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09 September 2014

Trust in the Unexpected —

Trust in the Unexpected —
By this — was William Kidd
Persuaded of the Buried Gold —
As One had testified —

Through this — the old Philosopher —
His Talismanic Stone
Discerned — still withholden
To effort undivine —

'Twas this — allured Columbus —
When Genoa — withdrew
Before an Apparition
Baptized America —

The Same — afflicted Thomas —
When Deity assured
'Twas better — the perceiving not —
Provided it believed —
                   F561 (1863)  J555)

Advising us to "Trust in the Unexpected" is a far different thing than to simply expect and be ready for the unexpected. The latter is prudent while trust seems rash – even if one believes in beneficial divine intervention or great favors from fate. If Dickinson is urging the reader to trust in the unexpected, she does not make a strong case for it. In fact, I'm not sure what to make of this poem, even the first line, so I'll take it stanza by stanza, each being a separate example.
        First, Captain Kidd is known for burying treasure, not finding it; the treasure he did bury he never got to enjoy. His career was riddled with ill fortune and ended with his neck in a noose. Dickinson would have been familiar with him, as Kidd patrolled the New England Coast on behalf of New York and Massachusetts provinces in the late 1600s. He later buried chests of gold and silver on New York's Gardiners Island before sailing to Boston to be tried for piracy. Consequently, what Dickinson means by his being "persuaded of the Buried Gold" isn't clear to me. Perhaps this was a story current in Dickinson's time. But if he were persuaded that there was buried gold to be had, why would this example count as trusting the unexpected? What is Dickinson getting at?
The Alchymist in Search of the

Philosophers' Stone, Joseph Wright, 1771
        As for the second stanza, no philosopher has ever found the apocryphal stone that would turn lead into gold; perhaps the "old" one "discerned" such a treasure, but that isn't nearly as good as producing or finding one. Even Isaac Newton, a towering genius who studied the Bible and believed in prophecy and divine intervention, was never successful despite his years of alchemical efforts. Was it trust in the unexpected that led him to discern? That discernment, however, seems a result of a philosopher's study, not some happenstance idea – particularly if it never bore fruit.  
        The stanza on Columbus is not clear to me. Perhaps it says that Columbus' trust in the unexpected lured him on even after his home city of Genoa declined to support his proposed journey. He ventured forth even before knowing about the "apparition" later named America. If this reflects Dickinson's intent in the stanza, it still isn't strong evidence to support her claim. Columbus believed he could sail to the East Indies. He wasn't trusting the unexpected but banking on his sense of geography. He never did admit (or realize?) that he had reached a new continental area. It seems likely to me that a sailor venturing into new waters would be armed against the unexpected rather than trusting it. 
        Finally, Thomas is an example of someone who did not trust in the unexpected. Encountering a man who others considered to be Jesus, recently executed and buried, Thomas had to actually feel one of his wounds before offering his trust. In this case, perhaps Thomas should have trusted the unexpected.

Maybe Dickinson is counseling us to trust our inner compass, even if the outcome would be unexpected to the outside world.

Or maybe she is being ironical.

Readers, I hope you have insights to share!


  1. Although I was also confounded, I'll give it a shot.

    First, I assume the reference to Captain Kidd is not meant to be historically accurate but rather to raise an image of a treasure seeking pirate. It's a stretch to make it fit into her argument for the reasons you stated, but on the other hand his name, serving as a slant rhyme to "testified," works in the stanza.

    Second, I did not read "the old philosopher" to be an alchemist pursuing a formula for making gold, but rather as a philosopher trying to divine eternal truth, in this case through arcane instruments such as talismans.

    Next, it should be mentioned that aboard a vessel the land astern seems to withdraw as it diminishes and fades into the horizon while the land ahead rises first as a dark line behind a mist and grows until it fairly looms in the mist before becoming clear. Hence, the withdrawal of Genoa and apparition of America worked real well for me. Further in this stanza the "trust" of Columbus doesn't bother me since the charts and science of the day were not much of a guarantee that he wouldn't drop off into a void at the farther edge of the sea. I guess I thought of "Columbus" as the expedition rather than the man.

    Finally, the poet in stating that Thomas was afflicted by a lack of trust in the unexpected winds up her argument with a negative example.

    Maybe "trust in the unknown" or "adhere to blind faith" is closer to the case the narrator is building.

    I couldn't make anything of the fourth line, it just stuck out as odd and disconnected to me, except to suggest there was a rumor of buried gold by "someone" who testified to that effect.

    It is not one of my favorites of ED's poems as it is kind of preachy instead of her usual but unusual capricious and lyrical poetry sprinkled with zingers, her "comets of thought."

    Lee Silverwood

    1. Thanks - I particularly appreciate your take on the Columbus stanza. It makes more sense now. As for Thomas, I guess the word "afflicted" is key -- I hadn't paid close enough attention to that.

      Maybe "trust the far-fetched" would be a good paraphrase. Don't give up the venture just because it seems unlikely.

  2. The poem's first line is provocative. It sets up a disconnection between our rational mind that makes sense of the conventional world and its predictability and the mind that is open to a leap of understanding that creates a new paradigm -- the moment when we stand as in Keat's poem "silent on a peak in Darien" -- and a new world swims into our ken. How do you expect the unexpected? It is a leap of faith. More conventional phrasing might be "trust in the unseen". But "trust in the unexpected" is beautiful -- it is an alignment with what is fresh and unpredictable in the world rather than what is routinized.

