On Grace: Dickinson’s Poem #904 ("Had I not This, or This, I said…"), Revisited

I don’t want to take back what was said in the earlier discussion, but I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this poem and need to clarify something. Here’s the poem again:

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 –

And here’s the problem: last time we talked about this I emphasized the advance of the intellect. “This, or This” is reduced to “need,” and that combined with “proportioned” (what measures proportion, pray tell?) implies that Mind emerges from our Earthly, random situation.

What I need to emphasize now is that this is not necessarily a good thing. Last night I was thinking about how blessed I am and how blessed those around me are. Many of those I know are free from want.

What we’ll typically say to others who have anything that resembles a grace in their life – i.e. they’re eating well, they have a place to live, etc. – is that they ought to make more of their life because they have what seems good to us.

“Judge not lest ye be judged” couldn’t be truer in correcting our want to reprimand others. I’ve been thinking of several people I know who have all sorts of blessings but need far more fundamental goods – they have food and shelter, but need a stable home life; they have work, but lack the protection of the law. They’re “diligent,” and most certainly not feeding upon the “Retrograde.” Why not?

We note the link between the 2nd and 4th stanzas. The “Moment of Reverse” seems to link up well with the term “Retrograde.” Given that the “need” is all our speaker has, a “need” that does not “reduce,” it looks like the objection of the second stanza is refuted decisively.

What was the objection of the second stanza? The personification of “it” gives a clue: the objection probably was that the speaker can live without love, as she is “industrious.” She’s not feeding upon the “Retrograde” of mourning her own situation; she’s moving ahead pained still.

And that brings us to what this entry is all about. It isn’t enough to have a good thing happen here or there in life. If our minds are rightly directed, while we will make more of the world, some goods here and there cannot suffice. One might say since wisdom is always incomplete for an individual, and wisdom is the greatest good, that the speaker’s need is only ironic: she has her reward.

But we know better when we look at “Enfeebles – the Advance.” Someone truly attuned to the Good wants this journey to end at some point, or at least wants to know where exactly they’re going. Wisdom may start from little things, but always involves contemplation of proper ends. It is strange how something resembling Providence has to lie at the root of anyone’s engagement with the world, it seems, and Dickinson has done a nice job of illustrating how dark a fact that may be: where we are may be truly beyond us.

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