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05 October 2016

Undue Significance a starving man attaches

Undue Significance a starving man attaches
To Food —
Far off — He sighs — and therefore — Hopeless —
And therefore — Good —

Partaken — it relieves — indeed —
But proves us
That Spices fly
In the Receipt — It was the Distance —
Was Savory —
                             F626 (1863)  J439

 I have to admire Emily Dickinson who is an imagist and metaphorist of the very first rank, who knows how to start off a poem with a killer lead, but who can also begin the first stanza of a poem with 'Undue Significance' and the other stanza with 'Partaken'. Her father and brother were both lawyers and I imagine she acquired both an ear for legalese and a sound sense of formal logic. The phrases signal the rather dry, abstract tone of this poem about hunger and desire.
        Dickinson emphasizes the legal diction by reversing the grammatical order of the first line. It wouldn't sound too interesting as "A starving man attaches Undue Significance / To Food".  The "Undue" is trochaic, making the line even more weighty. Dickinson proceeds to include two 'therefore's, a 'proves' and a 'Receipt'.  It is an attempt at drollery, I believe, making the case that anticipation beats fulfillment.
        She wrote two similar poems within a year or two of this one, using quite different diction: In "Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (F310), Dickinson develops a series of vivid metaphors to illustrate how heaven is always unattainable. It is an apple hopelessly out of reach, a forbidden property, etc. Robert Browning wrote, and Dickinson might very well have read, "Ah, but a man's reach must extend his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for" ("Andrea del Sarto", publ. 1855). Browning, though, is getting at reaching for an unattainable level of artistic excellence. Dickinson, on the other hand, yearns for the ineffable.
        In 'I had been hungry, all the Years –' (F439), she uses, as she does in the present poem, the analogy of hunger for desire, but she does so with concrete details: crumbs and bread, tables with 'Curious Wine', berries and bushes, roads and windows. She concludes that poem with the aphorism that "Hunger – was a way / Of Persons outside Windows – / The Entering – takes away." Hunger here represents a yearning for completion, for the satisfaction of a gnawing desire; yet the object of that yearning and desire is misplaced. Having access to the Table and the 'Curious Wine', having touched and tasted the feast, having had the 'Plenty', the speaker finds herself feeling 'ill – and odd'; she ultimately realizes that it is not the food that takes away the hunger but the access to food. Once seen clearly, the feast loses its appeal. It does not satisfy.
Emilio Longoni, "Reflections of a Starving Man", 1894

Dickinson is clearly no gourmand. In this poem she portrays herself as no simple gourmet, either. She prefers the longing for the food in all its spicy savour to the tasting. Indeed, having tasted, she loses interest in the foods' flavor altogether. That opening "Undue Significance" is almost like a wagging finger. Satisfying your hunger is a bodily satisfaction and need. But the body is a simple thing, she reminds us, compared to imagination. That's where the real spice is. That's where the real satisfaction can be found.

I don't find that a particularly remarkable insight. Further, I find much of the poem plodding and bare. A starving man is introduced, but he is not a real entity but rather staked out in some culinary desert as an example. The only action word is "fly" and that is what spices theoretically do once we stick a fork in the longed-for food.


  1. i thank you with my (fragile) soul and my fragile mind that you keep going with the blog, with patience and love. i'm having weird experiences perceptual experiences, and dickinson knows secrets, of earth and heaven and hell. maybe i'm becoming a poet. but i just don't want. i don't want glory. i want somebody loves me. i'm young. i dont want the terror and the wonder, i want love. human love. thank you for this blog!

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement -- it helps keep me going. Secrets of earth and heaven and hell -- fertile ground for poetry and lifelong questing. Human love is one of the deepest poetic wells because, as you write, it drives our longings and imagination. It can be vexing, transient, complicated -- and sometimes, amazingly, enduring. But never easy. Be strong!

  2. I stumbled upon your blog while digging around the internet looking for information on the poem "The Love a Life can show Below", which I happened upon one morning by pure coincidence. (I literally let the book fall open to it). I'm so happy it (your blog) exists! I love her poems but it takes me a while to unravel their many meanings! I will be back! Thank you.

  3. What a wonderful find is this blog.

  4. Susan - would you like to get together? Happy to drive over your way if so. I'd love to see you again. - Susan Cole

  5. Most definitely I would, Susan! Use the contact form below and we can exchange current contact info.

  6. ED could bake a winning cake, but, as she told Higginson, “I . . . am small, like the Wren” (L268, July 1862) and apparently happier pleasing other’s palates than feeding her own. However, ‘Undue Significance’ (F626, second half of 1863) is about love, not food. “It was the Distance – Was Savory —” sums up her sexual history with Wadsworth now he’s vanished from her life. ED also kept her “Distance” 15 years later during her “Savory” love interlude with Judge Otis Lord (Letter 562, 1878, R rated):

    “Dont [sic] you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer - dont [sic] you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

    “You do, for you know all things - [top of sheet cut off (probably by Austin after ED’s death)] . . . to lie so near your longing - to touch it as I passed, for I am but a restive sleeper and often should journey from your Arms through the happy night . . . . perhaps I could not resist to bless it, but must, beacuse [sic] it would be right [to resist].

    “The "Stile" is God's - My Sweet One - for your great sake - not mine - I will not let you cross - but its [sic] all your's [sic], and when it is right I will lift the Bars, and lay you in the Moss - You showed me the word.

    “I hope it has no different guise when my fingers make it. It is Anguish I long conceal from you to let you leave me, hungry, but you ask the divine Crust and that would doom the Bread.

    “The unfrequented Flower”

    I'm surprised Austin didn't burn this letter.

    ED probably died “Good”, at least as far as men are concerned. Her early letters and poems suggest a different story with women.

  7. Also R rated:

    “I hope it has no different guise when my fingers make it. It is Anguish I long conceal from you to let you leave me, hungry.”

    “Guise” is not defined in ED Lex, but ED’s Webster defines “guise” as “appearance; behavior”. The quote’s mystery pronoun is “it”, but my male mind completes “when my fingers make it” with “than when your fingers make it”. You might guess my interpretation of “It is Anguish I long conceal from you to let you leave me, hungry.”

    Emily Dickinson, like Cleopatra, never ceases to astonish:

    “Age cannot wither [ED], nor custom stale
    Her infinite variety. Other [poets] cloy
    The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
    Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
    Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
    Bless her when she is riggish.”

    (Apologies to Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii.225–245)