Notes on Dickinson’s "Publication Is The Auction…" (709)

(709) “Publication is the Auction…”
Emily Dickinson

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – Unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration – Sell
The Royal Air –
In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –

Commentary:

This poem is meant to trip up Dickinson scholars, and separate the good readers from the bad ones. This is just a first reading, these notes are not meant to be final, not by any stretch of the imagination.

It is tempting to look at “publication” and say “Dickinson never really published anything in her lifetime. This is a statement of why she refused to publish, she felt it was inherently selling out.” If you think that, congratulations – you’ve read the first stanza, in part, very well.

It’s no secret that a poet probably has a love of books that could only get to him/her if they were published. To complain about publication being a “foul thing” would be to complain about one’s own exposure to Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. What is really happening in this poem is that the first stanza is expressing one sentiment (“publication sucks”), and the second stanza is the beginning of a refutation of that argument.

It’s pretty easy to understand the “selling out” argument, the “poverty is a blessing” notion. What isn’t quite as easy to understand is that the mind of man is as snow. Yes, thought may be refined to a purity unknown before. Many throughout time stay in the attic and work on the refining. Trouble is, we need to hearken back to the origin of thought in order to assure that it lasts (otherwise, it will literally melt away with us).

The third stanza elaborates on the problem of private thought being made public, in the spirit of synthesizing the first and second stanzas. There’s yet another trick going on in this stanza. “Belong” doesn’t strictly agree with “thought,” nor “bear” with “who.” “We” belong to “Him who gave it;” “we” bear “its corporeal illustration.” (I realize I need to look up whether it was conventional to not have appropriate endings on the verb in certain situations in the 19th c.) “Thought” and “who” drop out of the picture – thought brings forth the problem of divinity, reflection on divinity then becomes a reflection on our burden.

So what is the Creator doing for us?

“We” are speaking to Him when “sell” occurs. We’re telling Him to sell the Royal Air, in the parcel, to be the Merchant of the Heavenly Grace, and to not reduce our Spirit “to the disgrace of price.” This is a complicated set of lines because I think multiple things are going on: there’s the Christian conception of the Holy Spirit, there’s the idea of Hermes as Messenger of the Gods and god of commerce, and then there’s us: each Human Spirit. “We” has dropped out, and the Holy Spirit has been reduced to individual Human Spirit.

Further, the idea of a parcel of winds is from the Odyssey, Bk. 10 – it’s a gift given to Odysseus to ensure his safe travel home when the time is right. Hermes enters the story later to give Odysseus the knowledge to resist Circe, whose island he has landed upon. Dickinson’s point is simple: she doesn’t need the air anymore, and the Heavenly Grace that might have allowed her to create can be sold elsewhere – her speaker’s prayer is a demand that she is saved from “the disgrace of price” (we know “grace” is a good thing for the speaker precisely because of the use of the word “disgrace” here, I think).

The only way around the problem of publication is through it: in giving back to the White Creator, one hopes the purity will be retained, that the work will be appreciated. But that involves a divorcing of the “I” from “We:” the community one knows one belongs to privately must be associated with one publicly. It also means that any other concerns as regards publication – whether the book will sell (“merchant”), whether it will influence anyone (“air”), are entirely secondary. The appeal is indeed to the Creator here, for it is not clear how redemption takes place, only that it must take place in the realm of innocent talking animals.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. The “Snow” is our ephemeral creation – yes! makes perfect sense! And the “Royal Air– / in the parcel” is Hermes’ wind to send us home to God – that’s brilliant. “Possibly” may indicate doubt and some kind of reversal in the argument, as you suggested, but I’m having a really hard time following your reading of the middle stanzas. I think “possibly” may also mean “if possible” – in Dickinson’s telescoping grammar – so that the lines are straightforward (!) enough: “But if it were possible, we would go from the garret directly to God.” The stanza still indicates doubt (we can’t go directly to God after all), but it’s still continuing the work of the first stanza. “Invest” is such a rich word, of course. I think it has shades of “to put on” or “to wear” as a garment, as well.

    My Johnson edition of the poems gives an extra stanza break after “Royal Air–” – presenting the poem as four clearly defined stanzas. And Dickinson may have written the last stanzas as one, but it’s possible to read them with a clear break, as two complete statements, which they do appear to be. In that case, could we dispense with the Homeric wind image?

    3rd stanza: Thought belongs to God. To mortals who are thinking’s corporeal agents, don’t sell thoughts, sell the Royal Air! Impishly, the literal air! But also, the dignity (the “air” or “appearance” of royalty) that thinking endows us with.

    4th stanza: In your own part, be a merchant of grace (the “Royal Air”). And “Reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price” – don’t put a price on works of the intelligence, but also, spare others from the embarrassment of having to spend money which they might not have?!

    I love the experience of reading Dickinson, when after reading a poem tens of time a light goes off, and the parts all fit. This aha! moment is Dickinson’s distinctive gift, I think. It explains why her verbs are often agrammatical – she reduces phrases to something like modular parts in a potential grammar that you have to work out for yourself.

    Anyway, sorry for my rambling comments (and I’m sure I’m not getting all that you’re saying), but your post got me excited about this poem, which I remembered and decided to look up, to discover that it’s not nearly as straightforward as I had remembered! You’re absolutely right, of course, that this isnt’ a simple statement against publication, more like: publish but keep in mind that the gift of thinking is not for sale. Thanks again.

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