Search This Blog

10 September 2013

One and One — are One —

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for schools —
But for minor Choosing —

Life — just — Or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising —

                                                                F497 (1862)  J769

Scholar Gary Lee Stonum claims that some two hundred of Dickinson's poems include specific math references. In this poem, Dickinson uses mathematics as a clever entré
 to metaphysics.

She begins with the attention-grabbing assertion that one plus one equals one, dismissing one plus one equals two as school learning. She's finished with that sort of thinking. The next line, the last in the first stanza, is difficult. On her manuscript, Dickinson included "inner" as a variant for "minor" and this complicates interpretation. "Inner Choosing" would be the soul's choices. "Minor Choosing," on the other hand, suggests decisions about unimportant matters. However, I think that Dickinson decided to wield "minor" ironically: arithmetic is fine for schools but not for such "minor" matters as life or death or the everlasting.

Those three "ors" present difficulties. The first stanza uses "and" for an additive effect "Or" signals a selective effect. We can choose to focus just on life, or death or the everlasting. Dickinson seems to be instructing us not to contemplate, for example, how the first two add up to the third – which would be an interesting unity.
        Instead, we are to think of how each of those three concepts is a one-ness comprised of many individual ones as if they are fungible entities. Dickinson wrote a second variant word on the manuscript: "two" for "More." While "two" would make a nice wordplay with "too," "More" gives us the richer idea that anything more than one of her grand metaphysical trio would be "too vast" for our understanding.

         That "vast" warrants a bit of scrutiny, too. What could be vaster than Life, Death, and Eternity? Those concepts are plenty vast. But that's what Dickinson is getting at: they are so vast they could take over your life. That makes sense coming from a poet who recused herself from the world in order to contemplate, let's see … Life, Death, and the Everlasting. She eschewed marriage, child rearing, church attendance, social events, and travel. For a poet of the mind and soul, any of those would, added to contemplation of Life, Death, and the Everlasting, be simply too vast. 

(I conflate the three on purpose, despite my comments about the "ors." I think Dickinson intends for the reader to think about them both as a unity, a One-ness, as well as severally.)


  1. I'll always remain partial to the math reference in "It's all I have to bring today-" At the moment, it's still my favourite poem of hers, though there are days where I definitely favour other poems.

    Here, the math is quite cool too. Inner choosing--could potentially elide to multiplication. She could be saying if you choose life repeatedly, you end up living the one life that is given (1 times 1 is 1). If you forsake your life and choose death, you've given up choice, life, and you are done with math (1 + 1 = 2). Enough of the silly calculus, just make your minor decision between the two binary operations (either addition or multiplication).

    1. I like "It's all I have to bring today", too.
      As to multiplication, the usage has been, since before Dickinson's time (I'm pretty sure), that "and" is additive and not multiplicative. But the way you phrase it, choosing life repeatedly which, as you point out, achieves multiplication, would indeed be a multiplication that achieves one.

    2. The use of "and, or, one" indicate perhaps that ED was thinking of logic. What made me hesitant to bring this up earlier was that I was/am not sure (1) how much ED was aware of the development of logic (some of the stuff on Boolean algebra and De Morgan's laws probably occurred either just a decade before or after the publication of this poem), (2) I'm really bad at history of math--never really studied what happened when.

      If she did know, or had an innate understanding of such a logical framework (1 and 1=1, equivalently, true and true = true), it adds a bit to the second stanza. She could be saying this is about it for the individual to either consider (comprising): life, death, everlasting. And, our logical considerations are only on these three variables. Or, three paths of life: life, death, everlasting... that's it! No more variables in life.

      I know that ED had interests in the sciences and mathematics at school--think I read it here... Was there anyone she talked to in later life about mathematics and the sciences?

  2. "However, I think that Dickinson decided to wield "minor" ironically: arithmetic is fine for schools but not for such "minor" matters as life or death or the everlasting."

    An ironic “minor” matches ED's penchant for ironic “just”, as in:

    F248, ‘One Life of so much Consequence!’, Stanza 2”

    "One Pearl — to me — so signal —
    That I would instant dive —
    Although — I knew — to take it —
    Would cost me — just a life!"

    F249, ‘You're right — "the way is narrow" —’, Stanza 2

    [Admission to Heaven]
    "'Tis Costly — So are purples!
    'Tis just the price of Breath —"

    F353, ‘I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—‘, Stanza 3:

    "But this time—Adequate—Erect,
    With Will to choose,
    or to reject,
    And I choose, just a Crown—"

  3. ED offers three multiple choice possibilities for the upper limit of our human ability to understand “Life — . . . Death — . . . Everlasting —”:

    (A) 3
    (B) 2
    (C) 1

    Methinks her choices omit the correct answer:

    (D) 0.