Search This Blog

01 May 2014

I reckon — When I count at all —

I reckon — When I count at all —
First — Poets — Then the Sun —
Then Summer — Then the Heaven of God —
And then — the List is done —

But, looking back — the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole —
The Others look a needless Show —
So I write — Poets — All —

Their Summer — lasts a solid Year —
They can afford a Sun
The East — would deem extravagant —
And if the Further Heaven —

Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them —
It is too difficult a Grace —
To justify the Dream —
                                    F533 (1863)  J569

Dickinson reckons – counts or calculates – that what truly matters are Poets, the Sun, Summer, and Heaven. It's a short list, all of which, however, is encompassed in Poets, for in their vision and art is a type of deep Platonic truth, one springing from the imaginative world. The actual items (Sun, Summer, Heaven) are but a "needless Show", their glories subject to weather or the difficult demands and vagaries of a supposed deity. It is a powerful and confident paean to poetry and to the visionary poets whose truths endure – and one must conclude that Dickinson includes herself in that company. 
        Her own poetry distills the essence of Sun and Summer in numerous poems, and as she points out, a poet's summer can last "a solid Year". (Helen Vendler in Selected Poems and Commentaries claims that Dickinson is making droll reference to a couple of Shakespeare's sonnets in this stanza – e.g., "thy eternal summer…"). In many of her poems the other seasons represent some kind of pain, so it is no surprise that Dickinson singles out summer as an apex experience. For example, along with rebirth, Spring brings the aching realization of loss ("I dreaded that first Robin, so" [F347]). Autumn is a bittersweet season of beauty and sadness whose red leaves conjure up dresses and scarves – but also blood ("the name – of it – is 'Autumn'" [F465]). Winter, if not death, is a numb despair ("There's a certain Slant of light" [F320]). In contrast, Summer is fullness and creation: There is "A something in a summer's noon … / Transcending ecstasy" [F104]. The Sun precedes Summer in the list, as well it should, for Summer is the Sun's daughter.
        "The Heaven of God" trails along and is dismissed as something not worth the effort needed. The last stanza is a bit difficult and scholars don't agree on some key points (such as who the "they" and the "Them" refer to). I like Vendler's reading, so I loosely summarize her discussion of it here: Many poets have written of Heaven, creating something beautiful. This contributes to – if not creates – the dream of Heaven, but Dickinson warns that the "Grace" needed to get there is so difficult that the dream isn't justified. In previous poems, Dickinson finds Heaven so frustrating or ephemeral that it is no wonder she finds it fails to  "justify the Dream". 

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder
"I've known a Heaven, like a Tent" (F257)"
"'Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (F310)
"The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized—" (F304)

        If Vendler's reading is correct, and the last stanza has people worshipping poets, it is almost droll. We can see the sun, we can enjoy a summer's day, but Heaven? We take that on faith – and that springs from the poets. When we worship "the Heaven of God" aren't we really worshipping an image described by poets such as Dante and Blake, and thereby worshipping them? No wonder Poets come first!  
        If Heaven is a poetic concept and not an actual place, the Grace needed to attain and maintain "the Dream" of it is still going to be too "difficult". You think you've glimpsed it, but then it disappears, leaving "But just the miles of Stare – / That signalize a Show's Retreat –"  (F257). As Vendler claims, the last stanza is exceedingly heretical!


  1. Dickinson's family's Christianity was a Calvinistic revivalist Christianity. Amherst College was founded by Dickinson's grandfather, in part, as a response and reaction to the liberal Unitarianism of Harvard.

    In the last lines of this poem, I believe Dickinson would have been thinking of one of the key scriptures for evangelical Christians, Romans 3:23 and 3:24. In Romans 3:23, the baseline state of humanity is laid out: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". In Romans 3:24, salvation is promised: "being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is Christ Jesus." Grace in the Gospel of John, which tends to be the focus for evangelical Christians, is allowed -- critics would say earned -- by faith or belief.

