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 —

Analysis, meaning and summary of Emily Dickinson's poem This was a Poet — It is That


  1. Danielle Martin says:

    “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.

    • Pilar says:

      Thank you for such profound analysis of the poem. I completely agree with your understanding of it. I am also of the mind that ED had transcendental knowledge and I read in a lot of the poems that inference. While other analysis take a more simplistic and mundane understanding of the poem I was so glad to found you. Please let me know if you have a blog or website to visit.

  2. Siobhan says:

    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.

  3. marc says:

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

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