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02 December 2012

I cannot dance upon my Toes

I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—

But oftentimes, among my mind,

A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet knowledge—

Would put itself abroad

In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe—

Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze—

No Ringlet, to my Hair,

Nor hopped to Audiences—like Birds,

One Claw upon the Air,

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,

Nor rolled on wheels of snow

Till I was out of sight, in sound,

The House encore me so—

Nor any know I know the Art

I mention—easy—Here—

Nor any Placard boast me—

It's full as Opera—
                                                            F381 (1862)  326 

Dickinson is having some fantasy fun here. Probably most of us have imagined what it would be like if we were a great singer or rock star or other performer, and that is what Dickinson is doing. In a particularly gleeful mood she imagines that despite her lack of training she might, with just some basic “Ballet knowledge,” amaze the crowds and drive a prima ballerina “mad” with envy.
Ballerinas still have the "Claw upon the Air"
          She pokes a little fun at ballet dancers in the process. Her pirouettes would be so fantastic that she would put them to shame despite her lack of the tricks of the trade—and she lists a few. There’s the tutu (“Gown of Gauze”), ringletted hair, dance steps that look (to her) as if birds were hopping toward the audience with one claw stretched up in the air (a very funny visual image—the bird teetering on the remaining claw), the swan-gowns of Swan Lake (Eider Balls), and the big sleds of the Nutcracker (“rolled on wheels of snow”) that would take her off stage in style.
          Her performance would be so dazzling that she would get a huge encore. And, finally, although no one would have heard of this new ballerina before, and no advertising placard promoted her, the ballet house would be as full as the opera house. Yes, I’d say she’s feeling imaginatively frisky.
           But Dickinson might be using this ballet theme euphemistically. She may very well be talking about her abilities as a poet. After all, this poem was sent to her poetry mentor, Thomas Higginson, who had commented that her poetry needed better organization and a little better use of standard meter and syntax. This poem is her lighthearted, virtuosic, response. “No one taught me,” she may be saying, “and if they had, I could please the crowd just as well—better!—than the current crop of poets. What is unspoken but implied throughout the poem—by fact of the poem’s quality and clever originality—is that Dickinson wouldn’t want to be a conventional poet hopping about on the stage for an audience and being promoted on placards. No, she may not be able to “Dance upon [her] toes,” but she would indeed take the world by storm with her own original poetic pirouettes.



  1. What a confident woman!

    I believe she is always saying that her mind is full as opera.

    Her mind IS the ballet she describes in the physical, that her poetry would make other Prima poets mad-- if only she would let on. She does her own command performance and no one, beside Higgins knows "I know the art."

    You tell him, ED!

    1. Poor Higginson really never knew what he had ahold of until at least a couple of decades after the first poems ED sent him. but at least he was a listening ear. And a good man.

  2. Hello!
    I was wondering what you make of the fact that Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were composed, the first after the date this poem was written, the second after Dickinson's death?

    1. I guess I feel a big chagrined! Thanks for keeping it straight.

  3. i think there is little confusion in your analysis about this poem ....what i guess she is not imagining she is just writing this poem in the reply of her friend who criticize her poetry so she said i dont have much abilities or guidance to write goody goody poetry but i m satisfied with what i have write :)

    1. I agree with you and that is what I was trying to say in the last paragraph. I probably shouldn't have said 'might' because I agree with you that her writing was the point and the dancers the analogy.

  4. Trying to imagine Boston's Higginson, no doubt a man of cultured tastes, visibly wince at ED’s hilarious verbal cartoon of Boston’s prima donna Robin hopping on one claw toward her mesmerized Boston audience, the other in perfect penché position high overhead. Wonder if he even got the joke.

    ED cuts with a sharpened pen.

  5. "I wouldn't be so alone
    If they knew my name in every home"