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11 April 2013

I had been hungry, all the Years –

I had been hungry, all the Years – 
My Noon had Come – to dine – 
I trembling drew the Table near – 
And touched the Curious Wine --  

'Twas this on Tables I had seen – 
When turning, hungry, Home 
I looked in Windows, for the Wealth 
I could not hope – for Mine --  

I did not know the ample Bread – 
'Twas so unlike the Crumb 
The Birds and I, had often shared 
In Nature's – Dining Room --  

The Plenty hurt me – 'twas so new – 
Myself felt ill – and odd – 
As Berry – of a Mountain Bush – 
Transplanted – to a Road --  

Nor was I hungry – so I found 
That Hunger – was a way 
Of Persons outside Windows – 
The Entering – takes away –
                                                                  F439 (1862)  J579

This allegorical poem has a sadder-but-wiser feel compared to “Victory comes late” (F195) where the speaker bitterly complains about dining on crumbs. There the table of plenty is Victory and it is God who keeps it out of reach. That table is “spread too high,” and so those yearning for its bounty must “dine on tiptoe.” Even then it is unclear if they ever obtain more than crumbs. “How sweet [Victory / success] would have tasted,” Dickinson writes.  Even if “Just a Drop.” 
        Here, about 240 poems later, when her “Noon had Come” and she can finally sit at the table, she discovers that the “Curious Wine” and “ample Bread” are so foreign to her that they make her ill. “The Plenty hurt me,” she writes. She felt “odd.” Part of the displacement, I think, is that a loaf is very “unlike the Crumb” in a deeper sense than that it has more bread in it. It represents a different world, one organized by different priorities. The loaf would be as startling to a person accustomed to crumbs as a waterfall would be to a person who knew only the slightest trickling rivulet. The plenitude of something regarded as precious, as desirable, would almost be painful. The realization of a dream would reveal it for something less interesting than the dream itself.
Dickinson uses images of nature versus human society and human sustenance. The poet has been dining with birds, eating in “Nature’s – Dining Room.” This is consistent with her church of nature where the Bee stands in for God or the pastor, and the Sabbath is spent in the Orchard rather than in church. She herself is a “Berry – of a Mountain Bush.” To partake of the allegorical meal is to be “Transplanted – to a Road.” Talk about a disappointment! The hard-packed dirt of the road would offer little nourishment to the bush’s roots. The dust of the road would coat the leaves and keep out the sun. There would be a constant parade of passersby. The poet realizes that she doesn’t belong in that world of loaves and wine. That  might be the common way, but it won’t nourish the little berry.  She needs her mountain.
         Dickinson wisely doesn’t tell us what the allegorical meal refers to, but she doesn’t need to. It might be fame, marriage, freedom from household duties, wealth – or maybe even heaven. It’s a universal lesson and what she’s saying applies to any sort of hunger. The last stanza, the lesson, bears a bit of thought. Hunger is something those on the outside experience. Hunger is for something on the other side of the window. Enter through the door, however, sit at the table, and that hunger disappears. It is not the eating that dispels the hunger, but the lack of barrier, the seeing things clearly for what they are. It is the longing that makes the desired object desirable; it is the heaven out of reach that we yearn for. Dickinson said as much in “Heaven – is what I cannot reach” (F310):
"Heaven"—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—

Provided it do hopeless—hang—

That—"Heaven" is—to Me!


  1. I love this poem. In a funny way it reminds me of the very different poenm -- "Eyes of the Poor" from Baudlaire's Paris Spleen.

    The "Curious Wine" (such a wonderful phrase) and "ample Bread" recall communion. There is a thread of meaning related to spiritual hunger -- and not simply satisfaction, but a change in a state of being where desire no longer exists.

    The contrast between the civilized and natural worlds is very powerful -- but the conclusion of this poem is beyond that. Often ED expresses her contentment with the natural world -- she once said that "consider the lilies of the field" is the only commandment that she ever obeyed. There is an element of that humble communion -- the "last communion in the haze" in the bird and the "Mountain Bush".

    But here, she is considering a surfeit of spiritual wealth as her "Noon" comes to dine -- like a meeting with god -- an embarrassment of wealth where desire can no longer exist -- amazing poem!

    1. Thank you for bringing out the spiritual hunger and the bread and wine imagery that points to it. The corollary, that the opportunity to actually partake of spiritual sustenance negates the desire, is ... Dickinsonian.

      The whole sense of changing states to one where "desire can no longer exist" is fascinating. Yet it seems there might be an endless series of windows demarking desire.

  2. For me this poem echoes f430, Charm invests the face, where the unobtained elicits the greater richness of the imagination.

    I also see the image of the 5 of Discs from the Rider Waite tarot deck, where two beggars stand in the cold night looking into the lit window of a church.

    1. For some reason I missed this when you posted it -- sorry! I hadn't thought of the F430 reference but I totally agree. Charm is good -- and by extension, Hunger. Both elicit desire -- a better state than satiation or complacency.

      I know that tarot card you refer to. Perfect!

  3. In Buddhist thought, the highest spiritual state is to have extinguished desire. I’m beginning to visualize her as the Buddha of Amherst!

    1. You might like two books by retired humanities prof. and transcendentalist RC Allen: Emily Dickinson: Accidental Buddhist, and Shatter Me with Dawn: The Transcendent Experience of Emily Dickinson

  4. A perplexing turn in this poem is the mountain berry transplanted to the road. She is talking about hunger, but then in this image becomes the fruit, the food. A mountain berry transplanted to a road you think would be a good thing for the passerby. It is of use, the fruit is available. I love your idea here that the berry bush is more nurtured in the mountains than on the road. I hadn't thought of that aspect. One thinks of the recluse feeding her own spiritual needs. It reminds me of the poem by Emerson, The Rhodera. I wonder if she was thinking of it?

    On being asked, whence is the flower.

    In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
    I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
    Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
    To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
    The purple petals fallen in the pool
    Made the black water with their beauty gay;
    Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
    And court the flower that cheapens his array.
    Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
    This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
    Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
    Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
    Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
    I never thought to ask; I never knew;
    But in my simple ignorance suppose
    The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

  5. Careful what you wish for.

    ‘I had been hungry, all the Years’ (F439) is about interpersonal intimacy, both marital and familial. All her life ED had thought she wanted it, had watched others having it, but when opportunity knocked, she hid behind barely cracked doors.

    During childhood, humans need warm, loving, caring role-model adults if they themselves are to become warm, loving, caring adults. Absent that formative environment, later exposure to warmth, love, and care feels strangely foreign, desirable at first and welcome, but increasingly uncomfortable as time passes. Lasting intimacy is like walking a tightrope; it requires skills and sacrifice to balance self and other, traits difficult to fully learn in later life.

    ED (age 39) and Higginson met face-to-face for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, August 17, 1870 at Homestead. That night he began a long letter (Johnson, 1955, L342) to his wife describing their strange conversation. Among his many ED quotes:

    "Could you tell me what home is"

    "I never had a mother. I supposed a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled."

    "I never knew how to tell time by the clock till I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know."

    Higginson’s follow-up comment to his wife: “Her father was not severe I should think but remote. He did not wish them to read anything but the Bible.”

    These are ingredients for a personality like ED’s, and for a poem like ‘I had been hungry, all the Years’, especially its sad last stanza:

    “Nor was I hungry – so I found
    That Hunger – was a way
    Of Persons outside Windows –
    The Entering – takes away –”

    ED was comfortable with unfettered independence, unwilling to sacrifice that freedom for long wished for intimacy.