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14 April 2012

Bound a Trouble – 
and lives will bear it!

Bound a Trouble – 
and lives will bear it!

Circumscription – enables Woe –
Still to anticipate – Were not limit –
Who were sufficient to Misery?

State it the Ages – to a cipher –
And it will ache contented on – 

Sing at its pain, as any Workman – 

Notching the fall of the even Sun –
                                                            F240 (1861)  269

This is one of what I call Dickinson’s wisdom poems.  It is also a poem that takes a bit of reconstruction and quite a bit of imagination to work through. Helen Vendler noted that “Dickinson sits in a transparent house with no visible door, enjoying the self-selected sympathizers who can slip inside the glass” (Dickinson: Selected  Poems and Commentaries). I don’t think that’s true for all her poems but it certainly is true of this one. The first task is to define and fill in some words.

Circle circumscribing a polygon
            The first stanza sets out the problem, its solution, and the need for solution. “Bound a Trouble” is the same as circumscribing “Woe” : you are drawing a boundary around it, so to speak, as if indicating that the woe goes this far but no farther (imagine drawing a circle around a polygon). To circumscribe woe is to make it endurable . Imagine having  a throbbing toothache. If you can circumscribe the pain (it is only in one part of my  jaw and an antibiotic will make the pain go away in a couple of days) then you can endure the pain quite easily, if not happily. On the other hand, if you had no idea of how long it would go on, you might get frantic. The same is true of emotional pain, which is no doubt what Dickinson is talking about here. If you “Bound” it by reminding yourself that it only hurts at night, or when walking in the garden; or that a year from now the sharp ache will be diminished, then you will still be able to anticipate life beyond the Bound, despite the woe. Without knowing the limits of the specific woe or “Misery,” who would be “sufficient” or equal to handling it?
Man circumscribed
(da Vinci)
            The second stanza personifies Misery as a “Workman.” But, Dickinson implies, first it must be stated to “the Ages” – even if only “to a cipher.” –“Cipher” is an old-fashioned word for a zero, a nonentity or nobody. Just the stating of a Misery or woe is in itself a bounding of it. Writing a poem about a misery, whether the poem is read by posterity or stays forever on a blank page, is an act of circumscription. It embodies the misery, gives it a job. Misery’s sole job is pain and it will sing at it as a “Workman” sings at his work to help the time pass. The workman notes the passing hours of the day, waiting for quitting time. Misery counts its time in days, making a notch for each day – or the setting of the evening sun – until its limited time is over.


  1. What do you make of the original version bound into Fascicle 9:
    Bound—a trouble—
    And lives can bear it!
    Limit—how deep a bleeding go!
    So—many—drops—of vital scarlet—
    Deal with the soul
    As with Algebra!

    Tell it the Ages—to a cypher—
    And it will ache—contented—on—
    Sing—at its pain—as any Workman—
    Notching the fall of the Even Sun!

    The first stanza is dramatically different, much more raw and authentic, to my mind.

    1. I love it! The slow drop of blood reflected in the 'So–many-drops-' and the interesting rhyme reversal of 'vital scarlet' (must be a word for that). And dealing with the soul 'As with Algebra!' -- just great Dickinson. Thank you for posting this.

  2. This is the version I have. I like it, but find "Deal with the soul as with algebra!" puzzling.

    1. Agreed. But I recall from Algebra that you go through a great deal of trouble (and pain) to get to X=49. Perhaps the equation is bounded -- it can only be expressed in so many ways and the outcome is only one outcome. Perhaps our souls struggle the same way, yet there are limited ways in which we can work out our limited problem.

  3. Poetry can puzzle me so much. I was so attracted to this poem and I didn't know why because I didn't understand it at all, but I loved the sound of it and thought maybe it had something to tell me. Thanks to you translating the first line, the rest fell pretty much in place. I'm still a little shaky on the algebra, but: let it lie.

  4. Between 1861 (Variant A, below) and 1863 (Variant B, top of page), ED revised Stanza 1 significantly, to the better IMO, because Lines 3-4 in Variant B clearly describe how defined versus undefined limits of misery imply bearable versus unbearable pain. Also, the verb that starts Stanza 2, Variant B, sounds better to my ear.

    Variant A:

    Bound - a trouble -
    And lives can bear it!
    Limit - how deep a bleeding go!
    So - many - drops - of vital scarlet -
    Deal with the soul
    As with Algebra!

    Tell it the Ages - to a cypher -
    And it will ache - contented - on -
    Sing - at it's pain - as any Workman -
    Notching the fall of the even sun!

    Left unsaid is the pain’s identity.

    During the early 1850s when ED played matchmaker for her brother, Austin, and her lesbian lover, Susan, with the goal of keeping Susan in Amherst, she didn’t clearly foresee the difference between a temporally bounded inner pain and a lifetime of misery, bounded only by her death.

    By 1863, seven years after their marriage and twenty-five years before ED’s death, pain’s unbounded presence loomed ever larger, and the price of a Vesuvian eruption had grown too great. ED’s only choice was – poetry.