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29 October 2011

Talk with prudence to a Beggar

Talk with prudence to a Beggar
Of "Potosi," and the mines!
Reverently, to the Hungry
Of your viands, and your wines!

Cautious, hint to any Captive
You have passed enfranchised feet!
Anecdotes of air, in Dungeons
Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!
                                                                   - F 118 (1859)  119

Inca laborers mining Potosi silver
for the Spanish colonialists
Dickinson passes on some common-sense advice here. It is crass, if not dangerous, to flaunt wealth (e.g., the rich silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia), luxurious food, and freedom to those who are in need. But the poem also sounds like a veiled personal plea. Don’t dangle freedom and riches in front of me, she warns. Don’t tempt me out of my circumscribed life.
            Instead of yearning for freedom, food, or riches, however, the poet may be longing for love or Paradise. One imagines her thinking of the men she loved and flirted with, or Sue whose fickle loyalty and affection she always desired. But I also think of all the poems she wrote about longing for Paradise and I wonder if she wasn’t thinking of that. Talk of Paradise might indeed prove “deadly sweet” to one who longs for it. She makes this point quite clearly in the last two lines. Speaking of life outside of prison to a prisoner might induce a suicide attempt. 


  1. What does the expression "enfranchised feet" mean.. what exactly is the context here ?

    1. I think it means freedom - the feet are a synechdote for the person. Pres. Lincoln enfranchised the slaves, so the word at that time was more associated with freedom than with the right to vote, which it more frequently means today.

      So if you are a free person, don't rub it in to one who is captive. Maybe, don't boast of your travels and activities

  2. I wondered if there might be a secondary meaning and I appreciate what you propose here. I think there should be a word in poetry for contradictory readings. Contravalence? (I hereby propose this word.) Anyway, saying to the rich person, don't flaunt in front of beggar, etc, is the reading I took from it, but I could see something else was going on, which I think you've got your finger on; the flip side, to be the beggar, the captive, in the dungeon, and not want the temptation. I can personally take something from both readings. I often wonder if Emily composed her poems to be contravalent. Or at least multivalent. I suspect so, especially after reading so many with this quality. (Like the letting go at the end of "Great pain". Is it letting go of life, or pain? Or both?

    Anyway, thanks for unlocking the new possible meaning here.

    1. Yes, I think you have the right of it. I like 'contravalence' and I agree with you that Dickinson seems to wield it with intent.