Emily Dickinson's "I cannot dance upon my Toes"

Updated on May 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of "I cannot dance upon my Toes"

Emily Dickinson’s "I cannot dance upon my Toes" (#326 in Johnson's Complete Poems) features five stanzas, displaying her recognized slant rimes and unusual rhythms. Her speaker celebrates and even boasts about the experiences of "Glee" that her audience would immediately link to the great performers of opera and dance.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Although she does not associate her joy to public performance, she owns a great ecstatic bliss that she feels is equal to or, more likely, greater than any public displays.

I cannot dance upon my Toes

I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe—
Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze—
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped to Audiences—like Birds,
One Claw upon the Air,

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so—

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention—easy—Here—
Nor any Placard boast me—
It's full as Opera—

Reading of "I cannot dance upon my Toes"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

This poem's speaker is creating a little poetic drama exploring the great joy her solitude has afforded her.

First Quatrain: A Ballet of Joy

I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

The speaker claims that she does not possess the ability to dance as a ballerina does, because she has not undergone the necessary lessons. Yet, at times she experiences such joy in her soul. This joy she believes may be compared to the joy that exudes from ballet.

Dancing upon one’s the toes displays a physical prowess that few folks ever accomplish. The rarity of the beauty that the ballet provides engenders in the speaker the sense that such a skilled performance undoubtedly effects in the artist "[a] Glee."

Second Quatrain: Astonishing Skill

That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe—
Or lay a Prima, mad,

The speaker reveals that if she in truth possessed the ability to dance as ballet artists do, her own "Glee" would suffice to permit her to shine brighter than even the best ballet artist.

The prima ballerina would be shamed and thus become "mad." The entire ballet "Troupe" could be laid low by her astonishing skill.

Third Quatrain: Possessing No Fancy Clothes

And though I had no Gown of Gauze—
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped to Audiences—like Birds,
One Claw upon the Air,

The third quatrain finds the speaker revealing that she, however, possesses "no Gown of Gauze." She cannot dress in fancy clothes as stage performers are wont to do; neither can she have her hair gussied up by make-up artists: "No Ringlet, to my Hair."

And of course, because she is not, in fact, a ballet dancer and does not live that particular art. She has never experienced what ballet dancers have as they "hopped to Audiences—like Birds, / One Claw upon the Air."

The speaker displays a bit of a supercilious air as she compares the ballerinas to hopping birds. Yet she offers the alluring image of the ballerina’s upturned hand as it mimics a bird with "One Claw upon the Air."

Fourth Quatrain: Adorned in Simplicity

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so—

The speaker offers more images of experiences that she has not had and likely never will have. Never has she "tossed [her] shape in Eider Balls."

In place of the elaborate costumes that ballerinas and opera singers don, she adorns herself with simplicity. She has never completed a performance of dancing out of sight and then been summoned back by the enthusiastic audience that keeps applauding until she once more appears to perform an "encore."

Fifth Quatrain: Accolades in Heaven

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention—easy—Here—
Nor any Placard boast me—
It's full as Opera—

This speaker lives far from the world of the ballet dancer. She doubts anyone she knows would suspect she has ever been aware of that art. But this speaker intuitively understands that her work and worth equal, if not exceed, the performances that have garnered accolades. Her accolades exist in heaven.

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, whonu, and mactavers! I think there are more Emily Dicinksons existing today that one might expect. The mainstreamers are always more than willing to label the creative geniuses some kind of crazy. Bummer for the mainstreamers, long live the crazies!

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 

      2 years ago

      Thanks for bringing this poem to light. I've often wondered if an Emily could possibly exist today in our world of rush and social media. Also, today she would probably be seen as having a psychological disease.

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 

      2 years ago from United States

      Dickinson was an inspiration to many over the years. Nicely portrayed and fine tribute. whonu

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