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21 January 2012

'Tis so much joy! 'Tis so much joy!

'Tis so much joy! 'Tis so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I,
Have ventured all upon a throw!
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so –
This side the Victory!

Life is but Life! And Death, but Death!
Bliss is, but Bliss, and Breath but Breath!
And if indeed I fail,
At least, to know the worst, is sweet!
Defeat means nothing but Defeat,
No drearier, can befall!

And if I gain! Oh Gun at Sea!
Oh Bells, that in the steeples be!
At first, repeat it slow!
For Heaven is a different thing,
Conjectured, and waked sudden in –
And might extinguish me!
                                                -  F 170  (1860)   172

Something big has happened and the reader is not given much of a clue as to the nature of the big thing. The poet has gambled everything – “ventured all upon a throw!” – and is in a state of ecstatic waiting. There are sixteen exclamation marks in eighteen lines and that is a lot of excitement. Let’s just go through the poem and see if anything comes of it, nosy as we are.
            The stakes must be high because just the waiting to see if the gamble succeeds brings “so much joy!” This despite the fact that  the gambler will be even poorer should she lose than she is now. I suspect that a poor person, keeping to the gambling metaphor, has a better risk/benefit ratio than a person who has much and gambles all, but we’ll let that slide. What she means is that “I have so little that I should hoard what I have rather than gamble it away.” The last half of the first stanza is a bit problematic. She’s ventured, she’s gained (“Yes!”), but also she has “Hesitated so –.”
            I think what the hesitation means is that before the gamble she was hesitating before the risk. She waited a long time before finally taking the plunge. Just doing so means she has “gained.”
            And then the sophistries of rationalization. All the “Life is but Life! And Death […] Bliss … Breath… Defeat” stuff is just a way of saying, “well, let the worst (or best) befall me. It would have been much worse if I had done nothing and stayed forever in the state of hesitation.” It is easy enough to say “to know the worst, is sweet!”, but not so easy to actually live through the worst.
            I’m reminded of a psychologist who said to ask yourself to identify the worst thing that could happen if you took a certain action. Then you should decide whether or not you could handle that worst thing. If you could, then go for it. If not, move on. The poet here seems to skate on the superficial: “Death [is] but Death,” etc. She is essentially dismissing Death and defeat as better than never having ventured (“nothing ventured, nothing gained”).
            This stanza convinces me that Dickinson is not talking about religious matters here. For if she were gambling her immortal soul, then Death and Defeat would not be so easily dismissed. No, she must be talking about Love or Poetry (knowing the poet we can dismiss other types of ventures such as moving to India or buying a business). Let’s move on.
            Although in the second stanza she claims that “Bliss is but Bliss,” in the final stanza she is very detailed about just what success might mean: guns at sea! Bells ringing in the steeple! It would be so exciting that she wants to hear the news of victory slowly for fear it would kill her. It would be like Heaven – you have to die to experience it fully.
Was Dickinson a secret hedonist?
painting by Frank Dicksee
            In thinking about what sort of Bliss is like dying and going to heaven, like guns at sea or bells ringing, what conclusion might you draw, gentle reader? Ah yes, what else but love. Has the poet said or done or written something that makes her feelings (or hopes or intentions) clear? In this case knowing the worst would be better than hesitating and wondering. In this case defeat would mean nothing but defeat. It’s even possible, thinking of the eroticism of poems soon to come as well as in her three “Master” letters (written from 1858 – 1861), that she is thinking of that crowning act of love … In the second “Master” letter, for example, she writes:
“A love so big it scares her [writing of herself as “Daisy” in the previous sentence], rushing among her small heart – pushing aside the blood – and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm – .”

            In poem 185 she writes, “A Wife – at Daybreak – I shall be – / […] / At Midnight – I am yet a Maid – . Imagery in this an other poems continues to relate heaven and sex. In poem 225 she writes, “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that – / […] How odd the Girl’s life looks /Behind this soft Eclipse – / I think that Earth feels so / To folks in Heaven – now – .” Has the poet signalled to some potential lover that she is done hesitating and ready for "Heaven"?


  1. Thanks for sharing your understanding of Dickinson's poetry. I am late to the party here but enjoying your posts and poems.

    1. Thank you! I hope you continue to read and comment.

  2. I could not understand why the poet used these sentences:

    "Oh Gun at Sea!
    Oh Bells, that in the steeples be!"

    What is the relation between the "gun at sea or bells" and "bliss or victory"??

    Please explain this point.

    Thank you.

    1. Why, in days of yore the ships would fire their guns and churches ring their bells over exciting news and events. Such an event might be victory or, metaphorically, some private very exciting bliss.

    2. Thank you for your immediate answer.
      I appreciate that.

  3. "some private very exciting bliss." You have a very polite way of expressing love's bliss!

  4. Okay, time's up. You are
    Called Back

  5. I believe this poem is about not letting fear or "hesitation" interfere with your happiness. Rewards may be very wonderful news.

  6. Hey I have been reading your posts quite frequently these days. They are exceptional works. Great job on that.
    I have seen that poems are numbered like F70. Is there an order to read her poems? How do we know that?

    1. F1 is the first poem, according to editor Franklin; F70 (or Fr70) would be the 70th. Johnson, an earlier editor, has a different order so are J1 - J70, for example). Dickinson didn't date them so editors pore over letters and handwriting and event clues to date the poems as best they can.

  7. Ah, that's a help, sort of. I have Johnson and have been confused when you make reference to a poem by number and it doesn't match up. Didn't know there was another publication.

  8. This poem, even moreso than most of Dickinson's poems, seems to luxuriate in sound, as if the "joy" and "bliss" is spilling out in the very language. The very first line is a spilling over of joy, a doubling of it.

    The poem asks to be read out loud. Those first two lines of the second stanza for example bubble over with the bs. And then, read out loud, "at least to know the worst is sweet", is so satisfying in the way it weaves the s, t, w and ee sound. This final "sweet" also sonically underpins the following double emphasis of the rhyme "defeat". So much doubling here, like in Macbeth.

    And then in further musically linguistic excess you have that wonderful echo in the last stanza of gain into gun, and the repeat of the "eat" sound again in "repeat".

    Another nice rhyme in this is the set up of "slow" in the last stanza with "throw" and "so" in the first stanza. That's a long time to postpone a rhyme. You could say it's a "slow" rhyme.

    Rhyme scheme is unique, ABCDDB EEFGGF BBDHHB.

    I like the way Emily poses the negative here. You might as well throw the dice because if you lose? That's knowing the worst, and that's sweet! Because you are no longer afraid of it. Nothing worse can happen. The irony is thick, but also the wisdom there is encouraging. Go for it! might hesitate this side of victory because there is a double irony; the winning of the victory might kill you. And that's worse, perhaps, than the sweetness of losing.

    Contavalence: risking winning the oblivion of bliss vs. gaining the sweet relief of defeat.

  9. Thank you for enriching the commentary! I particularly appreciate re-visiting that lovely "at least to know the worst is sweet".
    I just realized that in the third line the speaker is referring to others, as poor as she, who have ventured all upon a throw -- and at least sometimes, won -- affording further incentive.