On Choosing the Poems
Although some readers treat Dickinson as “above” the crass concerns of economics, it is hard to ignore how many of her poems invoke wealth, riches, gems, gold, royalty, poverty, want, hunger, risk, profit, calculation, value and the desire that undergirds it. As mentioned in the Overview, Dickinson wrote many letters that seem to place herself in a privileged position from which she could condemn the commercialism she saw around her. Given this context, Robert Merideth argues that her poetry uses economic discourse to criticize the “counterfeit values of her time.” Vivian Pollak concurs, while Joan Burbick finds that Dickinson “parodies the economic language of her social class” in order to expose the Victorian Age’s “effort to ‘manage’ sexuality and the emotional experience of desire.”
More recently, James Guthrie reads a series of poems Dickinson wrote about land ownership, an important signifier of wealth at the time, and finds a more mixed attitude:
Dickinson emulates Whiggish attitudes towards property while simultaneously contesting them by treating the subject humorously, but situating the poem’s legal action outside of any conventional judicial purview, and by blurring distinctions (or border lines) between public and private property.
Of the earlier studies, only Cynthia Chaliff argued that the “capitalistic system” became a part of Dickinson’s “psychological dynamics.” Elizabeth Hewitt builds on this approach, noting that
even as criticism has become increasingly attentive to Dickinson’s placement in the economic world, there remains an indefatigable tendency to read her as essentially critical of a nineteenth-century economic culture that is assumed to be antithetical to poetry.
Hewitt argues that Dickinson’s poetry does not support such readings and sets the poet’s appeals to economic discourse in terms of “the emerging discipline of political economy” whose basic principle—that value depended upon desire—Dickinson well knew. Economic discourse was not metaphorical for Dickinson but an analogous form of what she calls “speculative desire,” a kind of “dreaming” that undergirds both capitalism and poetry. In Hewitt’s reading of the poems, she finds that
the logic of the financial marketplace can illuminate other kinds of emotional economies [and that] poetry itself is an act of speculation.
Most provocatively, she speculates that Dickinson refused print publication
as a canny strategy for sustaining the value of her work by insisting on its as precarious property.
Of the many poems Dickinson wrote about wealth, economic and class issues, we have selected one from late in 1861 that illustrates the pattern of her use of economic imagery, four dated to 1862 that are not often discussed, and one that Johnson dates to 1862 but Franklin dates 1863 because it explores an analogy in Dickinson’s economic discourse.
Some more well-known titles that we do not include but are of interest:
From 1861: I lost a World – the other day” (F209 J181) and “One life of so much consequence!” (F248, J270). Sometime in early 1862, Dickinson sent Susan Dickinson a letter that consisted only of the poem “Your – Riches – taught me – poverty” (F418 J299), which we discussed in the post on Sue. Others from 1862, which we discussed previously, are “Removed from Accident of Loss” (F417 J424), “I gave myself to him” (F426, J580), “The Malay took the Pearl”(F451 J452), and “It was given me by the gods” (F455A J454). Two poems from 1864 often mentioned for their economic imagery are: “Color – Caste – Denomination” (F836, J970), and “I play at Riches – to appease” (F856, J801).
What would I give to
see his face?
I'd give – I'd give my life -
of course –
But that is not enough!
Stop just a minute – let me
I'd give my biggest Bobolink!
That makes two – Him – and Life!
You know who "June" is –
I'd give her –
Roses a day from Zinzebar –
And Lily tubes – like wells –
Bees – by the furlong –
Straits of Blue –
Navies of Butterflies – sailed thro' –
And dappled Cowslip Dells –
Then I have "shares" in
Primrose "Banks" –
Daffodil Dowries – spicy "stocks" –
Dominions – broad as Dew –
Bags of Doubloons – adventurous Bees
Brought me – from firmamental
And Purple – from Peru –
Now – have I bought it –
Sign me the Bond!
"I vow to pay
To Her – who pledges this –
One hour – of her Sovreign's
My Kingdom's worth of Bliss!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VIII, Fascicle 11, Houghton Library – (37). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1861. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Atlantic Monthly, 143 (March 1929), 326-27, and Further Poems (1929), 150-51, in one stanza of thirty-five lines; in later collections, of twenty-nine lines.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 11 in the 15th place in late 1861. It is what Elizabeth Hewitt calls one of Dickinson’s “accounting” poems and illustrates the pattern whereby the speaker identifies a loss or absent object of desire and “monetizes” it using economic imagery.
