Emily Dickinson, “Superfluous were the Sun” (999)

Superfluous were the Sun (999)
Emily Dickinson

Superfluous were the Sun
When Excellence be dead
He were superfluous every Day
For every Day be said

That syllable whose Faith
Just saves it from Despair
And whose “I’ll meet You” hesitates
If Love inquire “Where”?

Upon His dateless Fame
Our Periods may lie
As Stars that drop anonymous
From an abundant sky.

Comment:

The Greek word for “virtue” – arete – means “excellence.” It can have moral connotations, but it need not. You could be an excellent shoemaker (cf. Meno, the effect of Gorgias’ rhetoric). It isn’t hard to then connect virtue and reason. We reasonably progress in the arts toward excellence.

So that may help explain the first two lines, except that Dickinson stays literal with “Sun” throughout the poem. You don’t need to see – or need time to work – if there is nothing to achieve. Perhaps this poem is more timely than we would like to admit.

In any case, Dickinson throws a bunch of puzzles at us in the following lines:

He were superfluous every Day
For every Day be said

That syllable whose Faith
Just saves it from Despair
And whose “I’ll meet You” hesitates
If Love inquire “Where”?

“That syllable whose Faith / Just saves it from Despair:” this is “Day,” a one-syllable word. We have light, work and art, but no words formally introduced to us yet. When there is nothing to strive for, the sun is superfluous. Is the “everyday” then superfluous, so much so it cannot be spoken about? It’s strange; I think the utterance of “Day” is the recognition of “Day,” hence a missing “to be” between the first and second stanzas. “Day” is the faith the sun will rise, that there will be opportunity. What good is opportunity without ambition? The poem changes from “Excellence” to “Love,” but now we get dialogue: “Day” wants to meet the Sun, but it is that distance which creates what we know as “Day.”

Ambition is written into the world. We know this because we love, because things are apart from us. But ambition, while in the world and from the sun, does not necessarily grant us what we want. The sun generates time, but is itself “dateless.” The issue of excellence is the same as human nature completed. Maybe we can see ourselves better in another heavenly metaphor, “Stars.” Abundance, individuality and desire are all there. But unlike Day, where we work with one another but the sun is distant, we are all distant from each other.

5 Comments

  1. Your insights are fascinating here–Dickinson is simply profound (as usual).

    I wonder if some of the contrast Dickinson intends is in the fact that the sun *is* a star (but our everyday star) and we don’t notice how valuable ordinary things are, until we are plunged into “darkness.”

  2. Emily’s poem hinges on the “syllable whose Faith / Just saves it from Despair” and “Upon His dateless Fame / Our Period may lie”: is this not the word “I,” the letter on which our period may lie, “i”? “I” is both a syllable and a pronoun, as “His” implies.

    Superfluous is Sun, Creation, when excellence or virtue in man is neglected, which in some ways it is every day “I” is said. The ego, the I, is saved from Despair only by Faith, by Love, and yet it hesitates in the face of God’s call and stumbles upon its/his own “dateless Fame.”

    Abraham was promised descendants as numerous as the stars; yet how easy each chosen one falls from that “abundant sky” upon the assertion of a mere syllable at expense of Love’s call.

    The Greeks apply to everything, but Emily is best understood as an evangelist.

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