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Wisdom and Rule: On Poem 343 of Emily Dickinson, "My Reward for Being"

(343) My Reward for Being…
Emily Dickinson

My Reward for Being, was This.
My premium — My Bliss —
An Admiralty, less —
A Sceptre — penniless —
And Realms — just Dross —

When Thrones accost my Hands —
With “Me, Miss, Me” —
I’ll unroll Thee —
Dominions dowerless — beside this Grace —
Election — Vote —
The Ballots of Eternity, will show just that.

Comment:

He [Socrates] said that kings and rulers are not those who hold scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those understand how to rule….

And if someone should say…that it is possible for the tyrant not to obey those who speak correctly, he said, “How indeed would it be possible for him not to obey, since a penalty is laid down if something does not obey the one who speaks well? For in whatever matter someone does not obey the one who speaks well, he will no doubt err, and in erring be penalized.

And if someone should say that it is possible for the tyrant even to kill the one who thinks well, he said, “But do you think that the one who has killed the best of his allies is free from penalty, or that he suffers some chance penalty? For do you think that the one who does this would be preserved, or that he would in this way quickly perish?”

– Xenophon, Memorabilia Book III Chapter 10, trans. Amy Bonnette

One thing I have to do while working on the dissertation is explain how exactly the above passage constitutes a height of sorts for Socratic teaching. The rough argument will probably involve saying that Socrates is introducing the wise man as the Platonic “midwife” here: the wise man can only “penalize” inasmuch as he is wise. He is a nothingness in a sense, and it is easy to see why people see dissipation as the exercise of their freedom, or control through their own mastery of force as a good. In both instances, one feels oneself in action, or one takes oneself away from action. In the case of he who is wise, there is the feeling of always being acted upon, like as if one is the servant to a higher power that is disdainful of one.

Onto Emily Dickinson. I suspect “premium” in the second line is not synonymous with “reward” in the first. A premium nowadays can mean something one puts forth in order to secure a loan – I wonder if it has the same meaning for her? I think it is an open question whether the speaker has any “bliss,” and I actually suspect there is no happiness on the speaker’s part.

Now one can say I have no evidence for that last claim, especially if I’m bringing in Xenophon’s and Plato’s thought to bear on Dickinson’s work. For both of the former claim that Socrates was the happiest of men, and Dickinson herself has numerous speakers that seem to rejoice in nature. Her verse seems to dance at key moments, and does not stop for death, not at all.

So I can’t claim “Dickinson is giving us an unhappy speaker.” I should rather say that whatever makes Dickinson’s speaker or someone like Socrates happy is something we might never be able to understand.

To see this, note the “less,” “penniless” and “just dross” ends of each line in the first stanza. The issue is not merely wealth. An Admiralty would imply control over a navy: to have arms is to be able to have power in the world of any sort, to be able to resist Nature’s nastier tendencies. This our speaker lacks. Further, to have a sceptre is to be honored, to have a legitimate title to rule. That convention is much like what underlies money – it is a pure fiction of society. Yet our speaker lacks that too. Finally, control over realms and having gold are linked in Keats’ “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” but here, in not being able to resist Nature’s forces, and not being able to claim the honor of her fellow men, she can’t be even said to actually rule and have the burden of that responsibility to excuse her from Fortune’s slings or the opinions of men.

If we take the passage from Xenophon seriously, then the speaker probably sees herself as Wisdom in the second stanza. Wisdom is a “Grace” inasmuch as it is characteristic of the divine far more than the human. But what lies right next to Wisdom?

She says it is something that can be unrolled, “dominions dowerless.” That dominion is defined by those who have chosen her, those who have cast “ballots of eternity.” Is she saying that someone who is wise must of necessity be a public figure, and impartial to all, for what is key to being wise is being honored as wise? That wisdom itself requires a certain respect from man in order to actually be wisdom?

If so, she’s saying it in a defiant way, like one sneering at those who would have her hand, like one who has been bitten with rage. Perhaps it is not those who would murder Wisdom if they didn’t seek its submission that have her angry, but the mere fact that Wisdom cannot neglect power and honor ultimately, if that is indeed the only way the unwise can conceive the world.

It could also be said that the “dominions dowerless” have to do with a circle of friends that extend throughout all eternity, seeing her as more of an equal than as someone to compete with, and more than willing to dispense honor. The impartiality would not come from condescension in such a case, but from fraternity. I don’t much like that thought, because to give up all ability to possess is to be a nothingness. But that brings us back where we begun.

4 Comments

  1. why are some words in this poem capitalized?

  2. @ Abhijeet – That’s an excellent question: the other ones you’ve asked you can look back and figure out.

    This one’s a lot trickier. So let’s list the capitalized words:

    Reward / Being / This
    Bliss
    Admiralty
    Sceptre
    Realms / Dross

    Thrones / Hands
    Me / Miss / Me
    Thee
    Grace
    Election / Vote
    Ballots / Eternity

    There are 5 lines in the first stanza, 6 in the second. We suspect that one of the lines in the second stanza is something notable.

    But let’s work with the parallels we do see. “Ballots/Eternity” contrasts perfectly with “Realms/Dross” – freedom/voting yields the greatest good, empire/realms is a false good.

    “Election/Vote” is how we get there – it is the power the Sceptre stands for, literally divided.

    “Admiralty” and “Grace” and “Thee” are where the questions begin. You could say “Reward/Being/This” fits nicely with “Thrones/Hands” – the reward for being is this, that the speaker “holds” thrones: they’re begging her for attention, after all. “Me, Miss, Me” is how many of us conceive of “Bliss” – when other people want to do everything for us.

    But now we’re left with “Thee,” “Grace” in the second stanza, and “Admiralty” in the first. We know there’s a turning point – the speaker has considered her greatest good in terms of ruling all, and is dismissing it entirely at this point.

    “Admiralty” and “Grace” do go together in a weird way – God has mastery over Chaos, the waters, in Genesis.

    So the Reward for Being is “Thee,” and yes, there are a lot of arguments about what that could be.

  3. hey ashok? (i suppose thats your name)
    thanks for showing me the parallels. i finally understand the poem. :-)

  4. @ Abhijeet – Thanks. The method I use for reading poetry is explained in detail here:

    http://www.ashokkarra.com/2007/05/that-time-of-year-indeed-shakespeares-sonnet-73-as-an-introduction-to-new-criticism/

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