No. 82: “I had been hungry all the years.” #
Dickinson is conflicted; she wants to be part of a group, yet she doesn’t want to conform. She yearns to be accepted, yet she values her individuality too much. This is also a poem about unfulfilled insatiable desires; though the persona sees a way of satisfying her cravings, she realises the futility of attempting to actually realise her intimate longings or yearnings. She defines “hunger” as:
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.
Dr Elizabeth McMahon focuses on the paradoxical relationship in Dickinson’s poetry between longing and belonging. The feelings are contradictory and describe the tension in her poetry between estrangement and belonging. This distance is experienced as absence, insufficiency and inadequacy but it is also a space of desire: of seeking and anticipation, the distance between recognition of the desired object and its (impossible) attainment.
Certainly, her life enacts a very deliberate and dramatic approach to the question of belonging versus isolation: she chose isolation. For much of her adult life she lived in seclusion with only her family for company, albeit with the rare visit from an outsider which she prized and anticipated keenly, and indeed she retreated more and more into the confines of her bedroom.
Dickinson’s poetry expresses a crystalline inwardness.
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.
There is a striking ambivalence evident in her attraction and repulsion to an unknowable feast; likely the Eucharist, a Christian service, ceremony, or sacrament commemorating the Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed by those bound by faith.
The persona appears to have come in from the cold, been attracted to a feast/communion, yet somehow inside close enough to draw “the table near/And touch the curious wine” while paradoxically at the same time outside the window looking in.
While it first appears as an anguished cry for inclusion, it never becomes maudlin or sentimental, rather retaining its dignity with a controlled understated craving for acceptance yet balanced by a resigned recognition that such acceptance calls for too much sacrifice of self.
It is “The plenty” that overwhelms her; there is a superfluity of “wealth”, “ample bread” and “plenty” contrasted with the sufficiency of ”crumb” and natural “berry” that repels the persona from going in.
Asceticism (self denial) is preferential to gluttony.
Though tempted, she rejects the abundance of society for the simplicity and adequacy of nature. She successfully resists the temptation of self indulgence by practicing abstemiousness or asceticism.
The early Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founded a cult known as Epicureanism; today misconceived as hedonistic self-indulgent pleasure seeking in luxurious food, wine and gluttony. In its original conception it was just the opposite.
“do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”
Their guiding principle was the pursuit of pleasure, which they understood not so much as the fulfilment of desire as its rational mastery.
Yet it is a philosophy in which we can see ourselves and our most urgent needs - for a better and more sustainable way of life - reflected from a great distance. Epicurus taught his followers how to be happy without god and how to be happy with less.
“He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect,”
“Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict.”
Time and again Epicurus and his followers return to the theme of limits:
“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.”
Epicurus understood the gelding of desire and the search for happiness as one and the same thing: in fact it was impossible to have one without the other; “do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”
Epicurus encouraged us ’to acknowledge every bit of happiness in our lives, to cherish the people and things we love, and to savour every opportunity.’
The philosophy of the garden was conceived as therapy for a trinity of common illnesses - anxiety, greed and lust - by a man who declared himself content with water, bread, weak wine and a “pot of cheese”.
Plain dishes, Epicurus believed, “offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table”.
The host and keeper of this place, where you will find the pleasure of the highest good, will offer you freely cakes of barley and fresh spring water.
This garden will not tease your appetite with the dainties of art but satisfy it with the bounties of nature.
Will you not be a happy guest?
Edited extract from Luke Slattery’s Reclaiming Epicurus: Ancient Wisdom that Could Save the World, an e-book in the Penguin Specials series.
Dickinson evokes a neediness through blunt, direct self-expression – she enjoys her solitude but was a suffocated feeler. Inside there was churning — a desire for acknowledgement if not acceptance.
Religious overtones: #
Emily’s family and the State of Massachusetts followed the Puritan traditions and were swung into the piety of the Calvinists who believed all men were evil and only a few would be “saved” by being “born again” through a confession of faith. Emily rebels against this evangelical approach and eventually defies her teacher, a Miss Lyon refusing to “be saved” and leaves college without graduating perhaps due to her rebellious nature and non-compliance.
Perhaps it was this act of self assertion – rebellion that provoked her unorthodoxy or non-conformism to conventional wisdom.
Cancel Culture #
Emma Green, The NewYorker writes:
Every month, more than two hundred people from the media, academia, and other intellectual circles are invited to a private hangout in New York City, which is known as the Gathering of Thought Criminals.
There are two rules. The first is that you have to be willing to break bread with people who have been socially ostracized, or, as the attendees would say, “cancelled”—whether they’ve lost a job, lost friends, or simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions.
Some people on the guest list are notorious: élite professors who have deviated from campus consensus or who have broken university rules, and journalists who have made a name for themselves amid public backlash (or who have weathered it quietly). Others are relative nobodies, people who for one reason or another have become exasperated with what they see as rampant censorious thinking in our culture.
Emily was left with a sense of exclusion from the established religion, and these sentiments inform much of her poetry. It was from personal choice;
“Some keep the Sabbath going to church - I keep it , staying home.”
There is frequent reference to “being shut out of heaven”. Yet despite this rejection of the orthodox religion, there is much in her poetry which reveals a profoundly religious temperament. For Emily religious experience was not a simple intellectual statement of belief; it could be more accurately reflected in the beauty of nature, and the experiences of ecstatic joy.
Though not a pantheist, she may have closely identified with the “druids”, thought to be translated to “wisdom of the trees”, an Earth-based spirituality connecting with the energy of the land, and with animals, plants and natural philosophy.
Poetic Technique #
This perhaps one of Dickinson’s most orthodox poems as it is more complete or less elliptical than most. Its thread of thought is linear and progressive and most of the diction is clear with less ambiguity.
The poem functions well because of its choice of language and its rich images.
The repetition of the word “hungry” four times evokes a feeling of craving, longing or unfulfillment that cannot be satisfied. It suggests something more than simply eating as evidenced by the choice of “dine”, suggesting social interaction.
The fear and anxiety of the persona is conveyed in terminology such as “trembling”, “touched” “hurt”, “felt ill and odd”. She does not feel comfortable here rather displaced like a “berry” transplanted from the seclusion of a mountain to the bustle of the side of a road (society).
The reference to “noon” has dual connotations operating literally as a time for eating or as an archetypical reflection of a mid life crises.
“Table” repeated twice suggests a functional domestic dining table but also implies a communion table of professed believers reinforced by references to “curious wine” and ”ample bread”. The fact that she merely “touched” the wine and looked at the bread, indicates non-participation. Her preference is for sharing “the crumb” with the birds “In nature’s dining-room”.
The “window” acts like a barrier of inclusion and exclusion; you can see in, yet you are outside merely looking in. She has been there – inside, but now prefers to be outside.
She finally acknowledges that while communion is tempting, she would lose too much of her natural self by conforming.
The contrariness of the temptation and repulsion is a recurring motif running throughout Dickinson’s poetry reflecting the ambiguities and vagary of life. The dualities demonstrate that nothing is as it seems. The conflicting urges of attraction and reticence indicate an ambivalence - uncertainty - she would like to be part of the communion - to belong, yet she prizes her integrity too much to give in to her temptations.
Here is another:
The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her own gate;
Unmoved an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention