One question that confounds readers of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is why she was so reluctant to have her work known in her lifetime. Not even her family knew, until after her death, the extent of Dickinson’s writing, that she had left behind 1,775 poems. “Publication-is the Auction,” poem #709, provides some insight into Dickinson’s thinking. She compares publication to an “Auction / Of the Mind of Man” (1-2), and not even poverty truly justifies it. To sell what has been given you and is only yours while you are on Earth is like reducing the “Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price” (15-16). In this poem, Dickinson equates the publication of poems to the selling of her self. Not publishing, then, is a form of self-preservation.
When Dickinson writes in #709-“Publication-is the Auction” that it is better to avoid “so foul a thing” (4) and instead go “White-Unto the White Creator” (7), she compares her writing to “Snow” (8). She lets the reader know that publication represents a sullying of the “Snow,” a disgrace to what is divine and God-given (from the “White Creator,” who is himself pure). It is not only divinity contained in the poems, she argues, but also the “Human Spirit” (15). Although these are compelling reasons to guard against any adulteration of her work, these are not the only reasons Dickinson gives for not pursuing publication and the fame that (she feared?) might follow. In #1659-“Fame is a fickle food,” she compares fame to an overly rich and ultimately unwholesome meal. Here, as often in Dickinson’s poems, the birds are possessed of a knowledge that human beings do not have. The birds look at the “crumbs” of fame and “Flap past it to the / Farmer’s Corn- / Men eat of it and die” (8-10). Those birds are a stand-in for the poet, their song and her song, even their “ironic caw,” much her own. But “Fame is a fickle food” also speaks to a fear that fame would be transitory if it came at all. In poem #1763, quoted immediately below in its entirety, she states succinctly: “Fame is a bee. / It has a song- / It has a sting- / Ah, too, it has a wing.” It seems her emotions here are moving somewhere between longing and fear.
And so the pull between publication (and the fame she seemed to believe would come with it) and the realization of her work on her own terms remained a preoccupation. As she recounted to T. W. Higginson (Dickinson’s friend and adviser, he was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly), there were the occasional calls from editors who wished to publish her work. She wrote and told him: “Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them ‘why’ they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world” (405). The “world” that the editors would use it for, however, was not the world that most concerned Dickinson. The ambition in her to go beyond the concerns of this world, to even, perhaps, achieve a fame beyond this world, is but one of the more fascinating aspects of her. The power of this woman, whose life appears so circumscribed, who could say, “I feel the presence of that within me, unseen, yet indescribably mighty, that can comprehend worlds & systems of worlds & yet cannot comprehend itself” (241), is to be wondered at.
is why it is odd to find a critic who would imagine that Dickinson “possessed power in abundance but she confined it to the speaker of her verse” (Bennett 43), so clearly does her power exhibit itself in all she does. Her originality caused William Dean Howells to welcome Dickinson as a “distinctive addition to the literature of the world” (Benfey 40). Emily Dickinson would not sell the substance of herself, her words. To her, her gift was greater than gold. When the world was ready for Dickinson the poet, it found her.