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02 December 2018

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —
And then a Tract between
Set Cypherless — to teach the Eye
The Value of its Ten —

Until the peevish Student
Acquire the Quick of Skill —
Then Numerals are dowered back —
Adorning all the Rule —

'Tis mostly Slate and Pencil —
And Darkness on the School
Distracts the Children's fingers —
Still the Eternal Rule

Regards least Cypherer alike
With Leader of the Band —
And every separate Urchin's Sum —
Is fashioned for his hand —
                           F646, J545  (1863)

In this philosophical poem Emily Dickinson presents a benevolent and just deity through the metaphor of an arithmetic lesson. The teacher is 'Father', the word serving as both the metaphorical father of the student as well as the Father of Creation.

He is a wise teacher, knowing what must be told and what must be left for the students to make sense of. He begins the lesson with single-digit counting numbers, which for most children is simple as they can count along with their fingers. I picture the teacher writing on a chalkboard, pausing after the column of ones, then leaving a gap between it and a column of tens. This 'Tract between' is left as open space for imagination to enter and the students to traverse.
     The approach is frustrating and, Reader, I relate to the Peevish Student. It's no fun to face someone else's puzzle, especially when it comes to the mysteries of numbers and Eternal Rules. Yet when the students finally realize that the second column is the result of some function applied to the first, a function related to the addition of the zero, their peevishness disappears and fingers fly with the (wonderful phrase) Quick of Skill. Soon their slates overflow with calculations – the fleshing out, the adornments, of the underlying Rule governing the value and nomenclature of the tens.
Greenleaf's First Lessons in
Numbers, 1831, Boston

Dickinson never uses the word 'zero' in this poem, but it is implicit. She employs a subtle bit of word play around it as until the early 1800s, zeros were commonly referred to as  'cyphers'. Cypherless space, then, has no zero. Obvious enough. But in Dickinson's day, according to the Lexicon, readers would read 'cypherless' as not just 'lacking zero', but as 'undeterminable; without an exact meaning; unable to be expressed'. It is here that students journey between the column of ones and the zero-enhanced column of tens. It is here that we older readers discover how meaning saturates material, how abundance springs from nothing, and where we contemplate the world called forth from the void.


The third stanza returns us from this rather Kirkegaardian leap and expands the metaphor  beyond arithmetic lessons. The students, still in the realm of Slate and Pencil, struggle with their lessons when darkness falls. Just so do we struggle with faith and spiritual advancement during dark times.
      A good School Master/Father understands this and in accordance with the Eternal Rule fashions each student's lessons according to ability and need. The 'least Cypherer' is valued as highly as the most brilliant pupil, even as much as, if I read it correctly, the leader of a band of angels. 'Cypherer' here again plays on 'zero': while in Dickinson's day it would mean someone who works with numbers, its association with zero suggests a person who amounts to nothing.
      The Eternal Rule governing all this may be what Dickinson's church would have taught as the Golden Rule – doing unto others as we wish others would do to us. It might refer to the numerous parables and teachings Dickinson would have read where Jesus made it clear that to the Father, the meek, the halt and the lame; the poor, the imprisoned, and the thief on the cross are as worthy of blessings and salvation – if not more worthy – than the most learned and powerful.

This poem is among the most regular of Dickinson's work in terms of meter and rhyme. Its simple construction mirrors the simple lesson it teaches. Or so it seems. The more I delved into the first stanza the more redolent and 'undeterminable' I found that 'Tract between' and its traversal to be.


  1. This is a lovely reading. Interestingly, I am currently in my own "project" to read the Complete Franklin. It will be interesting to see what your glosses are, as I read them.

  2. This is a poem that seems to get more rewarding every time I read it, and your explanation of the cyphers is really, really helpful. Is there also a sense of cypherer as “decoder” or interpreter, do you think? I guess I’m wondering if “tract” could also be a religious tract that bridges (or does it separate?) the students and the “Eternal Rule.” The students’ job then is to interpret or “cypher” God’s eternal rules and God’s infinite sovereignty through finite (“countable”) religious ideas.

    Also, though the rhythm is regular, the one notable exception is the third line of the third stanza. Dickinson likes the 3343 quatrain, but this line is three beats instead of four, just as she is (ironically) describing the children miscounting. It seems like a bit of fun on Dickinson’s part. Maybe?

    Terrific job, as always. I don’t usually comment, but I always love reading your blog. I was so glad to see you back to it after the long delay. Thanks for doing this!

    1. Thank you! I think your suggestions about the Cypherer as a decoder of rules and that Dickinson might be using 'tract' ironically as well as more literally are very enriching to the poem.

      The tract between this life/this perception of life and the divine is unknowable or at least indifinable (hence ED's slantwise poetry?); the tracts that purport to do so are empty words.

  3. I imagine as I study this the structure of fingers and hands, and it seems an observation that our sense of numbers starts and ends with the concept of “tens” because of our fingers - “still the eternal rule”. When the quick of skill become facile in numerals and stop counting on their fingers, they are still using the precepts of 10’s that they first learned on their fingers.

  4. What a strange, mysterious and deep writer ED is. Over 600 poems in and I'm still being surprised and mystified by her poems.

    The first line of this seems to point toward the worth of the individual, along the lines of Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered." But then she shifts into a math lesson toward complexity, toward abstract reasoning. But in the end it comes back to square one with "each separate urchin". So the Father, and that first line, is doing double duty here, as a heavenly Father who counts every one alike, and the teacher/father who is teaching a math to a child. That's a bit confusing, as there are two different kinds of lessons at hand. Likewise there are two kinds of "rule" here. The first is mathematical, but second one, the eternal one, is moral.

    Perhaps the tract between one and ten is cypherless (in the sense of indeterminable) because once you start multiplying the numbers, then the individual gets lost. For instance, try as you may, you can't feel for the loss of a million people as deeply as you can feel the loss of one. Is that what you meant when you wrote, "meaning saturates material"?

    These lines are interesting:

    'Tis mostly Slate and Pencil —
    And Darkness on the School
    Distracts the Children's fingers —

    Why draw attention to the slate and pencil? It's a lot of work, trial and error, to understand math. And "darkness" I take here to mean that the sun is setting and the student wants to stop working and get out of school. But it is an ominous word, "darkness". It's as if in learning abstract mathematics, we are someone learning how to abstract ourselves from one another. The student just wants to go play with a friend, or maybe go home.

    Home. I stopped by a bookstore the other day and read Joyce Carol Oates introduction to her new selected Dickinson. The one thing that stood out to me from it was this wonderful Dickinson phrase: "The infinite power of home."

  5. ED copied F646 into Fascicle 31 “about second half of 1863” (Franklin 1998). Brutal war darkened the land and a presidential election loomed in November 1864. Could ED’s message be “Still the Eternal Rule (Democracy) // Regards least Cypherer (voter) alike / With Leader of the Band”? “'Tis One (vote) by One (vote) — the Father (President) counts —”.

    Feeble metaphor, I know, but it’s hard to imagine ED wrote a poem about “urchins” learning arithmetic concepts.

    Or maybe she’s subtly signaling mathematician Sue they need a rendezvous.