Making Excuses: On Poem 224 of Emily Dickinson, "I’ve nothing else – to bring, You know…"

(224) I’ve nothing else – to bring, You know…
Emily Dickinson

I’ve nothing else – to bring, You know –
So I keep bringing These –
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes –

Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them –
Unless they didn’t come –
Then – maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home –

Commentary:

The tone of voice of this poem is that of a lover ashamed of what is being given to the beloved. All of us have been in that situation where we’re nervous, because we’re hoping to be accepted and loved, and we know we’re defective and we know they’re perfect because we have this huge crush on them and our crushes can never be wrong, right?

Notice how there is a hesitation after “I’ve nothing else:” our speaker thinks for a moment he has nothing, and quickly emends his statement to “I’ve nothing else – to bring, You know.” The rest of the poem has to make us wonder what is known in “You know” and what “These” refer to. It seems like the rest of the poem is nothing but the sort of ramble one engages in when one is nervous in front of a potential lover. One is hoping they’ll pick up on the line of thought and complete it, no matter how incomplete or strange it may be.

Our speaker “brings,” but Night “fetches,” as if Night goes out and hunts through something not its own to place something before our “familiar eyes.” “Brings” implies no hunting, no raiding of another’s things, especially when one considers the very first line of this poem where “brings” is linked to the speaker’s own possessions (if any). The presence of light in the midst of Night is a strange phenomena, and most poets and philosophers muse on how darkness depends on light and vice versa. Here, the symbolism is that of Ignorance employing Knowledge fundamentally alien to it for some other gain.

“Familiar eyes” is strange: Aren’t the eyes familiar with the stars? Isn’t that the problem, that we’re bored with Night or the stars? The way the adjective is placed before the noun implies that the stars or Night may be bored with the eyes.

The cycle of lover continually kneeling before the beloved, hoping to charm the latter and create unity, contains the problem that the lover does not understand the tools he himself employs. But all of this speculation is based on an assumption: underlying the reasoning of the first stanza is the idea that whoever is beloved is perfect.

What if we pulled that perfection away? What if the beloved were just an unappreciative boor?

Then, perhaps, we’d have to employ the logic of the second stanza, where the appeal is made to the beloved not minding stars, maybe. There is a double sense of “mind” here: there is the expression “don’t mind me,” ignore the fact I’m irritating you. That’s the initial sense we get reading the speaker’s words.

But then the speaker talks about the stars not coming at all, and one not being able to find one’s way home. The issue of “mind” has become “you pay the stars no mind,” you don’t appreciate how dependent you are on them. The verb linked with “them” is “come,” as if the stars weren’t hunted and brought before one, but came of their volition as a divine favor, or as if the combination of Night and stars is a unique occurrence no matter how it happens.

The second “maybe” shifts from “Night” and “stars” back to “us,” the speaker and internal audience. “Our way” and the capitalization of Home imply that in the end, the speaker and audience are going to be united – the stars tell how, in always being there.

It’s not an ironic, bitter comment that ends this poem, but a wistful one. Our lover/speaker is merely contemplating the nature of the beloved through the nature of love. The heavens in their ignorance bring forth knowledge which we disdain; the heavens are ignorant because they overestimate how thoughtful and concerned we are.

At the same time, what they give is indispensable. So what does our speaker give that’s indispensable? And what does the person addressed really know?

The middle ground between Ignorance and Knowledge is Familiarity. Knowledge ideally should be sought and worked toward, but its being given and put in a position where it can be taken for granted isn’t the worst thing. Of course, what is “knowledge” strictly speaking is the speaker by analogy.

What the internal audience of the poem “knows” – is familiar with – is the speaker. Familiarity is the gift of the speaker to the audience, as well as the plea that underlies the musing that is this poem: Is the audience deserving of the gift?

3 Comments

  1. i understood this poem, but i dont get what you are talking about knowledge and ignorance. where did that come from? i kinda understand what you are talking about familiarity but i dont see how it is the middle ground of knowledge and ignorance.

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