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05 October 2021

Triumph – may be of several kinds –

Triumph – may be of several kinds – There’s Triumph in the Room When that Old Imperator – Death – By Faith – be overcome –

There’s Triumph of the finer mind

When Truth – affronted long –

Advance unmoved – to Her Supreme –

Her God – Her only Throng –


A Triumph – when Temptation’s Bribe

Be slowly handed back –

One eye opon the Heaven renounced –

And One – opon the Rack –


Severer Triumph – by Himself

Experienced – who pass

Acquitted – from that Naked Bar –

Jehovah’s Countenance –


Fr 680 (1863)  J455

You can go back and forth in this poem as to whether Dickinson is meaning ‘triumphs’ to be pomp and circumstance or rather victories and conquests. I’m going to go with the victory theme but consider it somewhat sauced up by celebratory recognitions. 

The first type of Triumph is victory over Death. Dickinson’s peers would be familiar with the Christian Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15) where Paul explains that the body is like a seed – the seed must ‘die’ to become a plant. Just so, our body must transform, via death, from corruptible flesh into a celestial body: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (15:44). And so, Paul concludes: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (15:55). With Faith’s help, the victory – the Triumph – belongs to the dead believer.

The second stanza describes a second sort of Triumph – that of Truth when she prevails at last (oh, may it be so!) Truth has long been ‘affronted’ by, if not bare lies, then by, say, fake news. Satan, that old Deceiver, can be very tempting. But the real Triumph is earned by the ‘finer mind’ who steadfastly advances Truth to “Her Supreme”. The implication is that if you latch on to what is True you find your Supreme, your God. Truth seems to be unique to the individual. Or perhaps, an individual might grab hold of a corner of truth and that might be enough to find God.

(I like that Truth is female – which in a sort of knee-jerk way puts falsities into the male section of the gender spectrum). 

 I find it interesting that Dickinson chooses the mind here as the route to God. While Dickinson is often intellectual about faith and belief and truth, in other poems she is visceral and emotional. I’m reminded of “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” (Fr401) and “He fumbles at your Soul” (Fr477). She can also be moved to God by something in Nature and the external world: Spring or, a slant of light, or bees and birds, or the sky. But perhaps all of these things are part of the divine tapestry. The important thing is to recognize a truth and advance it.

The third stanza adopts something of a wry tone. It certainly is a Triumph of judgment and prudence when a would-be sinner gives the Bribe back (slowly, though; slowly!). Dickinson sketches the scene: the sinner is poised between Heaven and Hell: One eye sees beautiful Heaven, Paradise, with all its wonders. The other sees the tortures of Hell, the rack and, no doubt, the Lake of Fire. Taking the Bribe would be to renounce that lovely Heaven and end up in Hell. It doesn’t seem a difficult choice, does it? Yet that Bribe was somewhat grudgingly returned. 

photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM

Dickinson’s use of “Rack” for Hell is just a fun choice, rhyming so nicely with ‘back’. The rhythm of the last two lines is fun, too: “One eye opon the Heaven renounced – / And One – opon the Rack”.  Readers, these lines are tickling my brain like crazy. I think there’s an old saying with the same structure. It goes something like “With one eye/hand… on …. and the other …..” Does this ring a bell for anyone?

The final stanza switches from the female to the male. This “Himself” has experienced the most rigorous and demanding trial: appearing before Jehovah at that final reckoning. To pass acquitted, moving on to eternal salvation, is the greatest Triumph of all. I can read ‘Naked Bar’ in two ways: first that the petitioner comes to the bar naked: reputation, wealth, family, and all the other ways we clothe ourselves for the world must be left behind. Jehovah will acquit us or damn us based on the bare soul. The other way to read it is that the petitioner must encounter God directly. His Countenance is not masked or otherwise screened or hidden. To stand before the glory of God and pass is Triumph indeed.

The poem is written in quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. One thing that caught my eye is all the T’s: Triumph (5), Throng, Truth, and Temptation’s. The poem may be read as a reflection on salvation – which in Christianity is possible because Jesus, part of a divine trinity, died as a blood sacrifice so that believers might be saved. Jesus was crucified and all those T’s call the cross to mind.


12 comments:

  1. A true comment may follow but for now just to get the fourth line corrected to end "__ is overcome"

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    1. Thank you, Peter!!! Franklin reader has 'be overcome'. Wonder how I screwed that up... Anyway, fixed now.

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    2. Quite so. I thought ED's original handwritten poem had "be", but an edited text had "is" so I accepted that. Should have stuck with my own reading!

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  2. Hello!
    I sincerely want to thank you for what you're doing here, because your blog was of so much help to me for nearly a year!
    I am a Russian translator and just a few moments ago I finished a huge, lasting project, for which I needed to make verse translations of 30 (or so) Dickinson's poems. And believe me, that would be next to impossible without your ten-year work I found here.
    A great thank you! Hope you will continue with this ambitious project dedicated to Emily Dickinson and poetry in general

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    1. Thank you so much Elizaveta! I'm intrigued by the Google analytics on who reads this blog. Other than the USA, Russia provides the most readers. Is Dickinson popular in Russia? What do the readers find most engaging about her work?

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    2. Actually, I am equally intrigued by this news! Russia is known for love of poetry and we had many great poets throughout history. We also take interst in foreighn poets and writers, but Dickinson is sadly not one of them. Very few of her poems are translated to Russian (and that's the reason why I needed to do it myself and why I found your blog). And what is translated is not widely known. Actually I think most Russians will think of Dickens if you ask if they know Dickinson.
      I'll take a wild guess and suppose that Russian students of Literature are those who make your views! It's rather popular among them to write their papers on some 'exotic' theme rather than trying to analyse Dostoyevsky yet again.
      As for myself, I can say that though it started as a work task, I quickly fell in love with ED's poems. Russian poetic tradition is based on very strict rhyming first and foremost, so I was really surprised to discover how freely Dickinson is using the concept of rhyme! And of course her metaphorical way of thinking is absolutely outstanding - many a time I simply couldn't understand the meaning of whole stanzas until I 'consulted' with you))

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    3. Thank you so much. I like your supposition of Literature students as they may well be teachers of literature in the future. I'm always wondering how translators handle Dickinson's very surprising use of language -- particularly her startling and powerful words embedded in an otherwise smooth-flowing poem, and her use of Calvinist language. I imagine it must be a powerful poetic experience to come up with just the right words in some of her more powerful and vivid poems.

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  3. Hi Susan,
    I find so much positive in this poem and your abiding view. I must admit I had to read the poem several times in order to taste the truth of it...there comes to me a rocking horse sensation of WHOA! look at the imperator, the affronted truth, the useless bribe and all the things grabbed over a lifetime to end up naked, face to face with the ineffable.

    Te only line that comes to me about one hand is perhaps too obvious and mundane...one hand over the other...the poem has that sense on the one hand and well, wait...on the other hand here's the real deal.
    Thank you for your effort that turns into the sounds of awakening again and again. Liz

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    1. Thank you, Liz. The poem at first seemed rather simple but it took me quite a while to become comfortable with it.

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  4. I meant to write "...on the one hand then, on the other..."
    AND...
    One hand washes the other...
    Goofy, I know.
    L.

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  5. Hi,
    I am a student in Mainland China. I love ED's poems, although find many of them, like this one, hard to grasp. When I am stuck on one I come to your blog to see whether you have deciphered it. But due to Internet censorship in my country, I have to use VPN to cover my real location. So Google may not tell you that you have Chinese readers too. Just want you to know and give you thanks.

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