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Analysis and comments on This was a Poet -- It is That by Emily Dickinson

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Comment 6 of 266, added on February 10th, 2012 at 3:25 PM.
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Comment 5 of 266, added on July 29th, 2011 at 11:19 AM.
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Comment 4 of 266, added on August 26th, 2009 at 1:28 AM.

Thank you Danielle, the essay is both lovely and illuminating. I have
studied a fair bit of Dickinson and wrote and essay on this poem and
Emerson's idea of the Poet. There are a few points you make that I would
like to comment on.

Forgive me for beginning this way, but a few technical aspects of your
response were a sore thumb to me. The poem isn't actually titled "This was
a Poet - It is That" by Dickinson, it's just the first line and
conventionally how we refer to the poem. Additionally when quoting from a
poem, it is more correct to not add your own punctuation such as periods at
the end of lines, use "/" to indicate line breaks without modifying or
adding punctuation.

To detail the distilling process the poet undergoes to attain meaning that
you note, I would like to add the poem "Tell all the Truth but tell it
slant -", where Dickinson tells us that "The Truth must dazzle gradually",
just as you say it comes to her slowly and falsehood is stripped away.

I hadn't viewed the "familiar species" as humans; your suggestion is
intriguing and I like the explanation with the door to enlightenment.
However, I feel it is important to also see the familiar species in the
more literal imagery Dickinson creates. The attar the poet distills comes
from a flower, which I believe to be the familiar species. This flower
grows outside the door and you walk by it everyday. This flower dies by
the door without a second thought from you, but the poet is able to glean
something amazing from the most mundane of quotidian occurrences. We then
wonder to ourselves how we missed the flower and did not arrest it, turn
our attention to it and distill meanings ourselves. I really like your
vision of the door of enlightenment in these lines. Ordinary people don't
arrest the flower and merely let it perish but the poet who finds amazing
sense from this ordinary thing is able to cross the threshold into
enlightenment.

Some other Dickinson poems germane to the poet's hypersensitivity to nature
and the ordinary include "The Sun kept stooping - stooping - low!" in which
the persona is so moved by a sunset that she sees amassing battalions and
leaps from her seat. In her celebrated work you noted, "I taste a liquor
never brewed - ", the persona is "Inebriate of air - am I - / And Debauchee
of Dew - ", once again showing how powerfully moved by the simplest things
in nature the poet is. Another poem, "A Route of Evanescence", may have
many interpretations, but I believe it could have been inspired by watching
a hummingbird. For such a tiny, yet finely wrought creature, Dickinson
uses imagery of royalty.

Your interpretation of poverty and "Of portion - so unconscious - / The
Robbing - could not harm -" are valuable and insightful. I believe
Dickinson understood poverty to be a mental or spiritual void deeper than
any financial or physical state. I like how you phrase that we has humans
must be in poverty while poetry gives us a fortune. Your direct
interpretation of the lines differs from mine, though. I see the robbing
not happening to the common man, but rather to the poet. The poet has so
much he isn't even conscious he is being robbed and isn't harmed, for his
wealth exceeds what can be taken away. He has a fortune from his poetry
and understanding of nature. This true wealth is impervious and exterior
to time. The final line brings up an interesting suggestion of
immortality. It can be said that writers never die for their work lives
on. She only published minimally but did put her poems into hand crafted
bindings and organized booklets. I don't really think Dickinson herself is
aiming for this, but perhaps she feels other poets cling to it.

Dickinson poems often need to be taken one step beyond face value. In this
poem there is an overarching tone that is subtle and only heard if you
listen for her quiet irony. I feel the most important lines to be the last
two in the penultimate stanza: "Entitles Us - by Contrast - / To ceaseless
Poverty-". The poet is so gracious as to allow the common person to be
impoverished by contrast to the poet's vast wealth. The poems carries a
bitterness and perhaps regret that the poet does this to other people. So
I believe, once you understand that the poet has amazing union with nature
and finds amazing meaning and vast wealth from it, you should question if
the poet is such a good thing, or is it a curse and does Dickinson feel
some regret for it. If you turn your attention that way, a good poem to go
to is the one you quoted earlier, "I would not paint - a picture -". Here
Dickinson claims, "Nor would I be a Poet - / It's finer - own the Ear -".
She would rather be the listener than the poet; the poet is burdened with a
"privilege so awful".

Thank you for your comments. It's great to see such a well thought out and
developed analysis of the poem.