In this poem, the speaker enumerates what she would give up to see the face of an unidentified male figure, described in the last stanza as “her Sovreign.” The identity of the object is, according to Hewitt, “rather beside the point.” The point is to illustrate
the fundamental structure of exchange and valuation … this basic arithmetic or syntax of human wants [in which] value is not intrinsic, but determined by exchange.
This is, for Hewitt,
the logic essential to speculative capitalism, which is that the greater the risk of loss, the more potential value should accrue to the investor.
While this framework is helpful, it glosses over the specific terms of exchange. It is revealing to see just what the speaker would give up, what she values. First, her life, but, she says, “that is not enough!” She then lists natural things, birds and flowers and “June,” the month of highest summer, herself, all linked to the imagery of sailing to and from exotic places like “Zinzebar” or “Peru,” to suggest that these are “cargo” in a mercantile expedition. They become her “shares,” “banks,” “stocks,” “bags of Doubloons,” rare “purple” dye. The rhetorical point is to expand or enrich (pun intended) the terms of the exchange in order, as Hewitt suggests, to increase the value of the desired object and intensify the risk.
But not all “money” is the same. “Bags of Doubloons” suggests pirates, who interrupt capitalist speculation, just as “Ducats” in “I lost a World – the other day!” (F247, J270), another example Hewitt gives of an accounting poem, suggests Shylock’s loss of his daughter Jessica in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and this loss’s obverse, his horrible demand on Antonio for a pound of flesh. And, lo, the tragic Jew appears in the last stanza of this poem, overseeing the speaker’s signing of “the bond” that promises her “One hour” of her beloved’s presence for– a pound of flesh? Betsy Erkkila finds that Dickinson’s references to racial figures, like Jewish merchants, confirms the poet’s sense of her class privilege and a condemnation of mercantilism, but Hewitt counters:
even as Dickinson appeals to the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, her poetry defines itself as engaged in this larger project of assessing value, gauging risk, and making exchanges.
The details of figure and image are important to note in these exchanges, and here they oscillate between worldly and spiritual. For example, one of the speaker’s final exclamations calls this economic relationship an “Extatic Contract!” a phrase that joins Dickinson’s language of spiritual/physical transport (extasy) to a word (contract) that suggests both a financial instrument of exchange that binds both parties equally as well as the marriage contract.
Erkkila, Betsy. "Emily Dickinson and Class.” American Literary History 4.1 (Spring 1992): 1-27, 16.
Hewitt, Elizabeth. “Economics.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 188-97, 191, 195.
I'll clutch – and clutch –
Next – One – Might be the
golden touch –
Could take it –
Diamonds – Wait –
I'm diving – just a little
But stars – go slow – for night –
I'll string you – in fine necklace –
Tiaras – make – of some –
Wear you on Hem –
Loop up a Countess – with you –
Make – a Diadem – and mend
my old One –
Count – Hoard – then lose –
And doubt that you are mine –
To have the joy of feeling
it – again –
I'll show you at the Court –
Bear you – for Ornament
Where Women breathe –
That every sigh – may lift
Just as high – as I –
And – when I die –
In meek array – display you –
Still to show – how rich I go –
Lest Skies impeach a wealth
so wonderful –
And banish me –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19, Houghton Library – (145a). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 110-11, from a transcript of A (a 509).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 19 in the 7th position around autumn 1862. It is notable for having no set syllabic pattern but a discernible structure of alternating long and much shorter lines. The conceit involves a speaker who offers to snatch valuable objects — gold, diamonds, pearls (“diving”) and stars from the night sky — to make necklaces, tiaras, diadems, precious edging for hems that she will wear as “Ornaments” to “show you at Court.” The imaginary scenario harks back to monarchic rule and worldly opulence.
We soon realize that these precious objects are figures for a beloved the speaker wants to
Count – Hoard – then lose
And doubt that you are mine –
To have the joy of feeling
it – again –
The central economic dynamic of this poem is also psychological— that of the miser and obsessive: to “clutch,” a word that connotes extreme avidity, and “count” one’s wealth in the beloved, to “hoard it” and then “lose” it, doubt one’s possession of it only to experience the “joy” of re-experiencing the fact of one’s possession again, even to show it off in order to produce and enjoy the envy of others. “Feeling” is an important word in Dickinson’s lexicon because it connotes knowing on a physical, sensual, material level.
