Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: dickinson (page 1 of 13)

Emily Dickinson, “Faith” is a fine invention (185)

“Faith” is a fine invention (185)
Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Comment:

Gentlemen, secure with their wealth and virtue, know they have to take charge. They have to see, or more properly, have to proclaim they are seeing. Maybe that is why “faith” is in scare quotes and “see” is italicized. That they say they can see necessitates faith: it is both found and made. Whether or not anything is actually seen, well, that’s another question. As is the sort of faith, which pertains to society more than an individual.

On a first reading of this poem, one might be tempted to say “microscopes,” the active seeking of scientific, empirical knowledge, decisively counters the so-called seeing of faith and tradition. But that’s crazy. When are microscopes prudent in an emergency, excepting movies about contagion? The only thing prudent in an emergency is a clear head and clear vision, i.e. parts of prudence itself. Prudence comes from people like “Gentlemen,” who have an ability to keep steady because of “faith.” It isn’t enough to know; one must be able to act based on knowledge; an emergency calls for the best response possible, which does not necessarily stem from knowledge alone. Looking at the littlest details could cost one everything. Still, Dickinson moves us to the littlest details, the smallest part of the whole.

The tension between faith and knowledge with regard to one’s own affairs is sharp, to say the least. In a way, they can be reconciled. The Gentlemen who see, having faith, only need the microscopes in case of emergency. Their “faith” takes care of most issues, but it is precisely their faith that will not prove adaptive enough. Microscopes needed in case of emergency have less to do with the knowledge they actually yield, knowledge of an empirical character that might be said to be reality-based. They have more to do with the vision of the Gentleman, who in a certain sense takes the world for granted.

Actual knowledge of the world is necessary to act prudently, but not sufficient. But what is sufficient isn’t really seeing the world itself in order to act in it, but the addition of a “fine invention” that is as far away from knowledge as one can get. No wonder “faith” is in scare quotes. Belief has the character of infinite regress. The second you believe as zealots do, without doubting anything, you’re acting like you have knowledge. That’s not really belief. What belief is: you start with a “fine invention” that gives what looks like insight, at first. Then something happens that doesn’t test it directly – emergencies are not the character of everyday life – but still calls the whole character of it into question. An existence between faith and knowledge, where one can only hope for a greater knowledge, is the individual.

Emily Dickinson, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” (997)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (997)
Emily Dickinson

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

Comment:

This poem seems to spend a lot of words prolonging our agony. “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” “a borer in the axis,” “ruin is formal,” “fail in an instant, no man did:” our completely falling apart is our own fault, pure and simple. We put in play a principle doomed to decay, if it wasn’t a fatal enterprise in its very inception.

However, I’ve been driving myself crazy the last month wondering what I can do to make my prose and speech sharper. My reaction to this poem was not to wallow in more self-pity, but wonder what Dickinson was up to. Surely she knows that people undergo incredible traumas that break the strongest wills. That even if one wants to blame oneself for faulty reasoning and indulging delusions, there are still others getting hit by disasters which are “an instant’s act.” It would be beyond cruel, not to mention unreasonable, to expect they would have the resources to deal with everything brought upon them.

Her poem starts with a speaker musing on crumbling nearly abstractly, as if it were a mere dimension of time:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

“Instant’s Act,” “fundamental pause,” “processes,” “organized decays” – the subject of the language she employs is Time itself. “Crumbling” and “Dilapidation” bring to mind the image of a building, but “Dilapidation” merely describes “processes.” “Organized Decays” feels like it augurs the introduction of something natural, but nothing living or organic has been introduced in this stanza.

From Time the speaker moves to the Soul, but while she provides organic imagery, almost nothing living is given:

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

She moves from a “cobweb” on the soul to a “Cuticle of Dust.” The dust might as well be our skin. Suddenly, the imagery changes to the mechanical. There is an axis and it is rusting, perhaps because of the very elements of which it is composed.

What stands out is “Borer” – that is either a worm or insect. It is something living, only metaphorically some kind of mechanical malfunction. All a “Borer” does is wreck an attempted motion. Up to this point, there has been no mention of motion other than “crumbling.”

Before we close read the third stanza, we should summarize where we’ve come. The speaker started with Time, then mused about the Soul. Not once did she engage the prospect of something being alive, except obliquely. This may be a clue that the principle she stands upon was fatal from its inception, moreso than most principles. Something was overwhelmingly self-defeating in her logic. It sounds like she wanted to build a sure foundation upon which to act; what’s crumbling is her house upon the sand. “Cobweb on the Soul” is very strange: don’t people who build use their souls? They are usually described as spirited. Also peculiar is that a layer of dust is one’s skin. It’s like the speaker wanted to trade her mortal coil for something more lasting, but in the process ignored what she can do with her own body.

