Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Letter is a joy of Earth

A Letter is a joy of Earth--
It is denied the Gods--
(F 1672)

This tiny poem might very well have come out of a letter, and is typical of the statements Dickinson often made-- gnomic thoughts compressed tightly into a single sentence. I love when she comes up with these seemingly simplistic statements. Anyone might thing "A letter is a joy of earth," because most people really do enjoy getting mail. I think at times that Dickinson would like instant messaging, because not only does it retain some anonymity but it also thrives on the sharp, witty intellect that she possessed. And yet instant messaging has both destroyed and enhanced the art of letter writing. I say destroyed because so few students really know how to draft a formal letter, and few see the value in such a slow form of communication in our technologically advanced society. And yet techology has enhanced letters in the sense that a note in paper means even more and receiving one shows great consideration.

Going more directly back to the poem, though, few people except Dickinson would add on the afterthought: "it is denied the gods." I'm still researching to make sure my grasp of grammar is correct, but if this is a compound sentence (and really even if it's not and it could go either way with Dickinson), then the second line could arguably serve as a nominative clause, renaming "joy" in the first line.

Ironically, the gods who ought to have access to everything are denied one thing-- the joy of letters. It's the unexpected reversal found so often in Dickinson, where the reader would assume gods have access to all, only to realize that while a god might receive a letter, it is unlike that it would happen. And if the god was omniscient, as Christian tradition maintains God is, then the letter really isn't much of a joy. As humans we have expectation or anticipation while we wait for a letter to arrive. There is the sudden surprise-joy of an unexpected letter, but still the anticipation is there when we see the envelope and wonder even for a few seconds before opening what could be inside. The omniscient god would already have foreknowledge, thus making the letter mundane or expected.

Arguably, the Christian response to this could be that even if God is already aware of letters or communication, the very act of communication is a joy to him. It makes me wonder how Dickinson might have responded to this defense.

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