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19 October 2011

For each extatic instant

For each extatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the extasy –

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of Years –
Bitter contested farthings –
And Coffers heaped with tears!
                                                     - F109 (1859)  125

It’s common enough to think of happiness and sorrow balancing out, of pain that hollows out the place for happiness. But Dickinson here discusses the extremes of the range, ecstasy and anguish, and presents a ratio – a “keen and quivering ratio” as if it is something frightened, sensate, and alive – that overwhelmingly favors anguish. A “beloved hour” must be paid for by deprived Years, by “Bitter” farthings and then whole Coffers of tears. That’s a high price to pay for joy.
            The poem is bleak, portraying a lifetime of few joys and many sorrows. In 1859, most of Dickinson’s greatest sorrows – her severe vision problems, the death of her mother and brother and her beloved nephew – were still ahead. Yet she had known her share of sorrow. A young friend had died when Dickinson was 13 and this shook her badly. Her first “Master” – a young headmaster at Amherst College died suddenly when he was only 25, and a young attorney from her father’s office, a good friend and second “Master” who foretold her significance of a poet, died of tuberculosis. She was beginning her withdrawal from the world and had the good excuse of her invalid mother who needed constant attention.
            Dickinson uses a lot of abstract language in this poem, unlike many of the previous poems. The first stanza sets up the analogy of paying for happiness and the second gives more specifics about the ratio of how much anguish is needed to pay for ecstasy or beloved hours. Because the verse form is restrained – iambic trimeter – and there are no visible people or other concrete objects, the tone itself is majestic rather than smarmy or exuding pathos. So Dickinson is able to use heavy words such as anguish, ecstasy, “keen and quivering” and “heaped with tears” without coming across as melodramatic.

1 comment:

  1. This is extreme but the first stanza could be contrasting the comforts of intimacy to the intervening periods of loneliness. I am really puzzled by the apparently monetary symbolism of the last two lines.

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