Rover
Comment 3 of 266, added on May 4th, 2007 at 12:50 PM.

“Oneness with Emily.”
By: Danielle Martin

“Art imitates life. Life imitates high school.”
~ Brad Cohen

“Literature has always had its circus side, its freaks and its frivolities
- and maybe that's all part of it, and no bad thing if it draws people
towards what is most worthwhile.”
~Alain de Botton


To understand the symbolism of nature, whether it is spring, winter, fall,
summer, you, literature, poetry, or anything at all, we must first
understand that everything we know will either change or grow. This is the
essence of our beings, and indeed, of the entire universe. It is entwined
with our need to create art, to write lilting sonnets, noble verse, or
proficient lessons for all to assimilate. The breadth of nature is
contained within our bodies, like miniature reflections of the universe. We
are meant to be in union with nature, not in conflict with it, and we learn
to seek their lessons in ourselves first before we can see the great
picture. We must seek after what the Japanese refer to as, “Shin-shin,
shin-gan,” or “The mind and eyes of God.” Only then will we be able to
comprehend the enormity and true significance hidden in the ways literature
and art impact and combine with our everyday lives. This idea that poetry
cannot be interpreted properly by the uninitiated is well-documented in
Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” This poem shows
her incredible high on nature and her need to be as one with nature. She
goes on to report that the reader who seeks understanding of the poem must
also be at one with the universal process or they will never understand
either.
Literature is something that seeks after the divine in all of us. Like an
intimate etude between master and pupil, the author wishes to impart
something to us, to teach us a grand lesson formerly hidden in our own
souls; the master shows us the grand potential inside us, and then we bring
it out. The law of the universe is growth, or change, and this is how
literature reflects everyday life. It doesn’t fight nature; it works with
its difficulties, rejoices with its pleasures, laughs at its ironies, and
dances with it as conjoined partner. In its very essence, art is nature,
and nature is art. The two lose their distinction from one another when
viewed this way. Seeing them as one, and allowing their enchanting
resonances to fill our minds and hearts, we attempt union with them when
indeed, we are already there. We just need to realize it first.
This is what literature means to me in the way it sings to my life. It is
the only way I know to describe it. I started writing at a very young age,
around 7 years, and have never stopped. It has been a constant companion
and wise teacher. It is a friend that has never let me down, a confidant
when I needed one, and a great love, true and deep. After all, "A poet is,
above all else, a person passionately in love with language” (W.H. Auden).
Emily Dickinson talked about this immersion of the human poet into the
universal psyche in her legendary poem, “This was a Poet—It is That.” Let’s
break the poem open and see what we can find, shall we?
This was a Poet—It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings—
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door—
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it—before—

Of Pictures, the Discloser—
The Poet—it is He—
Entitles Us—by Contrast—
To ceaseless Poverty—

Of portion—so unconscious—
The Robbing—could not harm—
Himself—to Him—a Fortune—
Exterior—to Time—

First of all, notice the title. Four words are capitalized, the first one,
which is understandable, but also the words “Poet,” “It,” and “That.”
Accordingly, we see that this is a very pointed description of what a poet
is, what being a poet meant to Emily. The word “Poet,” being emphasized,
along with the word “That,” say that a poet is “That,” or what will follow
in the description. Maybe Emily was also showing her unique language in
communicating with this universe, thus the unusual punctuation and
capitalization. As she was a spiritual shamanistic guide for us, she
clearly says in other words from other times, “A privilege so awful / What
would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!"
(505).
Remember that we are talking about secrets hidden inside all of us, not
just a few of us. "Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect
spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic
language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a
personal universe, of a completely closed world." ~Mircea Eliade
Miss. Dickinson goes on, restating her title in the first line, then onto:

“Distills amazing sense.” This can be seen as amazement at how much poetry
has taught her, but in a practical way. The fact that it distills sense,
this wonderful act of creating, says to her that it comes slowly, and that
it remains a purifying process where falsehood is stripped away leaving
only truth.
“From ordinary Meanings.” This says that everyday life is absorbed through
the act of writing and then, taken with the previous line, we see that
mundane existence is what brings profound truth to the poet! She
capitalizes “Meaning,” which accentuates, again, what poetry is all about.
Meaning is its primary goal.

“And Attar so immense.” Attar is a perfume or essential oil obtained from
flowers or petals. She is describing how “Meaning,” comes so sweetly after
it has been distilled, or factored, through the mind. It leaves a peaceful
feeling so overwhelming that it is like living in a fragranced soul for all
eternity.

