Divine Terror: On Emily Dickinson’s “I fear a Man of frugal Speech” (543)

“I fear a Man of frugal Speech…” (543)
Emily Dickinson

I fear a Man of frugal Speech –
I fear a Silent Man –
Haranguer – I can overtake –
Or Babbler – entertain –

But He who weigheth – While the Rest –
Expend their furthest pound –
Of this Man – I am wary –
I fear that He is Grand –

Comment:

The general idea is clear: there are haranguers, babblers, and those who weigh. The speaker can deal with the first two, but can only “fear” the last.

The question of why she fears He who weighs may have a simple answer: if one encounters the Lord, is he not terrible and “grand” in some way?

The trouble with jumping to that conclusion too soon is that one destroys the wordplay of the poem. There can be no doubt a capitalized He invokes the Lord in some way. But going back and reading “God” into every line – if one goes back at all – probably will annihilate any purposeful ambiguity placed there by the poet.

We begin again with two sorts of men: “frugal Speech” moves to “Silent.” This seems only to be a difference of degree, except we are presented with “haranguer” and “babbler” in the very same stanza. They are clearly two distinct sorts of men, and to some degree they are distinguished by using too many words. “Overtake” implies the not-so “frugal Speech” of “haranguers” can be bested. “Babbler” links with “entertain,” making us wonder if people reach for the heavens because they’re bored. It is not clear how a “babbler” relates to silence unless one considers “entertain:” what will not satisfy a babbler is meditation, contemplation.

The difference in degree underlying the first stanza creates a some/none distinction. Some who harangue can be bested by their own medicine; those who babble about nothing can be entertained by pretending to listen. The second stanza is devoted to one, and He is capitalized. He holds the scales, while the others just “expend.” What do they spend? Themselves – their speech has revealed who they are, and they insistently abuse it. Notice that “their furthest pound,” their own weight, must correspond with their speech given how the poem is set up.

But is He divine? He says nothing. He exists by contrast with the two sorts explicitly named previous, and it isn’t clear whether He is merely frugal in speech, or entirely silent. He is silent in this poem: did He speak before, explain the standard by which He weighs? Perhaps that standard is Himself: I’m not sure why else the term “Grand.” But the Latin grandis need not be weighty – it can just be impressive, or esteemed, I think. The esteem here is the generation of fear: “furthest” brought us back to “overtake,” the haranguer. “Wary” contrasts very sharply with “entertain.”

We use language, even to weigh and consider. Perhaps a divine being does not do so – i.e. Christ is the logos, He does not employ logos necessarily. A divine being’s appearance is our reality: esteemed, all the rest of us are merely “expending our furthest pound,” including the speaker who seems reasonable. There is terror before the divine in this poem, the silence between frugality and grandeur. Our anger and our neediness are comprehended in Him, and we are judged. Our reason stands apart, cast aside – self-sufficient in another context, it indicts us now.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Ashoke, I have always admired Emily Dickinson’s wonderful ability to capture beautiful poetry off of things too ethereal as well as ephemeral to be perceived by our coarse senses. You managed to deliver a precise interpretation of this piece without juxtaposing some mundane meaning with that of the obvious. Thanks for the treat!

  2. I think Emily is a very simple person who may think of herself as “just me”. She is also modest and shy, and very perceptive of herself. Here she is commenting on her reaction to a person who has thought about what he talks about: she is confident of her ability to be a competent hostess to a Haranguer or a Babbler, but less confident with Him who weigheth.

    That she is “wary” suggests some threat, I suspect of a social nature, such as her guest coming to think less of her. I speculate she may be amused at her own caution.

    “I fear that He is Grand -” could be taken at least two ways: she worries that he is just more intelligent than she, or perhaps she wonders if his Grandness may be used to impress the Less Grand. Either way, another example of Dickinsonian humor.

    “While the Rest –
    Expend their furthest pound -”
    may mean she respects this person for being economical about expressing his thoughts, for not putting out intellectual power just for show. This agrees with other impressions I have of her character.

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