, London, 1970, Poem Number
M. Eliade in Clifton Snider, "A Druidic
Difference: Emily Dickinson and Shamanism," Internet
William Carlos Williams quoted in The
Achievement of Wallace Stevens
, editors, A. Brown and R. Haller, Lippincott
Co., NY, 1962, p.198.
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
This phenomenon is part of the experience of
certain poets. See Justin Whintle, Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas and
, Flamingo, London, 1996, p.237.
John Dryden in Matthew Arnold's Essays in
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.247.
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber,
London, 1958, p. 153.
Joyce Carol Oates, "Soul at the White Heat:
The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," Critical Inquiry,
Summer 1987, p.1.
Arnold describes briefly how Chaucer "makes
an epoch" through his poetry. See Arnold, op.cit.
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
, George Ronald, Oxford, p.20.
Shoghi Effendi quoted in Guidance for
Today and Tomorrow
and The Universal House of Justice, Letter, Ridvan
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art
and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
, Vintage Books, NY, 1991,
Roger White, One Bird One Cage One
, 1982, p.41.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Matthew Arnold, op.cit.
Robert Lord, Dostoevsky: Essays and P
erspectives, Chatto and
Windus, London, 1970, p. 49.
This is the term Dickinson used to
convey the idea that it is often better to be indirect in telling things than
Joyce Carol Oates, "Soul at the White
Heat: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," Critical Inquiry
Summer 1987, p.3.
John Hatcher,From the Auroral
, George Ronald, Oxford, p.247.
22 Roger White, One Bird One Cage One Flight, p. 38.
Roger White, op.cit
Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of
, Haifa, 1978, p.48.
Greg Johnson, Emily Dickinson:
Perception and the Poet's Quest
, University of Alabama Press, London, 1985,
E.M. Budick, Emily Dickinson and
the Life of Language: As Study in Symbolic Poetics
, Louisiana State
UP, London, 1985, p.6.
Bahiyyih Nakhjvani, "Artist, Seeker and Seer," Baha'I Studies,
, 1982, pp. 16-17. All the reference in this paragraph come from this
Roger White, op.cit
William Hatcher, "Science and Religion," Bahá'í Studies, Vol.2
E.M. Budick, op.cit
Roger White, op.cit
Roger White, op.cit
H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe,
, Fontana, 1960(1935), p.351.
Stephen Spender, The Making of a
Poem in the Creative Process: A Symposium
, University of California
Press, 1952, p.73.
Roger White, op.cit., p. 50.
W.B. Yeats, Yeats' Last Poems,
editor J. Stallworthy.
Roger White, op.cit., p.66.
Bahiyyih Nahkjavani, "Artist, Seeker
and Seer," Bahá'í Studies, Vol.10, p.18.
I have drawn on the work of Margaret Bottrall, George Herbert
Murray, London, 1971 for her analysis of Herbert to make my comparisons.