Can't figure out a part of a Dickinson poem
November 18, 2005 4:46 PM   Subscribe

What does this mean? "If only centuries delayed, / I'd count them on my hand, / Subtracting till my fingers dropped / Into Van Diemen’s land." From Emily Dickinson. Apparently Van Deimen's land = Tasmania, once a penal colony... but if your fingers dropped from fatigue, why would they drop there?

The only interpretation I can figure is that if you're banished to Van Deimen's Land, you'd have a long sentence (hence she's comparing her wait to being entrapped there), but that's a bit of a reach I think.
posted by Firas to Media & Arts (20 answers total)
 
Huh? Probably because the prisoners there had to do a lot of labor, thus all the fingers dropping off.
posted by xmutex at 4:53 PM on November 18, 2005


Maybe because it is south and therefore "down"?
posted by Airhen at 4:59 PM on November 18, 2005


You're taking the verse out of context. The poem is about love and the speaker is saying, essentially, that she would wait forever and a day for her lover to come to her.

Look at the other verses (paraphrasing):
"If I had to wait until Autumn to see you,
It wouldn't be a big deal as long as I get to be with you in the end.

If I had to wait a year to see you,
It wouldn't be a big deal as long as I get to be with you in the end.

If I had to wait centuries to see you [this is the verse that's throwing you off],
It wouldn't be a big deal as long as I get to be with you in the end.

If I had to wait until the end of time to see you,
It wouldn't be a big deal as long as I get to be with you in the end.

Of course, I don't know how soon I'll get to see you again,
Which is killing me."
posted by Gator at 5:01 PM on November 18, 2005


Or am I misunderstanding the question?
posted by Gator at 5:02 PM on November 18, 2005


I agree with Gator's interpretation, but I'm also puzzled about how exactly the subtracting-on-my-fingers-until-they-end-up-in-Tasmania metaphor makes sense -- the first part of it doesn't really seem to lead into the next part of it. The other verses seem much clearer.
posted by clarahamster at 5:08 PM on November 18, 2005


Gator, yep, it's a beautiful poem about pining. I'm looking at the more low-level details... I may end up explicating it for a project but I have to figure out what that sentence is about first, before going off on my own to do imagery/diction/form/etc. analysis.

Airhen: ooh. Maybe she's combining the 'down' connotation with a 'jailterm wait' connotation in the same spot. Clever one, that Emily.
posted by Firas at 5:09 PM on November 18, 2005


Van Diemen's Land isn't very hospitable; it's mostly desert. My guess is that she's trying to conjure up a sort of clichéd image: the spectre of a skeleton, flesh withered off the bones, half submerged in desert sands. In other words, Van Diemen's Land is used as a sort of metonymy for Death.

After all, if centuries separate her from her lover, then she will surely die before she sees her lover again. And yet, all of these things - summers, years, centuries, Death itself - seem trivial to her, compared with the uncertainty that bedevils her and which this poem laments.

I'm not sure this is right, though. One of the things I've always liked about Dickinson is that she was not writing for anyone but herself, and so felt free to be as obscure as she wished. Apparently she shoved all her poems in the back of a drawer where they were found after her death. Anyway, that line seems pretty obscure. Maybe her lover's taking a trip to Australia with the hope of settling there - who knows?
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:10 PM on November 18, 2005




But I agree with everyone else here in that she was probably stuffing more than one image/metaphor/what-have-you into the use of Van Diemen's land.
posted by onalark at 5:15 PM on November 18, 2005


I'm sorry Firas, I missed what you were focusing on. I'll dig around some more, but it might be as simple as others have suggested, Van Diemen's Land being "down" or what have you.
posted by Gator at 5:25 PM on November 18, 2005


The speaker considers it a high crime to be away from her lover, hence the penal colony? Could be a bit of a stretch, but one must stretch a bit for her symbolism sometimes...
posted by Gator at 5:49 PM on November 18, 2005


Yeah. I was wondering if there was anything obvious I was missing, but apparently it's one of those 'your guess is as good as mine' type situations. Not to knock such situations: what would literature students do without them?
posted by Firas at 6:14 PM on November 18, 2005


Van Diemen's Land isn't very hospitable; it's mostly desert.

No, it sure as hell is not mostly desert! It's a wet, cold island with some of the most spectacular temperate rainforests in the world!
posted by mikeybidness at 6:44 PM on November 18, 2005


[Long - you've been warned]

Van Diemen's Land was reserved for the worst offenders in the penal system of the time.

Those sent to New South Wales could be there for seven years or life, but those sent to Van Diemen's Land were gone from their life in Great Britain forever.

