Guide to Emily Dickinson’s “I would not paint – a picture –”
I would not paint — a picture —
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell — delicious — on —
And wonder how the fingers feel
Who rare — celestial — stir —
Evokes so sweet a Torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —
I would not talk, like Cornets —
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings —
And out, and easy on —
Through Villages of Ether —
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal —
The pier to my Pontoon —
Nor would I be a Poet —
It’s finer — own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!
There are three stanzas of eight verses. The meter is iambic, and it rotates between three, three and a half, and four feet per verse in order to allow more flexibility in diction. The odd-numbered verses are either three and a half feet (ending with an unstressed syllable) or four feet (ending with a stressed syllable). The even-numbered verses are always three feet long, and they have end rhymes: slant in the first two stanzas, perfect rhymes in the third. All verses begin with unstressed syllables.
Read this poem slowly, somewhat dreamily, but with an underlying passion because the poet is discussing something secretly important to her. One can speak quickly at work and at parties – rapid-fire conversations are habitual at Duke – but there is no compelling reason to do so with a poem of twenty-four verses. The work is complex enough that the reader needs two or three surveys to understand it; the listener does not have the same opportunity, so do not rush him. Slowing the pace also allows the listener to appreciate the beauty in each verse.
The even verses resolve or modify statements made in the odd verses, so read the lines as if they are couplets. The reader can pause for breath after the first, fourth, and eight verses of each stanza, as these are (at times hidden) breaks between clauses.
Many nouns are capitalized. Not all nouns are, however, and furthermore, the author does not restrict the capitalization to abstract nouns like “despair” and “one.” Note “Balloon,” “Metal,” and “Pontoon” in verses 14-16. So, I interpret the capitalization as a signal that those words should be stressed: more volume, a moment’s pause after saying them.
Dickinson uses several dashes. Her only full-stop is the exclamation point at the very end of the poem. This way, the reader can pause briefly, but he is continuously moving from beginning to end. When dashes appear mid-sentence, stress the words inside them because they are important to the theme.
Dickinson says she would rather be the audience of an artist than the artist herself.
Each stanza treats a different type of art: painting in the first, music in the second, poetry in the third.
She says she “would not” paint a picture, play music, or be a poet. The distinction between this phrase an “am not” is critical, given the irony that she is a poet, and she is expressing this preference inside a carefully-crafted poem. So reality does not fit her stated preferences. The words “torment” and “despair,” which are applied to painting, and the reference to artistic ability as a “privilege so awful” indicate a reason: perhaps the difficulty of creating art, or perhaps the pain of creating something which is beautiful but which is only a representation.
Regardless, she capitalizes the word “One,” and she also capitalizes two words in a single line in the phrase “Own the Ear,” referring to a person having taste for great poetry. This means she respects the audience.
The author denies the ability to stun herself with poetry. This could be humility, but it could also be because another person’s work will always surprise us more than our own. We create our work over long periods of time, so it can’t stun us in the same way. Either interpretation is good in my opinion.
Given the quality and theme of the poem, it’s clear that art is very important to her; hence the work deserves a passionate reading.
All three stanzas use celestial metaphors. The painting has a “rare – celestial – stir.” The audience of a piece of music is lifted so much, she floats out the window and into the clouds. The muse is compared to lightning bolts come down from the heavens. I am reminded of Plato and his World of Forms. The Forms are the truest and most beautiful things, but they are not of this earth: they are of the heavens. Dickinson evokes the actions of watching the stars, floating to the skies in a balloon, and lightning bolts to describe communication between man and beauty through art.
Terms of art, music, and poetry are often used as metaphors for other things (“music to my ears,” etc.) Here, Dickinson turns and makes metaphors for art. “Delicious,” “sweet,” and “sumptuous” are all used in the painting stanza, comparing this pursuit to the pleasure we take in consuming food. Music is not played but spoken, indicating that a piece is a poem or conversation. Poems are “bolts of melody.”
Quick Explanations of Turns of Phrase
To swiftly assist the actor in understanding the poem, here are my attempts to translate some words:
A cornet is a musical instrument, specifically a mellower version of the trumpet.
“Villages of Ether” I take to be clouds, “ether” being an old term for gas
“Lip of Metal” is the cornet again, being made of metal, but can also take a double meaning and refer to the pier.
“The pier to my Pontoon” – A pontoon is a boat, and here it is Dickenson’s soul. The pier, or the music, is the place where the boat embarks to sea, or spiritual journey.
“Impotent” is not sexual in meaning but rather the feeling the reader has when a poem floors her, and she cannot do anything but think about it.
“License” is poetic license, or the ability/freedom of the poet to say something however he likes.
“Dower” usually refers to the endowment from a husband to a wife in the event of the former’s death, but it can also signify a natural talent, and I take the latter to be Dickinson’s meaning.
Note also the variable meanings of “art”: it can be a specific work, or the amalgamation of several human creations, or simply the ability to craft something. In line 23, Dickinson means “art” as craftsmanship.
Verse 3, “It’s bright impossibility,” is more clearly read as “Its bright impossibility” in my opinion. “It’s” is a contraction which would imply “It is bright impossibility to dwell – delicious – on,” or the act of dwelling is brightly impossible. I prefer “Its bright impossibility,” which signifies the impossibility of the painting, being a human creation made with artistic license rather than a mere photograph of the world. I believe this goes better with the concepts of “sweet torment” and “sumptuous despair.” The artist feels torment and despair because what he has created is beautiful but unreal.
Good luck! I’m sure you’ll read this poem beautifully.