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02 February 2024

I asked no other thing —

I asked no other thing —
No other — was denied —
I offered Being — for it —
The Mighty Merchant smiled —     +sneered

Brazil? He twirled a Button —
Without a glance my way —
“But — Madam — is there nothing else
That We can show — Today”?

               F687, J621 1863 (fascicle 32)

It’s always dangerous to reduce Dickinson’s poetry to a prose translation, but for the sake of a starting place, let’s try: “I only asked for one thing, but I didn’t get it. EVERYTHING else was available, everything except that ONE thing. I even offered myself, my own being, for this thing, but that Mighty Merchant, God, just sneered and smiled. How about if I give you Brazil instead, He asked. No, that’s not going to work for me, I said. The Merchant twirled a button, like a slick but bored businessman, and said, “Isn’t there anything else you might like, ma'am?”*

I read this ironically. Would you really expect a Mighty Merchant to give you what your soul truly desired? You’re probably not going to find THAT when you are dealing with a merchant. Merchants are generally out to get the best deal. What’s love got to do with it? Seeing God as a Mighty Merchant is sardonic. It’s like saying that everything from the top down is supply and demand economics. But, alas, in this world it does often seem that way. The powers-that-be are the very opposite of what true divinity should be; i.e. merciful and loving. God here isn’t the antithesis of the world, he IS the world. The Mighty Merchant (if, indeed, you take the Mighty Merchant to be God here) is a pseudonym for “Power”, for might makes right, for law of the jungle. It’s cynical, but hey, spurned love can spin you that way.

I love that button twirling detail. We might twirl a button if we are bored, and in that case it is a dismissive gesture. But we might also do it if we were considering the deal, in which case there's hope. The poem ends without an answer to the plea.

I asked Bing for an image of "God the Mighty Merchant, in striped suit and curled mustache, smiling and twirling a button on his sleeve. He is dealing with Emily Dickinson. Brazil is on the table.  Pre-Raphaelite style."

What is the one thing the Poet wants? One can only speculate, but here’s my best guess. I recently read “Open Me Carefully”, the collection of Emily’s letters and poems written and sent to Susan Huntington Gilbert over a thirty-year span. What a unique love story. Through the mediary of Emily’s brother Austin, who lived next door and was married to Susan, both women were allowed to see each other and continue their ever deepening relationship, from young school girls all the way to the end when Susan helped prepare Emily’s body for the grave. Perhaps Emily and Susan could have gone against societal mores and lived together, but seeing the difficulty that would have been involved in such a relationship in Victorian society, perhaps this nifty arrangement was the next best thing. Seen in that light, it’s a kind of miracle they were able to continue as they did. 

But if Sue was right next door, it must have felt, on some days, as if she was a million miles away. Susan was also, after all, a wife to Austin, a mother of three, a math teacher and a social butterfly.

So, while it could be a number of things, I think it might be Susan that Emily is asking the Mighty Merchant for, the one she’s willing to give her own being for. It’s the one thing she wants and can’t have. Why can’t she have it? It’s not for sale, for one. Even at the cost of one’s self. Everything else is, but not love. And none of those other things count. 

This is a funny poem, with a light touch, so it’s hard to take the pathos in it too seriously. I notice in the letters to Susan that Emily often uses an arch over-the-top tone to convey feelings that really ARE over the top for her, but are also, at the same time, held in check with humor. This poem seems of that kind. I think it is because at some deeper level she did have Sue that she COULD be so funny about not having her.

Also, from early on in the letters, Emily conflates Susan with God in a playful way. Consider this passage from a letter from 1852 when they were both 22. “How vain it seems to write, when one knows how to feel - how much more near and dear to sit beside you, talk with you, hear the tones of your voice - so hard to ‘deny thyself, take up the cross, and follow me -’ give me strength , Susie, write me of hope and love, and of hearts that endured, and great was their reward of ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” There are many passages like this.

