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03 October 2011

Water, is taught by thirst.

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land—by the Oceans passed.
Transport—by throe—
Peace—by its battles told—
Love, by memorial mold—
Birds, by the snow.
                                     - F 93 (1859) 135

Dickinson uses great economy and concision in this poem and this lends power to the final line. The first line sets up the template of X “is taught” by Y. Following lines have no need for “is taught,” simply making do with a dash or a comma. Each line begins with an accented syllable that is either an entire noun or the first syllable of one. This adds both strength and momentum. Finally, the nouns employed all refer to great human needs: Water, land, transport, peace, love – and so the final noun, “Birds,” comes as a surprise. The reader is going along almost on automatic: Yes, we appreciate water only after having experienced thirst; peace, only after war, etc. But birds? It requires a stop and a think… and then a dawning understanding that it is the long quiet of winter that lends such piercing sweetness and joy to that first robin. Dickinson will write several poems about that first Troubadour.
            In the mid to late 1800s, it was something of a fashion to take living molds of loved ones faces. These would be plaster casts – and in fact memorial molds are not uncommon today. Dickinson once wrote her Preceptor, Thomas Higginson, that she had no mold and that  this ‘often alarms Father – He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest – but has no Mold of me (L268).’
            The rhyme scheme is A A  B  C  C  B. The “A” and “C” lines are trimeter, while the two “B” lines are dimeter. Having an earlier dimeter line prepares us for the final one. For each, the first foot is trochaic; the second, iambic. The extreme economy of the last line – four one-syllable words – give it both visual and oral strength.


  1. ED summarized all literature in this six-line poem:

    Water is taught by thirst
    Home, by absence
    Pleasure, by pain
    Peace, by war
    Love, by loss
    Summer, by winter

    Susan K deconstructed this poem in eight lines:

    Rhyme A A B C C B.
    A & C trimeter,
    B dimeter.
    First foot, trochaic,
    Second, iambic.
    Economic last line,
    Four monosyllables,
    Visual, oral strength.

    First Corinthians 13: 13 summarized this poem and Susan’s deconstruction in one line:

    And now abideth water, land, transport, peace, love, birds, these six; but the greatest of these is birds.