Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398); Robert Bly, “The Moon”

“A job is not a career,” I remind myself. Do this job well, but do more. How much more? As much as possible, as well as possible.

No wonder anxiety spikes when I think I’ve found calm, as if I were hunted. No wonder I believe I can voice with Dickinson I have no Life but this —

I have no Life but this (1398)
Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —

I have no Life but this — To lead it here. Lead what, where? Life is leading “this,” “here”—well, that’s an incredibly vague beginning. Dickinson doubles down on the vagueness, as Life itself stands between an impersonal “here” and “there.” “Life” and “this” are led “here,” “Death” is “dispelled from there.”

The first stanza, then, holds an overblown, melodramatic joke: if you are getting “here,” reaching your life’s objective or end, then death is merely being thrown from “there.” She’s between “here” and “there” and both are the same point.

You don’t want to be “dispelled” from what you’ve declared as your own endeavor. Now I have a better idea of why building a career feels overwhelming. If I’m not doing what I should to advance myself, am I paying proper attention to myself? Any attention? Any care? It’s tough to articulate exactly, but the panic that sets in, say, when realizing you’ve been doing the wrong thing for years is less about that thing—in the poem’s terms, a “this”—and more about whether you have any sense how to live at all.

II

A life defined by a task can be one of perpetual panic. But what if Dickinson seriously means “nor any death?” If death exists relative to expectations, but expectations are pure artifice, then a crazy point has been created where death is effectively meaningless. This may sound like New Age tripe, but to be unafraid of death was considered the epitome of classical virtue.

Maybe, at least in words, there can be immortality, a step away from the routine of panic, life-in-death. Nor any Death is followed by Nor tie to Earths to come and Nor action new. She still has “no Life but this,” still fixates on her chosen task. This places her apart from the future into an exclusive present (this Earth) laden with the past (no action new). These rhetorical turns have a peculiar grandeur. Why reject the future with “[no] tie to Earths to come?” Why justify all one’s actions with “[no] action new?” Immortality is not the right word for engaging these themes—she’s not trying to bring it about as much as locate it. The notion of immortality points to a further question: What is beyond life?

Except through this extent — The Realm of You. Certainly, one can read “I have no Life but this” as a more typical example of a genre, something that more or less cries “I can’t live without you.” But it begins by tethering one’s life, one’s efforts, to something unknown. In that beginning, Dickinson opens the door to the poem being about devotion to anything we love. If we chafe at “career” or “vocation” being placed on the same level as love of a person, we do so because we’re scared of necessities defining who we are or whether we can be appreciated ourselves. True devotion calls into being different and yet complete types of love—those we love receive love analogous to what we love. Everything, including death, the future, and our actions, is understood through love of another. Maybe one could say that to actualize that love entails a suspended animation, as the opportunity to share it does not always exist. An immortality of sorts, as songs and poems about unrequited love have persisted through the centuries.

III

Let’s go a bit further. What if Dickinson is speaking about writing and creating? Doesn’t writing mean having “no Life but this?” This question is of no immediate use to most of us, but it puts Dickinson in dialogue with others who wonder what it means to do anything in life well:

The Moon (from Poetry 180)
Robert Bly

After writing poems all day,
I go off to see the moon in the pines.
Far in the woods I sit down against a pine.
The moon has her porches turned to face the light,
But the deep part of her house is in the darkness.

Unlike Dickinson, Bly seems to be clear about what he’s doing: After writing poems all day, I go off to see the moon in the pines. This is not the vagueness of “this,” “here,” and “there” which constitutes her first stanza. But what is the exact relation between writing poems during the day and going to see the moon? Dickinson may be short on concrete details, but “I have no Life but this” is direct. Pairing “writing poems” with “see[ing] the moon,” by contrast, feels random.

As poems are an interplay of light and dark, it does make rough sense to go see the moon. The journey Bly presents has some oddly specific features. He says he goes far in the woods to sit down against a pine at day’s end. He trusts us to conceive a series of images: as the light of the sun fades away, he walks, increasingly trusting what he knows as opposed to his sight to guide him. It’s fair to say “I have no Life but this” is about absolute devotion, a narrowing of one’s focus, to achieve “this.” To have “no Life but this” involves knowing a path well enough to navigate it in the dark.

There’s trust in darkness—the unknown, the uncertain—when continuing down a path. Bly, for his part, speaks less of love and instead recalls a specific vision. Against a pine, resting upon nature, he sees the moon as a house, maybe the house he just left. It has porches turned to face the light, and I interpret that to mean he can only see the part of the moon that sees him. Someone on the moon sees the earth as a light. The confirmation of this is his saying the deep part of her house is in the darkness. There are greater truths, celestial one might say, only accessible by means of how they face us. That’s the beginning of poetry, but really of any task, any relationship.

I’ve been wondering the last few weeks about communication, wondering about my own standards for friendship or relationships (right now: it’d be nice not to be ghosted). A not insignificant amount of talking I’ve participated in has felt deeply unsatisfying, despite some moments I felt were worth treasuring. It’s been hard to understand what’s happening. There have been moments which created curiosity about another, where we’re not just real about our goings-on, but authentically ourselves. I can’t attempt to realize the value of those moments and not feel awkward—is trying to love just a delusion if there isn’t a beloved? Do I know anything or am I just a sappy romantic? It’s hard to see moments of beauty and grace as fulfilling when there is a greater camaraderie and love to be shared, but in themselves alone, they mark a complete life.

2 Comments

  1. Extraordinary contemplation. The traffic of these ideas is exciting and daunting. How can I cross the road?

    I suppose one is always asking how do I fit into these things? One is always asking, is this supposed to be serious? Seriousness is a Grand Prix.

    DJ

    1. Emily

      Flower is
      So successful
      It can stop you breathing

      Did Emily have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,
      The type girls get

      Disordered, what a blooming cheek,
      Or brave

      The go beyond.

      But, hey, we’re the only ones who went beyond,
      She stayed put.

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