Search This Blog

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.


  1. As you suggest to me, the poet is at work writing.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Was ED balancing her household accounts (literal figures) but thinking about death (literally serener)? Or was she writing a poem (metaphoric figures) but thinking about death? Or was she balancing her budget but thinking about a poem she wanted to write? Given ED’s word choices, “figures” and “serener”, the first combination, Susan K’s suggestion, seems more likely. Undoubtedly, her mother insisted she keep accurate household expense records, and ED’s “fingers” certainly were “baffled” by death, but they were definitely not baffled by writing poetry, given that this poem and 87 others date from 1859.

    ED’s obsession with death began early. She was 13 when her very close friend and second cousin, Sophia Holland, died of “brain fever” (typhus). For weeks, ED had visited Sophia almost every day. During her final days, the doctor ordered no visitors, but afterward ED pleaded for one last visit to say goodbye. The experience of watching Sophia decline and then viewing her body plunged ED into “fixed melancholy”. Her parents tried diversions to rouse her but finally, in desperation, arranged a month-long visit with her grandmother, Lavinia Norcross, in Boston. Her visit cured the depression, but Sophia’s death left scars that haunted ED until her own death in 1886.