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02 August 2021

Funny – to be a Century –

 Funny — to be a Century —
And see the People — going by —
I — should die of the Oddity —
But then — I'm not so staid — as He —

He keeps His Secrets safely — very —
Were He to tell — extremely sorry
This Bashful Globe of Ours would be —
So dainty of Publicity —

      Fr677 (1863)  J345

Dickinson has a bit of fun imagining what it would be like to be time itself, a hundred years’ worth, to be precise. She imagines how you’d see everyone and know everything they did. I think that when she says she’d ‘die of the Oddity’ she means die of laughter. Fortunately, Father Time is more ‘staid’ – he’s probably seen it all before. Plus, he has great propriety. He never tells – our secrets are safe with him. And that is a good thing; otherwise, we’d be very sorry.

The poet casts Time as male and the world as female: she is ‘Bashful’ and ‘dainty’. She would be mortified by any publicity. I wonder if Dickinson considered the reverse proposition but concluded that a Mother Time would be quite chatty – a real gossip! – and the masculine Globe would be far less averse about being in the news After all, any news is good news – the thing is to be in the news. Or at least that strategy seems to be adopted by some big-name US politicians … .

It’s really rather delicious to think about Dickinson claiming that the Bashful Globe would be dainty of Publicity. Is she being ironic? Is it a comment on Victorian repression? Or on how much we each want to hide?

This little poem is in itself an oddity in Dickinson’s oevre in that each of the lines rhyme. I don’t recall any other of her poems (at least so far) doing this. I welcome better info in the comments.  Plus, in the first stanza she alternates trochees (Fun-ny; I – should) and iambs (And see; But then) to begin the lines. 

The first two lines of the second stanza both end with feminine, trailing rhymes: very and sorry. To me there’s something just droll looking and sounding about the first line: He keeps His Secrets safely – very –“.  It might be the repeated ‘s’ sounds plus the two last words ending in ‘y’ – plus the way ‘very’ is emphasized by that along with being set off by dashes. 

It’s a cute poem and I imagine Dickinson had some fun imagining having Time’s omnipresence. But then again, that’s a gift our great writers have.


  1. Love getting your take. Thank you.

  2. Oh and love your being back. Hope all is well with you.

    1. Thank you, Liz! And thanks for your comment about the three entities. I've seen that in other poems -- the consciousness that watches the mind or vice versa...

  3. The emphasis on the letters in caps changes my first take. There seems to be three characters in the poem- a measure of Father Time; a person known as “I” who references Our Globe as though it too was another character with Bashful & respectful in making things public.

  4. Love your reading of the poem and its tone, Susan. I hadn't thought of the speaker "dying of the oddity" as dying of laughter, but that makes perfect sense, particularly since the attitude of the speaker feels so comic and ironic. That sheds light on the whole poem.

    I like the idea, too, that the world is "Bashful" of its secrets because of Victorian repression. That sounds about right, and Dickinson surely saw through such repression. That said, it also strikes me how universal this poem is. For me, it fits any time period. Many people (all?) would be "dainty" about seeing their lives, which they live day by day with such seriousness and pomp, from a century's perspective, where it's all over in a flash. That is, we would be sorry to see our lives "published" by the perspective of Father Time (who is nice enough not to laugh at us). :)

    The references to "secrets" and "publicity" in the second stanza call to my mind Dickinson's recurring concerns with privacy and publication. It all strikes me as the comic flip-side of a much more somber poem about privacy like "I never felt at Home - Below -" (Fr 437), where the speaker feels like God is constantly watching her through his "Telescope." The meaning of our lives changes with different perspectives (a century's, God's, etc.). Sometimes that feels like an intrusion and sometimes it's just rather funny, as it is here. I like Liz's point about the three characters. Does the speaker gain an ironic distance from life that most of the bashful globe misses?

  5. This Bashful Globe indeed! What lady wants to reveal how old she really is? Weren't people collecting fossils of remarkable creatures for their curio cabinets in the 1860s? And arguing about the age of the earth? This is a delightful poem!

  6. I like the reminder that, looking at us/society/the world in retrospect is always a bit embarrassing. We are chagrinned to see the things we thought we were so sure of in the past.
    Welcome back - missed you.

  7. This one is a lot of fun to say out loud, all those funny sounding long E and I sounds dancing back and forth. Try concentrating on just that while you say it out loud. It sounds fun and frilly. It almost tickles. Then there is that great run of stuttering D sounds in the 3rd and 4th lines, culminating in the clever rhyme of "staid -- as He" with "oddity".

    A century is a funny choice for a time span. Of course it fits the anapestic feminine-ending soundscape of the poem, but it is also worth thinking about as a specific span. Gertrude Stein talks about it in one of her books, how our cultural memory only goes back 100 years. It's JUST beyond our lifetimes.

    To see from the perspective of 100 years would be able to see ourselves from beyond the grave, and from that vantage it might seem quite silly, all of it, and, yes, very odd, the more you think about it. So odd you would die of the oddity, meaning, yes, the humor of it all would kill you, but ALSO, that you would have "died of the oddity" because you would be actually dead 100 years from now. Death itself is an oddity. And we die of it.

    I love that turn around in the 4th line. From the perspective of the other side, things are more "staid". It's a good perspective to have, at odds with oddities.

    I'm a bit iffy on the ending, but I love it. It seems to say that death doesn't give up its secrets, and that's a good thing, because we would be extremely sorry if we knew the secret of what lies beyond death. Why? Because it is not the fantasy we wish for...

    And what does this have to do with a bashful earth and publicity? To go along with your "Victorian repression" reading, the earth is bashful because the people on it are bashful, because if the "naked" truth was to be revealed, it would make all of us feel exposed, and "dainty of publicity".

    This reading of the poem is pretty dark, with that extreme "extremely sorry". The harsh news implied at the end of the poem seems in stark contrast with the sound frippary.

    But maybe the ending is meant to indicate "glory"? The earth is sorry only because the secret is out. The "century" keeps the secret because the humble (bashful) earth is not showy like that. It is a private thing, glory, a personal mystery.

  8. I meant dactylic for "century" not anapestic. I always get those two mixed up.

  9. A poet’s poem if ever there was one. Don’t you doubt ED ever heard of trochees, iambs, anapestic, dactylic? She just used them, with panache.