An unpretending time
My Plane — and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came —
To measure our attainments —
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed — He'd hire us
At Halves —
My Tools took Human — Faces —
The Bench, where we had toiled —
Against the Man — persuaded —
We — Temples build — I said —
F475 (1862) J488
Dickinson tells a simple story here, one both moral and lofty. She, an honest carpenter, is approached by a "Builder" to see if she has the right kind of skills. If so, she would be hired and receive half the profit. But her very tools and even her workbench persuaded her to turn down the offer. Her grounds: She is in the Temple business, not just putting some boards together on commission.
It's a metaphor for her poetry, of course. She was born a poet, "formed" that way. Alone in her room with just her paper and pencil (or pen), she wrote honestly and unpretentiously for herself. But then people noticed. It's nice to think that the Builder, a publisher – newspaper, journal or booklet – approached Dickinson and said that if she could write in a more standard poetic style (the "Art of Boards" –even meter, perfect rhymes, standard grammar and punctuation), he would publish her work and pay her half of what he received, but I suspect the entire poem serves simply to make a theoretical point. Although literary men, Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth HIgginson, for example, found value in her poetry, they discouraged her from publishing because they considered her work rough (Higginson reportedly used the word "spasmodic").
|Temple of Minerva in the Acropolis|
The last line is supremely proud. It is the arrogance of the artist who spurns the commercial job and the money and even fame that might accompany it. "Arrogance" is not a good word here, for I am meaning a pride mixed with integrity and a deep sense of self worth. That is what I read in that last line. Temples are holy, consecrated places, places of spirit and power. That is what Dickinson says she builds with her poems. I believe her. I think she does. Not every poem (and I've now read and thought carefully about 475 of them) but in many.
The idea of Temple brings us back to the first line where Dickinson claims she was "formed – a Carpenter." The obvious reference is to Jesus, trained, we assume, in his father's occupation before his coming of spiritual age when he lingered for days in the temple where the elders were astounded at his learning and understanding. The combination of honesty, wisdom, and power is quintessential Dickinson.