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07 December 2014

It knew no lapse, nor Diminution —

It knew no lapse, nor Diminution —
But large — serene —
Burned on — until through Dissolution —
It failed from Men —

I could not deem these Planetary forces
Annulled —
But suffered an Exchange of Territory —
Or World —
                                                  F568 (1863)  J560

This difficult poem begins as the previous one did – with a referent-less "It".  In my searches I found the "it" interpreted as a comet (, and as the summer of Higginson's scheduled but missed visit (David Preest). I found no references to it in my collection of Dickinson scholarship (admittedly a small library). I dismiss the comet idea as something that would not fail "from Men". I dismiss the summer idea for the same reason and also because it is not large enough to for the poem. So what is left?
      Perhaps readers are more imaginative, but I come up only with two ideas for what grand thing failed because of people but whose failure could be seen as an Exchange or transformation. The first candidate would be something like the status quo, whatever Dickinson perceived that to be. It fits with both stanzas and is an interesting perspective on the Civil War. Life had continued, "large – and serene", until the war began. Dickinson, however, doesn't find the familiar systems and seasons "Annulled" but rather exchanged for something else. It will be a new world but the "Planetary forces" will still be operant.  
        My second and favored option is that Dickinson is writing about Higginson himself. The second stanza is taken nearly word-for-word from the letter (L280) she wrote him upon learning – in the newspaper – of his departure for South Carolina to command the first federally authorized Black regiment. The one variant is that in the letter Dickinson writes "I would not deem" rather than  "could not deem".
      In her letter Dickinson links Higginson to natural and cosmic forces similar to those in the poem. Expressing her disappointment about the missed visit and her discovery that Higginson had gone off to war, she writes, "I found you were gone, by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year, and obtain no cause – but suppose it a treason of Progress – that dissolves as it goes." The simile of Higginson's actions to those of Systems or Seasons becomes a metaphor in the poem: like the sun he "Burned on" without "lapse" or "Diminution" until the human failures that resulted in war. 
      The second stanza has a droll quality. She could not imagine that such a planetary force could be "Annulled" or dead; only that it was transported.

In thinking about this poem as one written about Higginson, I wonder if she wasn't writing something of an elegy. In the letter she says, "I should have liked to see you, before you became improbable". She doesn't avoid the danger of battle but she uses euphemisms for death: "Annulled" in the poem and becoming "improbable" in the letter. Read this way the poem seems a very private one. She sees Higginson as a force of nature, one that burns like the sun but is also large and serene. She imagines his dissolution (death) at the hands of other men but cannot imagine that such a life force could be extinguished. Instead, she frames his imagined death as an "Exchange of Territory – / or World". 
      There are further passages in the letter that seem to have inspired the poem. Dickinson closes by saying, "Should you, before this reaches you, experience immortality, who will inform me of the Exchange?" Not only is the idea of an exchange of territory introduced, but the passage is written in the same sad, droll tone as the close of the poem.

Dickinson's line in the letter about the "treason of Progress" is intriguing in the context of the War. Is the price of Progress death? Is that what she means by "dissolves as it goes"?


  1. Ed's poems sometimes are exquisite puzzle boxes. This is a good example. It is a beautiful poem -- the sounds are wonderful. The lines:

    But large -- serene --
    Burned on . . .

    are slow, syllables with the stressed syllables reversing -- it is beautiful.

    And the words are juxtaposed in interesting ways. "Planetary forces Annulled" begins with a metaphor that takes the greatest of natural powers of a magnitude that renders trivial human events and then contains the forces with a legal word "annulled" that means to render void or to negate -- as if to dismiss the heavens. And what does it mean to "suffer an exchange"? The exchange is "of territory" -- as armies might trade positions on a battlefield or nations might cede land for land -- but then the exchange shifts to the celestial "or world".

    I don't know what the poem "means". Your linking the poem to EDs letter to Higginson is a good insight. Perhaps the "planetary forces" are the inertia of war -- the influence of Mars. If so, then it is odd to view war as both "large" and "serene". I suppose a war could fail from [lack of] men as the toll that war exacts exhausts the supply of soldiers.

    It is a puzzle -- and I don't have the key.

    1. "I could not deem" is a lovely line that links, sound-wise, back to "But large – serene".
      And I am going to start using the phrase "Planetary forces" because ... who could argue?

      I maintain the notion that this is a very private poem. Some of her puzzle boxes seem written with readers in mind -- to tantalize and suggest, to tell something "slant". This poem doesn't seem like one of those.

  2. Seems the first stanza relates to life, the second to death. The poet writes from the vantage point of beyond the Exchange of Territory.

    The letter to Higginson seems the raw writing for this refinement.

    1. Maybe not "beyond" as a vantage point but somehow outside and observing.

  3. Able to see the rim of the circle in its entirety, from that observation deck.

  4. This would be a beautiful elegy to any great man or woman.