One could say traditions inspire us and make us want to be like the great figures of yesteryear. But that can be flipped on its head, as we do pursue false idols.

The speaker, I think, has too strong a sense of sin. She wants immortality in this life, and still thinks the principles she holds can obtain that. The problem is that she’s watching herself fall apart every second she insists on this. She seems to be blaming herself for not being spirited enough, for not being physically resilient enough. She continues by citing the Devil as the problem:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

The movement has been from “Time” to the “Soul” to “Man.” But again, except for a man slipping, the organic, natural world is completely missing. “Ruin is formal:” there are principles she holds that she has not purged. She lacks purity and so is doing the “Devil’s work” unknowingly. “Slipping – is Crashe’s law:” there is no such man as Crashe. Dickinson’s speaker made a name up from the concept of “crashing.” That tells you all you need to know about how the speaker engages humanity.

All that being said, this is not Dickinson simply ranting against theism. There’s a degree to which the speaker is an aspect of her, of all of us. If you insist that what you do must last, then yes, you are going to crumble. All of us need to take the world as is, the one we were born into and remains in front of us, seriously. We need to keep in mind that we create and recreate structures of belief that we treat as one-size-fits-all solutions. The solution sounds simpler than it is, of course. The world comes with its share of sticks and stones that break bones, as well as words that hurt worse. Many times, the search for an unshakeable foundation emerges from that pain.

Emily Dickinson, “Partake as doth the Bee” (994)

Partake as doth the Bee (994)
Emily Dickinson

Partake as doth the Bee,
Abstemiously.
The Rose is an Estate —
In Sicily.

Comment:

Looked this one up. Domhnall Mitchell in Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception says this was included with a bouquet of flowers and that everyone then knew of Sicily’s extreme poverty. A surface read of the poem, maybe one we cannot go beyond: You, receiver of the flowers. Take their beauty in moderate amounts, like you were a bee whose life depended on it. In other countries, flowers like these are no less than estates.

I have no problem seeing this poem as “occasional,” but Dickinson always finds ways to challenge when one least expects it. The outstanding question is the drama represented. With so few words, we have to do a lot of speculation. Are these flowers really that beautiful? Is the audience too spoiled for such flowers or overeager for beautiful things? Why this particular warning on the speaker’s part?

The funny thing is we have more information than one would initially suspect. So the speaker’s comment about the rose being an estate in Sicily seems to be sarcasm of some sort, given how the last phrase is set off, left on a line of its own. It looks like an aside. Either Sicily is poor, and these flowers which are probably “pretty good” would be treasured there. Or Sicily is an exotic climate with other amazing flowers, and these flowers still amaze.

Either way, flowers which may not be the best can be pleasing. This fits the grandiose command to “partake as doth the bee / abstemiously.” Dickinson affects a haughty tone which will be seen through by the recipient. But while the speaker indulges some self-deprecation, she does present a real warning for the immediate audience. The recipient probably could use a bit more temperance, a bit more humility. These flowers could be that beautiful, the speaker could be offering that much more. They just need to treat her as best they can. I suspect this is Eliza Doolittle’s “the difference between a lady in a flower shop and a flower girl is not how they treat others, but how they’re treated” writ large.

Hannah Stephenson, “Weeding” & Emily Dickinson, “What I can do – I will” (361)

Weeding (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

The gardener shows the seeds
that they are embers

There is a flowerflame sleeping inside them

All things being equal
which they are not

All things which come from the same thing
and are also distinct

A large part of the gardener’s work
is also to discourage growing
without remorse

Comment:

The gardener, in weeding, discourages growing without remorse. But before we are presented with that conclusion, we are shown growth a curious way. The flower that grows toward the sun is also a flame rising. That flame, which reaches upward and can be thought spiritual power, will by implication also consume the flower.

This description, which concerns how striving, beauty, and decay link, is then put aside to reconsider the problem from what seems to be the gardener’s vantage. Things are not equal. Unequal things are distinct, regardless of origin. We end on a note which strongly suggests that the fact of difference means some things must perish. “Difference,” then, is not an abstract logical category: it comes from directly from our changeable world.

Even before the gardener’s mind speaks about “all things,” the seeds are “embers” holding a sleeping “flowerflame.” The seeds are personified, as they are shown something by the gardener. Perhaps what is most important: seeds and flowers are completely independent of the gardener, free to live and die, be defective or perfect, on their own. Their spirit in asserting themselves mirrors his in cutting them down. This leads us to wonder how the spirit of both gardener and garden can be “the same thing” which is “also distinct.” Is our willfulness just another part of an overarching differentiation and decay?

