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25 February 2015

No Romance sold unto

No Romance sold unto
Could so enthrall a Man – 
As the perusal of
His Individual One —

'Tis Fiction's — to dilute to plausibility
Our – Novel. When 'tis small eno'
To credit — 'Tis'nt true –
                                                            F590 (1863)  J669

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.  – Albert Camus
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” ― Jessamyn West

Novels are sometimes thought to be more true than life perhaps because they illuminate some insight or develop certain themes that resonate with readers. The novelist arranges parallels and resonant details to amplify the inner lives of their characters. Consequently, characters in Romance are more vivid, their details more sharp than the people we know. Real people flounder about with no such illuminating devices. 
        Dickinson, however, claims that the novelistic process is dilution, not amplification. Jewelers cut through earthy or mineral matrix to isolate a crystal, and then facet the resulting jewel to best display its fire. Likewise, the novelist chisels away at life to produce a polished, coherent, and plausible story. Dickinson' point is that much of that story is imbedded in in the rock and matrix in which it grew. The truth of the crystal is in the volcano, the gradual depositions of water, the tectonic foldings of earth – all of which has been severed from the jewel. The truth of life is tangled in the interplays of history, locality, society, and family. It often turns out as implausibly as the daughter of a straight-laced Calvinist lawyer becoming a reclusive and explosive poet.  
Crystals in matrix
photo: James W. Johnson

        But Dickinson doesn't just say that much is lost in novelistic paring down and shaping: she says that when the novel is finally "small eno'" to be believable, it "'Tis'nt true". Something vital has been lost; what is left is a false presentation; a severed jewel.

I read all that into in the second stanza of the poem. In the first, Dickinson makes the claim that we find our own life more interesting than those portrayed in any "Romance" we could buy. By "Romance" she is probably referring to such books as those she read by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot. You could never be as enthralled in a book, she says, as in the contemplation of your own life.
        Certainly many of us devote untold hours recounting the odd jigs and jags of our lives, snippets of conversations, musings about what might have been, and wonder at how we ended up where we are. And yet … many of us would pick up a book for a happy afternoon far more quickly than embark on a real "perusal". Even Dickinson reported herself transported by literature. She read George Eliot's Middlemarch in the same year as she wrote this poem. Ten years later she famously wrote her cousins, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this 'mortal has already put on immortality.'"
        I would agree with her about Middlemarch. I'm not so sure about how my own life stacks up against it, at least in terms of enthrallment. But Dickinson may also, I think, be talking about how we each craft our own Romance novel. We peruse our life, pick out what we find the most salient episodes, the critical turning points. We string these together to make "Our – Novel." Yes, that would be pretty good reading.


  1. This is an excellent analysis of a difficult poem.

  2. Nice. Fiction waters life down, "To dilute to Plausibility," and then goes on to contrast an "Individual" life. The poem may as well be stating ED's opinion about commercialized literature at that time. That is to say, by saying "Romance sold," she is stating her refusal to put a price tag to her poetry.

    1. And perhaps as a poet she has a deeper sense of truth than that of many a Romance writer (particularly, as you suggest, of her day -- Eliot excepted!)

  3. And even this small pithy poem, being made of words, "Tis'nt true-

  4. Your line "It often turns out as implausibly as the daughter of a straight-laced Calvinist lawyer becoming a reclusive and explosive poet" is a terrific example of the kind of implausibility ED is talking about, the kind one finds in a "Novel" life.

    I also appreciate how you show the inversion from "fiction is bigger than life" to "life is bigger than fiction". I can now see that is what ED is doing here rhetorically, but I don't think I would have seen it without your help.

    I also love the acknowledgment in this poem that "credit" is suspect. The complexities of life, of the "mineral matrix" as you put it, render credit a bit ridiculous.

    "I'm nobody/ who are you? Are you nobody too?"

  5. Because of this post I decided to start reading Middlemarch. Emily's feeling that Eliot had put on "immortality" gives us a clue as to just what immortality meant to Emily. She also wrote something similar about Emerson, that he came closest to immortality with his bee (referring to Emerson's great poem "The Humble Bee".)

    The thing that is trip though is that I don't think Emily meant fame here. You can achieve immortality (Glory) in a poem even if nobody else but yourself ever reads it. Perhaps that's why she didn't care so much about publishing I think. It was the poem that mattered.

    I wanted to read Middlemarch anyway because it is also Proust's favorite novel. With Proust and Dickinson, the greatest of writers, giving it their highest recommendation, how could I not read it?

    Anway, this is all to say that in the first paragraph of the novel there is a passage that seems to resonate with this poem,

    "Her passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self."

    1. It's hard to overstate how good Middlemarch is. I forget which great writer or critic claimed it to be a perfect novel. It's a great read, a greater re-read, and wonderful for dipping and delving. I just finished my first re-read of Silas Marner (assigned for highschool freshmen [freshpeople?] back in the day). I didn't particularly care for it way back then, but fully enjoyed it this time. The sentences!!!

  6. Susan, once again your way with words astonishes this reader of your explications. No wonder you want to make a novel happen. It’s a privilege to read paragraphs that trip off your pen as if they were easy, a true sign of talent. Thank you for sharing TPB with us denizens.

  7. Stanza 1 posits an agreeable proposition, no problems there.
    ED struggled with Stanza 2, inserted four alternatives [brackets] in three short lines:

    “ 'Tis Fiction's — to dilute [contract] to plausibility [credibility]
    Our – Novel [Romance]. When 'tis small eno'
    To credit [compass] — 'Tis'nt true —”

    Variant A, without insertions, she sent signed to Sue. Tentative Variant B she copied into Fascicle 26.

    Why did ED pen this poem (??) (aphorism??). What “Romance” had she read? Clearly, Stanza 2 was a breech birth.

  8. "Candor, my preceptor, is the only wile. Did you not teach me that yourself in the 'prelude' to 'Malbone'?"

    (L450, February 1876, To T.W. Higginson)

    The passage she cites from Higginson’s 1869 “Prelude to Malbone”:

    “One learns, in growing older, that no fiction can be so strange nor appear so improbable as would the simple truth.... For no man of middle age can dare trust himself to portray life in its full intensity, as he has studied or shared it; he must resolutely set aside as indescribable the things most worth describing, and must expect to be charged with exaggeration, even when he tells the rest.”

    Does Higginson channel ED’s Stanza 2, ‘No Romance sold unto’? Is she the teacher, he the student?

    “'Tis Fiction's — to dilute to plausibility
    Our – Novel. When 'tis small eno'
    To credit — 'Tis'nt true –”