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09 May 2013

This was a Poet –

This was a Poet –
It is That
Distills amazing sense
From Ordinary Meanings –
And Attar so immense 

From the familiar species

That perished by the Door –
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it — before — 

Of Pictures, the Discloser –

The Poet — it is He –
Entitles Us — by Contrast –
To ceaseless Poverty — 

Of portion — so unconscious –

The Robbing — could not harm –
Himself — to Him — a Fortune –
Exterior — to Time –
                                                                    F446 (1862)  J448

In this paean to poets – amid whom Dickinson was in the process of assigning herself a place – Dickinson begins with a rhetorical device: “This was a Poet” – an address directly to the reader as if she were an orator with the body laid out before him on a slab of marble. And then she describes the poet. The “He” is probably a universal “he” and would include any women poet as well (such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning whom Dickinson admired – as she did Robert Browning).
    The true poet can distill “amazing sense / From Ordinary meanings.” Yes, a very good depiction of the poet, at least in some critical circles. The essential oil of life, the “attar,” that the poet wrings from life is orders of magnitude better than anything the we might have expected common door-side roses to produce. The “immense” is a bit surprising, as one expects the poet’s attar might be “intense.” I suppose the oil is so fragrant it fills the air. The poet’s perceptive insights fill readers up, too, until we wonder how we’d never seen things quite that way before.
Painters, such as Matisse, can also make us see those
common doorway flowers in a new way

    The poet tells us what the pictures are, shows us their meanings. So gifted is he/she that the rest of us in contrast are in “ceaseless Poverty.” His good fortune is so great that we could rob him of a bit of it and it would not hurt him. The poet, caught up in his (her) art is “unconscious” of being copied or even plagiarized. Poets like Shakespeare are not bound by time. Indeed, he stands outside of the flux that shapes and propels the rest of us. Perhaps he even contributes to the flux.

Helen Vendler notes that Dickinson in this poem is speaking as a reader and not a poet. If so, Dickinson would be hearkening to Shakespeare, Browning, or Keats, for example, and musing about the power they hold.

Although I like the poem, I don’t think the imagery or ideas are among Dickinson’s most powerful or creative. 



  1. Your choice of the Matisse painting, and your comment, is such a lovely reflection on the first two stanzas.

  2. I was struck when I first read it that the poet was He, but when you added Vendler's view that she is writing this as a reader, it did make more sense, for in many previous poems ED does not have problems with feminising her images of nature. Almost as if she has just put down a book of poems by someone who inspires her and this poem is the result of that inspiration. When I'm reading a particularly amazing book, Hass or Kinnell, Levertov, Stafford, I will many times return after a poem to the back cover where the poet's photograph is, just to recall a mortal person wrote this.

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  4. The poem's title 'This was a Poet' reminds me of Mark Antony's praise for Brutus, who committed suicide at the end of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' (Act 5 Scene 5):

    "His life was gentle, and the elements
    So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
    And say to all the world, 'This was a man.'"

  5. A different interpretation of the four stanzas:

    I am a poet. Poets distill amazing sense from ordinary thoughts, produce intoxicating fragrances /

    from familiar words that otherwise vanish in the air. Why didn’t I think that thought before?

    A poet writes pictures with words. My poems entitle me, a poet, in contrast to readers, to ceaseless poverty.

    Each reader, without realizing it, steals poems, but doesn’t harm the poet. My fortune, despite the theft, remains immortal.