Due to the distance involved to travel there and the harsh conditions, it was nigh impossible to "visit" someone there once they'd gone, so they "dropped off the face of the earth" as far as society was concerned.

This is a phraseology that would have made much more sense when it was written. It's not supposed to be taken literally as a destination for the fingers, but as a colorful metaphor for "gone." Since the British Penal System is not a daily discussion today (at least not in the circles I travel in!) we do not automatically make the connection -- it has fallen out of the vernacular.

This is pretty common in English -- a phrase which gets lost in time when its utility dies out. Even when some form of the phrase survives, the original meaning and derivation no longer makes sense. A quick example would be "shellshocked" - commonly used today as a synonym for "stunned" - but originally meant as a term to describe WWI veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who were far more than just stunned by the horrors of war. Most users of the word today do not even associate shellshocked with artillery even though that's the source of the word. The farther away from the event we get, the greater the disconnect.

Or, I could be nuts.
posted by jetdata at 8:20 PM on November 18, 2005


if you're banished to Van Deimen's Land, you'd have a long sentence (hence she's comparing her wait to being entrapped there), but that's a bit of a reach I think.

It's not so much of a reach if you take it as simply bringing up the idea of exile, i.e. the solitude of being separated from the lover being compared to a banishment in Van Diemen's land. So you count the time until your fingers fall into the dust of the place to which you're exiled. Or maybe that's too easy.
posted by transient at 10:30 PM on November 18, 2005


I think she's essentially lamenting, "If time were the only thing seperating us (implying that it wasn't just a matter of time), I'd simply just count the days, even if it were so long that my fingers would fall off."

I'm guessing Van Diemen's land is just a symbol for utter irretrievability, perhaps emphasizing just how much she is willing to sacrifice in eagerness of the lover's return.

Un-rhyming translation:
"If it were simply time that seperated us, / I would make an animated flash countdown timer, / and would continue longingly gazing at my computer monitor in anticipation / even after getting a blue screen."
posted by vanoakenfold at 4:16 AM on November 19, 2005


what jetdata and transient are saying. if you're sent to van diemen's land you're cast out, banished. it invokes distance, loss, suffering, isolation, etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:25 AM on November 19, 2005


Yeah, jetdata has it. But I have to take issue with this from ikkyu2:

One of the things I've always liked about Dickinson is that she was not writing for anyone but herself, and so felt free to be as obscure as she wished. Apparently she shoved all her poems in the back of a drawer where they were found after her death.


This is a common misconception. She wanted to be published and was hoping that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor at The Atlantic, would help with that, but although he liked her (in an infuriatingly condescending way), he didn't think her poems were publishable as they were. (Eleven poems were actually published during her lifetime.) Unfortunately, she was ahead of her time at a time when people had no interest in anything very different from what they were familiar with. I suspect that's why she "withdrew," rarely going out and seeing people; she wasn't pathologically shy, she just felt estranged from her surroundings. I suspect if Higginson or some other acquaintance had had the rare ability to assimilate something new and different and the clout to get it published and talked about and eventually recognized at something like its true value, she could have become as gregarious and well-loved as Whitman. It's a goddam shame.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on November 19, 2005


One analysis [PDF; view as HTML]:
On a technical note, the "Van Diemen's land" in stanza three is the historical name for the Australian island of Tasmania. Van Diemen's Land was the main penal colony in Australia from 1803 to 1853, when transportation of felons was outlawed. The lines "Subtracting till my fingers dropped / Into Van Diemen's land" take on an even more ominous tone when you realize she writes of dropping her fingers, the metaphoric centuries (already a rather grisly image), like felons into prison. Children played a game involving Van Diemen's land, so the image may not be so terrible, but reference to the game doesn't seem to explain why the fingers "drop."
Another analysis:
The reference to Van Diemen's land indicates someplace far away. Van Diemen's land is the old name for Tasmania, an island off Australia. Why her fingers would drop is puzzling. One suggestion is that she has in mind a riddle: one person would curl her fingers under and then ask where they had gone; the answer was Van Diemen's Land or "down under."
You can sing a lot of her poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

U2 did a song called Van Diemen's Land on Rattle and Hum.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:29 AM on November 19, 2005


firstly, with mickey bidness, tasmania is definitely not a desert.

I think you just need to look at the image rather than the specific details. She's counting the centuries on her hand, subtracting till her fingers drop. ie, she's waiting so long that just from counting the centuries her fingers are dropping off. that's a LOT of centuries!

her fingers are dropping into Van Dieman's Land which, as others have pointed out, is distant and remote and never to be seen again and all that.

the point being that she would wait a long, long time to see her lover.
posted by twirlypen at 4:31 PM on November 19, 2005


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