Quantity as Quality: On Emily Dickinson’s "Had I not This, or This, I said…" (904)

“Had I not This, or This, I said…” (904)
Emily Dickinson

Had I not This, or This, I said,
Appealing to Myself,
In moment of prosperity –
Inadequate – were Life –

“Thou hast not Me, nor Me” – it said,
In Moment of Reverse –
“And yet Thou art industrious –
No need – hadst Thou – of us?”

My need – was all I had – I said –
The need did not reduce –
Because the food – exterminate –
The hunger – does not cease –

But diligence – is sharper –
Proportioned to the Chance –
To feed upon the Retrograde –
Enfeebles – the Advance –


Thoughts like the ones in the first stanza strike us daily: we find life “inadequate” because we lack something. We appeal to ourselves as judge in making this finding. Even being prosperous does not satisfy us; one might go further and assert that Dickinson’s speaker thinks that prosperity itself is the cause of this trouble.

The problem with that last suggestion, though, is that there is no reason to assume Dickinson’s speaker is prosperous. The whole stanza is in the subjunctive mood: “If I don’t have something at some time when I may be prosperous, then life is inadequate.” Dickinson’s speaker could be prosperous, but the stronger argument here covers more possibilities: this poem so far is about want and attitude, not actual material conditions.

The real twist in the first stanza is the object(s): “This, or This.” Our speaker is willing to accept several alternatives to her present/future lot. Or perhaps she simply wants more, that one goal being satisfied will never be enough.

Those objects speak in the next stanza, in a “Moment of Reverse.” We could read the first stanza now as telling us that the speaker was actually prosperous, and now, suffering failure, has concentrated on other goals that keep her “industrious.” We could say that since the objects are reduced to an “object” in “it said,” that “us” is a mere formality. Certainly we will never hear from the objects again in this poem. The speaker may be focusing on one object only now, because life has forced her to reassess her priorities.

But given the speaker’s maturity, and the general problem of the first stanza – that no matter what condition we are in, we want more, almost always for the sake of the Good – I think a “Moment of Reverse” has less to do with what has physically happened to the speaker, and more to do with her reflection on Nature. She has seen objects and desired them, but now evaluates them and lets each of their natures speak. They organize themselves hierarchically and we realize that her desire, resolving itself into her intellect, is what gives her strength.

We see the proof of this in the third and fourth stanzas. “Need” is all she really has, and it does not reduce, not ever. “Food” does not “exterminate,” even when exterminated, for “hunger” is never terminated from without, truly.

It is “diligence” which allows the cycle to be broken, because true discipline is not merely cultivating habit mindlessly. “Diligence” is “sharper,” meaning it is pointed, not just a void to be filled or an expectation to be met. Inasmuch as it is “Proportioned to the Chance,” diligence, which stems from desire, matches up with the world in a fitting way and is able to do something rather miraculous. Truth be told, many of the best opportunities in life do not come very often. Yet we are able to work wonders with what little we get.

What is happening is that we recognize which objects are worthy and which aren’t. The poem ends with the hunger/food metaphor, as opposed to the prosperity/industry metaphor we began with. The intellect has emerged from desire recognizing itself for what it is, and now sees that some things are “retrograde” and cannot truly satisfy. Real satisfaction requires more than moments of prosperity or reverse, more than industry or hunger. We need self-knowledge, we need to know how we ourselves are judging, so as to have a true goal to advance.

1 Comment

  1. I read your previous post about your journal full of poems [and laughed about the annonymous comment], and I’m glad you were able to get around to this poem. Enjoyed your commentary.

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