I cried at Pity – not at Pain –
I heard a Woman say
"Poor Child" – and something
in her voice
+Convinced myself of me –
So long I fainted, to myself
It seemed the common way,
And Health, and Laughter,
curious things –
To look at, like a Toy –
To sometimes hear "Rich people" buy –
And see the Parcel rolled –
And carried, + we supposed – to Heaven,
For children, made of Gold –
But not to touch, or wish for,
Or think of, with a sigh –
As so and so – had been to + us,
Had God willed differently.
I wish I knew that Woman's
So when she comes this way,
To hold my life, and hold my
For fear I hear her say
She's "sorry I am dead" – again –
Just when the Grave and I –
Have sobbed ourselves almost
Our only Lullaby –
+Convicted me of me + I + me
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19, Houghton Library – (148c). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1896), 166, stanzas 5 and 6. Stanzas 1-3 and the first two lines of stanza 4 were published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 100-101, from a transcript of A (a tr499).
Like the previous poem, this poem was also copied into Fascicle 19, in the 16th place around autumn 1862. Richard Sewall considers it in his biography under “Childhood,” but also notes that Dickinson
uses childhood as a metaphor for conveying an attitude toward a kind of pain that may have had nothing to do with childhood–frustration of any sort, the experience of being excluded, or even, as has been suggested, frustration as poet.
He refers to Ruth Miller’s linking of this poem to Dickinson’s reaction to the pity her Amherst friends felt for her after Samuel Bowles published an editorial in the Springfield Republican in 1860 condemning what he called “the literature of misery,” written largely by gifted but unhappy women.
More relevant to our discussion is the poem’s insight into the operation of “pity” in class terms. In the first stanza, the pitying “Woman” calls the bereft child “poor,” while the speaker suggests she is not poor in monetary terms, but in “Health and Laughter.” Hearing this paternalism cloaked in tones of sympathy causes the speaker to question the very value of her own existence. The speaker then offers a comparison to “Rich people” buying expensive gifts for their children that she can never “touch, or wish for, / Or think of.” It is the “something” in the voice of pity that wounds the speaker to her core. With all her class privileges, it is notable that Dickinson understood the wounding of the less fortunate by paternalism and a pity that reaffirms class hierarchy, which is perhaps why she turns to a rather Dickensian scenario of class differences to figure the disembodying and diminishing effects of pity.
Miller, Ruth. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968, 164.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 329.
I had been hungry, all the
My Noon had Come – to dine –
I trembling drew the Table near –
And touched the Curious Wine –
'Twas this on Tables I had
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows, for the
I could not hope – + for Mine –
I did not know the ample
'Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often
In Nature's – Dining Room –
The Plenty hurt me – 'twas so
Myself felt ill – and odd –
As Berry – of a Mountain Bush –
Transplanted – to the Road –
Nor was I hungry – so I found
That Hunger – was a way
Of +persons Outside Windows –
The entering – takes away -
+ Things +to earn +Creatures
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVI, Fascicle 15 (part), Houghton Library – (143c). Includes 8 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 76-77, with the alternatives not adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 15 in the 17th place around autumn 1862. It is one of several poems she wrote about hunger and thirst as vehicles to describe desire and need. As Helen Vendler notes, the poem gains some distance by narrating the speaker’s experience in the far past (“had been hungry, all the Years”) and then in the more recent past, when she “drew the Table near” and tried to eat but “The Plenty hurt me.” For Vendler, “The poem allegorizes any and all sorts of mistaken desire.”
Vivan Pollak puts a slightly more positive spin on the poems of thirst and hunger, arguing that the
Dickinson persona concentrates its energies on redefining the normal meaning of starvation and repletion and in the process attempts to redefine and recreate the self.
We should note that the drink and food mentioned here are wine, described resonantly as “Curious,” and “ample Bread.” Wine and bread are elements of the Lord’s Supper, the central sacrament of Christianity that celebrates the participant’s ingestion of Christ’s symbolic body and blood. This opens up the spiritual dimension of desire.
The economic focus appears as the speaker analogizes the bread and wine as “Wealth” she glimpsed longingly through the windows of the rich but “could not hope – for Mine/to earn.” As in the poem above, the speaker evokes a Dickensian scenario of class inequality, with impoverished “persons Outside Windows” excluded from “Plenty.” In the turn of the poem, the speaker discovers that entering the house with the laden table “takes away … That Hunger.”
