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30 April 2013

It would have starved a Gnat —

It would have starved a Gnat —
To live so small as I —
And yet I was a living Child —
With Food's necessity

Upon me — like a Claw —
I could no more remove
Than I could coax a Leech away —
Or make a Dragon — move —

Not like the Gnat — had I —
The privilege to fly
And seek a Dinner for myself —
How mightier He — than I —

Nor like Himself — the Art
Upon the Window Pane
To gad my little Being out —
And not begin — again —

                                                            F444 (1862)  J612

Dickinson uses food as a metaphor for the existential deprivation she felt from her childhood years. A master of first lines, the poet begins dramatically: “It would have starved a Gnat – / To live so small as I.” It would be hard to find a tinier and more insignificant creature than a gnat. Why would the poet, as a “living Child,” have been so starved that a gnat dined better than she, that hunger fastened her in its grip like a giant claw?
            The claw, like true hunger, is impossible to dismiss. It would be easier for her, she writes, to coax a leech from sucking her blood or to move a dragon.
            The gnat is also better off, “mightier,” than the poet because at least it can fly about and search out its dinner. The child – or at least upper middle-class children such as Emily Dickinson – must be given food. They couldn’t just run about town and hustle a bit of dinner for themselves. But the child poet was given precious little nourishment.
Dickinson saves the greatest  bitterness for the last stanza: The gnat has the “Art” of gadding his “little Being out” by crashing into the window. That’s enough to kill a gnat, but such a death is not possible for the starved child. It’s really a powerful image: the gnat is lured by the outdoors. It gathers itself and flies pell mell for freedom, only to be dashed against clear glass. The child doesn’t have even an illusion to lure her to an accidental – and easy – death. The gnat doesn’t have to “begin – again” either. Should the child die, she may very well have to start over in an afterlife.

The poem reads as a bitter indictment of her culture, schooling, and family.  Her mother was weak and unable to provide emotional nourishment, requiring it instead from her children. Her father was austere and undemonstrative. The church was strict, the cultural mores conventional, the opportunities for a woman who danced to the music of a different dervish slim.
            It’s achingly sad to think of the child. Yet the poet sprang from the child. She did not resign herself, did not take false sustenance, ever and always told the truth – but told it “slant.”


  1. I love the word "gad". Her use of this word as a verb is not in the dictionary -- but we know exactly what she means. The word almost sounds like an insect hitting glass. And it has the connotation of gadfly -- tying in literally with the image of a gnat and with a sense of purposeless extinction of life.

    I tend to think that "begin again" refers to having to continue to live -- to wake up the next morning hungry -- rather than an afterlife or rebirth.

    Your literal view of the poem as a recollection of ED's childhood sounds accurate to me. Thanks.

  2. I agree with your suggestion on "begin again," now that I think about it. Thanks.

  3. This poem is about two people, “He”/“Himself” and “I”/”myself”/”my”.

    ED Lex defines “gad” as “coax; remove; steal; pry”.

    OED defines “gad” as “”to go from one place to another, esp. aimlessly or idly; (now esp.) to go out or go travelling in the pursuit of pleasure or entertainment; to gallivant”, as in ‘to gad about’.

    OED defines “gadfly” as “Any of various parasitic flies which cause great agitation in the livestock on which they deposit eggs or inflict bites”. Metaphorically, a gadfly is an irritating iconoclast or revolutionary, often in the Romantic tradition.

  4. Pollak (1979) posited that “He”/”Himself” in Stanzas 3-4 was the gnat, but in that case, ED would not have capitalized the two words.

    ED used the window-pane metaphor in two previous poems.

    In ‘The Sun kept stooping – stooping – low!’ (F182), the “window pane” separated ED from an elusive sunset:

    “[I] Charged from my chimney corner –
    But Nobody was there!”

    In ‘Before I got my eye put out’ (F336) her “window pane” protected her from too much “Sun”:

    “So safer—guess—with just my soul
    Upon the window pane
    Where other creatures put their eyes—
    Incautious—of the Sun—”

    Here, in ‘It would have starved a Gnat’, ED’s “window pane” prevents her “little Being” from enjoying the freedom a man has to choose between his current world and another far away.

    An interpretation of the four stanzas:

    I was starved for love and affection, both at home as a child and as a young woman.

    That need held me like a claw that I could no more escape than I could coax a leech away or make a dragon move —

    Unlike a gnat with wings to fly in search of food (love and affection), I felt trapped, with no way out of my Amherst life. But he was mightier than I and,

    unlike me, Wadsworth could move to San Francisco and start a new life. I lacked the Art (power) to escape my “window pane” and even if I could, I’d have to begin my life all over again.

    “In her poetry as in her life, Emily Dickinson pursued a strategy of containing hungers, in response to externally imposed deprivation, beneath which the pressures of a volcanic self continually threatened to erupt. . . . Like the paralyzed speaker in "It would have starved a Gnat," she was unable either to extinguish such inevitable hungers as the desire for literary recognition and for sexual gratification, or to renounce them.”

    (Pollak, Vivian R. 1979. Thirst and Starvation in Emily Dickinson's Poetry. American Literature , 519(1): 33-49.).

  5. Thanks for the comments and the reference --