whatsoever is consumed

Hope is a subtle glutton;
He feeds upon the fair;
And yet, inspected closely,
What abstinence is there!

His is the halcyon table
That never seats but one,
And whatsoever is consumed
The same amounts remain.

~Emily Dickinson
Image detail via Pexels.

Why did I choose this poem for Christmas Day?? I have no idea. Typically I choose poems a month at a time, mapping out which one I’ll read each day. I try to fit the poems to the seasons, to events happening on specific days, etc. I can’t remember why I decided this was a Christmas poem…maybe because it’s about hope? Or maybe because of all the gluttonous overkill that can all too easily happen on Christmas? I now have no idea. Oh well. Have an Emily poem for Christmas. Merry holiday to you and yours!

a way of persons outside windows

I had been hungry all the years;
My noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.

’T was this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own.

I did not know the ample bread,
’T was so unlike the crumb
The birds and I had often shared
In Nature’s dining-room.

The plenty hurt me, ’t was so new,—
Myself felt ill and odd,
As berry of a mountain bush
Transplanted to the road.

Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

If I’ve learned anything about Emily Dickinson over the course of this year of an Emily poem a day, it’s that there are vastly more Dickinsons than I realized when I began this project. This is a very specific one of them–the I-got-what-I-thought-I-wanted-and-realized-I-don’t-want-it Dickinson.

On one level, this is simply that. A hungry person, upon having food made available to her, realizes it isn’t as appetizing as she imagined it would be. So often we long for something, only to be disappointed upon receiving it.

But there’s much more going on here. In the third stanza, the speaker metions “Nature’s dining-room,” where she shared her meager crumbs with birds. Upon leaving nature and entering into human habitation, she becomes disconnected from the natural world, from the birds and from the just-enough that nature offers–in other words, just what we need, without the excess that many of us have come to expect from our civilized lives.

savory distance

Undue significance a starving man attaches
To food
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
Was savory.

~Emily Dickinson

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.

But.

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.