    Each stanza provides an example -- "By this", "Through this", "'Twas this", "The same". The syntax is difficult -- and that is a weakness of the poem.

    I agree with Anonymous' take on William Kidd. I read "As one had testified" as a statement of the degree of trust. It is belief -- as one would believe in a sworn statement.

    The second stanza is also difficult. It describes faith in a talismanic stone and what it reveals beyond logic. The phrase "effort undivine" is cryptic to me. Your suggestion sounds plausible.

    The third paragraph describes Columbus' faith despite the loss of support of his Italian financial backers. Apparition is unusual -- but it literally means "appears" -- when the unseen becomes apparent and receives a name -- is baptised.

    The fourth stanza describes an affliction -- but it is not an affliction by what is unseen. Thomas' affliction is that he cannot see beyond the literal. ED's alignment (trust) is with what surprises -- not with the conventional.

  3. I like your phrase "alignment with what is fresh and unpredictable in the world". That would hold no matter if what unfolds is for good or ill. It's planting yourself on the side of the cosmos. I still don't think the examples show anything unexpected as Kidd was 'persuaded', the philosopher 'discerned' (a product of prepared knowledge), Columbus was "allured" by what he did expect, and Thomas was ... well a counter example.

    But I like the poem better with the idea of alignment, so thank you for that!

  4. I think this is one of Dickinson’s poems which cannot be properly understood without appreciating her deep sense of irony. She is telling us trust in the unexpected even though heroes in my examples didn’t exactly get what they wanted…otherwise, you’ll be ‘expecting’ the unexpected and not trusting it.

    William Kidd buried gold in the hope that he will be able to use it (his knowledge of its location) as a bargaining tool. Instead, his treasure was discovered and sent by the Governor of New York to London to be used as evidence against him. The buried gold turned up and ’testified’ against him (or one testified about Kidd’s intentions).

    The ancient philosopher ‘discerned’ the Talismanic Stone because he trusted the unexpected. Since then, others have been ‘looking for’ it (which is even worse than expecting). In a sense, perhaps, Dickinson is suggesting that philosopher’s stone is ‘trusting the unexpected’. In their efforts to discover 'the real deal’, alchemists and others made many discoveries but discarded them because they seemed worthless.

    Similarly, Columbo’s ‘apparition' of America was the result of trusting the unexpected (even though he didn’t realize that he had discovered something new). For me, ‘withdrawal of Genoa’ works both as real withdrawal of support and a metaphor for moving horizons. Columbo’s belief in the possibility of reaching Asia from the other side ‘allured’ him both on land and in the ocean…and yet what he got was not what he expected to find.

    As you and others have said, Thomas is a negative case: someone who neither expected nor trusted. It would have been better ('Twas better-) if those who do not see (the perceiving not) believed it as (or when) it was 'assured' by the Lord.

    I think what runs through the poem is faith: keep your faith above (beyond) what you know and what you expect. The use of religious language is also notable ('testify', '(un)divine', ‘baptized’ and finally Deity and 'believed’). Another dimension of the poem is perhaps the ascending order of the ‘prize’: from buried gold (which was not enjoyed) to Philosopher’s Stone ('withheld') to America to Lord himself.

  5. Considering ED contextually, the Romantics idealized spontaneity and intuition, a reaction against the logical deliberation of the Age I’d Reason thinkers and plotters and planners. The idea of the “unexpected” as a goal suggests searching without a preconceived notion in mind - the very essence of discovery, but obviously allowing (even assuming) plenty of mistakes (like some of those named). They didn’t miss their mark if they set out without a named mark in mind. That’s romantic thinking for ya!

  6. ED leaves me in a dusty cloud with this poem, so, some snooping on the academic internet dredged a reason for its obscurity. ED’s hint lies in Stanza 2:

    “Through this — the old Philosopher —
    His Talismanic Stone
    Discerned — still withholden
    To effort undivine —”

    “[S]cattered references in Dickinson's letters . . . lead one to suspect that she had more than a passing familiarity with the world of spiritualism, theosophy, the esoteric, and the occult - all widespread interests in her time. Dickinson correctly guessed at the "spiritual" or "sacred" aspect of alchemy in ‘Trust in the Unexpected —’ (F561). . . .

    “Dickinson exhibits her fundamental recognition that the quest for the philosopher's stone was an internal process rather than the mere seeking after a nostrum which could turn base metals into gold. . . . Transmutation was, in fact, a profound exaltation of the soul and in recognizing that the true subject of the alchemical experiment was man, Dickinson joined a select few in her own century . . . who had intuited the real secret of the great arcanum. Like them, too, she agreed that such a secret must remain a closely guarded one, encoded in a deliberately cryptic language:

    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth's superb surprise
    As Lightning to the children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind-

    With the alchemists of old, Dickinson could have taken as her motto the Latin injunction, "obscurum per obscuris, ignotium per ignotius" — "to reveal the obscure by the more obscure, the unknown by the even more unknown."

    St. Armand, B.L., 1977. Emily Dickinson and the Occult: The Rosicrucian Connection. Prairie Schooner, 51(4):345-357.