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16 July 2013

Myself was formed — a Carpenter —

Myself was formed — a Carpenter —
An unpretending time
My Plane — and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came —

To measure our attainments —
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed — He'd hire us
At Halves —

My Tools took Human — Faces —
The Bench, where we had toiled —
Against the Man — persuaded —
We — Temples build — I said —

                                                                               F475 (1862)  J488

Dickinson tells a simple story here, one both moral and lofty. She, an honest carpenter, is approached by a "Builder" to see if she has the right kind of skills. If so, she would be hired and receive half the profit. But her very tools and even her workbench persuaded her to turn down the offer. Her grounds: She is in the Temple business, not just putting some boards together on commission.
       It's a metaphor for her poetry, of course. She was born a poet, "formed" that way. Alone in her room with just her paper and pencil (or pen), she wrote honestly and unpretentiously for herself. But then people noticed. It's nice to think that the Builder, a publisher – newspaper, journal or booklet – approached Dickinson and said that if she could write in a more standard poetic style (the "Art of Boards" –even meter, perfect rhymes, standard grammar and punctuation), he would publish her work and pay her half of what he received, but I suspect the entire poem serves simply to make a theoretical point. Although literary men, Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth HIgginson, for example, found value in her poetry, they discouraged her from publishing because they considered her work rough (Higginson reportedly used the word "spasmodic").
Temple of Minerva in the Acropolis
The last stanza suggests that a part of Dickinson wanted to publish and was willing to modify her style to accommodate the Builder. But she was "persuaded" against it. Her very tools – her pen, pencil, paper, lamp – perhaps even the geranium from two poems ago, "I was the slightest in the House," took on human faces and spoke against it. So did the "Bench, the little writing desk where she had "toiled."
       The last line is supremely proud. It is the arrogance of the artist who spurns the commercial job and the money and even fame that might accompany it. "Arrogance" is not a good word here, for I am meaning a pride mixed with integrity and a deep sense of self worth. That is what I read in that last line. Temples are holy, consecrated places, places of spirit and power. That is what Dickinson says she builds with her poems. I believe her. I think she does. Not every poem (and I've now read and thought carefully about 475 of them) but in many.
       The idea of Temple brings us back to the first line where Dickinson claims she was "formed – a Carpenter." The obvious reference is to Jesus, trained, we assume, in his father's occupation before his coming of spiritual age when he lingered for days in the temple where the elders were astounded at his learning and understanding. The combination of honesty, wisdom, and power is quintessential Dickinson.


  1. Great analysis! Thank you.

  2. Gosh, I don't see arrogance at all in the last line. I do see unequivocal certainty--- the We transforms pride to something more mysterious, even humble, yet able to state a simple fact.

    There is this expression in Tibetan Buddhism, when a great master is able to express the truth of enlightenment: vajra pride, not little pride for the sake of the ego but the willing to stand in, feel, the greatness of something long term practice and dedication, has helped one become.

    ED had this level of vajra poetic pride.

    1. Indeed, "arrogance" isn't a good word, as I said in the commentary, but rather "a pride mixed with integrity and a deep sense of self worth". "Vajra pride" sounds even better. Thanks.

  3. She must have been drawing faces with a friend as they played board games.

    She was into occult stuff, so it was probably an early form of a Ouija board, as there weren't many board games at the time. That or chess.

    What's fascinating is her comparison of drawing faces to that of a carpenter working at their bench.

    I know this is superficial, but comparing herself to a carpenter was a probably a joke about having an erection, or as she cryptically pens it: 'being formed."

    The two haves she, as they were probably ghosts she was enjoying being with. As the builder approaches, she nemoans the fact that she needed a job.

    The really puzzling line though is the last. Like a slaver driver, she now commands her ghosts to build a temple.

    As if in command of her own plane style, she was probably referencing a Greek mythological story of creation as her writing something meaningful.

    If our body is our temple, as the bible she most definitely scorned does say, shebwas probably making a joke about getting in shape.

    If you do some digging, you'll find she was very fond of butter and sugar in her molasses cake.

    Whatever the case, he must have been one hell of a builder to inaoire her to look good again.

    Probably a winter poem!


  4. Whatever it is you "do", it is better to do it for sacred reasons than simply for "hire". Somehow Emily puts this in such a way as to inspire. (I'm reminded of the scene in Zorba the Greek where he says he will do anything for hire except play music. That he only does for himself.)

