**NOTE** A commenter has a different interpretation of this poem -- and I think he is right. The tone is not bitter but rather contemplative and thoughtful as Dickinson considers the smaller life she would have had without the pain, hungers, and defeats.
06 July 2012
I should have been too glad, I see –
I should have been too glad, I see –
Too lifted – for the scant degree
Of Life's penurious Round –
My little Circuit would have shamed
This new Circumference – have blamed –
The homelier time behind –
I should have been too saved – I see –
Too rescued – Fear too dim to me
That I could spell the Prayer
I knew so perfect – yesterday –
That Scalding One – Sabachthani –
Recited fluent – here –
Earth would have been too much – I see –
And Heaven – not enough for me –
I should have had the Joy
Without the Fear – to justify –
The Palm – without the Calvary –
So Savior – Crucify –
Defeat whets Victory – they say –
The Reefs in old Gethsemane
Endear the Coast beyond –
'Tis Beggars – Banquets best define –
'Tis Parching – vitalizes Wine –
Faith bleats to understand!
F283 (1862) 313
In a tone of heavy sarcasm the poet pretends she is glad she didn’t get something she desperately wanted. It’s just as well, she sneers, that the wonderful thing never happened. Otherwise, 1) she would have been “too glad” and “Too lifted” above the “little Circuit” of her normal life; 2) she would have been “too saved … / “Too rescued” to pray with suitable humble agony; 3) Earth would have become more wonderful than Heaven; and 4) she would have “had the Joy” without the fear or pain or failure that characterize the normal human condition. Does this sound a bit bitter?
We saw something similar in an earlier poem, “Victory comes late,” where the poet rails against a God who provides too little too late. Victory was awarded someone just moments after he died. “How sweet it would have tasted” earlier, she writes. “Just a Drop – / Was God so economical?” His “Table's spread too high for Us,” she complains.
In this current poem she scornfully notes “the scant degree / Of Life’s penurious Round.” God is stingy, she’s saying. We’re supposed to keep within our little circle and not rise beyond our station, avoid being “too lifted.”
The second stanza is particularly harsh. Can one be “too saved”? “Too rescued”? Yes, Dickinson says, for if we aren’t worried about salvation, if the fear is “too dim,” we wouldn’t call out as Jesus did as he was dying on a cross, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" – "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34]. If this sense of anguished betrayal is good enough for Jesus, well it’s good enough for her. The sense of betrayal in this prayer is so intense it is “Scalding.” Please God, the poet is saying, “keep me in fear of my soul so I can still recite it fluently.”
The third stanza continues in this vein. The great happiness the narrator had hoped for would have made Earth too wonderful. That’s wrong! Heaven should be more wonderful and Earth a place of sorrow and patient misery. What if she had “had the Joy / Without the Fear”? That would have been bad, too. It’s the fear that justifies the triumphal palm fronds. The narrator is (sarcastically) concerned that she would have had the Joy and triumph without the messy death on the cross.
She sums it all up in the last stanza. Those shipwrecked on the bloody crosses of Gethsemane will certainly have a greater appreciation of Heaven, “The Coast beyond,” than those who had an easier life. “Beggars” know how to take advantage of a banquet, and if one is dying of thirst, wine tastes really really good.
The final line employs the metaphor of Christians as dumb sheep by the use of the verb “bleat.” Reason and logic might suggest a loving God would not ensure that happiness is thwarted or that beggars go hungry. But it is and they do. Faith stands in the pasture bleating. Not a pretty picture, but a fitting and remarkable end to this very bitter poem.