Cultureteca 06.09.15

Cultureteca 17

Extending a recent discussion on Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘I can wade Grief’, Cultureteca opens this week looking back 150 years, to the poet’s poetry and concurrent eye troubles across 1865. We then cover a brief history of New Zealand flags, as the country moves towards a referendum considering whether to adopt one of several new designs. And finally a quick look at the new Metal Gear Solid game, subtitled ‘The Phantom Pain’.

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Emily Dickinson 150 Years Ago: Bad Eyes, Suggestive Colours

Following swiftly on from the recent piece ‘Emily Dickinson – “I can wade Grief” (1962)”‘ – a brief biography of the poet, a summation of her style, and a close reading of her poem ‘I can wade Grief’ – I thought I would open this edition of Cultureteca looking back more narrowly at what was occupying this great American writer precisely 150 years ago.

In The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Volume 1), edited in 1955 by Thomas H. Johnson and part of the first attempt to provide Dickinson’s complete poems, with her unique punctuation and syntax intact, Johnson wrote:

‘Emily Dickinson was born to her talent but she felt no dedication towards her art until she was about twenty-eight years old, in 1858. By 1962 her creative impulse was at flood tide, and by 1865 the greater part of her poetic energies were spent.’

Johnson goes on to admit that many of Dickinson’s later verses were ‘among her greatest creations’; while his assertion that ‘excepting half a dozen occasional verses […] there is not a single scrap of poetry that can be dated earlier than 1858’ has been challenged by modern scholarship, and it remains unclear how many of the poems Dickinson compiled after 1858 were clean copies or revisions of earlier work. Still, it is evident that the years from 1858 to 1865 were Dickinson’s most active. Johnson estimated that in 1858 Dickinson wrote 50 poems; almost 100 in 1859; 65 in 1860; more than 80 in 1861; 366 in 1862; 140 in 1863; nearly 200 in 1864; and about 80 in 1865.

Between 1864 and 1865, Dickinson underwent several treatments for a painful eye condition. Travelling to Cambridgeport, she stayed with her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross from April to December 1864, remaining under the care of the leading Boston ophthalmologist Dr Henry Willard Williams. This was a process she repeated from April to October 1865, at which point she was apparently cured. She failed to keep a further appointment the following year, and these two stays in Cambridge proved her last trips beyond Amherst. While the condition obviously affected her writing – she described 1864 as ‘eight months of Siberia’, and remarked frequently on her illness – she managed to keep up a regular schedule of poetry and correspondence.

While Dickinson’s hand-sewn manuscripts defy absolute accuracy, a couple of poems dated mid-to-late 1865 show her conceptualising colour. ‘Nature rarer uses Yellow’ sees Dickinson vividly thinking through a sunset, with nature as carefully selective with yellow as a lover when choosing the words to grace their loved one. The idea that yellow is a rare colour in nature is disputable, and challenged by other artists and writers – Vincent van Gogh in the different environs of Arles in southern France began seeing yellow in every feature; and James Joyce could readily conceive Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea as snotgreen – but perhaps the expense of scarlet reflects something of the American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865.

Meanwhile ‘My Cocoon tightens—Colors teaze’ has Dickinson grasping for the unknowable. The poem is displayed below as found in Dickinson’s manuscript, with two variants, in the first and second stanzas, which have sometimes appeared in published versions of the poem’s text.

‘Nature rarer uses Yellow’ (1865), by Emily Dickinson

Nature rarer uses Yellow
Than another Hue –
Saves she all of that
for Sunsets
Prodigal of Blue

Spending Scarlet, like
a Woman
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and
Like a Lover’s Words –

‘My Cocoon tightens—Colors teaze’  (1865), by Emily Dickinson

My Cocoon tightens—
Colors teaze—
I’m feeling for the Air— 
A dim capacity for
(Degrades) Demeans the Dress I wear— 

A power of Butterfly must
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty
—(implies) concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky— 

So I must baffle at
the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder,
if at last
I take the clue divine—

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New Zealanders Mass Debate Flag

New Zealand’s first flag was adopted in March 1834 after a meeting of Māori chiefs at Waitangi. The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was designed by the missionary Henry Williams, and featured a St George’s Cross, with a red cross on a blue field containing four stars in the canton: the name for the rectangular segment on a flag’s upper hoist side.

Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand

After the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840, which established a British Governor of New Zealand, the British Union Jack was promulgated instead of the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Then from the late 1860s, several original designs emerged based on the Blue Ensign: a plain blue field, with the Union Jack in the canton. A flag along these lines, with the addition of four stars representing the Southern Cross asterism, was finally adopted in March 1902, and it remains the national flag of New Zealand.

New Zealand Flag

From the 1970s on, New Zealanders have routinely debated changing their flag. The design most often advocated by officials, referred to as the ‘silver fern’, shows a white fern on a black background.

Silver Fern Flag

At last on 11 March 2014, Prime Minister John Key – in the process of campaigning for the year’s September general election – announced his intention to hold a referendum in the next parliament on the adoption of a new flag. With Key’s National Party retaining power in September, Key was free to follow through on his pledge.

So at the start of last week, from forty contenders, the government unveiled a four-flag-strong shortlist. In November, New Zealanders will be invited to vote in a first referendum, choosing which of the four shortlisted designs they like most. Then next March or April, a second referendum will ask if they want the new design after all, or if they are happy to keep their 1902 effort.

New Zealand Flag Options

Three of the four shortlisted designs depict ferns, one of New Zealand’s national symbols; while the other displays a Māori koru, a spiral shape meant to represent a fern still in the process of unfurling. The koru design was devised by Andrew Fyfe, the black-and-white fern design by Alofi Kanter, and the two ferns with Southern Crosses by Kyle Lockwood. The designs have been widely derided as unimaginative, unindicative of New Zealand, and a waste of money, and as things stand only twenty-five percent of New Zealanders appear in favour of making a switch.

However over the past week, support has mounted via social media behind one of the rejected long-list offerings: the Red Peak flag of Aaron Dustin. A petition on has already gathered more than 23,000 signatures, but Prime Minister Key seems adamant that the Red Peak flag will not be added to November’s ballot paper.

Red Peak

So there’s a fiasco. And let us take this opportunity to look at what, according to Wikipedia, are the five most recently devised and adopted national flags, in reverse order:

Serbia. First used: 2004. Officially adopted: 2010.
South Sudan. First used: 2005. Officially adopted: 2011.
Lesotho. First used: 2006. Officially adopted: 2006.
Kosovo. First used: 2008. Officially adopted: 2008.
Myanmar. First used: 2010. Officially adopted: 2010.

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Launch

Finally on a personal front this week I finally purchased a current generation gaming console, having persisted this long with my trusty Xbox 360: bought sometime late 2007, never succumbing to the red ring of death or to any other vice or woe, and still running effectively today, with its wealth of games available at cheap prices. And for all of its good service, I still opted to turn for this generation to the PlayStation 4, largely based on Sony’s array of console exclusives.

This week saw the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The eleventh and ostensibly final installment in the Metal Gear series, I acquired the game along with its special edition PlayStation 4 console, in red with gold detailing.


I last attempted a Metal Gear game back on the original PlayStation, and didn’t really enjoy the experience. Thus far on the PS4 I have been playing Grand Theft Auto V, a game whose main storyline I already completed on the Xbox; and for the first time The Last of Us, which is a model of the sort of thing which drew me back towards a PlayStation. Still apparently the latest Metal Gear is the most fun yet, and here is the launch trailer: