Good to hide, and hear ’em hunt—immediately, I hear fear within adrenaline. A declaration of “good” that’s scared but tries to project bravery, presenting us with a peculiar darkness. Like a kid playing hide and seek who’s hid too well, proud of his cleverness but risking that his friends stop looking.
I think one has to recognize this darkness while noting that Dickinson’s first stanza does seem to go in a more playful direction. Better, to be found, / If one care to, that is, / The Fox fits the Hound. “If one care to [be found]” and “The Fox fits the Hound” steer the poem away from the terror of being hunted and torn apart, the feeling that this is the only way you could have value. Both lines allow you to think you have control (you can make it so you are found) and you are needed for more than bullying (“fits”).
What, then, to do with my initial impression? This poem moves from “Good” to “Better” to “Best” too easily, as if it were hiding something itself. Good to know, and not tell:
Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt! (842) Emily Dickinson Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt! Better, to be found, If one care to, that is, The Fox fits the Hound — Good to know, and not tell, Best, to know and tell, Can one find the rare Ear Not too dull —
The second stanza, with Best, to know and tell, indulges a temptation: maybe this poem is exclusively about writing. When I first saw the poem, I thought it a statement of esoteric practice. Hide your true teaching for those who hunt, but make sure it can be found. Let the “Hound,” the hunter, be completed by your teaching, the “Fox.” Test your reader, find the rare Ear / Not too dull, and you can convert the hunter to your ends.
I now feel that’s too facile a read. What’s important about writing—what makes consideration of esoteric practice so interesting—is the struggle to communicate behind every word, every attempt. It’s both good to hide and hear them hunt and good to know and not tell. You could say these are obviously the same thing: your not-telling precipitates the hunting. But they’re not the same thing—hunting means you’ve left clues, pointed a certain direction. You’ve pointed to yourself. To simply not tell is to make a decision about what is completely off-limits, at least for a time.
The conflict between leaving clues and not telling a soul anything are the fundamental struggle at the heart of being a writer. It’s true there are technical considerations, like making sure your scenes have life, that you don’t use cliches, avoid adverbs where you can tell a story, etc. Ultimately, though, everything is about what you want to try to say. No wonder it is “better to be found”—without some indication of what you are trying to say reflected back at you, you have no idea if you’re communicating or not. “Best, to know and tell, / Can one find the rare Ear / Not too dull” is less about testing a reader and more about a reader testing themselves. There are readers who want to hear you for who you are. They’re going to hunt, and in a way, no matter what, you are hidden. Even your most direct comments about yourself don’t quite mean what you think they mean. Esotericism, from this vantage, has the potential of being a radical version of this problem. A writer has to write in order to know what she’s saying. A writer has to write in order to know what he’s saying. Building an elaborate hidden teaching could be an attempt to give process and form to overwhelming emotions, observations, and convictions.