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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.


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

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

    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!

  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

    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?

    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))

    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.

  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 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

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

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

  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.

  6. Another wonderful essay! It is also fun to read the comments and to see how many readers benefit from your great quixotic project to write essays explaining all of ED's poems!

    My few additional thoughts:

    I agree with your theological reading of the first stanza -- but the phrase "in the Room" makes the theology very immediate and personal. Reminiscent of "I heard a Fly Buzz".

    The words "Triumph" and "Imperator" evoke ancient Rome. So, with you, I lean toward the sense of triumph as victory in war. However, here, the Imperator is death. As with Christ's triumph over death, all the might of imperial Rome could not achieve victory.

    In the second stanza, I also like the association of truth with the feminine. This is an old connection. In Asian cultures, the feminine is associated with wisdom. And I think this is true in Greek culture -- where Athena embodies wisdom. However, when ED uses "Her" -- it makes the reference very intimate, since poets are also the speakers of truth. The phrase "Her only Throng" puzzles me. Is it "finer minds" that are the throng before truth? This seems off. It is truth that is advancing -- so the Supreme is something that is being approached. I don't know what to make of it.

    Temptation's Bribe, I read a little differently. The bribe is not taken. Similar to Christ's temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, the temptation is resisted -- the bribe (the promise of earthly deliverance) is handed back. The rack is a metaphor for the Cross.

    As to the last stanza, I will just add that the words "Acquitted" and "Bar" evoke the image of a trial -- the final judgment. There is also the sense of looking on the naked face of God on Judgment Day.

    A beautiful poem.

    1. Thank you -- your comments on 'rack' open up that stanza to new interpretations.

      As for the second stanza's Throng -- I read it as Truth needs/has only one Celebratent/true Witness/ -- God -- its author.

  7. wow! I loved this one... thank you, Susan.

  8. Happy Birthday, Emily!
    Had you lived to be as old as Abraham you'd be removed from us now only 16 years!

  9. I miss your blog and hope you can continue one day.

  10. Hi Susan,

    You are pushing me to read Emily's poems more deeply. They are so short in comparison to many other poets and yet so much is packed in there with her eloquent ellipsis.

    Your mention of the metre of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (one of ED's favourite metres) reminds me that this is the metre of the ballad (and its Australian cousin, the bush ballad), sometimes known as fourteeners from the number of beats in the quatrain or couplet. The story-telling origin of this metre is perhaps what makes ED's poems flow so naturally. Also the pause before the next line of tetrameter feels like a moment of poise before moving off in a new direction.


    1. Thanks — I hadn’t properly appreciated (or even really noticed) that pause before the tetra meter lines — which you so aptly and poetically call a ‘moment of poise’.

  11. I love this poem and your extrapolation! Another reading of stanza 3, l. 11-12, is that the “Heaven renounced - “ is the reward of the bribe should she have taken it. But she refused it, weighing its attraction against the deterrent of the punishment (the “Rack”) she would be due for having fallen for “Temptation’s Bribe.”
    A quibble, but one that adds to the wealth of Emily’s complexities!

  12. Note to blogmeisters: ED’s manuscript (F680A) is in four stanzas, all quatrains.

    For ED, “Temptation’s Bribe” would be ill-gotten Fame, which she could have easily attained by writing sentimental tripe. She didn’t and worried about it because she had renounced resurrection yet feared the consequences if she was wrong.

    Here are my interpretations of Stanza 2 and 3:

    “There’s Triumph of the finer mind
    When Truth –long blocked by Lies
    Advances without compromise to supremacy over Lies.
    Such Triumph is Truth’s Supreme victory,
    Truth’s God, Truth’s only Audience.

    “It’s a triumph when a poet resists temptation to write tripe,
    Eschews false fame,
    Slowly advances with courage, despite renouncing resurrection,
    Yet fears eternal damnation.”