Undue significance a starving man attaches ~Emily Dickinson
Far off; he sighs, and therefore hopeless,
And therefore good.
Partaken, it relieves indeed, but proves us
That spices fly
In the receipt. It was the distance
What a bizarre little poem.
The main idea is solid. That which we don’t have, which we can’t get, seems wonderful, even perfect. When we attain it, we realize its imperfections, its failure to be everything we thought and hoped it could be.
But here’s where I get a little lost–the first two lines. “Undue significance a starving man attaches/To food.” Um. Emily. “Undue significance”? If a person is truly starving, they probably aren’t going to care too much about spices and flavors. Is it even possible for food to have “undue significance” to a starving person when that significance is the difference between life and death?
The speaker acknowledges that, “Partaken, it relieves indeed,” but then goes on to say that food loses its flavor when tasted.
I think she’s trying to say here that when we attain something we’ve wanted (needed?), we find it doesn’t live up to our expectations, that anticipation is greater than experience, and I’m totally on board with that argument.
To compare it to food and starvation? That feels really off to me. For someone as sensitive to the plight of suffering beings as Dickinson, the metaphor feels tone-deaf. Unless–which is completely possible and probably likely–she’s chosen it for some clever and arcane Emily reason I haven’t managed to figure out yet.
There’s a lot of privilege in being a white woman in the nineteenth century. A lot of privation, certainly, but also a lot of privilege. Maybe my twenty-first century perspective is fatally skewing my reading of this poem. Maybe I’m a little distracted by the kid with the concussion and the students who are stressed out and the million responsibilities of home and work. Maybe I need to revisit this one another day. Not every poem is for every moment.