Emily Dickinson, “Best Things dwell out of Sight” (998)

Best Things dwell out of Sight (998)
Emily Dickinson

Best Things dwell out of Sight
The Pearl — the Just — Our Thought.

Most shun the Public Air
Legitimate, and Rare —

The Capsule of the Wind
The Capsule of the Mind

Exhibit here, as doth a Burr —
Germ’s Germ be where?


This is a very strange poem. I can only hope to start a discussion of it. I’m not entirely clear on what a surface reading would be.

“The Pearl – the Just – Our Thought:” these “Best Things” are almost entirely Platonic. Almost. All of Plato is seeing how the beautiful, the just and the good relate or do not relate. “The good” is not necessarily the object of thought; we pursue truth and hope that will inform our good. Perhaps “our thought” is exclusively oriented to our good? “The Pearl” calls to mind Christ’s parable. Not merely beautiful, it is procured at the sacrifice of all of one’s present wealth.

There’s more: “dwell out of Sight” and “the Just” make it sound like there are Platonic forms at stake. When the discussion of forms gets serious, when we’re asking “What is justice?” and have probed more deeply, the form is taken to be unseen. Hence, geometry as the “shadow” of the highest forms in the Republic.

So we have a discussion in the first stanza that tends toward pure Being. “The Just” are probably people, but they are treated as “Thngs” literally. “Our Thought” is not pure Being. But it tempts us to think we can apprehend such. The second stanza shifts from “Best” to “Most.” Not all the “Best Things” shun the Public Air. The Pearl stays underground, the man in Christ’s parable doesn’t tell a soul. He simply buys the field he found it in. The Just may or may not be public. In Christian terms, you won’t know who the just are if they are truly modest. Even in pagan thought the truly just man is obscured by those practicing civic virtues or some parody of the virtues. “Our Thought” may be public, may not.

“Legitimate, and Rare” make the second stanza sound like we are concerned with “The Just” and “The Pearl” only. True beauty and true justice are only glimpsed by the rest of us.

Which leaves us with “Our Thought.” Air, like time, moves invisibly. We were moved from “dwell[ing]” to “Air” and now, in the third stanza, to “Wind.” The verbs of this poem: “dwell”/”shun”/”exhibit”/”doth”/”be.” It looks like only “Our Thought” engages the “Public Air.” This is very curious. The most striking thing for a reader, I think, is “the Just” and “Legitimate.” One expects some discussion by Dickinson’s speaker of why that topic was even brought forth.

“Wind” brings into play a whole host of things. One could be the Holy Spirit, which in the Gospel of John is likened to the wind (John 3:8). Machiavelli is a cynical comment on Providence and Fortune – isn’t trusting in Providence an abandonment of taking control of what one can? Isn’t one gambling in the worst way? “Wind” does nothing to dispel the problem. In terms of the just: to be just, you pretty much need laws. If those laws depend on Providence, what is the commitment of the just to the code they profess?

“Capsule of the Wind” reminds that there’s still more to be considered. Winds can be associated with seasons. Winds blow seeds to places where they can grow. Not Providence, not entirely Fortune. Maybe there’s something about the Mind operating in a world where things don’t really change that we need to push further with.

The “Capsule” exhibits. In terms of the Just: even those hidden show forth. They do not merely think just thoughts. Like the Burr, they have potential for growth. The last question is where the “germ” truly came from.

I think Dickinson is taking an unconventional path to a very Christian teaching. This speaker seems to be hinting that Justice can grow like a mustard seed. The Pearl is not as important as the field it was buried in. That’s the joke of the “germ’s germ:” did the Pearl produce anything? What is strange is how “Our thought” produced anything. It isn’t entirely absent from the “Public Air.” And it would depend on the Wind to effect any change. How could it make anyone just?

Two final considerations flesh that out a bit. First, the last few verbs, “exhibit,” “doth,” “be.” The Mind reveals itself, it does take thought for the sake of being truly just. That showing forth brings about action and finally we can say who are just. Again, note the contrast with “dwell” and “shun,” which you can associate with certain verses in the Gospels. Does that mean pure reason makes us ethical? Not at all. The engagement with the “Public Air” slyly conceals an agreement with Christ’s teaching of not letting the left hand see what the right is doing. Thought is public. If you think it, somebody else probably did already. The thoughts of the just are still rare, such that they need not worry about recognition. They’re so rare they absolutely are effectual; they show because of the mere fact of our time. Out of sight for many, but (literally) not out of mind.


  1. I must say that I have a very different approach to Dickinson’s poem. Although it’s been a few years since I studied her, I remember she lived her whole life shut up, unmarried, alone, in a house built by her grandfather. Yet she was very well educated, self-taught.

    My take of this poem is that she is the pearl, the just, that dwells out of sight. She had a private desire to be politically active, as I’ve read in her letters. But because of the woman’s “place” in society, “most shun the public air.”

    Often in her poems are images of nature coming into conflict with boundaries. You cannot have wind in a capsule, and the public air cannot encapsulate her mind.

    When freed, her thoughts on the wind are as a “burr” on the “public air.” The male’s public world is annoyed with burrs and plucks them away. But beware, a woman’s thoughts have a potency that may “germ”inate new fruit. The wind can carry those “out of sight” germs anywhere.

    That’s the power behind Dickinson’s “best things.”

    Thank you for making me think, and write!

    1. That’s a great analysis Ryan! I can so relate to that as she did have lot of desire having lived her life way she did. A soul so deep and wise must aspire also to bring in some political situation given the situation in those times.

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