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

Updated on September 29, 2017
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


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.

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’s “I cannot dance upon my Toes” features five stanzas, displaying her recognized slant rimes and unusual rhythms. Her speaker celebrates and even boasts about her experience 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.

First Quatrain: “I cannot dance upon my Toes”

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: “That had I Ballet knowledge”

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: “And though I had no Gown of Gauze”

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, she 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: “Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls”

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: “Nor any know I know the Art”

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 particular art. But this speaker intuitively understands that her work and worth are equal--if they do not exceed--the performances that have garnered accolades. Her accolades exist in heaven.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from Spring Hill, TN

      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