Emily Dickinson, “Expectation – is Contentment” (807)

“Expectation – is Contentment…” (807)
Emily Dickinson

Expectation – is Contentment –
Gain – Satiety –
But Satiety – Conviction
Of Necessity

Of an Austere trait in Pleasure –
Good, without alarm
Is a too established Fortune –
Danger – deepens Sum –


The poem plays with “expectation:” one expects “gain [is] satiety,” but “contentment = gain = satiety” is a legitimate reading. “Expectation” is itself a “gain?” Itself “satiety?” “Expectation” moves by degrees to something it absolutely isn’t: first it is contentment, which is an absence of unease. Then it becomes “gain,” which is more than an absence. Finally, “satiety” is a surfeit: there’s more than one needs or maybe even wants. Even then, of course, there’s a catch: it’s a particular sort of “satiety.”

That brings us to the second trap: Is it “conviction of necessity” merely, or “conviction of necessity / of an austere trait in pleasure?” The first “expectation” concerned “is,” a relation of equality (or identity). But the second stanza begins with “Of.”  It is easy to understand “necessity” being the same thing as “an austere trait in pleasure:” we convince ourselves that what is necessary is that pleasure has something within it which satisfies so as to cause moderation. If one emphasizes “necessity of an austere trait in pleasure” as a logical unit, one gets the same reading. “Of” is almost working the same way as “is” above, except that “of” signals possession, and that is what the rest of the stanza concerns. Instead of “gain,” we are presented with “good,” and instead of “satiety,” a lack of fear; “conviction” from “satiety” is now “a too established Fortune” upon which the lack of fear rests. “Danger – deepens sum” hangs loosely after “Is” has reasserted itself in the third line.

So what has happened? Our attempt to define “expectation” ran aground because “expectation” has two senses: in one sense, it is not limited and wholly immoderate. One expectation brings upon another. In another sense, it is eminently reasonable: it sets forth something to be fulfilled and waits, even if not patiently. The trick to seeing the impossibility of happiness from hopes realized (i.e. compare this with a crude reading of Matthew 7:7 to see what Dickinson may be getting at) is to see what happens when you have too much of a good thing, and still assume the existence of the good: those gains are accounted by “an austere trait in pleasure.” The assumptions add up and destroy any rationality in “expectation:” one has to take pleasure, no matter how simple, and as one is taking pleasure one must ignore that still-small voice saying that something might not be right. Fortune at this point is in command.

“Danger – deepens Sum” is something I really have to think about: “sum” in Latin is “I am,” and all of you are aware that in the Phaedo, Socrates conceives of the problem of body/soul unity briefly as arithmetical: how does 1 + 1 = 1, which is what you need to say that we are whole persons? Is the danger coming from the problem of expectation, or standing outside it? It seems strange to link rationality and fear within a more philosophic perspective, but philosophy and danger are most certainly linked. In Xenophon’s “On Hunting,” the Greek word for boar is a pun on the participle meaning “being.” The “boar” can gore you with its horns – raising you – or trample you. The only way to kill a boar is to have a friend with one, who will take it from the flank should anything go wrong. Some expectations involve more than the self.

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