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12 October 2012

I would not paint—a picture—

I would not paint—a picture—
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It's finer—Own the Ear—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

                                                            F348 (1862)  505

In this concise and powerful tour of the fine arts, the poet asserts that she would rather look at paintings than paint, would rather listen to music than play an instrument, and would rather hear poetry than write it.
Drifting away like a balloon to music
photo by Nigel Pacey
Just as painting is a tactile art, Dickinson she dives inside the senses, wondering how the painter’s fingers feel as they create art of such “bright impossibility” that the viewer wants to “dwell—delicious” on them. For the air-borne art of music, Dickinson abandons herself to imagination, picturing herself as a floating balloon, transformed by “but a lip of Metal” to ride the music  out into the “Villages of Ether” (a term once meaning the invisible substance that permeates the cosmos).

When it comes to the language of poetry, Dickinson shrinks into herself, content to be but a listener (implying being a reader, too, who ‘hears’ the poetry when reading). She wants to “Own the Ear” and enter into the poem “Enamored—impotent—content.” These are three interesting adjectives: to be struck with love, to be helpless and unable to act, and to be satisfied and fulfilled. There is a sexual overtone to this, as if it each poem were an act of ravishment. This tone is carried into the last line where she wonders what the cost would be if she were granted the “privilege” of being a good enough poet to “stun” herself “With Bolts of Melody.” In this case, rather than being ravished by a good poem, she would have the “Art” to ravish herself.
Dickinson’s famous remark to Higginson about poetry, written in about this same period in her life, also reflects this intensity:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?
The idea of becoming an Ear to best take in poetry is reminiscent of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” just eight poems ago (F340), where “Being” had become but “an Ear” and “all the Heavens were a Bell.” But while shrinking into an ear in that poem was like a descent into madness, in this poem it is an entre into something as powerful and magnificent as a thunderbolt.

The power and concision of the last stanza is based not only on the strong imagery and the very fine last two lines, but in the sketchy language and punctuation. The reader must supply missing words, connect the dots, and supply appropriate punctuation. It’s as if Dickinson were writing in shorthand from some inner dictation and so copied down only the essential bits. Yet scholarship has shown that this poem was carefully revised. Dickinson knew her art: Those “Bolts of Melody” don’t hit her readers by accident.
Another way that Dickinson achieves power and concision is through paradox. In the first stanza she writes that painters can evoke “so sweet a Torment— / Such sumptuous—Despair” through their art. These paradoxical juxtapositions remind me of all the other poems where she has used this technique to great effect, as in “Kill your Balm—and its Odors bless you” (F309).
The poem is written primarily in iambic trimeter—which is associated with dialog in Greek drama as well as in other poetry where speech is implied. Here, the poet is talking in a very direct way to the reader. The use of rhyme helps give us that “Melody” so prized in Dickinson’s lifetime. I particularly like the rhyme of “Myself endued Balloon / … / The pier to my Pontoon.” Some other effective rhymes—slant and perfect—are stir / despair, Poet / content, and Ear / revere.


  1. WOW .. what a pleasure to have discovered this blog site .. Kudos :-)
    LOVE Dickinson and I shall be back here regularly .. what a great way to 'worship' the work of an author you admire :-)

    1. Thank you! I have learned a lot -- and deepened my already great appreciation of Dickinson.

  2. I agree - I sit with an array of print texts before me and unlimited access to the feast of google, and I always come back here!
    I see shades of Emerson’s eyeball in her desire to become an ear.

  3. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you. I am writing an explication on the mystical ravishment through art. Paradox is the art.

  4. This one gets more and more interesting the more you read it, and the music becomes more and more intoxicating too. A poet who would not be a poet, but would rather, if she could, just Own the Ear. A poem revering the license of its reader. The bolts of melody strike me as a confluence of painting (bolt) and music (melody) as poem, invoking all three.

  5. I'm very taken with the bolts. They suggest a bolting horse, lightning bolts, locks, jolts, and rolls of cloth. The poem's 'melody' is like all of that -- and as Pp points out, it privileges the ear.

  6. ‘I would not paint—a picture—’, a celebration of her poetry and her ability to stun herself with products of her pen. Her closing wish is true, she knows it, and she thanks whatever gods may be for her incomparable way with words, evidenced by this incomparable poem.

    My favorite lines end Stanza 2:

    “Raised softly to the Ceilings—
    And out, and easy on—
    Through Villages of Ether—
    Myself endued [endowed like a] Balloon
    By but a lip of Metal [the nib of my pen]—
    The pier to my Pontoon—[to my floating bridge to heaven]”

  7. Long after the deaths of all ED’s friends, family, and early editors, Mabel Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, gathered 600 unpublished ED poems into ‘Bolts of Melody’ (1945). It was a labor of love for her mother, who was listed as a posthumous co-author, and a worthy use of ED’s last line of 'I would not paint—a picture—'.

    Millicent Todd Bingham earned the first PhD in Geography awarded to a woman by Harvard University, so was no stranger to academic standards of scholarship. She proved herself by transcribing and publishing the most difficult ED manuscripts, those scratched on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, and even blank spaces on instructions for lighting and maintaining a kerosene lamp.