Emily Dickinson, “Except the smaller size” (1067)

With thanks to Temperance Dewar

Except the smaller size (1067)
Emily Dickinson

Except the smaller size
No lives are round —
These — hurry to a sphere
And show and end —
The larger — slower grow
And later hang —
The Summers of Hesperides
Are long.


This poem has a peculiar context. It concludes an invitation she sent to Higginson:

DEAR FRIEND, — Whom my dog understood could not elude others.

I should be so glad to see you, but think it an apparitional pleasure, not to be fulfilled. I am uncertain of Boston.

I had promised to visit my physician for a few days in May, but father objects because he is in the habit of me.

Is it more far to Amherst?

You will find a minute host, but a spacious welcome.

If I still entreat you to teach me, are you much displeased? I will be patient, constant, never reject your knife, and should my slowness goad you, you knew before myself that [insert poem here]

People in 19th c. America do not sound this strange. “Whom my dog understood could not elude others?” What? I mean, one can read the whole letter on a more “intellectual” level. Dogs “know” friends and enemies; there is an instinctual bond between sender and recipient. “An apparitional pleasure:” our bond is of the highest, the most beauteous image chased belongs to another world but flickers here. She talks as if she doesn’t know how far it is from Boston to Amherst, as if she doesn’t know where anything in this world is. “Minute”/”spacious” reminds of “I dwell in possibility;” the acceptance of the knife indicates she’s willing to do whatever it takes to be a serious poet…

….of course, she knows she’s a serious poet. The whole letter sounds like she’s hitting on Higginson only to make him uncomfortable. That’s how I read it anyway. The poem that concludes the letter only confirms this for me. Some kind of fruit, probably apples (h/t Temperance), has perfect roundness if small, if completed soon. Aristotlean physics held that circular motion was perfect motion; the object was moving in its end, where it belonged and was completed.

Regarding the smaller fruit, then, one word stands out from “These — hurry to a sphere / And show and end:” that word is show. Dickinson is not afraid to talk about issues of femininity and sexuality. To be beautiful, to be wanted, to be accepted as a student – these are things dependent on the vision of the beholder. Independent of what the beholder wants (control? something he feels he can comprehend?), real women’s lives are not understood by such artifice. “The larger — slower grow / And later hang:” there is weight, there is less of a simple proportion, there is literal fulfillment if appreciated properly. Still, Dickinson is sure of the immaturity of the beholder. “The Summers of Hesperides / Are long.” The garden of the Hesperides was where the golden apple of the Judgment of Paris was to be found originally. Beauty and bribery, sigh.

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