The Trial That Is Action: On Emily Dickinson’s "What I can do – I will"

“What I can do – I will”
Emily Dickinson

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —


The third line of this poem ought to begin with “what” instead of “that,” if it is to be strictly parallel with the first line. Since it is not strictly parallel, it must relate to the thought of the first line in some way other than opposition (can/cannot).

The key to the speaker’s “doing” in the first two lines is that while what will be done can be done (“on earth, as it is in heaven” resonates as I say that), such efforts where the spirit moves the flesh in an act of will are “little as a Daffodil.”

Such efforts are marked by growth, but a lack of visible motion. Such efforts are marked by beauty, but not in grandeur or power, but smallness and delicateness. Is this really “effort” we’re looking at, or a statement of being where one cannot, in a fundamental sense, transcend one’s origins through becoming?

Our speaker forces us to move on, of course, instead of answering this incredibly large question that might have consequences for all of mankind. For even if only some people act like daffodils – perhaps there are those, like Shakespeare, who can imagine themselves to be roaring fires or strong trees – the question of what those people represent compared to the rest of us is pertinent. They might have something to do with the sunlight that the philosophers enjoy outside of the Cave. They might have something to do with the contemplative life, described in the last book of Aristotle’s Ethics. – One should ask if the contemplative is marked by intellectual movement forward, or intellectual movement towards the origins of things, too. –

And yet, moving on, we are confronted with “that I cannot.” Cannot describes his actions exactly the same as can; the non-possibilities are the range of possibilities. It looks like the speaker can do everything in being a daffodil, for “cannot” is “unknown” to possibility. And yet, “cannot” is a clever way of describing what a plant does. It sits and grows. But what does it do?

Normally, one would say the contemplative is not about action. It’s about getting yourself away from the world and avoiding action. But Emily is a sharp woman. She sees that human life, in terms of its doing, cannot be transcended so simply. Doing has to be reconciled with being somehow in order for the contemplative to exist. In this poem, I think the problem is merely introduced, with a hint towards its potential solution: ultimately, we will say that growing – an ideal, a hope, coming into being – is the greatest doing. But the thought that will lead us there comes not from the image presented, but from a reconsideration of “can” and “cannot.” We have to see that “not-doing” is not “not-being” necessarily in order to grasp the seriousness of the image.


  1. thanks for this!

    “That I cannot — must be
    Unknown to possibility –“

    i think the “that” may have all kinds of meanings. i suspect she is definitely playing with the fact that the “that” and the “what” are to similar, giving us more than one layer of meaning.

    and the “must” is interesting, too. should it be unknown to possibility? must it never?

  2. @ David – Something like that, yeah. The older notion of how it is we came up with anything original was that it already had to be in our head before hand.

    There had to be a world of ideas, Plato’s “forms,” where if we saw something that was a table, the way we’d recognize it is because in our head was an ideal form of “table.”

    This really weird notion is obviously meant to be a metaphor, which is: “being” (what is) = “truth.” Now the funny thing is that “being,” what actually is the case, is the truth. Why on earth do we need a weird metaphor to express this?

    So once again there’s some kind of divorce between who we are now and our origins, and maybe all we’re doing is acting out our origins. I mean, remember how heroes work – we copy how another person acts, we imitate. We pattern ourselves a certain way. The notion that “for everything there is a season under the heavens” isn’t that alien.

    There is obviously a way to account for originality in this scheme: there’s tons of ironies and loose logic at points. One way to directly challenge “being = truth” is to ask whether anything is ever stable within time. Heraclitus said you can’t step into the same river twice, that all is flux. If “being” is actually “becoming,” then what about truth?

  3. Also, for Aristotle and probably for Plato – there is a distinction not just between “doing” and “being,” but also between “making” and “doing.” Creation is some kind of middle ground between any old action and a realm where no action is necessary.

  4. I think that what this poem means is similar to “all things are possible with God.” One must always have faith and be positive. Also, “where there is a will there is a way,” comes to mind.
    The will is the only part of a human being that is truly our own. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We take God’s will, and what is pleasing to Him, into our own, and make it one/One. The inner light released, causes a flowering in the growth of the soul, even if it be only a humble daffodil—for now.

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