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24 February 2024

The Tint I cannot take — is best —

The Tint I cannot take — is best — 
The Color too remote 
That I could show it in Bazaar — 
A Guinea at a sight — T

The fine — impalpable Array — 
That swaggers on the eye 
Like Cleopatra’s Company — 
Repeated — in the sky — 

 The Moments of Dominion 
That happen on the Soul 
And leave it with a Discontent 
Too exquisite — to tell — 

The eager look — on Landscapes — 
As if they just repressed 
Some Secret — that was pushing 
Like Chariots — in the Vest — 

 The Pleading of the Summer — 
That other Prank — of Snow — 
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle, 
For fear the Squirrels — know. 

 Their Graspless manners — mock us — 
Until the Cheated Eye 
Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — 
Another way — to see —

-F696, J627, Fascicle 32, 1863

For this poem I'm going to turn over the floor to Patrick Gillespie. I was introduced to Gillespie's blog when he commented on an earlier poem on Prowling Bee (F684). We corresponded a bit and I became a fan. I like his take on this poem and so, with his permission, I will include it here. The rest of his blog is well worth checking out too. Here's Patrick on "The Tint I cannot take — is best —":

"So this is a poem that has had me utterly puzzled for three days straight. And I have been irritably dissatisfied with every interpretation that I’ve read (of which there aren’t many, at least online) and mainly because all of them, Vendler’s included, fudge their interpretation of the last quatrain. As regards Vendler, her interpretation is so convoluted that she herself ends her explication with a question mark—a made-up question mark that is not reflected in Dickinson’s text (as if Vendler were imputing on Dickinson her own uncertainty).

The poet’s only remaining defense against a perpetual cycle of elation and discontent within Nature is deliberately to exclude herself from it, to return Nature’s arrogance with arrogance, and to shut her “Cheated Eye” in the grave. And after that? Is there “Another way — to see — “? Dickinson manifests only a skeptical prospect—she exhibits no certainty that there is “Another way — to see —.” [Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries]

Except that Dickinson does none of these things. It is entirely Helen Vendler who “exhibits no certainty”. Dickinson, in fact, is quite certain:Their Graspless manners — mock us — Until the Cheated Eye Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — Another way — to see —

The only question is in regards to what she’s certain about. Vendler interprets the poem as Dickinson’s “attempt to grasp the “Graspless” import of Nature” and asserts that, with each quatrain, Dickinson becomes more disillusioned by nature’s ‘withholding of its secrets’. Arguing that Dickinson’s poem is one of increasing disillusionment is how Vendler explains the seeming contradiction/bitterness of the last quatrain, in which the poet appears to assert that she’s been cheated. It’s a contradiction because Dickinson begins the poem by stating what facets of nature she thinks ‘are best’ (presumably that she likes best). And so why would she spend the first five quatrains extolling these facets of nature only to end by resenting them? Vendler thinks its because nature never, ultimately, gives up its secrets. Contrariwise, my own reading is that this is precisely the quality Dickinson likes and steadfastly admires throughout the poem. I would also argue that Dickinson isn’t strictly describing what she likes about nature, but is also describing, by analogy, what she likes in poetry. And credit for that possibility goes to Vendler who, though she doesn’t seem to recognize the significance, suspects that Dickinson’s poem 778 and “The Tint I cannot take” are related:

Dickinson’s first statement is one of gratitude for poetic incapacity, rejoicing in Nature’s capacity to withold her best secrets: “The Tint I cannot take — is best —”, she alleges, wanting something to be saved from human exploitation. Just as she would find (in *788) that “Publication — is the Auction/Of the Mind of Man —”

And there’s another parallel with this poem that Vendler either missed or deemed insignificant. That other Prank — of Snow — That Cushions Mystery with Tulle, For fear the Squirrels — know.

Compare that to 778 in which she describes her sheets/pages of poetry as Snow: We — would rather From our Garret go White — unto the White Creator — Than invest [sell/auction] — Our Snow [Poetry]—

My reading is that Dickinson, in describing what she likes best about nature, is describing her own philosophy of poetry. The Tint I cannot take [is what is best], along with the impalpable array, the moments of dominion, the eager looks of landscapes, the pleading of the summer and that other prank — the Snow. Those are the first five quatrains. So:The Tint [way of understanding] I cannot take [to market to sell or auction] — is best — The Color [meaning] too remote [refined, intangible, ineffable] That I could show it in Bazaar — A Guinea at a sight —

This can be interpreted in a couple ways: She’s not going to dumb down her poetry for the sake of a guniea; or, She likes most that feeling in her poetry that is too refined, too personal a way of understanding, too ineffable and revealing, to be worth a guinea. Dickinson doesn’t want her intensely personal poems to be defined by any monetary value.The fine — impalpable Array [rainbow]— [is also best] That swaggers on the eye Like Cleopatra’s Company — [a reference to Shakespeare's verse] Repeated — in the sky — [rainbow compared to Cleopatra on the Nile]

Dickinson, here, is all but directly referencing the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side; others also ran out of the city to see her coming in; so that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her that Antonius was left post-alone in the market-place in his imperial seat to give audience.

