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

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

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 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.

(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.")

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

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.

"I cannot dance upon my Toes"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What was the purpose of dashes and slanted lines in Emily Dickinson’s poems?

Answer: Dickinson did not explain why she liberally sprinkled her verse with dashes. However, I speculate that Dickinson used dashes as a kind of pause, one that is longer than a comma but shorter than a period. I'm not aware that she used "slanted lines"; if you mean "slant rimes," again I would speculate that she was employing terms that fit her meaning, instead of inserting words just for rime's sake.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 19, 2015:

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 on October 18, 2015:

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 from United States on October 18, 2015:

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

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