Comment 1 of 18, added on June 14th, 2008 at 3:31 PM.
While there is a lot going on in this very short poem that requires a
line-by-line analysis to understand it, I can't say I have succeeded in
completely getting it; still, I will offer my best pass at it.
It seems to me this poem is about the art of writing poetry. It is an ars
poetica piece. But there is corruption in this poem as well, corruption by
editors trying to make sense of it. Some editors attempt to create this
I found the phrase to every thought
I ever had, but one;
And that defies me,--as a hand
Did try to chalk the sun
To races nurtured in the dark;--
How would your own begin?
Can blaze be done in cochineal,
Or noon in mazarin?
Dickinson used hyphens as a standard for punctuation, and regularly
capitalized nouns. These preferences have divided editors between those
who see the value in the original and those who feel the poems are great
but can use an editor's hand in the final for better understanding.
Unfortunately, the latter group has failed in this particular piece
Let's start with the first line - "words" alliterates with "one" in the
second line, but editors have chosen to use "phrase" because several words
= phrase and "phrase" alliterates more closely with "found"; however,
"words" does not necessarily equal a group of words that make up one
phrase. It could be several words independent of each other. Furthermore,
there is the negative singular -- "but one" -- one word or one phrase?
Singular "word" is first of all capitalized. This could be the result of
capitalizing nouns, and so changing it to lower-case makes sense. After
all, what "word" is capitalized? I'll tell you: "In the beginning was the
Word..." Is what she didn't find God? So now we have a dilemma: is this
"word" supposed to be capitalized or not? Is God defying her, or her art?
The hand that chalks keeps the meaning ambiguous. "To chalk" is "to
sketch". This hand could be God's hand as S/He creates the universe in
seven days, but it could also be the artist's hand, trying to sketch the
sun. And if it is the artist, is the artist sketching the sun on paper?
Maybe; I don't think so. Perhaps it is the artist's hand trying to color
in a star billions of miles away using nothing but chalk and an appendage
only a couple feet long. It won't work. The attempt is defied by the
impossibility. Chalking here may mean trying to physically shade in the
brightness of light coming from the closest star.
And why would she try to do this? The first line of the second stanza
provides the answer: "races" could be "games where people run", but I
think it is a race of humankind. What race is nurtured in the dark --
artists are. Writers and visual artists stereotypically work at night, an
stereotypes exist because there is an element of truth to them.
But back to the first stanza for a moment. Traditional ballads worked in
iambic feet: four feet in the first and third line and three in the second
and fourth line of each stanza. Dickinson knew this -- she was a master of
the ballad -- and yet she chose to ignore this rule. This stanza goes
four-three-three-four not four-three-four-three. Why? Because she wanted
to put the "defies" in a line all on its own for extra emphasis, and she
didn't want to break up the next thought, so she put the hand on the same
line as the chalk for a fluid complete idea on one line. Yet editors in
keeping with the traditional have changed this, and I think it a poor
Back to the second stanza. She is asking for some answers from fellow
poets and artist to help her in her own art. How do you begin...what? To
be successful? Probably not. How do you begin when all you have is a
blank page? Maybe. But she is also asking visual artists too. Blaze
equals fire. What color is fire? Yellow and red. Cochineal is a red dye
originally made from crushing female Cochineal insects -- which are bright
red in color. Now she is asking rhetorical questions. It is the last
question which baffles me most. Mazarin is nowhere to be found in any
dictionary I have seen. Nothing on the Internet either. Is the “M”
supposed to be capitalized or more of Dickinson’s eccentricity? As it
turns out, the only Mazarin I can find is a famous French Cardinal who
lived in Rome and acted as an ambassador. Jules Mazarin was a politician
and died pretty wealthy. Noon not only means midday but "highest point",
or "zenith". Noon was also the hour of midday prayers (originally three
o'clock and only became twelve o'clock later). So noon could be a play on
the zenith of the day, and the zenith of Mazarin's long career; she may be
inserting another religious reference here.
So is this a poem about religion or a poem about poetry? Both. For
Dickinson, her poetry was her religion.
from United States