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10 February 2013

A Toad, can die of Light –

A Toad, can die of Light –
Death is the Common Right
Of Toads and Men –
Of Earl and Midge
The privilege –
Why swagger, then?
The Gnat's supremacy is large as Thine –

Life – is a different Thing –
So measure Wine –
Naked of Flask – Naked of Cask –
Bare Rhine –
Which Ruby’s mine?
                                                              F419 (1862)  J64

Why should an Earl swagger in pride when he will meet the same fate as a toad or a gnat? They all will die, and “Death is the Common Right” – not a privilege. That’s the point Dickinson is making in the first stanza of this little poem. What puzzles me is the first line. Can toads die of light? They are nocturnal and live in damp hiding places, so maybe so. But I doubt that Dickinson would toss out the word “light” lightly. I suspect she means that the creepy crawly toad who can’t stand the light of day has the same right of death as any nobleman.
An earl in its own right
         The second stanza directs our attention to life. It’s not death that reveals your quality – for every living thing must die – but rather how you live your life. Dickinson uses wine as a metaphor: Take away the fancy bottle or flask, take away the fancy French oak cask, and how good is your wine? How good is mine, she asks in the last line. Am I a cheap ruby red? Or maybe a clear and easy-to-drink claret? I suspect Dickinson would be a dry, dark red Bordeaux.

Rhyme scheme: AABCCBD  EDFDD. That “F” rhyme, however, is an internal rhyme: “Flask” goes with “Cask” quite neatly. Another good rhyme: Midge and privilege.


  1. Emily knew her Shakespeare, whose toad had a jewel in its head -- perhaps a ruby? Wouldn't put it past her.

    1. Interesting - which play? Thanks for the reference!

    2. As You Like It ~ Act II Scene 1

  2. Hey, I'm currently having a class on Emily Dickinson's poetry and just wanted to thank you because your blog helps me so much with understanding these amazing poems better and is a great inspiration for own ideas (which I need for short texts we write in this class) as well. :)

  3. Emily as a dry, dark red bordeaux. Nice. A very rich wine, indeed, with a long complex finish that leaves us tipplers leaning against the sun.

  4. Coming on the heels of F418, Line 1 translates for me as: “Austin would die if he knew the truth of Sue’s lesbian leanings and her early romance with ED”. “Toad” Austin may have been a private joke between ED and Sue.

    “The one extant note from Sue to Emily relating mainly to personal matters seems to have been written at the end of summer 1861, in September or October: “· · · for I, Emily, bear a sorrow that I never uncover—If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we? When I can, I shall write— Sue”

    [T]he note confirms that [Sue’s] summer had been a painful one [Baby Edward arrived June 19, 1861], and that Sue had been too distracted to answer [ED’s] notes and poems. Perhaps the reason she did not disclose her special sorrow to her unmarried sister-in-law was that it involved marriage, sexuality, or motherhood.”

    Habegger, Alfred, 2002, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (p. 525). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    In 1881 Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd moved to Amherst; soon, she and Austin began an affair that lasted until Austin’s 1895 death. After ED’s 1886 death, Mabel and Austin had access to [Sue’s] note, which “is scissored through twice, making three horizontal pieces. The idea was to delete the middle piece, everything from “for I, Emily, bear a sorrow” to “why not we?” leaving the impression that the top and bottom fragments comprised the entire letter. The placement of “for,” however, frustrated this scheme. When the tamperer—Austin?—realized the top and bottom pieces could not be made to fit, he gave up his foolish effort” (Habegger, 2002, pp. 803-804) .

    Line 12, the poem’s last, continues the ‘life as Rhine wine’ metaphor: ED asks, What color and flavor is my life? "d scribe" answers: "dry, dark red Bordeaux. Nice. A very rich wine, indeed, with a long complex finish that leaves us tipplers leaning against the sun." That's what I call "staying power".

  5. First of all thank you for your consistent work on this blog. I got a small collection of ED poems and have been slowly going through them, reading and thinking and then searching up analyses and possible meanings and ever since discovering this blog i always google the poem's first line + the prowling bee!
    My interpretation of the second stanza may be a little too on the nose but following the first stanza's theme of all creatures being equal in death (a message she also touched on in postponeless creature and color caste denomination to name two!!!) I took the wine to be a metaphor for blood. There is a somewhat religious undertone to that as well which I have come to realise she was fond of!! If you take the "cask" - the body; the title or wealth or status, away from the blood, could you discern one man's drop (one "ruby") from another's? In blood - which gives life - and in death, we are all quite equal. That was my takeaway ! I hope this was helpful to someone else!

    1. addendum:
      I believe "Bare Rhine" which is referring to its bareness as the quality of being "naked of flask, naked of cask" — is a play on words. The first significance of the double entendre is the obvious river Rhine, in this sense a river of blood/wine, set free from the confines of body/barrel. But it could also be a play on the term rhinestone, as a ruby is a gem