The Zeroes taught us – Phosphorous –
We learned to like the Fire
By handling Glaciers – when a Boy –
And Tinder – guessed – by power
Of Opposite – to balance Ought –
Eclipses – Suns – imply –
Paralysis – our Primer dumb
Unto Vitality –
284 (1862) 689
In several earlier poems Dickinson has examined the paradoxical way we learn the lessons of the world. To learn the Transport by the Pain / As Blind Men learn the sun! is one. “Success is counted sweetest” is another, where she claims that To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need. I’m reminded of a Buddhist teaching: our well of happiness was excavated by despair.
Dickinson continues her examinations here. The first stanza uses the metaphor of fire and how we come to understand its dynamics. Phosphorous, she points out, ignites at very low temperature. Dickinson would have been quite familiar with phosphorous matches as they were first introduced in the late 1820s (safety matches, using red rather than the poisonous white phophorus, were first marketed in 1855). And so the first paradox in the poem refers to the drama of fire arising from seemingly zero heat. Likewise, people can sometimes catch fire, their passions inflamed, from seemingly insignificant incitement.
would ignite very easily.
She then alludes to fire’s beneficial warming property: we truly appreciate the fire in the hearth after being around glacial cold. We learn to love warm personalities after having been around their opposites. “Cold fish,” we sometimes say, or “Ice princess.” Dickinson adopts the “Boy” persona here as if only boys go out climbing snowy or glacial mountains.
The third quality, the power of fire, suggests something more interesting. Some fires are small and well controlled while others become conflagrations. We can guess at the “Tinder” that started and initially fueled the fire by how it subsequently burns. (I doubt that this is true, but let’s allow poetic license… .) In a human sense we might see the fire expressed in fury, in righteous anger, in a burning love, or simply in a warm smile and embrace. We can get a sense of what fuels each of these fires by that power.
The second stanza transforms the idea of fire into “Vitality” – the spark that distinguishes the living from the nonliving, the vigorous from the weak. Things or qualities (“Ought”) are balanced and known, the poet writes, by their opposites. An eclipse, for example, implies the existence of a sun. Then Dickinson gets to her real point: Paralysis teaches us what vitality must be. How real it must seem to someone in the midst of depression or otherwise unable to function properly. The inability to get going, all the parts that are not functioning, all the reasons that discourage action become a textbook for understanding robust life. “Our primer dumb,” she calls it, for paralysis is not only unable to act but to speak.
It’s hard to know what to make of this poem in terms of Dickinson’s life. Some of her poems talk about numbness and a certain horrible inability to move. Yet others are overbrimming with intense life. In her habits she was withdrawn and increasingly reclusive. At the time this poem was written she no longer was going even into town. Yet her family and close associates describe her as full of life. As always, Dickinson herself is the deepest paradox.