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27 May 2014

Must be a Woe —

Must be a Woe —
A loss or so —
To bend the eye
Best Beauty's way —

But — once aslant
It notes Delight
As difficult
As Stalactite

A Common Bliss
Were had for less —
The price — is
Even as the Grace —

Our lord — thought no
To pay — a Cross —
                                                    F538 (1863)  J571

This poem comes to a screeching halt for me at the word "Stalactite". Words such as slow, tenacious, subterranean, or accretive are what I think of when describing the thing – none of which add much to the second stanza. Dickinson uses eclipsis (leaving out words) throughout the poem to generally good effect, particularly in the last stanza, but it doesn't help the Stalactite Problem. So, good readers, give me your thoughts. Please tell me it isn't just that it rhymes with "Delight."   

        Meanwhile I'll start by saying that Dickinson treats the issue of pleasure and gain from pain and vice versa in several poems but none so powerfully (as far as I know so far) as in F772:
Essential Oils—are wrung—The Attar from the RoseBe not expressed by Suns—alone—It is the gift of Screws—  

Here, the first and third stanzas are anodyne claims that pain enables the recognition of beauty, but the enjoyment of common happiness requires much less grief. She introduces, however, the idea of "Grace" in the third stanza after suggesting that once woe has enabled the perception of beauty it, perception becomes "aslant" and delight more difficult. The introduction of "Grace" takes the poem to the theme of sacrifice with which she ends the poem.
      Once again Dickinson employs a metaphor from the marketplace. The price of bliss – which is pivoted to Grace – reflects the degree of suffering or Woe. The greater the suffering the greater the Bliss/Grace. It's a dollar-for-dollar deal. The thought is carried into the final stanza which might be paraphrased as "Jesus didn't think the price he paid (being crucified) for the salvation of humanity was extravagant." 

I think the success of this poem lies in the shorthand Dickinson employs. It makes the poem choppy. It seems simple, even childlike. The Stalactite reference underscores this for me. But all that makes the ending more powerful. We are reading and nodding our heads: yes, pain digs the well that happiness can fill – and of course Kahil Gibran's lovely "On Joy and Sorrow" from The Prophet (written a few years after Dickinson died) elaborates on the same theme. But then in trying to fill in the eclipsis we realize that in Christian theology our salvation requires the torture death of the God/Man Jesus. Again, this is hardly an original idea but Dickinson lends it power through her stripped-bare verbiage. The reader, forced to fill in the blanks, comes to the realization anew.


  1. This is a poem about a shock (a Woe -- a loss or so) that breaks conventional and habitual ways of seeing into something fresh and startling. After the shock, the "eye" does not go back -- once aslant, it notes Delights as difficult [for the conventional mind to see] as stalactite --something subterranean, odd, unconventionally beautiful.

    A common bliss is had for less cost.

    Then Dickinson, who is really talking about the value of the poet's refracted vision, makes a bold and iconoclastic metaphor. As the price of grace, our Lord thought no extravagance to pay -- a cross. Grace here -- salvation -- stands for the poet's perception. In Dickinson's view, she would equate poetry itself with the highest that religion can offer.

    I agree that the stalactite image and the hard "t" and "k" sounds of the second paragraph are arresting. They reinforce the shock of altered perception on the face of great loss.

    Othef sounds of this poem are also wonderful. The dominant sound is "s". The "b" sounds in the first stanza are also lovely -- and in my ear at least echo the sense of bending.

  2. I stand in agreement with your commentary that the use of "stalactite" does not work - the word is too strong: it's out of place. Taken with the fact that it rhymes with "delight" makes it gimmicky.
    I find the poster's interpretation to be a marvelous insight and beautifully stated, (after a shock, the eye does not go back but notes delights odd and unconventionally beautiful) but this offers a theme more meaningful than what is supported by the poem itself. "Stalactite" does not work as an image for beauty, even unconventional or odd beauty. Not for this reader, I should say.
    Further the third and fourth stanzas do not develop consistently for me. Is the poet speaking of grace (salvation, art) after introducing the "common bliss" that is had for less? Is the price she describes really "less?" In this poem it is likened to the torture/death of the god man of Christian theology. It strains credibility to state that he thought it was no extravagance to pay the price of death on a cross.
    All these elements don't come together for me. So, "No." Apologies to a great poet as I say that this poem lacks coherence, for one reader at least.

    1. Thanks - you express my points much better than I did. I was holding back a bit – except for the stalactite part! Yet I do find the surprise of the last stanza moving.

    2. Another thing: I also feel an abrupt stop at the end of the first stanza because the use of "Best Beauty" is jarring to me. Not because of the little explosion with the two "b's" but because "best" is just odd in conjunction with "beauty". It doesn't flow and honestly I accept that maybe ED did not want language to flow at the end of the first stanza. But again, it just doesn't work for me.
      Lee Silverwood

    3. Might have been better, sense-wise to have written "best bend the eye / Beauty's way"; at least I wouldn't have paused there to parse out "Best Beauty". But I'm sure Dickinson took that option into account and wrote it the way that had the most aural and meaning resonance. It certainly makes for a thicker set of alliterations than 'best bend', as you say. It slows the flow. I would guess she liked the three stressed syllables: eye, best, Beau...

  3. I’m sure ED knew exactly what she was doing, but for this reader the problem with “stalactite” - and to a lesser degree “Best Beauty” - metrical. Spondees unsettle me ( I know, they’re supposed to) and Stalactite is just a mismeter.

  4. Just two cents coming from a different koinè. To me it all makes sense if the poem is read in its entirety in a religious perspective - the aslant look - the Best Beauty being the divine beauty (otherwise the adjective would sound rather clumsy to me). Delight in the christian sense is difficult because it entails self-denial and, not unlike the stalactite, it builds up by a painfully slow process. Does this make sense to anyone else but me?

    1. Thank you for this. The Best Beauty being divine beauty helps me with this poem. It certainly makes sense!