What has this speaker learned about want, hunger, and envy? That desire makes the object valuable, but having it makes it less important, less alluring? Another comparison offers some hints. The speaker compares herself to a “Berry – of a Mountain Bush / Transplanted – to the Road.” Used to high altitudes, clear air, and solitude, this berry has to adapt to survival on a busy, dusty thoroughfare. Is adaptation to the norm of “plenty” a form self-deception or distortion? Is material “Wealth” or what it stands for, ultimately unsatisfying? In the poem’s heteroglossia “That Hunger – was a way,” but to where? A higher form of consciousness?
Pollak, Vivian. “Thirst and Starvation in in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Judith Farr, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996, 62-75, 67.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 205-08.
Without this – there is nought –
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird –
+Heard opposite the Sea –
I could not care – to gain
A lesser than the Whole –
For did not this include
As Seams – include the Ball?
Or wished a +way might be
My Heart to subdivide –
'Twould magnify – the Gratitude –
And not reduce – the Gold –
+Held + sort
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22, Houghton Library – (105c). Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 97, with the alternatives not adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 22 in the 9th place in late 1862. The startling opening declaration addresses some unidentified form of “Riches” the speaker cannot live without. In stanza one we learn about its magnitude: the sound of the sea compared to the “Twitter of a Bird.” In stanza two we learn that this object of value is “the Whole,” and that the speaker will be satisfied with nothing less than that. The image she offers, “As Seams – include the Ball,” refers to a sphere within its leather or cloth covering, and evokes a mode of consciousness Dickinson calls Circumference, even focusing on the seamed edges or convergences, which, in our post on Circumference, we noted as significant locations of exploration for this frame of mind. But the speaker presents this image as a question, under dispute. We are no longer in the certainty of the opening affirmation.
In the last stanza, the seamed ball morphs into the speaker’s “Heart,” which she wishes she could “subdivide” so that she could “magnify – the Gratitude” she feels (for the Riches she possesses?) “And not reduce – the Gold,” or lose the value of the object.
Susan Kornfeld reads this enigmatic reference to “Gold” as the “gift of poetry that [Dickinson] describes … in F455, “It was given me by the Gods”:
Rich! 'Twas Myself — was rich —
To take the name of Gold —
And Gold to own — in solid Bars —
The Difference — made me bold —”
Kornfeld, Susan. The prowling bee. 06/2013.
Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior –
As soon – Adversity
A Diamond – overtake
In far – Bolivian Ground –
Misfortune hath no
Could mar it – if it found –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXI, Fascicle 27, Houghton Library – (117b, c). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in The Single Hound (1914), 10, from the lost manuscript ([A]).
In this poem, which Dickinson sent to Susan Dickinson and also copied into Fascicle 27 in the 19th place around 1863, she directly analogizes worldly wealth to spiritual wealth and finds the latter superior because unaffected by “reverses.” A “reverse,” according to Dickinson’s Webster’s can be “a turn of affairs; in a good sense,” but also a “Change for the worse, misfortune” with economic implications; the example given is:
By an unexpected reverse of circumstances, an affluent man is reduced to poverty.
As mentioned earlier, Dickinson’s family went through several such “reverses,” losing money in various economic panics. The “fine Prosperity” the speaker refers to here is not material because its “Sources are interior,” something personal, psychological, spiritual.
But the poem then turns on itself in the second stanza, setting up a comparison in which “Adversity” tries to “overtake” a “Diamond … in far – Bolivian Ground.” Even if “Misfortune” could find said Diamond, deep in its mine, it could not “mar it.” Thus, the speaker figures the abstract interior “prosperity” as a form of wealth that is quite material, “interior” in the sense of needing to be mined, but an external marker of prosperity subject to the impersonal “reverses” of the marketplace.
Hallen, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson's Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Burbick, Joan. “Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire.” American Literature 58.3 (October 1986): 361-78, 377.
Chaliff, Cynthia. “The Psychology of Economics in Emily Dickinson.” Literature and Psychology 18 (1968), 93.
Guthrie, James. “‘Some things that I called mine’: Dickinson and the Perils of Property Ownership.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 9, 2 (Fall 2000): 16-22, 17.
Hewitt, Elizabeth. “Economics.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 188-97, 190, 194, 196.
Merideth, Robert. Robert. “Emily Dickinson and the Acquisitive Society.” The New England Quarterly 37.4 (1964), 435-52, 436.
Pollak, Vivian R. “‘That Fine Prosperity’: Economic Metaphors in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” Modern Language Quarterly 34 (I973).