Emily Dickinson, “Superiority to Fate” (1081)

Superiority to Fate (1081)
Emily Dickinson

Superiority to Fate
Is difficult to gain
‘Tis not conferred of Any
But possible to earn

A pittance at a time
Until to Her surprise
The Soul with strict economy
Subsist till Paradise.


1. I’ve been productive and have had a lot of fun recently – my thanks to quite a few people. I also know there’s a bunch of you who are amazingly supportive despite the fact we can’t always talk or meet.

I’m wondering why I’m down about someone right now. Only one person whom I thought nicer, maybe just more polite.

2. So we can earn “superiority to fate.” I’m glaring at this poem right now partly because of the situation above. Such superiority, according to the first stanza, is “difficult to gain” (duh) and “not conferred.” That it isn’t bestowed but earned – that makes sense of one of the primary uses of “conferred.” I can’t help but think “conferred” is still a very peculiar word. The original Latin is something like “to bring together,” reminding that a conference has two things going on: first, there are others. Second, those others talk to each other.

“Earn” is perhaps starkly individual and quiet. One can get “superiority to fate,” but there seems to be a high price.

3. The second stanza does not tell us that price is lack of sociability, at least not immediately. The price at first is very slow progress (“a pittance at a time”). This superiority is wealth of a sort, but it is wealth that might as well be poverty. If one is self-sufficient, one might not need anything. That doesn’t mean there are any means or other conventional forms of wealth. One might have nothing.

It seems as you get used to having nothing (“strict economy”) the Soul finds itself surprised, able to endure until Paradise. What on Earth is Dickinson talking about?

4. The rough surface idea seems to be that we think superiority to fate initially as getting what we want. Later, our wants change – they might become miniscule – and that becomes no less than subsisting until Paradise.

That surface is complicated by three things. First, “the Soul.” Self-sufficiency mainly involves bodily control. A glory hog can easily keep away from indulging too much if at all. Some glory hogs can even be humble if it will secretly help their ego. Second, the “surprise.” If one is slowly earning the superiority, what surprise is there in this except initially? Third, “earn.” This is again a lonely and not terribly talkative endeavor.

I think the surprise is actually that there may be some kind of non-social soul, formed by lack of expectation and consistent effort. That soul is superior to fate: it is identity. We often talk about the social nature of self-knowledge and that our desires define us more than what we actually have. That sort of talk is absolutely correct. But it is also correct that we sometimes slowly gather ourselves in spite of it all, in spite of everyone else.


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  2. Stumbled on this searching for the poem online, and here’s my (rather straightforward) 2 cents:
    It is about the effort, persistence and faith it takes to take on fate. To not give in to circumstance and seeming invincibility of fate, and believe you can actually effect change.
    About how each time you put an effort, throw a punch, it appears so minuscule and useless against the mammoth opponent presented in fate. And yet, in the end, you are surprised by how each ‘pittance’, and your ‘strict economy’ has counted and amounted to something that has defeated fate and given you paradise (superiority to fate).

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