Emily Dickinson, “Unto the Whole — how add?” (1341)

Unto the Whole — how add? (1341)
Emily Dickinson

Unto the Whole — how add?
Has “All” a further realm —
Or Utmost an Ulterior?
Oh, Subsidy of Balm!

Comment:

This strange little poem seems to make sense in its first two lines, then starts to lose me. The first line – “Unto the Whole — how add?” – proposes adding something to the whole of everything. This sounds rather odd, if not impossible (“Has “All” a further realm [?]”), and it probably is impossible. I can only fathom the first two lines make any sense at all because they express a cryptic wish. We want something that, in essence, is like trying to add to the Whole. Perhaps this is like loving someone whom we think perfect. What need do they have of us, by our own accounting?

A quick Google search of “unto the whole” shows that it is in the KJV. Exodus 16, to be precise, where Aaron is trying to address the whole of Israel. They end up looking into the wild and seeing God in a nearby cloud.  That appearance of the glory of the Lord is prior to the appearance and gathering of manna. Is Dickinson making a snide comment about faith? Saying something to the effect of “if faith is so complete, why do the faithful require bread?”

At the very least, Dickinson is too cunning for that sort of maneuver. For myself, I think there is a comment on the limits of faith, but it has to do with belief and self-confidence generally. We link faith and self-sufficiency because of our sentiments prior to religion. We do believe if we can conceive ourselves and what we want rightly – if we understand how we are a whole being – we can get what we want. Continence and moderation are means to ends for us.

In that spirit, the speaker is seeing the ridiculousness of her project. “All” should not have a further realm, but “Utmost” certainly involves ulterior motives, aspirations, and hidden consequences. We’re looking to our limit to try and transcend that limit, all the while proclaiming ourselves moderate. (We knowers are unknown to ourselves, someone once said.)

Only at the end of the poem do we get a hint of what started this musing. The speaker cries “Oh, Subsidy of Balm!” – you know, something no one would ever say, because they would confuse themselves saying it aloud. I’m almost tempted to say this is a bad line of Dickinson’s, but it may advance the drama of the poem. A subsidy is a form of assistance, a balm heals. The speaker almost repeats herself in the last line, realizing that this musing started from another want, another immoderate but necessary wish.

She was pained, and like all pained, sensible people, wanted healing and the strength to preserve herself. That means she wanted a “subsidy,” wanted to be the recipient of assistance. And that means she actually needed specific assistance, a “balm.” The redundancy of how aid works points to the flaw in trying to be Whole. The self-sufficient being cannot admit they ever needed help, for that would mean the faculties to be self-sufficient can fail. To be self-sufficient, you need to be minded so (you never take a subsidy), and you need the means (balms are useless, as you do not want to be hurt in the first place). If self-sufficiency is conditional, then it may not really exist. The “Whole,” then, points to a further realm, from where “All” can be seen, where the “Utmost” is the limit of one thing but not of another. Something does add to the Whole, but it is not something that stems from our completeness.