One might think this line of questioning a bit overblown. It could be said to be kind of “reasoning” that is more a trap than anything else. I’ve certainly been moody recently and finding it difficult to weed out negative, despairing thoughts from ones that are genuine insights. I do ultimately think the problem which Stephenson presents serious. It has a precedent in Xenophon. Isn’t a horse’s spirit comparable to that of a man? (cf. “Art of Horsemanship”) To elaborate a bit more, Anthony Masterson and I revisited Dickinson’s poem 361 yesterday:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Dickinson, on our reading, was playing a game of the following sort. She does so little, so little as a daffodil, that she cannot be possibly said to fail. Growth looks like the only way of truly accounting for her doing, but growth contains a dark irony of its own. The more one commits to saying “I’m growing” as opposed to “I’m doing something of note,” the more “cannot” must be “unknown to possibility.” In other words, when we think we’re growing, we as a matter of course discount failure.

So there is some kind of link between a natural growth, a natural spirit, and our pretensions. And that link causes us to act in ironic ways and see less even as we’re doing more or less. The weird thing about wanting self-knowledge is that there has to be a self that is knowable. How exactly one gets that self may not be the most pleasant, insightful, or meaningful process.

Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

Comment:

I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.

Emily Dickinson, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452)

Thanks to Adam Cooper – would not have seen this otherwise

Your thoughts don’t have words every day (1452)
Emily Dickinson

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Comment:

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day” lends itself to two readings because of the very next sentence, “They come a single time.” What comes a single time? Thoughts which have words accompanying them? A plausible reading, as it initially seems rare thoughts so easily find appropriate words.

Thoughts with precise wording are “like signal esoteric sips of the communion wine.” They are singular but holding something secretive. Divine, they do not stay external to us. Brought inside, they make another manifest. It is like truly hearing the Word. One’s life can be transformed in an instant.

All is well and good, no? Thoughts with words are rare but beautiful occurrences, if not only one occurrence. They feel “native,” making life “so easy so to be.” The “price” and “infrequency” of such an experience should be self-evident.

Yet Dickinson’s speaker insists that it is not self-evident. It is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. Thoughts which have the right words may contain a mystery, but are a still larger mystery themselves. They may point to the price of revelation. To be blessed with an immediately useable thought is a divine burden; one’s life finds itself subject to it.

However, the question on my mind: are immediately articulated thoughts actually a product of thinking?

Let’s start over again. This time, “your thoughts don’t have words every day” refers to that which is not yet or can’t be properly spoken. Maybe there are inchoate thoughts, more intuition and emotion than proposition. Maybe there are thoughts, on the other end of the spectrum, which are fully formed, transcending us, leaving us with only partial comprehension. Either way, such thoughts fuel something eventually more articulate, and the interesting thing is their singularity prior to our verbiage. Most days we have too many words in our head. To really think, to struggle with thinking, is unique. Given the emphasis on this happening once, I wonder if Dickinson is speaking of thinking itself as rebirth.

On my second reading, the poem stays radical. “Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine” – before, thoughts had words and the only problem was within the words. Now the problem is that of the self. We are talking about thoughts which stand on their own, prior or beyond words. To “sip” of them, to be in communion with them, is to try to ingest the self to understand it. It’s a grotesque image, but not coincidentally the problem of self-knowledge. You try to know yourself and all you get are images of yourself, images that might be best realized in other people. It looks like, on this reading, the overtones of divinity are emblematic of a power beyond us, within us, and not at all purposive. If anything, we’re pulling ourselves apart in different directions.

How does this feel “native,” though? How could it be “so easy so to be?” I don’t think we have to throw this reading out because there isn’t enough of a struggle on the speaker’s part. Nor do we have to say, in the tritest of fashions, that some struggles are perfectly natural.  Rather, the emphasis falls to “while you taste” – our deepest struggle is, for a time, like a drug. Contemplating images of yourself could lend itself to thinking you relate to everybody when you really relate to nobody. The feeling of having a serious thought apart from speaking is not characteristic of true thinking. One does have to assert oneself and face the consequences of that self-assertion.

Whether we speak of thoughts that find articulation immediately or thoughts which stand apart from speech, there is a price and rarity attached to both. That price and rarity is beyond our comprehension either because of revelation, or because our truest thinking exists in a vacuum where it cannot properly be called thinking. I should go further at this point and say this: Dickinson is not really talking about God with “communion wine.” She simply means the instances where we think we’ve had our “Eureka!” moment, where we can explain ourselves perfectly. With that in mind, the problem of “revelation” should actually merge with that of pre-verbal thinking.

