Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.

But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

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