I was asked by a friend to read at an evening of poetry he’s organizing. I said yes. He’s paired me with a young Greek poet who will be reading in translation the poems that I will recite in the original. One of the poems we will read is Emily Dickinson’s “Ample make this bed.”
The poet suggested we read it. I tell him it is one of my favorite Dickinson poems, too. But I’m anxious about reading it in public.
I think, no matter how I read it, the audience will be hearing a different voice: Stingo’s in the closing scene of Sophie’s Choice, as he looks on to Nathan and Sophie on their deathbed.
The poem is one of those works of art so wedded to their later interpretative history that the two are hard to extricate. Think of Dukas’ symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Can you listen to this without seeing an army of bucket-laden walking brooms? It’s what happens to me when I reread Auden’s “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”. All I see is Matthew delivering the eulogy at Garth’s funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
I think, how could my listeners not recall Stingo’s reading? It’s one of those carefully orchestrated moments in the film in which music, sound and lighting work in concert to move us quite deliberately and literally to tears. It is a memorable moment, even if very little actually occurs. The only action we see—and we hear it more than we see it—are the few steps Stingo makes toward the couple as he reads. The scene is almost painterly in its preference for visual detail over movement.
The camera holds its distance from the bodies of the two lovers, more out of respect for their intimacy, it seems, than in mourning. The light of day slips low into the room through half-drawn shades and curtains, as if it, too, wanted to pay its respects. For a city apartment there is no noise to be heard. Instead there’s the music – the graceful, gentle rise of the woodwinds signaling the “light escape” of the lovers’ souls, their release from the pain and guilt that wracked their earthly lives. Stingo reads:
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
His reading is more prayer than poetry. And there’s something unusual about it—the very long pause he makes after the phrase “in it”. It leaves the phrase to echo in our mind, calling our attention to the bed as a place to be in. Or better, inside, as if the bed were a container. Something made, something built. A coffin, of course, that will lie sealed in sacred ground, undisturbed until the “excellent and fair” day of Final Judgment.
I doubt if my listeners will remember the other time that the poem is read in the movie. Yes, the poem is read twice in the movie.
A bed figures in the other reading as well, the one that takes place at beginning of Nathan and Sophie’s relationship. The two are in love. They read poetry to each other. In fact, they owe their very meeting to poetry. Nathan comes to Sophie’s aid as she faints following an unpleasant encounter with a rude librarian (she had been looking for the poetry of “Emil Dickens”). Sophie and Nathan have just taken turns reading parts of Look Homeward Angel in Polish and English. And now Nathan begins to read Dickinson.
This scene, too, is masterfully filmed, and scored as deftly as the final scene. The bed is now a marriage bed (though the two are not married), ample with promise. The poem is a prayer here, too, but one that asks for blessing as much as protection.
As the poem draws to its close, the camera pans out and the light slowly dims, like the drawing on of dusk, until all that remains is a shawl of light cast by a bedside lamp. You can almost sense the gathering stillness in the room as the two lovers’ retreat into the comfort of their intimacy, unperturbed for the time being by the ghosts that still visit them.
I tell the young poet I am afraid the audience will be replaying the deathbed scene from Sophie’s Choice when I read. He says there’s no reason to worry. Everyone has their own bed in mind, he tells me. “Anyway,” he asks me, “why are you sure they’ll remember the second and not the first reading?” I suddenly feel as if I’m back in college, gently being corrected my teacher.
He’s right, of course. I also think of a bed when I read it, and it is not Nathan and Sophie’s. It’s usually the same one, a bed from the time I first fell in love.
It’s odd that I should remember that bed. The bed of young lovers is often narrow, and ours was no exception. A dormitory bed. and in the summer an attic cot, was all the bed we had. And the bed was rarely made. Sheets would lie rumpled and bunched at our feet, the pillows tossed on the floor. If we made the bed at all, we’d do it hastily. We never left ourselves time to make the bed because we were so reluctant to get out of it in the first place. Getting out of bed meant unraveling ourselves from each other’s arms, and there was very little outside the bed that rewarded us as much as what we did in the bed. Even if that was nothing more than lying in each other’s embrace.
The bed was narrow but also grand, and we approached it with awe. For how could anything that contained and gave space to our love, itself so true and full, be anything but ample? The bed was our world. There we made love and played music and ate leftover pizza. We read poetry to each other. He read his poems, I, a borrower even then, read him Whitman and Crane.
The bed was a refuge, too, a place of our own. I never saw it as a secret place—we were too much in love (and proud of our love) to be concerned with the way others saw us. We saw no need for discretion. But the bed was a place of retreat from the “noisy interruptions” of the world about us.
It was a happier place than the hotel attic room that Erneste and Jakob share in A Perfect Waiter, Alain Sulzer’s moving tale of fidelity and betrayal, or the dark, curtainless room in which Giovanni and David live out their brief and tragic passion in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. But we had the same desire to keep the world far from our bed. But this may be true of all lovers at the start.
At some point, though, the world intrudes upon us. Daily cares and drudgery make their way into the lovers’ bed, along with the tics and quirks and the minor (or major) demons we each are burdened with. It makes for a crowded bed. And it heralds the advent of a different kind of judgment, one that weighs how well we love when passion makes its slow, inevitable retreat.
The two readings of the poem in Sophie’s Choice can be viewed here:
John Hannah’s reading of the W.H. Auden poem in Four Weddings can be viewed here.
Image: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris. 1962