Dickinson declares “Publication… is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” and straightaway I feel like an idiot and a sellout.
I feel stupid. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a thought so precious I’d refuse to share it. An idea, maybe, about how something works that is brilliant. Explains everything. But shouldn’t be shared not because I’ll be mocked, but because it won’t receive rightful treatment. An idea which will only, at best, serve a worse idea, some generic rhetoric thoughtless people use to try to evade thoughtfulness.
I feel like a sellout. I have a lot of thoughts about poetry and am publishing them regularly. Maybe I should keep them in a notebook away from others. If I were sufficiently dedicated to my own mind, I’d revisit them regularly, looking to learn and revise. I’d be interested to see their impact on my life, not their impact on my production of content.
Dickinson continues her declamations. Her vituperations. “Poverty… be justifying / For so foul a thing.” I shouldn’t just feel stupid or a sellout. I should feel completely ashamed, willing and wanting to embrace poverty now. Eager to avoid the foulness of publication.
The whole poem speaks in large, loud pronouncements, like an oracle speaking the wisdom of God to the unworthy. “We… would rather… go / White… Unto the White Creator;” “Thought belong to Him who gave it;” “Be the Merchant / Of the Heavenly Grace;” “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price.”
Publication — is the Auction (709) Emily Dickinson Publication — is the Auction Of the Mind of Man — Poverty — be justifying For so foul a thing Possibly — but We — would rather From Our Garret go White — Unto the White Creator — Than invest — Our Snow — Thought belong to Him who gave it — Then — to Him Who bear Its Corporeal illustration — Sell The Royal Air — In the Parcel — Be the Merchant Of the Heavenly Grace — But reduce no Human Spirit To Disgrace of Price —
If we are receiving divine wisdom, what is the problem? Well, for one, maybe poverty isn’t desirable. Dickinson opens her second stanza with “Possibly,” casting doubt on the sentence before: “Poverty… be justifying / For so foul a thing” (Vendler 334).
The problem is worse than that. Speaking from experience: there are so many times I’ve explained a thing. Explained why it is relevant and should matter. Described other people’s ideas about the thing, why they have good points, why my take on the thing should be considered. I wasn’t looking for immediate acceptance (“You’re so right! I shall change my views right now”). I was looking for some acknowledgment that I spoke and made some sense.
I, of course, forgot that I was brown. If I had a right to speak, it was only to humiliate myself or reiterate the views of those who knew better.
Reputation matters. But how can one plausibly account for it in a world which seeks to deny your voice?
I believe this underlies Dickinson’s “we” in the second stanza. “We… would rather / From Our Garret go / White… Unto the White Creator… / Than invest… Our Snow.” Some of us have to embrace purity to an obnoxious degree. We don’t have a choice. We have “snow.”
“Snow:” when we write, we’re trying to preserve a moment that will fade away. A moment where our knowledge and feeling met. We mark the co-incidence by means of an art. Many have spoken about poetry giving its authors and audience immortality, but Dickinson’s “snow” rejects that logic. Her emphasis is on how temporary our work is for authors ourselves. The knowledge and the feeling coinciding are marked, but can the exact same proposition and emotion come about later? Can they even be recognized in the future?
Here we are, mysterious worlds unto ourselves. We need wealth and respect to survive. But the more we want to survive, the more we give up on our more delicate propositions. Cliches aren’t snow. They last long amounts of time. They’re what people prefer to hear. What they will pay for.
The other problem with saying “Publication… is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” goes well beyond its impracticality. The assumption is that there is something divine about not publishing. “Thought belong to Him who gave it” serves as the thematic center of the poem. If you believe there is something far greater than publishing, far greater than selling out, then you believe your words have an aspect that is beyond you.
Against this, there can only be decline, and sure enough, the poem starts chronicling one. “Thought belong to Him who gave it” falls away, and we hear of “Him Who bear / Its Corporeal illustration… Sell / The Royal Air.” Someone, perhaps an author or a publisher, bears the physical manifestation of thought. “The Royal Air” is sold—the magic that compelled you to write, what might have been divine inspiration, is now worth a dollar amount.
Even that does not do justice to the fall. “Sell / The Royal Air… / In the Parcel… Be the Merchant / Of the Heavenly Grace.” The air from a world beyond ours is put in a package. That cannot possibly be the same as being there. Vendler notes “Merchant of the Heavenly Grace” is no compliment (335). Dickinson speaks of preachers who use their congregation for money, much like our televangelists nowadays. They sell grace.
Dickinson seems to be saying two contradictory things. First, this is reality, we really can’t go “White… Unto the White Creator,” being of pure production and lineage. In the end, we’re all merchants of the heavenly grace. Second, this isn’t reality, this is the consequence of thinking one’s work having a merit beyond a paycheck or a reputation. If you indulge that thought, you create a realm where creation and purity are unified. It’s a realm which describes exactly no authors. Has she said anything true, then, about authorship?
She leaves the puzzle unsolved. Her last two lines, “But reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price,” hint at a solution. It feels like she tried a lot of ideas to explain what it means to create but not care for money and fame. The only one in the end that works has to do with avoiding harm, avoiding indignity.
Publication has to happen. Somehow, it has to be reconciled with doing justice to the human spirit. “Snow,” I think, expands on the logic involved. If our work is where knowledge, feeling, and art meet—if we’re trying to build from the temporary, as pathetic as that seems—then the question is why that matters. We’ve assumed it matters because we intuit that authenticity is better than telling a mob what it wants to hear.
But there’s a deeper reason. As I get older, I regret that I didn’t take the time to document my experiences and emotions before. It was like life was offering me so many rich opportunities to reflect and put things together, and I didn’t bother. I could have been wiser so much sooner. If this sounds stupid or pathetic, I’d advise one to take a hard look at people who have been getting older and blaring the same thing they said at 20 but at 50, just louder, more obnoxiously, and with no more credibility. The “publication” that ultimately matters is having a record for an audience of one: yourself. The self can only be accountable to the self if it is known in some small way.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 333-335.