Something I’m playing with: you can’t merge the problem of speaking properly (i.e. “I know how we can always be articulate and truthful”) with the problem of thinking prior to speech (i.e. “I have a theory about how we form our thoughts and how they come to be spoken”). United, we’re talking about human reason. It looks like there should be merger: reason can articulate things! Thinking happens, and it makes itself manifest in speech! – That’s about all the unity one can get. The obstacle to any greater unity is that thoughts don’t have words every day. What they are in essence is unclear, and thus they have a radical character in our everyday lives. They’re almost not of this world. -

Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398)

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 —

Comment:

At first glance, a love poem of the “you are my everything” sort. It starts with a pathetic plea, “I have no Life but this.” Then things get peculiar: “To lead it here?” The phrase comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. All we can say is that the speaker’s life leads something “here.”

That does not seem like much of a life, but the speaker lacks death too. Unless “dispelled” – not quite expelled, but the use feels the same – “from there.” Huh? I thought she was bringing something “here!”

So where does this riddling immortality reside? It isn’t bound to any particular future, or anything the speaker does from now on. It is dependent on someone we assume a beloved. Going back to the first stanza, a lover drags her life into the immediacy of the present, puts herself and all she knows under a spell.

This is a sort of immortality, but it is a stasis. There is no forethought or action apart from the beloved. But if the beloved accepts, then the lover is no less a prophet, a creator (“tie to Earths to come”/”action new”). Yes, it is a love poem – one about how crazy love is.

Emily Dickinson, “We never know how high we are” (1176)

We never know how high we are (1176)
Emily Dickinson

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies —

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King —

Comment:

We set standards. But we don’t merely judge ourselves in this life by those standards, if at all. Our desire is also to be judged after our lives are complete, with regard to whom we tried to become. We use the uncertainty of who exactly judges (God? the public? ourselves?) to advance a hope. Because of the lack of knowledge, because of our fears now, we can know we will be that much greater in the future.

This is not a problem limited to thinking about the Christian afterlife. This is actually the more general problem of nobility. We set the standards we want to be judged by? We assume the judgement of others will be our own, before even accounting for falling short of our own mark? Compounding the issue: nobility is the heart of morality. Nobility ends in self-sacrifice. Something is known to be moral when one will die for it.

What’s funny is the hubris of our standard-setting. We see ourselves as humble throughout the process. Our time as Heroes, reciting our stories to ourselves, should continue uninterrupted. It’s normal enough to us. But something broke that normalcy and spurred this poem.

“Did not ourselves the Cubits warp” – the Biblical measure of “cubit” is the distance from the elbow to the middle finger’s tip. As mortals, we do not provide a consistent measure or ability to measure. There is more. Our lack of measure is “for fear to be a King.” Not death, change, decline, or failure alone awoke the speaker. It was the pretended/not-so-pretended humility that provoked. We want our standards, we want judgement, but we don’t really want the responsibility entailed. No one really plays God. That is realized once one thinks he’s playing God.

Emily Dickinson, “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” (1487)

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman (1487)
Emily Dickinson

The Savior must have been
A docile Gentleman —
To come so far so cold a Day
For little Fellowmen —

The Road to Bethlehem
Since He and I were Boys
Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be
A rugged billion Miles —

Comment:

This is about religious experience. Our marking of Christ’s birth is held, for us, during a cold time of year. We make Him come to us; we feel He does. Only instead of the Son of Man, on a divine mission to redeem the world of its sin, we get a “docile Gentleman.” The world is too much with us, as this is our imagining. There is nothing docile about the Prince of Peace: justice must run down as waters, righteousness an ever-flowing stream. And “gentleman” is the ultimate construct of civil society. We dictate what man ought to be to painful extremes, so much so we demean ourselves, put ourselves in a lower class.

So much for the first stanza. Peculiar about this popular vision of Christianity is that, in a way, it was intended. Maybe there is nothing problematic about Christ as a docile gentleman. The prophet declared the Lord would make every mountain and hill low (Isaiah 40:4). That leveling unifies a number of disparate times: we, hundreds of years removed from His adolescence, are the children come unto Him. We’re there, equal with Him through such direct access. Only, a slight problem – it is, in effect, a wide, easy road. “A rugged billion miles” may overstate how difficult it sometimes can be to achieve a proper, true, moral vision, but then again, a rugged billion miles is literally life on earth.

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. Except initially, it seems a lot less serious than that:

Luck is not chance —
It’s Toil —

So what is meant by “luck?” “Chance?” We have to start listing the things thought about both. 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 is not chance” fails to contradict that because it is so general.

Either way, the slogan runs over any attempt to make a distinction. 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 only paying for the smile? In other words, is toil at best an opportunity?

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, 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. That mellowed a bit with the image of Fortune smiling. Luck may be a goddess, exacting work, making us pay. Now we wonder about 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.

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. 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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