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25 May 2014

Some — Work for Immortality —

Some — Work for Immortality —
The Chiefer part, for Time —
He — Compensates — immediately —
The former — Checks — on Fame —

Slow Gold — but Everlasting —
The Bullion of Today —
Contrasted with the Currency
Of Immortality —

A Beggar — Here and There —
Is gifted to discern
Beyond the Broker's insight —
One's — Money — One's — the Mine -
                          F536 (1863)  J406

While some people aim for the "Slow" but "Everlasting" gold of immortality, most work for what can be earned today. Laborers toil for their hourly wage, and lawyers'  – noting that Dickinson's father and brother were both lawyers – time is billable. Those on the Immortality track (poets perhaps?) receive "Checks – on Fame", that is, promissory notes or vouchers payable byFame.
      Dickinson makes three comparisons between the Immortality folks and the work-for-pay set, one in each stanza. In the first those whose time is worth money are contrasted with those whose reward is intangible. The reliance on Fame seems a bit dicey: she is a fickle mistress after all. A poet might dedicate her life to immortal issues and never enjoy a shred of fame. 
      In the second stanza Dickinson makes a better case for Immortality. It offers gold, albeit a "Slow Gold". The phrase is a spondee: two accented syllables that emphasize both. But while the gold may not shower down, it is everlasting. Time workers, in contrast, get paid in the "Bullion of Today" and this seems like petty cash compared to the "Currency / Of Immortality". 
Gold bullion, photo by Antony Theobald

      Dickinson saves her most powerful comparison for the end. She compares the beggar's superior insight (or at least a beggar "Here and There") to that of the broker's. While brokers may understand a wide and complex variety of financial transactions, a beggar is sometimes "gifted" with the insight that it is the earth that creates the wealth, not the mint; it is the thinker, visionary, prophet or poet who taps into the deep and the immortal, hereby creating meaning that the rest of us draw on. The last line is marvelously clever and concise.
      I suspect Dickinson was indeed thinking of the poet (including herself) as well as her friends who were writers, philosophers, and social activists. Of them all, she was perhaps the beggar for those she knew – Higginson, Bowles, Wadsworth, even Emerson – all received fame and respect in addition to the bullion of the day.


  1. I read the first stanza in a different way... prose beneath the poetry)

    Some — Work for Immortality —
    (Some individuals work to become immortal)
    The Chiefer part, for Time —
    (Most though work in the moment)
    He — Compensates — immediately —
    (To receive their compensation in immediately)
    The former — Checks — on Fame —
    (Those that work for to become immortal are weary of Fame).

    "Checks" can either work as (1) individual counting or measuring an object, or (2) curbing or attempting to limit a given object. I prefer using the second meaning because the contrast becomes clearer between the third and fourth lines of the first stanza. Individual attempts to increase something in line three, whereas, in line four, diametrically opposite individual tries to diminish something.

    If read in this way, the second stanza becomes clearer. While those that aim for immortality, may not have much gold (in monetary value or fame), they may achieve some undefined currency of immortality.

    The last stanza, I find difficult. She could be again alluding to her relationships with the readers. Beggars, as readers, could be coming to her for insight. She know acts as a broker between nature (everything) and humanity. If, however, one takes them to be one and the same, currency (as gold) and natural presence of gold in a mine, then we have gone beyond either Dickinson's logic or possibly logic or reality (if you take broker to be dude above and beggar to be Dickinson). Or, if you take broker to and beggar to be the same individual, then that individual has achieved immortality. I dunno...

  2. Without very deep pockets of her patron-lawyer father and, later, her patron-lawyer brother supplying her “The Bullion of Today”, ED would have no “Currency of Immortality”. She was a rich aristocrat in a small Massachusetts town. Wouldn’t it be polite for her to write a thank-you poem? Does anyone know of such a poem among her 1789?