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23 November 2011

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –

A little bread – a crust – a crumb –
A little trust – a demijohn –
Can keep the soul alive –
Not portly, mind! but breathing – warm –
Conscious – as old Napoleon,
The night before the Crown!

A modest lot – A fame petite –
A brief Campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A Sailor's business is the shore!
A soldier's – balls! Who asketh more,
Must seek the neighboring life!
                                                                        F134 (1860)  159

We get a bit of advice here from that modest though upper-middle-class Emily Dickinson. In a later poem she will say that “hope is the thing with feathers,” but here she doesn’t address hope but having just the necessities: enough, if even barely, to eat, breath, warmth, a “modest lot” in life. Add to that a pinch of “sting and sweet” in the “brief Campaign” of life and that “Is plenty! Is enough!” One doesn’t have to get fat or “portly” on good food.
            In the second stanza she uses two analogies to drive home the message of being content with the business of living rather than on getting ahead or being famous: sailors have to focus on the shore, whether it’s to find it or to land safely on it, or simply to know where their boat is; a soldier must focus on weaponry – musket or cannon balls, or the battle is lost. And just as being good at their business can mean the difference between life and death, so too if we don’t focus on the essentials but instead on obtaining something other than what is needful for life, then we should be searching in the afterlife.
Demijohn(Pottery Barn catalog)
            The exuberance of tone, the exclamation marks, the italics, the parallel structures of  a this and a that, of “Is plenty! Is enough!” are at odds with the sobering advice. It would be a hard life to just have a crumb of bread, a demijohn of drink and just a brief bit of “sting and sweet." Is that what the poet is advocating? Perhaps Dickinson is getting at something else here: A crumb of recognition for her poetry perhaps – and that would go with the “little trust,” for some of her first readers (such as her "Preceptor" Higginson) may have praised her work but fundamentally didn’t trust its soundness. Read as a poet wishing she had just a little bit of respect, the tone can now be read as ironic: she isn’t asking for full-throated praise or fame – just “A fame petite.” The smallest encouragement would help her keep her art alive. She mentions Napolean the “night before the Crown” when he was “conscious”; she may be saying that too much glory and fame are detrimental. She'd like just a little, enough to keep her art alive, so she can focus on her own “business” – poetry.
            Perhaps she is speaking of love, though, and asking for just a crumb to keep her soul alive. But I prefer to think it is her poetry that sparks life in Dickinson and that poetry is to her what shore is to sailors.


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