    The first stanza, the way it is so ambivalently "formed", is pretty amazing all by itself, even that first line. I was shaped, like a piece of wood, into a carpenter. But then the third line, "my plane - and I, together wrought", it isn't as if someone else formed the carpenter, it's as if the plane formed the self even while the self wielded the plane! Wow. To bring the metaphor back to the poem, it's as if the self is making the self through the process of...writing poetry.

    Yes, the immediate connection to Jesus as a carpenter is striking. I have thought of Jesus' occupation as carpenter in a metaphoric way before, but the idea that this occupation, this "shaping", this "art of the board", builds toward building a temple, is next level.

    I'm not sure why that word "unpretending" is there? To emphasize that the work itself is real? Writing poetry is not just "pretend" time?

    Not sure why the tools took human faces either, though I suppose if the narrator is Christ, then we become the tools. Those human faces are ours. Also true of the "poet" by extention.

    There seems to be a few poems in which ED writes from a Christ consciousness, like in that line, "The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
    And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?" where the He that bore is Jesus bearing the cross, which becomes conflated with the "great pain" the narrator is going through.

    It's a fascinating relationship and deserves a deeper dive.

    Another gem.

  5. Franklin estimates ED copied ‘Myself was formed — a Carpenter’ (F475) into Fascicle 22 “about late 1862”, her 203rd of 227 poems she copied into fascicles that year.

    As usual, Susan K nailed the poem gorgeously. Generously, she left us the fun of guessing the identity of “a Builder”/“the Man”. My guess: Thomas W. Higginson.

    On April 15, 1862, ED, an unknown female poet, first wrote Thomas W. Higginson, a busy editor and writer for The Atlantic Monthly, asking him to be her mentor. Was she surprised when she received his reply only days later? What are the chances that would happen today?

    She replied to his reply on April 25. During 1862 she sent four more letters to Higginson: June 8, July, August, October 6. Apparently, she received quick replies to all but her August letter, and her October 6 letter (L247) was brief:

    “Did I displease you, Mr Higginson?

    But wont you tell me how?

    Your friend,
    E. Dickinson —”

    After ED’s first published volume of poems (1890) quickly sold out, Higginson published an article, ‘Emily Dickinson’s Letters’, in the October 1891 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Higginson had this to say about ED’s brief October 6th query:

    “Sometimes there would be a long pause, on my part, after which would come a plaintive letter, always terse, like this :

    ‘Did I displease you, Mr Higginson?’

    But wont you tell me how?”

    As Charles Wadsworth had learned during his five-year correspondence with ED (1858-1862), Higginson no doubt realized he had taken on a handful as a mentee.

  6. No wonder Roberts Brothers, Boston, had to reprint ED’s posthumous first volume of poetry (1890) many times during its first decade. Their first printing of 500 copies quickly sold out after Higginson’s October 1891 14-page review/article, ‘Emily Dickinson’s Letters’, in the leading American literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. If you haven’t read his article, you’re in for a thrill: (

    Excerpted from that review/article and apropos ‘Myself was formed — a Carpenter —’ (F475), here is Higginson’s confession of failure to influence ED’s inimitable composing style:

    “These were my earliest letters from Emily Dickinson, in their order. From this time and up to her death (May 15, 1886) we corresponded at varying intervals, she always persistently keeping up this attitude of “ Scholar,” and assuming on my part a preceptorship which it is almost needless to say did not exist. Always glad to hear her “ recite,” as she called it, I soon abandoned all attempt to guide in the slightest degree this extraordinary nature, and simply accepted her confidences, giving as much as I could of what might interest her in return.”

    A biographical interpretation of ‘Myself was formed — a Carpenter —’

    I was born a poet -
    When slant-rhymed wasn’t popular.
    My pen and I together wrought poems
    Before Higginson became my mentor -

    He rated my poetry -
    On whether my work fit current styles
    If I would write like that – He’d take me
    As his newly discovered poet -

    My tools, pen and desk, took human faces -
    When we toiled writing poetry -
    They persuaded me to say no -
    We – build Temples – I said -

  7. I wonder whether she sent this “late 1862” poem to Higginson, and, if so, did he understand?