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05 May 2024

I meant to have but modest needs —

I meant to have but modest needs —
Such as Content — and Heaven —
Within my income — these could lie
And Life and I — keep even —

But since the last — included both —
It would suffice my Prayer
But just for One — to stipulate —
And Grace would grant the Pair —

And so — upon this wise — I prayed —
Great Spirit — Give to me
A Heaven not so large as Yours,
But large enough — for me —

A Smile suffused Jehovah's face —
The Cherubim — withdrew —
Grave Saints stole out to look at me —
And showed their dimples — too —

I left the Place, with all my might —
I threw my Prayer away —
The Quiet Ages picked it up —
And Judgment — twinkled — too —
That one so honest — be extant —
It take the Tale for true —
That "Whatsoever Ye shall ask —
Itself be given You" —

But I, grown shrewder — scan the Skies
With a suspicious Air —
As Children — swindled for the first
All Swindlers — be — infer —

    -F711, J476, Fascicle 33, 1863

This poem recalls for me F687 in which the poet asks the Mighty Merchant for the one thing she wants, one which she is willing to give her entire being for, but the Merchant only smiles (+"sneers") and denies her. These poems are about unanswered prayers and skepticism.

The poet starts off by claiming she meant to have “modest” needs, just to be content and to have Heaven. One might wonder how receiving heaven could be considered “modest,” and it does seem, at first, a bit cheeky. But she goes on to say that she just wanted what was within her “income." I take this to mean that she only asked for as much as she could afford. She’s not asking for a freebie. She wants to “keep even” with life.

Though this poem seems to be about religious faith on the surface, and most people will read it this way, you can also read it as being about a relationship. In the first poem of this fascicle the poet sighs “for lack of Heaven - but not the Heaven God bestow.” In that poem, and several others by Dickinson, Heaven refers to the beloved. It is safe to assume that the Heaven in this poem may also be of the more secular kind.

Dickinson is the most economical of poets, so it’s notable that she takes up the entire second stanza just to say that she doesn’t need to ask for both contentment AND heaven, since Heaven includes them both. What is she really saying? I think it’s a subtle point, that though being in heaven (in the presence of the beloved) may not always be smooth and easy, she would still be content there anyway. It’s a way of saying that she would be content even it was difficult, as long as she was with her beloved.

I haven’t seen the term “Great Spirit” show up before in Dickinson. It feels like a very transcendentalist descriptor of God. It almost sounds Native American, though I doubt that’s what Dickinson was going for. This Great Spirit in this poem though doesn't seem so great. It seems a little mean-spirited actually. In the 4th stanza God “smiles” at the narrator's prayer for Grace. Then the cherubim withdraw (no Heaven for you!) and finally even the normally grave saints come out and show their dimples. Going from grave to smiling because someone asks to be content and have a small bit of Heaven makes one wonder what kind of God this is. This one seems to be making fun of a sincere supplicant.

The narrator doesn’t like it one bit. She says, “I left the Place, with all my might —/ I threw my Prayer away —”. That sounds awfully angry to me, leaving a place with ALL YOUR MIGHT and THROWING your prayer away.

What does Dickinson mean when she says “The quiet ages” picked the prayer up that she threw away? Does she mean it fell upon endless silence? Or does she mean the meek may continue to pray away, but not her, as she no longer means to be "quiet"? It’s an intriguing line. The quiet ages pick up the prayer and Judgment (Dickinson's shorthand for a judgy God) twinkles at these quiet "ages" who have taken up the same prayer. He seems to be laughing at the ones who are so honest that they expect God to be honest too when he says in the scriptures “"Whatsoever Ye shall ask —/ Itself be given You." The poet calls this promise a “tale.” The poet isn’t buying it. From now on she will be scanning the skies (looking at the heavens) with suspicion, because, she says, if you are swindled when you are young, then you expect all future promises to be part of a swindle. Once bitten, twice shy.

George Whicher suggests that this poem is humorous in tone and that in Emily’s account of the incident it is as though God is asking, ‘Could not the victim share in the cosmic joke?’ He reads the poem as Dickinson sharing in the twinkle. Maybe so, but I find the tone of the poem angry and sad, even if it is shrewd. For example, I think the way the fifth stanza is eight unbroken lines instead of two quatrains belies a climax that is full of real feeling. File this poem under Dickinson’s wiser but sadder poems.
  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

1 comment:

  1. An interpretation, often in synch with Adam's:

    Stanza 1

    The poet imagines a perfect plan for the remainder of her life: contentment “within her income” and “Heaven”, which for her would be continued correspondence with Charles Wadsworth living in Philadelphia, close enough for him to occasionally visit, as he did in 1860 and possibly 1861.

    Stanza 2

    On second thought, she deletes “Content” from her “Prayer”, because if she had “Heaven” as described, she would be content. And she could have that Heaven if just one person, Wadsworth, would so “stipulate”, “And Grace would grant the Pair –”, both contentment and Heaven.

    Stanza 3

    She asks little in her “Prayer”, and she asks in an endearing way:

    “Great Spirit -Give to me
    A Heaven not so large as Yours,
    But large enough -for me –”

    Stanza 4 [brackets mine]

    “A [paternalistic] Smile suffused Jehovah's face -
    The Cherubim [young angels attending God]-withdrew -
    Grave Saints [Severe old men] stole out to look at me -
    And showed their dimples - too –” [also smiled in amusement]

    Stanza 5 [brackets mine]

    Disgusted by Heaven’s pseudo-smile paternalism, ED stormed out of “the Place - with all my might –” and “threw my Prayer away -”. For ages Christian readers “picked it up” and read her prayer approvingly. Even St Peter at the pearly gates “twinkled” with approval because there had been one living person so honest [gullible] that she took “the Tale for true -”

    Stanza 6

    “The Tale”, told twice, in Matthew 21: 21-22 & John 14: 12-14, was:

    "Whatsoever Ye shall ask –
    Itself be given You" –

    As a child ED believed that promise lock, stock, and barrel, but when her prayers went unanswered, she grew skeptical of Resurrection, Heaven, and the Judeo-Christian God, and, like a swindled child, now infers all such promisers are swindlers, including God and Wadsworth.

    Matthew 21:21-22:

    21: Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.
    22: And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

    John 14: 12-14:

    12. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
    13. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.