What is significant here is that Dickinson is explicitly referencing Shakespeare’s poetry and a particular passage. She is telling us what she admires in poetry. In this case the kind of swaggering and impalpable beauty in Shakespeare’s verse that defies explanation.The Moments of Dominion [when poetry overwhelms or conquers] That happen on the Soul [the reader] And leave it with a Discontent [an inability to dislodge the poetry] Too exquisite — to tell — [for reasons too moving/personal to explain]

In other words, she also likes best those moments when a given passage so overwhelms/dominates her that she can’t think of anything else [like me and this poem for example]. She’s left in a state of discontent/agitation for reasons too exquisite to explain. And it’s precisely because she can’t explain the reasons why she is agitated and exercised that she knows the value of the poetry. This is what great poetry should do.The eager look — on Landscapes — [at the terrain of other poems] As if they [the poets] just repressed [just narrowly hid] Some Secret [meaning] — that was pushing Like Chariots — in the Vest — [the thumping heartbeat in the breast]

What she also likes best: Eagerly looking—opening the pages—to visit the terrains of other poems, and especially by poets who, wishing to conceal the true meaning/inspiration of their poems, are also simultaneously driven to confess/reveal their “secrets” with the eagerness of the heart (hopefully beating in the chest) desiring to be understood. (The chariots are like the bringers of the news and the thudding hooves of the horses their heartbeat.) I personally read in this metaphor a description of poetry as a kind of coy flirtation. Dickinson reads and writes poems that are like flirtatious invitations—she both conceals her true intentions, to protect herself should she be rejected, but also wishes to be understood with all the flush of a beating heart. And that makes sense of, and leads directly to, the next quatrain:The Pleading [the flirtation] of the Summer — [of the poet herself] [And] That other Prank [feat and/or gaudy dress]— of Snow — [the flirtation of her poetry] That Cushions [covers] Mystery [the truth] with Tulle, [rhetoric/the words themselves] For fear the Squirrels [the too curious/invasive reader] — know. [will find her out]

If Dickinson considers the best poetry to be like flirtatious invitations (and that’s how I might characterize many of Dickinson’s poems) then the “Pleading of the Summer” might be understood as the flirtation of the poet herself, in the blossoming guise of summer. By referring to Snow/her poetry as that “other Prank”, she is playfully referring to herself, in the previous line, as a prank (that other gesture for attention). In other words, the heart of flirtation/poetry is jest, deception, truth and the desire for reciprocity (the desire for one’s joke/insight/meaning to be understood). Not to be overlooked, though, is an older meaning of prank. To prank also has the (now archaic) meaning to dress up showily (a meaning which the Dickinson Lexicon overlooks, by the way). This meaning would have been current in Dickinson’s time and is a meaning Dickinson would have encountered in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, for instance.PERDITA Sir, my gracious lord, To chide at your extremes it not becomes me: O, pardon, that I name them! Your high self, The gracious mark o' the land, you have obscured With a swain's wearing, and me, poor lowly maid, Most goddess-like prank'd up: but that our feasts In every mess have folly and the feeders Digest it with a custom, I should blush To see you so attired, sworn, I think, To show myself a glass.

This latter interpretation strikes me as the more likely. Summer’s Pleading, in other words, would be it’s ostentatious display/prank of flowers (for example), while the poet’s pleading is prank’d up in her poetry/Snow. It’s a great contrast and it makes better sense of the quatrain. The poet’s prank (gaudy dress) of Snow/Poetry cushions/’covers over’/conceals her true appearance with Tulle (a veil of words) to keep out the overly nosy/inquisitive/curious squirrels looking for pat explanations (or gossip).Their Graspless manners — mock us — Until the Cheated Eye Shuts arrogantly — in the Grave — Another way — to see —

And now we get to the last quatrain, which at first glance seems to undercut all of this. Many interpreters, including Harold Bloom, seem to (want to) imply that this last quatrain is a rejection of everything written before and that, once in the grave, we’ll finally see with the eyes of the soul/spirit—a hopeful stab at profundity by many interpreters; but Dickinson gives us zero reason to read it that way. She writes quite plainly that ‘Another way to see’ is arrogantly shut in the grave by the Cheated Eye.’ Period. There’s no revelation in those lines. But, once again, I’m going to suggest that many, possibly most, readers have been misreading this final quatrain. All the puzzle resides in sorting out who “their” is, who “us” is, what (or who) the “Cheated Eye” refers to, what “arrogantly” means, and what is meant by “Another way — to see“. According to all the interpretations I’ve read so far, including Vendler, the “Cheated Eye” is Dickinson’s own eye, the same “eye” as in the second quatrain—”swaggers on the eye”. If read in this sense, then Dickinson is saying that everything in the previous five quatrains cheated/deceived her eye. But maybe not. Why is eye not capitalized in the second quatrain, but is capitalized in the final quatrain? That’s not the kind of detail to be overlooked in Dickinson. My suspicion is that they aren’t the same. They mean different things.

