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26 January 2015

Of Course — I prayed —

Of Course — I prayed —
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird — had stamped her foot —
And cried "Give Me" —
My Reason — Life —
I had not had — but for Yourself —
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb —
Merry, and nought, and gay, and numb —
Than this smart Misery.
                            F581 (1863)  J376

The speaker in this poem begins by addressing someone real or theoretical who perhaps asked her if she had prayed about something – no doubt something related to her "Misery". The speaker's response is emphatic and frustrated. "Of Course" she says. But to what effect? "Nothing. I might as well have been a bird stamping on air demanding things." 
        The fifth line is a transition from the speaker's complaining about God to another person to her complaining directly to God – or perhaps to a beloved. While the nature of her grievance is not entirely clear, it is easy to read the poem as saying that the speaker thinks she would be better off dead than living in "smart Misery". "You gave me life," she points out bitterly to God. "But it would have been 'better Charity' to have left me as undifferentiated matter."

That seems pretty harsh. A close reading, however, suggests the speaker is equating "Life" with animation: spiritual, emotional, or intellectual. The "Atom's Tomb" would be existence on the other end of the spectrum: mindless banality. Sure those atoms are merry and gay as they careen carelessly around. But their very lack of purpose and awareness means they are ultimately interred in entropic numbness and "nought". Thus, Dickinson's interleaved list of "Merry, and nought, and gay, and numb". 

        The speaker is lashing out here, but her pain and frustrations are not new themes for Dickinson. She writes in many poems about just what this "smart Misery" is: it is existential loneliness; it is an "imperial affliction"; it is plumbing the disturbing depths of the soul; it is unanswered prayer.
        And it might also be an impossible or tormented love affair. The implied "You" might well be someone the speaker loves passionately. She might have prayed to God to help her cope or even help the affair develop. God does not intervene, and the speaker then chastises the beloved. "You awoke my dreams and my passion," she might be saying in this reading. "But you should have left me "gay, and numb".

The "Atom's Tomb" is an interesting image, for atoms cannot be confined in any but the most sealed environment. The atoms are their own tomb – lifeless unless animated in some way to coalesce into awareness and being. The slant and sight rhyme of the words add interest to the poem, too. The following line starts with "Merry" and this "m" sound draws out the "m" in the preceding "Tomb". The passage "Merry, and nought, and gay, and numb" trips more easily off the tongue than any other line in the poem, the new "n" words, "nought" and "numb" setting it off. The contrasting last line with its three adjacent accented syllables, "this smart Misery" ends the poem with a return to the "m"s, now spiked with the frustration that pervades this poem. 


  1. Thank you for this analysis. In particular, your phrase "interred in entropic numbness nad 'nought" helped with a difficult line.

    I really like this poem. The first five lines are a self-reflection on petulant complaint -- with a delightful image of the bird.

    In the last six lines the poem turns serious. These lines are. themselves, a prayer -- similar to Christ's prayer on the cross: "Why hast thou forsaken me?". ED's god gives us reason as well as life -- and the gift of reason and sentience is a gift of suffering.

    I expect ED prefers her "smart misery" to the charity she describes -- at least the part of her that sees her petulant first reaction with a sense of humor.

    1. I agree; she is not one to be Merry and nought. A couple of other commentators I read found word play in 'smart Misery' -- as if suggesting 'smarting' misery. But I don't think that adds anything at all to the poem.

      I was tempted to refer back to a couple of other poems with hungry sparrows and crumbs -- and ED's observation that Jesus' claim that God protects them rings false.

  2. In Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” he tells the story of the church’s desperate repression of the teachings of Lucretius, one of the first Epicurean atomists, who were the first to articulate the theory that all matter in the universe - is made of tiny recombinant particles. They also suggested that the moment of death was it for the soul, but that our immortality lay in the fact that our atoms go on indefinitely in other forms. You can see why the church was so desperate to repress all teachings of this, and way into the 19th century, Lucretius was on a “do not read” list. Do you think that ED might be calling institutionalized religion “Atom’s Tomb”? And modern day church goers “merry, and nought, and gay, and numb”? And not smart? Sounds like
    Something Emily would say...
    Her use of commas separating the adjectives is stylistically odd - to what end?

    1. Hmmm, interesting but I don't quite buy it. Re-reading it again (thank you for all the re-readings), I"m struck more forcefully that she is talking to God, complaining that it would have been more charitable to have left her unborn -- no more than uncollected/unorganized atoms than in her live state of knowingness that, vis a vis God, just brings frustration and misery.

      The commas, I think, are meant to slow us down in a sort of singsong. The merry and nought are paired as are gay and numb -- but the commas make them rather equal in a seesaw kind of way. I like visualizing atoms like this.

  3. Were I trying to imagine the most impossible poem a 32-year-old spinster in a rural town in 1863 could compose, it would be this one. Note to self, again, never ever underestimate ED.

  4. Lines 1-5 picture perfectly a three-year-old, standing in front of mama, demanding “give me!” They set the stage for Lines 6-7 to explain:

    “My reason for prayer? I would never have lived, “but for Yourself”, and now you’ve abandoned me for San Francisco.”

    The denouement:

    “Twere better Charity
    To leave me in the Atom's Tomb —
    Merry, and nought, and gay, and numb —
    Than this smart Misery.”

    Of course, the love affair existed only in ED’s imagination, which was incredibly self-deceiving.

  5. As so often with ED's poetry, you get to bring your own interpretation to the party. I previously read this poem as an "angry with God" poem. Today it strikes me as a petulant foot-stomping tirade at Father or Mother (most likely Father) for God-knows-what domestic dust-up has occurred. "I wouldn't have life but for you" relates to one's parents as much as it relates to God and far more directly than it relates to a lover. The meanest thing a child can say to a parent in a heated moment is "I wish I were DEAD!" And that's just what Emily is saying here (yes, at the age of 32 but she loved that childhood voice of hers and used it strategically). I can imagine Emily - the only one of the 3 children with the fortitude to stand up to her father and decline his rules - getting into a poetic froth at some transgression of the soul committed by Edward. Like, for example, "yes we have Lucretius in our extensive library but, no, you may not read it." Refusing her access to knowledge would be some real "smart misery." (Somewhere I read - I think in Jerome Charyn's book - that Father did not allow Emily access to the complete family library. I know she loved her Father deeply and he loved her and allowed her to be her unique, eccentric self, but he was otherwise one patriarchal, reverent stuffed shirt.)