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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!