There’s a fascinating series of revisions in Dickinson’s poem I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being theirs, in which she writes:I've finished threading—too— Baptized, before, without the choice, But this time, consciously, of Grace— Unto supremest name— Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped— Existence's whole Arc, filled up, With one small Diadem.

For “whole Arc”, she also tried and rejected: whole eye, whole rim/surmise. What we have is a Dickinson Thesaurus provided by Dickinson herself. In other words, she considers eye to be, in a sense, a synechdoche or synonym for the span of life, existence’s arc, rim (circumference) or surmise. And what if that’s the sense in which Dickinson meant “Cheated Eye”? In that case, I would read “their” as not a reference to the examples of the previous five quatrains—the tint, the impalpable array, the moments of Dominion, the Landscapes, Summer or that other Prank of Snow (all of which she stated as being “best”)—but to squirrels. Yes. Squirrels. It’s the squirrels who are the villains. Squirrels digging rudely in the snow of Dickinson’s poetry, grasping for the next guinea. They’re not some vague “nature spirits”, as Vendler would have it. Dickinson is talking about readers (and editors) who want to reduce her poetry to something pat and banal (remember, she’s just spent the last five quatrains celebrating the ineffable—truth and beauty beyond words and explication). For Dickinson, it’s the ineffable and inexplicable that gives poetry its power, not anything made pat for the convenience of a sale. Poetry isn’t something that some damned squirrel can dig up like a Guinea and stash in its larder/bookshelf.Their [the squirrels] Graspless [failure to grasp] manners — mock us — [belittle the poet's efforts or more generally mock/resemble all of us] Until the Cheated [the deceived/wasted] Eye [arc of life/surmise] Shuts arrogantly [triumphantly] — in the Grave — Another way — to see — [our/their opportunity to see the world through Dickinson's eyes or more generally the ineffable]

So. in plain English: The borish readers/editors, only interested in a guinea’s worth of entertainment, mock and belittle the poet’s effort. Their manners are graspless, in the sense that they can’t grasp the truth and beauty of the ineffable. (And this plays against the first line in the sense that it’s what Dickinson can’t take that is the most valuable.) They cheat themselves of the ineffable by their pursuit of the easily comprehended (cheating themselves of the profundity Dickinson has described in the previous five quatrains) until the natural arc of their cheated lives shuts them in the grave, forever closing them off to that other way “to see”—that other way offered by Dickinson and the great poets before her.

If read and understood this way, the final quatrain reaffirms the first five quatrains, rather than negating them. And if read this way, Dickinson’s poem isn’t only a sharp rebuke of readers, but also of the poetry being produced by other poets, along with the whole monetization of poetry (and the demands made on poetry by that monetization). One might respond that this was self-defeating on Dickinson’s part but remember that Higginson made Dickinson change her poems so that they would more readily and easily appeal to readers (ergo: so that they would sell better). Dickinson, with reason, fundamentally saw publication and its readership as hostile to her and her poetry. As I read this poem, it’s Dickinson’s defense of herself, her decision not to publish her poetry, and her criticism of readers and the state of contemporary poetry in general."

Bravo Patrick, thanks for helping us see "Another way — to see —".


  1. If Patrick Gillespie's explication is not enough to scare the bejesus out of you, read one of Harold Bloom's paragraphs on 'Tint':

    "The entire emphasis of Dickinson’s “Tint” poem is on what cannot be taken, an ungraspable secret, a trope or metaphor not to be expressed. The famous closing line, “another way—to see——” has been weakly misread by feminist critics as a gendered alternative of vision. But this is a very difficult poem, as tough as it is distinguished, and it will yield only to preternaturally close reading, not to ideology or polemical zeal, however benign in social purpose. We confront, at the height of her powers, the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries. Whatever our own policies or purposes, we must be very wary not to confuse our stances with hers."

    Bloom, Harold. 1994. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (pp. 285-286). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

    Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (p. 285). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

  2. No words describe what I feel when I watch a rainbow, when wilderness sings, when landscape hides a secret pounding to be born, when seasons veil their mystery from prying eyes. Those moments mock us until we die; then, maybe, we will learn another way to say what we see. Or not.

  3. Such gargantuan energy spent on simply what the hell is she talking about. I love it, of course, but so qualitatively different than any other poetic experience.