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19 October 2011

For each extatic instant

For each extatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the extasy –

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of Years –
Bitter contested farthings –
And Coffers heaped with tears!
                                                     - F109 (1859)  125

It’s common enough to think of happiness and sorrow balancing out, of pain that hollows out the place for happiness. But Dickinson here discusses the extremes of the range, ecstasy and anguish, and presents a ratio – a “keen and quivering ratio” as if it is something frightened, sensate, and alive – that overwhelmingly favors anguish. A “beloved hour” must be paid for by deprived Years, by “Bitter” farthings and then whole Coffers of tears. That’s a high price to pay for joy.
            The poem is bleak, portraying a lifetime of few joys and many sorrows. In 1859, most of Dickinson’s greatest sorrows – her severe vision problems, the death of her mother and brother and her beloved nephew – were still ahead. Yet she had known her share of sorrow. A young friend had died when Dickinson was 13 and this shook her badly. Her first “Master” – a young headmaster at Amherst College died suddenly when he was only 25, and a young attorney from her father’s office, a good friend and second “Master” who foretold her significance of a poet, died of tuberculosis. She was beginning her withdrawal from the world and had the good excuse of her invalid mother who needed constant attention.
            Dickinson uses a lot of abstract language in this poem, unlike many of the previous poems. The first stanza sets up the analogy of paying for happiness and the second gives more specifics about the ratio of how much anguish is needed to pay for ecstasy or beloved hours. Because the verse form is restrained – iambic trimeter – and there are no visible people or other concrete objects, the tone itself is majestic rather than smarmy or exuding pathos. So Dickinson is able to use heavy words such as anguish, ecstasy, “keen and quivering” and “heaped with tears” without coming across as melodramatic.


  1. This is extreme but the first stanza could be contrasting the comforts of intimacy to the intervening periods of loneliness. I am really puzzled by the apparently monetary symbolism of the last two lines.

  2. I am wondering if she is saying something about the suffering that is a necessary dimension of the mystical experience.

  3. This poem gets to the cunondrum of ED, more than other poems where this fear of emotional attachments is displayed. Why did these things in life - death of loved ones; lost loves - which everyone in 19th Century America experienced in abundance, effect her more than others?

  4. Miss Kornfield I tried to translate this poem in South Indian Classical Language Tamil. For whatever use it could be, I just thought I must somehow compliment your painstaking effort. [Should we retain the spelling extatic?] Here is the translated textபெருமகிழ்வுத் தருணம் ஒவ்வொன்றுக்கும்
    துயரொன்றை விலையாகத் தரவேண்டும்.
    புளகித்த இன்பத்திற்கீடாகத்
    கூர்த்த நடுநடுங்கும் வீதத்தில்!

    அவாவுற்ற ஒரு மணிநேரக் களிப்புக்கும்
    அற்பவிலையாய் அறுக்கும் கூரிய ஆண்டுகள்⸺
    கசப்புந் தயக்கமும் ததும்பும் காசுகள்⸺
    கண்ணீர்த்துளிகள் நிறைத்த பேழைகள்!

    எமிலி டிக்கின்சன் 1859

    1. I am so happy you gifted me this translation -- and your appreciation.
      I believe we should keep 'extatic' although regularizing it would not really harm the poem :)


  5. An editorial mystery. Can anybody help?

    Anthologies of ED’s poetry by both Johnson and Franklin preserve her delightful spelling of “extacy” but correct her equally delightful spelling of “opon” to “upon”. Is there a logical reason for the two editors to “correct” one word but not the other?

    Given the illogic of English spelling, the authority for such questions is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which has this to say about the two words:


    Forms: Middle English exstasie, exstacye, 1500s–1800s extasie, exstasy, ecstacy, exstacy, exstacie, 1500s–1700s exstasy, 1500s extascie, 1600s EXTACY [caps mine] extase, ecs-, estasie, 1700s, 1800s ectasy, ecstasie, 1600s–1800s EXTACY [caps mine], 1500s– ecstasy.

    Etymology: < Old French EXTACIE, (after words in -sie, < Latin -sia) < medieval Latin extasis, < Greek ἔκστασις, < ἐκστα- stem of ἐξιστάναι to put out of place (in phrase ἐξιστάναι ϕρενῶν ‘to drive a person out of his wits’), < ἐκ out + ἱστάναι to place. The modern English spelling shows direct recourse to Greek The French EXTACY [caps mine] is < medieval Latin or Greek.

    The classical senses of ἔκστασις are ‘insanity’ and ‘bewilderment’; but in late Greek the etymological meaning received another application, ‘withdrawal of the soul from the body, mystic or prophetic trance’; hence in later medical writers the word is used for trance, etc., generally. Both the classical and post-classical senses came into the modern languages, and in the present figurative uses they seem to be blended.

    So,…..ED’s spelling of EXTACY copies French, but,…….