One more argument for Sue as the intended here is that Emily, for the sake of discretion, would have reason to leave her name out of a poem, especially one which is about desire. This move has a curious and serendipitous side effect on the poem. By leaving out the signified, this poem is freed up for the reader. X = deepest desire. What would X be for you?

Part of what makes Dickinson mysterious is that she was protective of her private life, but at the same time was writing for any possible reader. “I dwell in possibility” she wrote. The way in which Dickinson’s deepest desire can dovetail with ours is the result of the alchemical process of poetry. Few poets walk the line between the private and public sphere so adroitly as she does. It's fun to speculate about what the poems meant to her, but in the end I believe Emily left them behind to show us to ourselves.

- /)dam Wade l)eGraff

* A note about ambiguity. The trouble with summarizing a poem is that it becomes difficult to account for ambiguity, and Dickinson, like a Mighty Merchant herself, trades in ambiguity. In this poem there are a few. One thing I’m unclear about here is whether or not God is offering Brazil to the speaker or if the speaker is offering Brazil to the Merchant. I initially took it the first way. “Look God, if my being is not enough for you, I’ll give you all of Brazil (paradise) for my love.” But other commentaries I looked at took it that it is the Merchant that is offering Brazil, saying “Look, I can give you Brazil, but not the thing you really want.”

I often wonder if Dickinson means for her poems to be so syntactically slippery. But since her poems are so often full of sliding modifiers, I suspect she does. In this case I’m not sure it matters. Though perhaps by making it ambiguous we understand that the poet and God are both dealing in entire countries here. Does it matter which one is offering Brazil? It could be both, but either way, it doesn't do.

Another ambiguity is caused by that dash in the second line. Dashes often aid ambiguity, which is one of many reasons Dickinson deploys them. Here are two ways to read the first two lines, depending on punctuation. "I asked no other thing, no other! Was denied!" Or, you could read it, as I chose to for my prose summary, as "I asked no other thing. No other was denied." It's tempting to read it the former way, because of the pause created by the dash, but it's richer to read it the latter way. Emily gets to keep both possibilities by trading out the punctuation marks for dashes.


  1. I had no idea Bing could respond so specifically! the halo, though, is a nice touch!

  2. I can’t read the poem ironically. The speaker is offering her being and she means it. And since it is the Mighty Merchant/God who decides she has no other option than to plead with him. She doesn’t ask for what she merely wants or desires but for something she desperately needs. For her it is a matter of life and death.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. I didn't take the desire (need) to be ironic, just the idea of asking any merchant to satisfy it, and also the idea of God being a merchant. I think there is a comic touch to the poem with that button twirling characterization of God. But I don't doubt the seriousness either.

  3. As for ambiguity - I have always read it as if Brazil is what the speaker asks for. The Merchant repeats her request: “Brazil is what you want? That’s not on offer, but you can have anything else.”

  4. Yes I see that. Thanks. It adds another layer of possibility. That reading makes the most sense syntactically to me, though it is hard to reconcile Brazil as something the speaker is offering her being for, unless Brazil is meant as a symbol for something else, which it may well be. (Like Florida in Wallace Stevens' poems, the longed for "palm at the end of the mind")

  5. Hi Adam, Please check J#622. My Johnson book has this listed as poem #621. Some other #'s may also need checking. JR

  6. ED, the perennial puzzler, embeds one puzzle inside another.

    Omitting Line 3 & Lines 5-6 and adding three “[except Brazil]” brackets, the poem reads:

    “I asked no other thing — [except Brazil]
    No other — was denied —[except Brazil]

    “The Mighty Merchant sneered
    Brazil? He twirled a Button — You want Brazil?

    “But — Madam — is there nothing else [except Brazil]
    That We can show — Today?”

    Read this way, Anonymous (February 5, 2024, 2:26 AM) gets my vote.

    Of course, “Brazil” can mean anything, but God gets involved, so it must be important. Probably “Brazil” is a love[r], and there are two likely choices: Susan Gilbert Dickinson or Charles Wadsworth. Given chronologically proximate poems, Wadsworth is my choice.