    I will have to read the Vendler essay again. I agree that Dickinson is heretical in this poem and I see the reading of "Those" and "Them referring to poets. This maintains consistency in the poem with the use of "Their" and "They" in the third stanza. In both the third and fourth stanzas she is emphasizing imagination over material reality. In the fourth stanza, the use of "They and "Them" is also an expansive and, I think, very funny reference to all religions. "They" is all the many gods who prepare heavens for "Those" who worship "Them". Grace in Dickinson's view is "difficult" -- the "dream" of heaven in the imagination is so vast that she does not accept faith ("Faith is a fine invention") as an instrument that will allow grace to be "justified freely".

    That is the best I can do with a difficult and provocative last stanza.

    1. I hadn't thought of the "They" in stanza four as being the various gods, but it makes sense. And I like it.
      I wanted to mention F239, "You're right – 'The way is narrow'", but never did work it in. In that poem she tackles the verses in Matthew that talk about how few will make it to Heaven.

      I'm not clear on how you are parsing the pronouns in stanza 4, specifically how both "Those" and "Them" are referring to poets, but then the "Them" is a reference to religions.

    2. The poets "Comprehend the Whole". So, the poets are the gods of the different religions. Blake and Rumi and the poetry of the Psalms, etc. Just a thought.

    3. okay - makes perfect sense now -- and is along the lines of my own thoughts. I can't vouch for Vendler. It's a subtle stanza.

  2. I agree with Helen Vendler's interpretation of "Them," though I haven't read her commentary yet--and I can see how "Them" could refer to the entire list together or something else. I also see some of the references to Shakespeare's sonnets. One internal ED reference to Shakespeare is "needless Show -" ED has been known to have written, "Why is any other book needed." "First," then could stand as a nick-name for Shakespeare, as he could potentially be seen as the first or poet par excellence.

    I also think there is another way of reading the poem or considering the list. She writes "When I count at all -" and not "When I count it all -," indicating perhaps that she not only reckons or tries to fit each piece to the whole or complete existence, but that she individually reckons or counts "at"--(a bit condescendingly--if you read it that way) each individual thing. In this vein, she can be seen weighing each individual item. In addition, grammatically, it makes more sense to then read the preposition "at" indicating the start of the items of her list. If one reads the stanza this way, then "First" needs to be accorded item status as a noun and not a preposition. Also, she's then counting what makes the "first" whole, and "poets" whole; once she's done with these two does she make time for the sun, then summer, and last and least of all "Heaven of God."

    Logically, I see the last stanza being read either way: a heretical dismissal of the potential of the afterlife--for poetry or otherwise--or a subtle realization that counting "it" all (the dream of coming to terms or reckoning all) is not possible, if one worships them (First, poets, sun for nature, life on earth as summer, and the unknown). I go back and forth. I think I'm tilting a bit to the latter now.

    1. Although I see what you mean in looking at the grammar through a different lens, I can't help but fall back on Occam's Razor: it just seems more straightforward to read the set up as, "When I bother to think about it, I come up with .....". That alleviates working over the "at".
      I hadn't thought of your interpretation of the fourth stanza -- interesting. Thanks!

  3. Maybe this is the expression of a secluded and frightened little girl cum woman who, as a brilliant poetical mind, longs simply to be recognized and can speak eloquently for all the secreted hearts that would love to be seen.

  4. But she cannot, ultimately, stand in the sun. Her ambition is too great and while alive she holds herself in the shadows.

  5. Just this year (January 2021) I rediscovered Dickinson while watching the new series Dickinson on AppleTV. Very well done with humor and insight into her struggles not only with her own family but with religion and dealing with being published and fame.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Susan, D'accord, D'accord, D'accord. You nailed this poem.

    “I reckon — When I count at all —”

    I don’t fret much about the order of important things, but when I do . . . .

    “Their, They, they, Them” all refer to Line 8 “Poets”. Line 14 “Those” refers to us Dickinson groupies.

    Dreaming about a “Further Heaven” ain’t worth the price of admission.