Emily Dickinson, “I had a daily Bliss” (1057)

I had daily Bliss (1057)
Emily Dickinson

I had a daily Bliss
I half indifferent viewed
Till sudden I perceived it stir —
It grew as I pursued

Till when around a Height
It wasted from my sight
Increased beyond my utmost scope
I learned to estimate.

Comment:

This poem sounds obvious. I crossed out an attempt at a write-up in my journal because I didn’t think there was much more to add. The surface: we only are grateful when something of value goes missing; we don’t notice things of value initially; we are left with our want of seeing.

Something is peculiar about the common notion that we don’t notice what is valuable until it is gone. It’s even more peculiar when you use the word “Bliss” to describe that. How on earth does one not know what makes them happy? How could one be “half indifferent” to “Bliss?”

A thought: we have to be able to take what makes us happy for granted. Otherwise, we’d merely be pursuing happiness.

The pursuit of happiness – not happiness itself – is what this poem vindicates. One can say that the cliche of “you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it” yields the same as any deeper probing into the poem. I don’t think that’s quite the case. The “Bliss” stirs of its own accord in the first stanza. Not merely our lack of power, but the fact that the most precious things are genuinely independent is a far cry from stating the loss of something. That independence is attested to the growth of the Bliss as the speaker pursues. Yes, it is growing in the speaker’s eyes. But it might be growing on its own accord.

The second stanza has this independent, lively, grown thing go “around a Height.” Curious – what is higher blocks one from seeing what rises. In a way, what is independent, lively and grown is now dead to the speaker (“wasted”). This is no mere loss in the sense of being used to a comfort and then finding one was dependent. To put it another way, if one supposes happiness a state of being, then to be unhappy is not to be.

Maybe we shouldn’t describe human beings as happy. Maybe we should talk about human life only in the context of pursuing happiness and seeking what is beyond sight. All one gets to see is “Bliss” fly away; we use memories to frame our wishes. Our own wishes are a flight away from us. No surprise, then, that the quasi-concrete imagery (“Bliss” sounded like a bird) turns abstract and mathematical at the end. To try and see beyond what can be seen is the soul.

(A note on my Dickinson, the Platonic Dickinson – I don’t know that Dickinson ever read Plato. We do know she had extensive acquaintance with the English metaphysical poets. Still, she intuits the metaphor of the divided line better than anyone, and her concerns about religion in other poems are not bland remarks about freethinking.)

1 Comment

  1. I thought this bit especially good.

    “One can say that the cliche of “you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it” yields the same as any deeper probing into the poem. I don’t think that’s quite the case. The “Bliss” stirs of its own accord in the first stanza. Not merely our lack of power, but the fact that the most precious things are genuinely independent is a far cry from stating the loss of something. That independence is attested to the growth of the Bliss as the speaker pursues. Yes, it is growing in the speaker’s eyes. But it might be growing on its own accord.”

    Do you know the little Blake proverbs?

    He who binds to himself a joy
    Does its winged life destroy.
    He who kisses a joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

    Your thought that joy might grow, rejoice to be pursued–and not in some purely subjective sense–made me think of this.

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