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30 April 2013

It would have starved a Gnat —

It would have starved a Gnat —
To live so small as I —
And yet I was a living Child —
With Food's necessity

Upon me — like a Claw —
I could no more remove
Than I could coax a Leech away —
Or make a Dragon — move —

Not like the Gnat — had I —
The privilege to fly
And seek a Dinner for myself —
How mightier He — than I —

Nor like Himself — the Art
Upon the Window Pane
To gad my little Being out —
And not begin — again —

                                                            F444 (1862)  J612

Dickinson uses food as a metaphor for the existential deprivation she felt from her childhood years. A master of first lines, the poet begins dramatically: “It would have starved a Gnat – / To live so small as I.” It would be hard to find a tinier and more insignificant creature than a gnat. Why would the poet, as a “living Child,” have been so starved that a gnat dined better than she, that hunger fastened her in its grip like a giant claw?
            The claw, like true hunger, is impossible to dismiss. It would be easier for her, she writes, to coax a leech from sucking her blood or to move a dragon.
            The gnat is also better off, “mightier,” than the poet because at least it can fly about and search out its dinner. The child – or at least upper middle-class children such as Emily Dickinson – must be given food. They couldn’t just run about town and hustle a bit of dinner for themselves. But the child poet was given precious little nourishment.
Dickinson saves the greatest  bitterness for the last stanza: The gnat has the “Art” of gadding his “little Being out” by crashing into the window. That’s enough to kill a gnat, but such a death is not possible for the starved child. It’s really a powerful image: the gnat is lured by the outdoors. It gathers itself and flies pell mell for freedom, only to be dashed against clear glass. The child doesn’t have even an illusion to lure her to an accidental – and easy – death. The gnat doesn’t have to “begin – again” either. Should the child die, she may very well have to start over in an afterlife.


The poem reads as a bitter indictment of her culture, schooling, and family.  Her mother was weak and unable to provide emotional nourishment, requiring it instead from her children. Her father was austere and undemonstrative. The church was strict, the cultural mores conventional, the opportunities for a woman who danced to the music of a different dervish slim.
            It’s achingly sad to think of the child. Yet the poet sprang from the child. She did not resign herself, did not take false sustenance, ever and always told the truth – but told it “slant.”

2 comments:

  1. I love the word "gad". Her use of this word as a verb is not in the dictionary -- but we know exactly what she means. The word almost sounds like an insect hitting glass. And it has the connotation of gadfly -- tying in literally with the image of a gnat and with a sense of purposeless extinction of life.

    I tend to think that "begin again" refers to having to continue to live -- to wake up the next morning hungry -- rather than an afterlife or rebirth.

    Your literal view of the poem as a recollection of ED's childhood sounds accurate to me. Thanks.

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  2. I agree with your suggestion on "begin again," now that I think about it. Thanks.

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