“From the familiar species.” Is a reference to humans, however it should
not be seen as a insignificant line. In the world of the poet, all lines
have meanings deep and connected with grand lessons. For instance, the fact
that she uses the words “familiar,” and “species,” says so much.
“Familiar,” is a word that can mean to be thoroughly conversant, or in
symbiosis, with something. Here, she says she is conversant with the
“species,” or human beings. This implies that, although she is in tune with
humans, and has much in common with them, she feels her sense of
understanding separates her from others who do not take the same journey
into the mind. As you may know, Emily was a recluse for many years, and
this line says that she knows that, and also says, in a subtle way, why.
“That perished by the Door.” This is my favorite line, as it is referring
to the door to enlightenment. I once wrote that people so often, “Lay down
their roots at the entrance to enlightenment.” Both lines mean the same
thing: people get to the door but rarely cross it. Instead, they settle for
an unrealized life with safe explanations and imposed limitations. Emily is
saying that this familiar species perishes by the door, but she is also
implying that she has opened it and stepped through. Read Aldous Huxley’s
“The Doors of Perception,” for more insight.

“We wonder it was not Ourselves, Arrested it—before.” These two lines go
best together for analysis, as they should. This is a touching, humble
sentiment that practically weeps her understanding of how she “perished at
the door” to enlightenment at one time. But it has been so long ago, she
has forgotten what it was like to think ordinary anymore. She gained
penetrating knowledge of life, and now can never go back to simplicity. At
one time, her progress had been “arrested,” and so she takes pity upon
humanity that “perishes by the door.” I find these lines heartbreaking, for
I have always known I was on a path that many would never follow, and that
they had paths I could never follow either. I believe Emily knew the same
thing.

“Of Pictures, the Discloser—The Poet—it is He—Entitles Us—by Contrast—To
ceaseless Poverty.” How touching these words are! Taken in full, we see
that the poet sees images in full disclosure, life comes in detail, and
shows us clearly the other side of life. We understand the ego’s desires
and are void of such things as wanting more power for selfish gain, or more
money for material goods. We seek the deeper realization that life is meant
to be lived in union with, not in conflict with, time and nature. Poverty
here probably didn’t mean her own financial situation as much as it meant
to live a life empty, and open. She carries nothing with her inside that is
an obstacle to her growth anymore; she lives a life of selfless sacrifice
for understanding. While time and totality contains all the answers, and is
rich in knowledge, we as human beings must be in poverty, or devoid, of any
pre-conceived ideas in order to fill up with timeless wisdom. When we carry
around limiting ideas we stop growth and stagnate towards change.
“Of portion—so unconscious. The Robbing—could not harm—” The average person
has a portion of what they think is understanding. But the truth of their
own existence lies in their unconsciousness. To take it, or rob it from
them, would do no harm because they would only become self-aware. If they
become self-actualized then it becomes, to “Himself—to Him—a Fortune.” This
use of the male pronoun “he” is seen earlier in the poem and refers to the
poet. With the robbing of the mind, the person now in poverty, he, or she,
amasses a great fortune of wisdom! And, they lose all plurality with the
universe and singularly unite even body and soul with time itself, their
minds aware and conscious. Thus the last line, “Exterior—to Time.”
So, how does poetry call upon life for its inspiration? It listens to
itself, the dance and sway of the human mind, the fragrance of the flowered
soul, the gentle hand of goodness. These are the things that live within
each of us; all of us are unique and yet completely the same, one reality
blending into the other simultaneously.
Poetry and literature do not reflect life, they are life.


Danielle Martin from United States
Comment 2 of 266, added on February 20th, 2006 at 9:47 AM.

I think it is a sad poem, which provokes images of disppoitment and
resigned acceptance. The increased used of hyphones suggests a bringing
together or rambling thoughts, which shows the reader that she too, is
trying to make sense of it all.

Siobhan from Germany
Comment 1 of 266, added on December 24th, 2004 at 10:20 PM.

I love this poem, mostly because of its unique agreements and criticism of
Ralph Waldo emersion views on poetry.

marc from United States

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Information about This was a Poet -- It is That

Poet: Emily Dickinson
Poem: 448. This was a Poet -- It is That
Volume: Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Year: 1955
Added: Jan 9 2004
Viewed: 35133 times
Poem of the Day: Jul 2 2002


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