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21 November 2012

My Reward for Being, was this—

My Reward for Being, was this—
My Premium—My Bliss—
An Admiralty, less—
A Sceptre—penniless—
And Realms—just Dross—

When Thrones—accost my Hands—
With "Me—Miss—Me"—
I'll unroll—Thee –
Sufficient Dynasty—
To Peer this Grace—
Too little—Dust—
To Dower—so Great—
                                                                                          F375 (1862)  343

In this celebration of her poetic gift—destiny, really, Dickinson reprises her poem from the year before, “For this—accepted Breath.” In both poems she compares an unspecified “this” with the most exalted states and finds “this” to be superior. I, and other readers, interpret “this” as referring to her poetry and poems by fact of her biography and by reading the poems deductively. It just makes sense.
                  Poetry, for Dickinson, was her “Reward for Being.” Shouldn’t we all be so lucky! But then few people are as aware of what being alive in the world means as Dickinson and our other great poets. I suppose this hyper awareness is part of what fuels the poetic genius. Poetry is also her “Premium” and her “Bliss.”
                  Reading the poem reminds me a bit of skiing on moguls: you zoom down a hill only touching ground from top to top of the bumps. In this and other Dickinson poems we touch the meaning through the surfaced words. We make out the underlying geography by filling in the gaps. Using this technique, I fill in some gaps as follows (putting the poem in prose, Emily forgive me):
My reward for being fully alive, my premium for my efforts, my bliss—is my poetry. An Admiralty would be worth less; a king’s fortune and kingdom worthless by comparison. When the world comes begging for my attention, begging “Here, me! Miss – take me!”, no matter how glorious their attractions, I’ll simply unroll my poems. They are my dynasty, not some heirs. Even the glories of the world around me—the garden, birds and other creatures of Creation, are not true peers of the grace I’ve been given as a poet. Empires and great states are small, just dust, in comparison to the great dowery of poetry.
Scepters, kingdoms? Nothing, compared to poetry

If this sounds a bit puffed up, we should cut the poet some slack. Just glance back at the very depths of despair she can experience (as recent examples, “The Soul had Bandaged moments,” It was not Death, for I stood up,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) and it becomes apparent that although she does seem capable of wild swings from agony to ecstasy, it is poetry that sustains her in both states. Besides, I believe a strong case can be made for poetry being a nobler, grander, and more enduring gift than that of any crown or kingdom. Shakespeare, anyone? Homer? Milton?
                  The poem has a visual and metric compactness that mirrors it’s abbreviated—all right, sketchy—grammar. The lines are short and except for the first line, do not go beyond three poetic feet (six syllables). Dickinson creates rhyming lines much more than usual. In the first stanza, all of the rhymes are to “this”—perhaps a way of emphasizing the word. The second stanza is less regular but there are two primary rhyme clusters: Me, Thee, Dynasty; and the slant rhymes of Grace, State, Dust, Great. In that last string, the slant rhymes depend on the long “a” sound—except for “Dust” which finds its echos in the “t” sounds of State and Great. Dust is the odd word out here—fittingly because it is the lowliest word among them.

An alternate version, written earlier in the year according to Franklin, has the lines following “Creation—powerless—” as follows:
Dominions dowerless—beside this Grace—
The Ballots of Eternity, will show just that.

I’m glad she revised the poem as “The Ballots of Eternity” sounds a bit too hackneyed.


  1. What amazes me is she is so sure not only of her poetic gift but even without publishing in her lifetime she knew her poems would endure many lifetimes.

    1. Yes -- especially remarkable since her voice and style were so different from what was popular and considered good in her day.

  2. A peerless explication, Susan. But, as always, a great poet intends meaning at several levels. You have nailed the eternal, so I’ll try to muster the quotidian.

    An unpeerless interpretation:

    “My Reward for Being was this,
    a premium, a bliss,
    an Admiralty, minus
    an Mrs. degree.
    I’m left penniless,
    with rubbish kingdoms.

    “When I’m offered ordinary titles
    like "Me—Miss—Me",
    I’ll unroll my prenup for heaven,
    with Thee (Wadsworth)!
    That should be sufficient pedigree;
    creation is powerless
    to equal my title of grace;
    an empire is too little, mere dust,
    to dower the Queen of Calvary”

    (That is, Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco).”