    (Continued in next comment)

  6. UPON

    Forms: α. Middle English– upon (Middle English, 1600s up on, 1500s Scottish uponn), Middle English–1600s vpon (Middle English vp on, Middle English Scottish vpone, ScottishMiddle English–1500s wpone, 1500s–1600s wpon), Middle English–1600s uppon, vppon (Middle English Orm. upponn, Middle English upp on). β. Middle English–1500s OPON [caps mine] (Middle English oupon, OPON [caps mine]), Middle English oppon. γ. Middle English–1500s, 1800s Scottish apon (Middle English apan), Middle English Scottish, 1500s apone, Middle English–1500s Scottish apoun, Middle English–1600s Scottish appon(e, apponne. δ. 1500s poun, 1700s–1800s 'pon.

    Etymology: Early Middle English upon , uppon , etc., < up adv.1, up adv.2 + on prep.; distinct from late Old English and early Middle English uppon , variant of Old English uppan up prep.1

    The compound may have partly arisen from uses of upp on or uppe on in Old English (for instances see up adv.1, up adv.2), but the date at which it appears, and the locality of the texts in which it is first prominent, suggest that it was mainly due to the influence of Old Norse upp á (Middle Swedish up a, op a, uppa, oppa, etc.; Swedish på, Norwegian and Danish paa), with which it agrees in laying the stress on the preposition and weakening or altogether ignoring the force of up. In the modern Scandinavian tongues, except Icelandic and Faroese, the reduced form på, paa, corresponding to English (colloquial or dialect) 'pon, 'po', has displaced the simple preposition å, aa = on.

    Originally denoting elevation as well as contact, the compound has from the earliest period of its occurrence so far lost the former implication, that is, it has been regularly employed as a simple equivalent of on, in all the varieties of meaning which that preposition has developed. The use of the one form or the other has been for the most part a matter of individual choice (on grounds of rhythm, emphasis, etc.) or of simple accident, although in certain contexts and phrases there may be a general tendency to prefer the one to the other. For ease of comparison, the following arrangement of the senses corresponds as closely as possible with that of on prep.

    Of local position outside of, but in contact with or close to, a surface.

    Above and in contact with; in an elevated position on; at rest on the upper surface of; on and supported by; = on prep. 1.In a few instances in late manuscripts (e.g. Hatton Gosp. Matthew v. 14) Old English up on can be taken in this sense, but appears to be merely a scribal variant or alteration of uppon for uppan up prep.1

    (Continued in next comment)

  7. a1272 Luue Ron 121 in Old Eng. Misc. 97 Hit stont vppon a treowe mote.

    c1290 St. Brendan 368 in S. Eng. Leg. I. 229 At ester eue heore procuratour bad heom..heore resurrection OPON [caps mine] þe fisches rugge make.

    c1290 St. Brendan 368 in S. Eng. Leg. I. 577 Þe ston þat ich op-on sitte.

    a1325 (▸c1250) Gen. & Exod. (1968) l. 2867 Ðat..hise folc..ben ðor gare, In ðe deserd an stede up-on, His leue sacrifise to don.

    c1400 (▸?c1380) Pearl l. 1054 The hyȝe trone..Þe hyȝe godez self hit set vpone.

    c1405 (▸c1390) G. Chaucer Miller's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 635 Til he cam to the Celle Vp on the floor.

    c1440 Pallad. on Husb. i. 199 Vynys that vppon the hillis stonde.

    1490 W. Caxton tr. Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1885) xxii. 486 Reynawde..was vpon the hyghe gate of Ardeyn.

    1508 W. Dunbar Goldyn Targe (Chepman & Myllar) in Poems (1998) I. 184 The birdis sang vpon the tender croppis.

    1568 A. Scott Poems (1896) i. 4 Welcum, oure rubent roiss vpoun þe ryce.

    a1616 W. Shakespeare Antony & Cleopatra (1623) iv. xv. 6 A forked Mountaine, or blew Promontorie With Trees vpon't.

    So, …….In this case, ED’s spelling copies Middle English.

    ED certainly knew conventional spelling of these two words but continued with "extasy" until 1873 and "opon" until 1880 (Franklin 1998 Variorum Edition, page 36).

    If we meet her bye & bye, we'll have to ask her why. As for Johnson's and Franklin's reason for emending one word but not the other, Emily can't help us, and neither did OED.

    Susan, apologies for the pedantry.


    An entomologist friend once told me that watching bees visit flowers is like life, brief moments of intense activity separated by long intervals of boredom. 1859 was the nadir of ED’s relationship with Susan Dickinson. During their early 20s they had shared an intimacy that ED had never known before. When Susan took a teaching job in Baltimore, ED suffered loneliness reflected in frequent letters to Susan, but responses were few and intermittent. In hopes of keeping Susan close, ED encouraged a budding romance with her brother, Austin, which blossomed into marriage in 1856. In turn, their father kept Austin close by offering him a partnership in his law firm and, to seal the deal, building a swanky new house next door where the young couple could entertain lavishly and raise children fashionably.

    Predictably, those shared hours of intimacy between Susan and ED came full stop and while Susan spent time entertaining and filling her husband’s needs, like a good 19th century wife, ED wrote poems that she sent to Susan in hopes of rekindling some semblance of their former relationship. No wonder ED sounds so sad in F109, ‘For each extatic instant’. Stay tuned, we have almost 1700 poems left to go before the dark curtain falls.