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23 April 2012

The Lamp burns sure – within –

The Lamp burns sure – within – 

Tho' Serfs – supply the Oil – 

It matters not the busy Wick – 

At her phosphoric toil!

The Slave – forgets – to fill – 

The Lamp – burns golden – on – 

Unconscious that the oil is out – 

As that the Slave – is gone.
                                                            F247 (1861)  233

An inner flame is often said to light the paths of revolutionaries, missionaries, mystics – and poets. The oil lamp here represents that flame. The poet, the “busy Wick,” burns “at her phosphoric toil.” White phosphorus emits a glow when exposed to oxygen, and so the toil of the Poet/Wick is to write poems that glow with some of that inner fire.  
            “Serfs” had been providing the necessary fuel for the lamp, although the Wick never noticed or cared. But the second stanza makes it clear that ordinary market oil isn’t what truly fuels this flame. For although the “Slave” forgets to refill the lamp and all the oil is gone, “The Lamp – burns golden – on.” The Wick, writing in the midst of creative fire, notices neither the absence of the “Slave” nor the oil. Nor does she need to! She still has light.
            The question one asks of this poem is who are these Serfs and Slave? Many poets have had the luxury of a wife or partner or trustfund to see them through. The aristocracy had slaves, serfs, and servants to attend to their needs. As Dickinson wrote this poem, the United States was embarking on a bloody Civil War with slavery at the heart of the hostilities. Is this poem also making the point that slaves aren't needed, that the golden lamplight of the nation will continue to burn without their forced and unpaid labor?
           Perhaps the "Serfs" and "Slave" refer to the body of the poet herself. Her hands and stomach, for example, might be viewed as serfs to her inner poetic flame. One would assume they are necessary to fuel the poet. But no: the creative fire burns even without the oil of food, drink, or or other seeming necessities.

            I have no clear answer, but it seems that the Lamp that “burns sure” will burn despite an earthly and material fuel and despite having attendants.  Interestingly, Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of a sacred lamp that burned for eight days without oil. After the forces of Roman ruler Antiochus IV had been driven from the Jewish Temple in 165 BCE by rebel patriots under the Maccabees, it was discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. The Temple needed to be rededicated, but there was only enough good oil to light the sacred lamp (the menorah) for one day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready). Perhaps the miracle of this holy fire is also part of the rich meanings of this simple poem. 


  1. Or it could also be that the poet--creative light aglow--is ignorant /unaware that burnout, writer's block, or death is coming?


  2. The poem does have an ominous quality, as you suggest. I can certainly read the poem as one forecasting some doom for the oblivious busy wick. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. Stanza 1. Late afternoon, setting sun spills over ED’s small writing desk through second-floor south- and west-facing windows. She sits, lost in thought, crafting this poem, ignoring dimming light. She’s certain Maggie filled the lamp with oil, formerly whale oil, now kerosene distilled in Pennsylvania, much cheaper, less odor than cetacean stuff.

    Stanza 2, Sun sets, light dies. ED reaches for a match, strikes, stretches to ignite the lamp. Damn, Maggie forgot to fill the tank. Oh well, there’s evening afterglow. Forgetting empty lamp, she writes on, pausing for new words, scribbling lines as darkness falls, eyes adjusting. Night drops hard, weak eyes fail, words keep flowing, memorized til morning. Who needs oil or slaves when inner light suffices.