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09 October 2011

Low at my problem bending

Low at my problem bending,
Another problem comes—
Larger than mine—serener—
Involving statelier sums.

I check my busy pencil,
My figures file away –
Wherefore, my baffled fingers
Thy perplexity?
                                                                - F 99 (1859)  69

Those busy fingers with their “busy pencil” just don’t know what to do when the poet puts away her household accounts away to contemplate a “Larger,” “serener” issue. We like to keep busy rather than contemplate the Beyond—for that is what I think Dickinson is alluding to here. The larger problem probably isn’t a death or a disappointment in love or other affairs, for it is a serene problem. It makes the petty issues of this life seem small, simply figures that can be filed away. But what to do with the hands?
            Hands are the emblem of productivity and achievement and social intercourse: lend a helping hand, a handy person, put your hand to it, raise your hand, etc. And so it is tempting to always occupy them. Yet the poet makes a point of quieting her daily talk to think about a larger issue. Today we would talk this way about meditation. The mind and soul want the rich quietness to contemplate the mystery of breath and life, but the brain and hands must be trained to stillness.
            This simply but meaningful poem is written in trimeter with slant rhymes at the second and fourth line of each stanza. Alliteration helps bind each stanza together, with “serener,” statelier,” and “sums” in the first and “figures,” “file,” and “fingers” in the second.