I had the Glory—that will do—
An Honor, Thought can turn her to
When lesser Fames invite—
With one long "Nay"—
Bliss' early shape
F350 (1862) 349
The sadness in this poem comes from Dickinson’s insight that an early “Glory” can lead to a lifetime of saying “Nay” to “lesser Fames,” and that this ultimately leads to a “Deforming” of life. The poem is extremely concise and, as usual with Dickinson’s more concise works (a very large body of work), it takes some unpacking. The reader can’t just skim over it. Well, the reader can—and quite a lot is gained: we immediately see that there was an early Glory, a “Bliss,” and a long bit on “no” that is somehow related to “Time’s possibility” “Gulfing up”—which is a splendid and very sad phrase. But nuance and other insights take a couple of re-reads (at least I had to contemplate the poem for a while after several reads).
Sometimes it’s easiest to unpack by starting with what seems to be the most important words. In this case I think the last two lines meet the criterion: “Deforming—Dwindling—Gulfing up— / Time’s possibility.” When young, many of us visualize life stretching out ahead, full of promise. We often do see Glory and Honor ahead, particularly when we have had some sort of early experience with glory. And although time disappoints us all to some degree, it can also delight, astound, and bring significant rewards. Our lives takes shape over time.
Early in her life, the speaker of this poem experienced an extreme happiness, a bliss; but as she looks back she sees that this promising trajectory—this “early shape”—has been deformed. Her possibilities have dwindled—in fact have been swallowed up. The beginning of the poem tells us why. The bliss came from some honor, something so glorious that the speaker found herself saying ‘no’ to the invitations of “lesser Fames.” Her life became “one long ‘Nay,’” and that has been a constricting, deforming process.
One can look at this poem through a biographical lens and wonder what the historical Dickinson thinking about. Perhaps it was her calling as a poet that she proclaimed so boldly and gladly in “For this—accepted Breath.” To fulfill that calling Dickinson did indeed constrict her life, say no to many choices, and end up living much of her life in her room. Or perhaps it was an early love for whose sake she turned down the possibilities of other loves. And if, as it was indeed the case, this love was doomed (through death or because the beloved was already married or did not, ultimately, return the passion), then Bliss’ early shape would certainly deform and dwindle.
|Clouds close in the horizon of an otherwise lovely seascape
But I don’t think we need to overtax the poem with biographical speculation. It stands on its own as a powerful meditation on the effects of choice on our lives.
The first two lines are written in iambic tetrameter. The second line is tortured a bit for aesthetic reasons: it should be read as “An Honor that thought can turn herself to” or “a thought that I could turn to.” The first alternative sacrifices meter and the second loses the personification of “Thought” that is fundamental to the sense that it is the head rather than the heart whose rationalization has lead to the speaker’s predicament.
The third and fourth lines are structurally one line divided for emphasis: “one long ‘Nay’” is slow and pondering as each syllable is accented. The “Bliss’” of the second line is also accented, further lends a heaviness to the ongoing negation. The two line endings, “Nay” and “shape,” with their long vowels cause the reader to linger over them, and for good reason: it is the Nay that deforms the shape of the life.
Dickinson chooses the present continuous tense for deform, dwindle and gulf (engulf), and for good reason. The actions continue without end in sight. Time’s possibility will go on dwindling. The “ing” ending, falling off as it were, unaccented, reflects the dwindling and falling off of possibilities. The line seems bogged down and hopeless. The last word, “possibility,” seems impossibly long, hopelessly soft and formless. Imagine if Dickinson had used the synonym “potential”—it would have nothing of the softly dying hopes.