Home > Dickinson E, Poetry > Skepticism at the margins IV: But, what of that?

Skepticism at the margins IV: But, what of that?

Emily Dickinson’s poem #301 admits of two different readings, which I will here ex­plore. First, the poem:

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –
But, what of that?

First Reading: I reason that life on earth is short and full of suffering—but what of my reasoning? I reason that life, no matter how vital, can never escape death—but what of my reasoning? I reason that in Heaven the injustice of life will be remedied—but what of my reasoning? I am but a small creature, paltry in the face of the universe (human or divine). What grasp on things can my reason get? — This reading attributes to the poem a mood common in Emily Dickinson’s poetry: a sense of her own smallness. For instance, in the poem just before it in my collection (Final Harvest), #299, she describes herself as “a Millionaire / in little Wealths”. But what she grasps is paltry, it is “Poverty” next to “Your Riches”. In the world are both great and small, and Dickinson is equipped only to grasp what is small.

Second Reading: Life on earth is short and full of suffering, but what of that? That life, however vital, ends in death and decay, but what of that? Can I not at least take consolation in heavenly compensation? But now: what of that? Once this question is asked, where is there left to turn? Dickinson leads us down an arduous, anguished path based on the promise of what lies at the end, but once we reach the end we are not satisfied: what of that? It is paltry and unsatisfying. And now there is nothing left to console us, and to make our anguish and decay acceptable.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I think the first reading is the dominant of the two. The first face the poem shows is that of Dickinson questioning her reason. In a way, this is a joyful reading, insofar as the recognition of one’s own smallness in the face of something greater is joyful—and for Dickinson I think it very frequently is (but not always). On this reading, “but, what of that” is a function applied to her reason as a whole. On the second reading, by contrast, which lurks below the surface, “but, what of that” is contained within her reasoning, and so refers not to her reason but to the world itself: to the shortness of life, the inevitability of death, the compensation of Heaven. On this reading, her reason leads her down the path of a total skepticism, which her reason cannot escape.

Nothing in the poem allows the reader to resolve it into one of these two readings. There is instead an oscillation. Reason leads her down the path to unremitting skepticism, from which the only escape is to ask: but what of my reason? Yet this strategy is not stable: reason is not so easily abandoned, and skepticism creeps back in from the margins and infiltrates the center.

I take this oscillation to be one of the fundamental features of Dickinson’s entire corpus, at least that portion of it I have encountered. This poem is perhaps the purest expression of that fundamental ambivalence.

Categories: Dickinson E, Poetry
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