Search This Blog

22 June 2013

Without this — there is nought —

Without this — there is nought —
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird —
Heard opposite the Sea —

I could not care — to gain
A lesser than the Whole —
For did not this include themself —
As Seams — include the Ball?

I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide —
'Twould magnify — the Gratitude —
And not reduce — the Gold —

                                                                        F464 (1862) J655

One immediately wonders about the “this” of the first line. What could it be, without which “there is nought”? The rest of the poem might be interrogated with increasingly rigorous measures but without yielding any conclusive answer. “This” might refer to the “Whole” of stanza two, to God, or to some unnamed quality or entity that is central to the poet’s sense of wellbeing. Whatever it is, all other riches are as nothing in comparison. Such riches are as relevant as bird twitterings on the other side of the ocean.
         The second stanza advances our understanding a little, for we learn that the poet wants the “Whole” rather than some lesser quantity or quality that would be subsumed by the whole. Dickinson uses a ball as an example. Made by stitching leather or fabric together, the ball might be considered interior to the seams encompassing it. I am reminded of Dickinson’s poetic project of circumference. She announces this project in a letter to her chosen “Preceptor”, T.W.Higginson:

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My Business is Circumference –… (L268, July 1862).
Flower Fractal Bubbles, Grietje Haitsma

In a later poem she calls “Circumference” the “Bride of Awe.” At least part of Dickinson’s poetic quest is to trace the seams, to see the whole.
        And so I think that Dickinson is talking about the Gold gift of poetry that she describes (less than ten poems ago) in F455, “It was given to me by the Gods”:

Rich! 'Twas Myself — was rich —
To take the name of Gold —
And Gold to own — in solid Bars —
The Difference — made me bold —

Poetry occupied all of Dickinson – used all of her faculties and powers. It was her Whole. The rest of life was the ball within its seams.

In the third stanza she wishes she were able to “subdivide” her heart, establishing some link between the Whole of stanza two and her heart – or love. Perhaps the heart, mainspring of love, is also the seat of the Whole. Subdivide it into smaller hearts and she could “magnify” the great gratitude she has for her poetic gift – and yet not lose or “reduce” any of “the Gold.” The circumference would remain the same no matter how atomized its parts.


  1. Great idea for a blog! I enjoyed your review on the book on Baxter and classical myth; did you enjoy your time in New Zealand?


    1. Thanks, Scott. I loved my time in New Zealand. Our visas ran out or we'd still be there (the Chch earthquake didn't help either as our house had to come down). The Baxter review was my favourite, I think, for I had never read Baxter before. Needless to say I bought the collected works. I had a yummy time with that in hand as I read The Snake-Headed Muse. Baxter would be a great blog project!

  2. I like Your Fractal Art design by G. Haitsma ©️

  3. I'm so intrigued by these kinds of poems, by that "This". This golden "whole". I think you are onto something by connecting this "this" to poetry. THIS, as in this that I am writing and you are reading. (poetry seems too small a word, a kind of subdivision).There are other poems I seem to recall that are self-referential in this way.

    It is helpful to connect that this to the solid gold bars of the previous poem, F455. And also the connection to circumference is very good here. The ball! The whole circumference thing has long intrigued me too.

    But the crux of this poems seems to be in the riddle presented in the last stanza. why would gratitude grow if this whole could be subdivided?

    The only thing I can figure is tha trying to grasp the "whole" is a kind of impossible task, one that keeps you yearning, striving, and doesn't allow for gratitude. To be content with and accept the "partial" is to be grateful for it. Otherwise you are always feeling somehow incomplete and it is difficult to be grateful in that state? There's the rub, and this rub drives the poetry itself. And moreover is beyond all other riches.

  4. Just after writing the above comment I told my 11 year old that she should count her smiles while watching Modern Family to see how many she averaged per episode. She said, "counting my smiles defeats the purpose of smiles." This seemed in keeping with this poem.

  5. Yes, ED knows she’s a poetic genius and would magnify her gratitude to God (or to the gods) if there were a way to subdivide her heart. Without her poetic gift all other “Riches” would be like a bird twittering beside a roaring ocean.

    ED loves riddles and just “For Ecstasy — of it” gives us a pronoun, “this”, to puzzle over and also to avoid saying literally, “Without my poetic genius — there is nought —”

  6. Stanza 1 reminds me of I Chronicles 1:1 with “this” = “charity”:

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”