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04 July 2020

There is a Shame of Nobleness –

There is a Shame of Nobleness –
Confronting Sudden Pelf –
A finer Shame of Exstasy –
Convicted of Itself –

A best Disgrace – a Brave Man feels –
Acknowledged – of the Brave —
One More – "Ye Blessed" – to be told –
But that's – Behind the Grave –
                                                            Fr668 (1863)  J551

In this nice and clever poem, Dickinson ironically depicts a progression of Shames – and 'shame' here is a feeling of embarrassment, shyness, or modesty (per ED Lexicon)

First up is the "Shame of Nobleness – / Confronting Sudden Pelf." An old-fashioned word, 'pelf' represents wealth and riches, or even praise and recognition (ED Lexicon again), with the understanding that they are ill-gotten or undeserved. The shame a noble nature would feel upon reception of riches and praise would be a modest conviction that such blessings are undeserved.
            Next is the "Shame of Exstasy – / Convicted of itself." This would be the 'finer' perhaps more intense embarrassment or shyness experienced after transcendent or transporting experiences. I picture a poet, mystic, or music lover lost in some higher realm and then shaking their heads when returning to the quotidian self as if wondering how such ecstasy could be afforded such a one as themselves.
Civil War Medal of Honor recipient
William Harvey Carney
            In a nod, perhaps, to the soldiers battling the Confederacy during the Civil War, Dickinson labels as 'best' the 'Disgrace' (Shame) that a Brave Man might feel being acknowledged as such by others he considers brave. While some might feel pride and a swelling ego at receiving something like the Medal of Honor, Dickinson implies that modesty is far more to be admired. The contrast between courage and bravery on the battlefield or elsewhere and shy modesty is profound and that might be why it is the best of the shames.

There is one final opportunity for admirable Shame or Disgrace but that comes only after death. The "Ye Blessed" is Dickinson's shorthand for a passage from the New Testament's Matthew 25: 34-36, where in end times, those who tended the poor and lowly are separated from those who did not and invited to the kingdom of heaven:

"34 Then shall the King [Jesus] say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Dickinson's reference to this passage culminates the poem's celebration of modesty. It is not, typically, those puffed up by wealth and fame, those who flaunt their spiritual or artistic transports, or those who swagger and boast of their exploits who take in strangers and visit prisoners. Neither do they find themselves, ultimately, on the right hand side of the Judgment throne.

Dickinson writes here in straightforward hymn or ballad form with the second and fourth lines ending in perfect rhymes. This is rather exceptional for Dickinson, but this is a short poem and expresses rather straightforward and accepted opinions.


  1. It is essential do mention the quotation of Matthew in the bible. Without this the line becomes meaningless.

  2. It is very interesting the use of opposites: "best Disgrace" = very good disgrace. For sure the word "disgrace is too strong", but in ED way I, like you, would read "Shame".

    I translate this poem and in portuguese the words became gorgeous. But surely we deal with a very difficult poem. Very hard to apprehend its meaning; very tough! A true piece of art.

    1. Yes, this one took a while, but it was worth it.

  3. What about the word "extasy" used in the poem? It should be ecstasy for sure, but, may be, ED did not like the word ecstasy since it means C11H15NO2 a hallucination!!!

    1. I think it's just a variant spelling that we no longer use. It would have been an old variant in Dickinson's day, so I'm guessing she just liked it -- likes the extra emphasis and attention to the word, perhaps.

  4. You are wright, it should be a variant since in portuguese the word is "êxtase", speling exact like in the poem, except the letter "y". ( In portuguese there is no such letter in the alphabet.)