Emily Dickinson, “Luck is not chance” (1350)

Luck is not chance (1350)
Emily Dickinson

Luck is not chance —
It’s Toil —
Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned —
The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
We spurned —

Comment:

The opening of this poem sounds like a slogan, something like Harvey Dent’s “you make your own luck” from The Dark Knight. However, it initially seems a lot less serious than that:

Luck is not chance —
It’s Toil —

So what is ordinarily meant by “luck?” “Chance?” By “luck” we can mean only the result: he got lucky. By contrast, we can also mean simply having an opportunity, having a chance. Luck and chance can be differentiated, certainly.

Still, the distinction is in the service of sloganeering. Luck is toil. Your mistake was in thinking it was anything other than work. If you were unsure of this, think of luck as a goddess. Here’s how and when she reacts:

Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned —

The goddess Fortune requires a lot of wealth just to smile. It’s like there is no such thing as luck, there is only toil. Perhaps you do make your own luck, get your own results. Only, there is just this one thing: if Fortune smiles, is the wealth you earn only paying for the smile? In other words, is toil at best an opportunity? – If so, “luck is not chance” would be a very sly lie. –

The last lines clarify the problem through further obscurity, as is always the case with Dickinson. What does the following thought have to do with anything?

The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
We spurned —

Typically, one would say the ore from a mine is prior to a coin being formed. But here the process is reversed. The “old-fashioned Coin” fathers the mine. And somehow, we spurned that coin, which is even stranger. This is America. We spurn wealth?

To summarize where we are: the speaker started from a slogan saying there was no such thing as luck, only toil. That felt like it mellowed a bit with the image of Fortune smiling. Luck may be a goddess, exacting work, making us pay. What exactly is earned under Fortune’s gaze, though, is an open question. If one toils and gets nothing, does that count as luck? Plenty of people toil and get nothing: you could say toil is their only luck.

Now we are introduced to a mine and coin, means and ends. The funny thing about a coin is that while it is a result – while it is wealth – it is also merely a means. Wealth, not just luck, conflates means and ends, opportunities and results. Something about values is at stake here. Given that the speaker is changing how she sees the situation, how she sees her own luck, this is just not a critique of particular perceptions or opinions. She’s wondering about how she values things in the first place. She rejected “old-fashioned coin” in order to create something new, but is still toiling.

We see a good or a possibility and only then wonder where it came from. Nobody just went and dug a hole in the ground for no purpose. The mine only exists because of the coin, but ay, there’s the rub: someone went and dug a hole in the ground after seeing a good or possibility. All the effort exerted in getting more coins is not a cause of the coins. The coin was “spurned,” so to speak, in thinking mining came first. Even those who get “lucky,” have coins come out of nowhere, think they’ve gained because they haven’t worked/mined. Either way, the value of the coin itself is lost. The original cause was the good glimpsed. When that is understood, luck is understood. It really is nothing but toil, but not because we make our own luck, but because we are made by it.

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