I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what would last till Heads like mine
Should be a’dreaming laid.
I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo - my priceless Hay
Was not upon the "Scaffold" –
Was not upon the "Beam" –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.
Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity's guiltless –
My business is, to find!
So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?
- F175 (1860) 178
The poem takes as its beginning the separating of the wheat (the good part) from the chaff (the bad, husky parts), which is a Biblical metaphor. The poet pauses in her life and takes a careful, “cautious” stock. She threw out (“winnowed”) what she thought transient and put aside in a supposedly safe place what she thought would endure her entire life.
The safe place, though, the “Barn” (in keeping with the agricultural metaphor of wheat), turns out not to be very safe at all, for when she goes to look at her treasures they are gone. Interestingly, rather than thinking she was just a failed or careless “Farmer,” she becomes a “Cynic.” She even wonders if God is guilty!
The reader is wondering all this time just what these treasures are. In the last stanza she refers to them as “Hearts” yet also as a singular “Thee.” As she ransacks everywhere looking for it/them as it is her “business” to find them, she addresses them directly: How is it with you? Are you still here in the place “Love provided Thee?”
The Barn is clearly a metaphor for her own heart for love has provided this barn and what other holding place does love offer besides a heart? We know that Dickinson loved several people who faded for one reason or another from her life: Sue, another couple of girlfriends, and a couple of men friends (mentors, Masters) who died. We also know that she came to adopt a more flexible even doubting approach to religion than that she had grown up with and which surrounded her. It seems to me that she is either referring to her beloved people or her religious values (chastity, faith, submission, etc.) and when she found them lost (or at least not valued as much), she became cynical. Thus her comment that the Deity might not be “guiltless.”
Alternatively, she may be referring to those people she once loved. She was a “thriving Farmer” of loving relationships, but after she put the friendships away for safekeeping, they vanished. One can be cynical about love in much the same way one becomes cynical with religion. There has to be something actually “there” or you lose faith.
The last two lines have quite a bit of pathos. They reflect the last hope against deep disappointment. Perhaps the treasures are there but the poet just can’t see them. At any rate, it is too often the poet’s lot to not be satisfied. Satisfaction doesn’t breed poetry quite as easily for most people as longing – or even cynicism.