Victory comes late –
And is held low to freezing lips –
Too rapt with frost
To take it –
How sweet it would have tasted –
Just a Drop –
Was God so economical?
His Table's spread too high for Us –
Unless We dine on tiptoe –
Crumbs – fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robbins –
The Eagle's Golden Breakfast strangles – Them –
God keep His Oath to Sparrows –
Who of little Love – know how to starve –
- F195 (1861) 690
Dickinson wrote numerous poems exploring the theme of “too little too late,” and on haves vs. have-nots. There are beggars who would revel at a feast if only they could go (As Watchers hang upon the East), someone dying of thirst despite lovely meadow brooks (To learn the Transport by the Pain), and a dying and defeated soldier hearing the victor’s trumpet calls (Success is counted sweetest), among others. In those poems she seemed to be holding up the paradox for examination: why those and not those others? What tragic irony that one could die with water close at hand or starve while food abounds. These seem to be social questions, but in this poem she brings the question directly to God.
Looking back at another poem, written at least one year earlier, “A little bread – a crust – a crumb –,” we find her saying that a little crumb will serve to keep body and soul alive – “Not portly, mind!” – and that whoever wants more than their “business” deserves ( e.g., a little fame for the poet, ammunition for the soldier, shore for the sailor) “Must seek the neighboring life!”. That 1860 poem stops short of laying the issue of sufficiency vs. bounty at God’s feet. Rather, it advises us to be content and wait for better things in the afterlife. More important, that poem had a teasing almost self-mocking tone: “Okay, I’ll never be a famous poet, but then I’m quite happy with my modest little life.”
This poem is bitter. It begins with a sketched scene: a person freezing to death, unable even to open his mouth for a drink of something that would save him. He cannot even taste “a Drop.” It’s a horrific scene of death. The question follows immediately: “Was God so economical?” implying a lethal stinginess on the part of the Creator. “His Table” is “spread too high”; we have to “dine on tiptoe.” This would, of course, be child abuse in an earthly family, for the children must eat whatever crumbs might fall their way. But crumbs are really not enough: they “fit such little mouths.” The image is of mice. The poet works her way up: “Robbins” couldn’t survive on crumbs; Cherries are just the right size for their beaks. Neither could they feast the way Eagles do – the eagle’s “Golden Breakfast” (probably of hares, sparrows or field mice) would strangle them.
The logical conclusion is that humans have a human-size need – and that it isn’t being met. We are like that freezing person whose “Victory” comes too late.
|Sparrow in happier times
But the most bitter thrust is delivered in the last two lines. God’s “Oath to Sparrows” is given in two verses: Mathew 10:29 where Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father”; and Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” The oath, then, is that God will feed the birds and watch over them so that nothing happens to them unless he wills it. But the poet knows that sparrows do starve – from “little Love” – and so she calls to God to keep his oath. God is clearly not doing enough for his children or for his birds and other creatures.
The poem serves as a metaphor for wanting and needing something in order to achieve any sort of happiness – and not getting it. If the sweet Drop comes at all, it comes too late. If any food is to be had, it is just a crumb. A promise of love or protection or support doesn’t necessarily mean that love, protection, or support will be forthcoming. And if it is, then like the “Eagle’s Golden Breakfast,” it would strangle.
The strength of this poem comes from Dickinson’s using God as the metaphor. Powerful stuff – and I’m not aware of any other woman writing such direct challenges. The Civil War was underway as Dickinson wrote this, and although she seldom referred to it, the horror and waste was surely a backdrop to her own troubles. Although some critics read this poem as a bitter commentary on her own lack of fame and recognition, I think Dickinson is casting a wider net. Sure she might have wished for more than the crumbs of recognition (and affection) she got from Bowles – to whom this poem was sent – but that does not mean her poetry is no more than personal response.
Dickinson plays successfully with line length here. “Too rapt with frost / To take it – ” is one trimeter line divided into two. The division emphasizes the tightly knit word sounds: “rapt” and “frost” echo each other with their “r”s and “t”s, and both lines begin with the homonym of “Too” and “To.” All those “t” sounds adds up to quite a bit of alliteration in those few syllables: Too, rapt, frost, To, take, it. The alliteration continues in the next line with sweet, it, and tasted. The techniques, strongly aural in quality, create a strong visual effect as well. We see that dying person and his frosty lips. (Yes, it might be a woman.)
The last line of the poem,in a reverse process, has combined two lines: “Who of little Love – know how to starve – .” Here the “Love” and “starve” are sound and visual echoes – and a bitter echo indeed. Several slow words lend emphasis: Who, know, and how.” The poem slows and ends cruelly with that unexpected “starve.” It was presaged by “strangles,” but still hits the reader with surprising force. Is the poet really saying that despite God’s oath sparrows – and we – starve?