Emily Dickinson, “Perception of an object costs” (1071)

Perception of an object costs (1071)
Emily Dickinson

Perception of an object costs
Precise the Object’s loss —
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price —

The Object Absolute — is nought —
Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far —


This poem seems to engage a number of themes I’m working on in Plato and Xenophon. Philosophy involves some conception of “wealth.” It does not reject wealth entirely despite, at times, positing it as the heart of conventionality. Also, there is the rough idea that “nothing” doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about. Rather, everything is either “being” or “image,” with “images,” products of perception, being far more accessible than any given “being.”

To start: “Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object’s loss.” This actually makes sense given the “being/image” dualism above. Perceive the object and what is lost is the Object itself. In obtaining a perception, one gets an image, and the Object (being) itself becomes obscure to say the least.

It follows that the “Gain” of Perception is just that, perception (“in itself”). Where things get peculiar is the idea that the something here has a price. What does it mean perception is a gain, “replying to its price?”

The second stanza feels like a new start, like the last line of the first didn’t occur. “The Object Absolute – is nought” is not merely the conclusion of the first stanza without the complication of “replying” to a “price.” Rather, it is the conclusion with none of the reasoning. In what follows, there is nothing reasonable. Perception sets up the Object Absolute, something that is an image only, as a beautiful being. It “upbraids a Perfectness” as it has created an idol here, on Earth, that is not situated “so far.”

How do the first and second stanzas link? I think it is the “Object’s loss” being the same as “The Object Absolute” that makes this poem a whole. One recognizes “The Object Absolute” as part of a process where it was lost. In loss, it is: set “fair” by Perception, it is an Earthly idol. Perfectness of one sort only experiences anger from Perception – the Perfectness that would dare to say “The Object Absolute” is of another realm. There is another Perfectness at work that will not be upbraided. Idols are the price of perception. The Gain, though, seems to be that we can know anything at all.


  1. Seems to me she is beautifully explaining something like this: When you perceive an object directly you lose a complete view of all its aspects, I’m thinking because you are inside it in a detail where the outer edged might be blurred, instead of seeing the whole more objectively from a distance, or peripherally. So, while you gain a distinct view of an object when perceiving head-on, the whole, perfect object cannot be perceived (loss). Like a Chuck Close portrait.

  2. I know I’m dense about old language but can someone translate this into modern English? I don’t understand what the words fair or gain or precise or reply mean in this context.

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