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29 January 2012

I cautious, scanned my little life –

I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what would last till Heads like mine
Should be a’dreaming laid.

I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo - my priceless Hay

Was not upon the "Scaffold" –
Was not upon the "Beam" –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.

Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity's guiltless –
My business is, to find!

So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?
                                                - F175 (1860)  178

Winnowing Wheat
The poem takes as its beginning the separating of the wheat (the good part) from the chaff (the bad, husky parts), which is a Biblical metaphor. The poet pauses in her life and takes a careful, “cautious” stock. She threw out (“winnowed”) what she thought transient and put aside in a supposedly safe place what she thought would endure her entire life.
            The safe place, though, the “Barn” (in keeping with the agricultural metaphor of wheat), turns out not to be very safe at all, for when she goes to look at her treasures they are gone. Interestingly, rather than thinking she was just a failed or careless “Farmer,” she becomes a “Cynic.” She even wonders if God is guilty!
            The reader is wondering all this time just what these treasures are. In the last stanza she refers to them as “Hearts” yet also as a singular “Thee.” As she ransacks everywhere looking for it/them as it is her “business” to find them, she addresses them directly: How is it with you? Are you still here in the place “Love provided Thee?”
            The Barn is clearly a metaphor for her own heart for love has provided this barn and what other holding place does love offer besides a heart? We know that Dickinson loved several people who faded for one reason or another from her life: Sue, another couple of girlfriends, and a couple of men friends (mentors, Masters) who died. We also know that she came to adopt a more flexible even doubting approach to religion than that she had grown up with and which surrounded her. It seems to me that she is either referring to her beloved people or her religious values (chastity, faith, submission, etc.) and when she found them lost (or at least not valued as much), she became cynical. Thus her comment that the Deity might not be “guiltless.”
            Alternatively, she may be referring to those people she once loved. She was a “thriving Farmer” of loving relationships, but after she put the friendships away for safekeeping, they vanished. One can be cynical about love in much the same way one becomes cynical with religion. There has to be something actually “there” or  you lose faith.
            The last two lines have quite a bit of pathos. They reflect the last hope against deep disappointment. Perhaps the treasures are there but the poet just can’t see them. At any rate, it is too often the poet’s lot to not be satisfied. Satisfaction doesn’t breed poetry quite as easily for most people as longing – or even cynicism.


  1. I know Amherst. Went to school there. I can imagine the loneliness, and frustrations of an unmarried women, who was attracted to women, and had given up on organized religion in small town Amherst in mid-19th century, and was a prolific poet, who for the most part hides her work!
    This is a sad poem. She is very much alone.

  2. i dont see this as sad emily understands the transience of life and is seeing things in the moment

  3. Thanks!
    On first reading three things really stood out to me. The emphasis on the agricultural metaphor and the quotation marks on “Scaffold” and “Beam”. I think she is referring to these to say only the bare structure remains. The second is the sharp anger in “My business .. to ransack!” The third is the sudden change from anger to melancholy in the last stanza.
    Before I started reading I thought that I would really try to understand the mood of the poet when writing this poem. And I see her going from cautious to loving care, to surprise, anger and then sadness.

    1. Seeing this poem much the same way, indeed!

  4. ED did have a couple of girlfriends during her early to mid teens, but she found the love of her life in Susan Gilbert when both were 17. During their first year they shared a mutual love of poetry, reading and ruminating together as poetic intimacy deepened into romantic love. Over the next four decades, their romance traversed the topography of any long relationship, but poetry bound the two through it all, until ED’s death at 55.

    When ED winnowed “what would fade from what would last”, she kept two things: Poetry and Sue. ED’s poetry lived safely in her heart and brain, but Sue almost left ED’s life when she took a teaching job in Baltimore. The year of separation traumatized ED. To obviate a recurrence, she encouraged Sue and her brother, Austin, to socialize. He, a young Harvard-trained lawyer, cooperated willingly, having noticed Sue’s charm before her year of teaching. ED’s matchmaking proved fertile; the two married in 1857 and moved into a new Victorian dream house built “just a hedge away” by Austin’s father and Sue’s brothers as a wedding gift. That house is the “little Barn / Love provided Thee”.

    Unsurprisingly, except apparently to ED, Sue’s new state of matrimony put the kibosh on ED’s romance. Her frantic search for missing “priceless Hay” ensued and she is baffled, “How is it Hearts, with Thee?”. Saturday Review of Literature published her poem in 1929. What happened to the romance remains to be seen (at least by me).

  5. Can someone please expand the biblical metaphor alluded to in the beginning of the poem.