“A Precious — mouldering pleasure —‘tis —”

emily dickinson

Dickenson alludes to great writers of the past in her poem “A Precious — mouldering pleasure —‘tis —”: Plato, Sophocles, Sappho, Beatrice, and Dante.  In the phrase “His quaint opinions”, she is metaphorically relating the old vellum volumes, “the Dress of his Century”, of classical literature to elderly gentlemen from, “A passage back — or two” (252). Both the volumes and the gentlemen are still of “Enchantment” and we wish them not to go.  Dickenson signifies here the sadness one feels when a good story comes to an end as well as when a good writer’s life comes to an end.  The silver lining is that the writer’s legacy and voice will live on through their stories.

Dickenson is also alluding to her works being as influential as these classic stories of old,  “On Themes concern our mutual mind —” . They are both classified as “The Literature of Man —” which shows a bit of feminist irony of a woman’s work having to fit into this umbrella category as there does not exist the phrase, “The Literature of woman and man”.   Her homage to  Sappho and Beatrice also gives a nod to classic women writers who influenced their generation as Dickinson has.  Nonetheless, regardless of the gender of the writer or philosopher, their words had a great impact on each other and are still having an impact on her generation.

This poem also brings to mind a reference to the Hellenistic theme in Emma Lazarus’ “Venus of the Louvre” where Heine is admiring, or worshipping, the Greek gods of Plato, Sophocles, and Sappho.  Plato “was a Certainty” as well during these dark ages of the 400 year Interbiblical period where the world worshipped and followed the philosophers as the prophets of the Old Testament were silent.  (See my blog  Venus of the Louvre by Emma Lazarus).

Finally, Emily Dickinson lived most of her adult life in seclusion.  She bound together many of her poems into “fascicles”, or small booklets, tied together with string and never gave titles to any of her poems; perhaps to allow the reader to have an open mind and interpretation when approaching her poetry. These fascicles offer a thrilling glimpse into the mind of this prolific writer around age 30, when she was just beginning to harness the gift of her own genius.  Although she never married, she spent much of her life in correspondence with friends and lovers, even addressing some as “Master”.  There are many theories to whom this is referring :“where Sundown cannot find us – and the true keep coming”, but perhaps that mystery will never be solved.

After her death, her sister Lavinia arranged nearly 1,800 poems into booklets and had them edited and published in three editions in 1890. Her poems were later numbered and published by two authors, R. W. Franklin and Thomas H. Johnson.  Dickinson’s herbarium is now held in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

A PRECIOUS, mouldering pleasure ’t is
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,

His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.

His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;

What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty,
And Sophocles a man;

When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,

He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true:
He lived where dreams were born.

His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.

Works Cited

  • Franklin, R. W. (ed). 1999.The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-67624-6
  • Johnson, Thomas H. (ed). 1960.The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)