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.