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From Dickinson's correspondence with Thomas Higginson:

I smile when you suggest that I delay "to publish" -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her -- if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase -- and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me -- then.

My Barefoot-Rank is better.

You think my gait "spasmodic," I am in danger, Sir.

You think me "uncontrolled," I have no Tribunal. . . .

The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can.

  1. What does she mean by 'Firmament to Fin?' My guess is that fin is an alternate spelling of fen, so this is along the lines of saying 'as foreign as heaven is to earth.'

  2. I only get a vague reading of the second line, particulary 'the longest day would pass me on the chase.' A midsummer foxhunt? Dog races?? If fame doesn't belong to her, what exactly is she saying will happen?

  3. 'Barefoot-Rank' is even more vague. Not really sure what it could mean.

The gist of it makes sense to me, but I'd like to fully understand.

  • If she had no fame, she might chase it (chase fame, not a fox). – Yosef Baskin Mar 2 '17 at 21:53
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    Fame is a she, because she is indirectly making fame a goddess. I agree, it is to chase after fame. The longest day would pass me on the chase: she is very slow indeed. One goes slowly towards "Fame". She is putting being unknown at the same level as Fame by capitalizing Barefoot-rank. Barefoot rank=someone too poor to buy shoes. Very poor. Yes, fin, fen, probably. I live near her house, she is one of my favorite poets and I have yet to visit it. Poor Emily Dickinson, she was such a masochist and indirectly here passive aggressive about herself. :) – Lambie Mar 2 '17 at 22:01
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    Pass me on the chase: here, she is saying that chasing after fame is comprised of days. The people chasing after it, she is saying are actual days, and she would be the slowest "day", chaser after fame in the race. That's how much she does not want it. – Lambie Mar 2 '17 at 22:06
  • And during all of this fame-chasing she would lose the trust of her dog? Thanks for your take! She's quickly becoming one of my favorites too. :] – gia Mar 2 '17 at 22:23
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    I took "as Firmament to Fin" to mean as foreign as the idea of heaven would be to a fish. It would be a bit far fetched for a metaphor if it weren't Dickenson. – Al Maki Mar 2 '17 at 23:20
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This answer mainly deals with your Q1:

What does she mean by 'Firmament to Fin?' My guess is that fin is an alternate spelling of fen, so this is along the lines of saying 'as foreign as heaven is to earth.'

You quote:

I smile when you suggest that I delay "to publish" -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.

The key is that to delay publishing is foreign to her, as foreign as firmament is to fin.

firmament noun (literary) The heavens or sky. - ODO

The firmament is a reference to the sky, and fin is a metonymic reference to fish. Just as the sky is a foreign environment to fish, an intentional delay in publishing is foreign to Dickinson.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Dickinson may not have been interested in publishing, simply seeking an established poet's opinion of her work. This would be consistent with the next 2 lines (incidentally, your Q2 and Q3), which refer to her lack of fame and inability to pursue it. In that case, it would be publishing that was foreign to her. Either way, "as firmament to fin" refers to something foreign, or somewhat akin to the idiom "a fish out of water".

As for your Q2, in the phrase

the longest day would pass me on the chase

the imagery is that of a fox-hunt as you suggest, where she hunts fame. Her assertion was that she couldn't escape fame if she was already famous, but if she was hunting for fame, she would fail. That is, she thought she wouldn't be able to capture fame, even given the "longest day", or the maximum time allocated to her attempt (presumably, to the disappointment of her dog, who would have participated in the hunt).

Regarding the barefoot ranking of your Q3:

More importantly, what if she not only meant what she wrote, but what if she was right? Is there a sense in which a “barefoot” ranking is, actually, better than fame and a public career in the art of poetry? - David Graham, "My Barefoot Rank"

Of the 3 questions, I'm least sure of my answer to your Q3. However, the comparison appears to be between a professional ranking conferred by scholars, and a 'barefoot' ranking among the general population.

  • This makes a bit more sense. – gia Mar 2 '17 at 22:26
  • @gia Glad to hear it. My answer touches on Q2 and Q3 as well. Have a look at David Graham's linked piece - it contrasts someone who had literary accolades but whose fame was "written in water" with Dickinson, who, it would seem, wasn't all that popular among academics for a long time. – Lawrence Mar 2 '17 at 22:55

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