The Star’s whole Secret —

by Elouise

Stars over Lake Irene, Rocky Mountain National Park, Erik Stensland Photo

For over a month I’ve been going back to this poem from Emily Dickinson, trying to figure it out. Sometimes I think I get it. Other times I feel like giving up. My comments follow.

The Outer – from the Inner
Derives its Magnitude –
‘Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according
As is the Central Mood –

The fine – unvarying Axis
That regulates the Wheel –
Though Spokes – spin – more conspicuous
And fling a dust – the while.

The Inner – paints the Outer –
The Brush without the Hand –
Its Picture publishes – precise –
As is the inner Brand –

On fine – Arterial Canvas –
A Cheek – perchance a Brow –
The Star’s whole Secret – in the Lake –
Eyes were not meant to know.

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

The first few times I read this poem I wanted it to say something like this:

  • Emily is taking down politicians and public officials who think they can stand before us and be someone they are not.
  • Hence, it isn’t accurate to say of past or present unfortunate behavior: That’s not like me!
  • No, suggests Emily. That is like you. Otherwise it wouldn’t have become visible.

Wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems? Probably not. Read on.

Emily wrote over 1000 poems. She was also very private. How dreadful, then, to have us poring over her words, trying to figure out all her untold secrets! It’s every writer’s nightmare, isn’t it? It certainly would be mine.

Writing is, for better and for worse, a no-win situation. I control the words on the page. And yet, no matter how long I work to get them just right, they still say more about me than I intended to communicate. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Other times it isn’t.

So here’s how I’m thinking about this poem today.

Predominant images:

  • Dukes and dwarfs (the great and the small)
  • A spoked wheel spinning on an axis, throwing dust into the air
  • A painting created from within, not by a human hand
  • A lake that contains “the Star’s whole secret,” not meant to be known by human eyes

What I hear Emily’s poem suggesting:

  • The unseen Inner determines the greatness of what we see in the Outer, whether in humans or, possibly, the night sky.
  • The Inner accurately fuels and regulates the Outer. It does this consistently, without breaking down or missing a beat.
  • Eye-catching Outer activity may seem to offer our best clue to the Inner. It does not. It may, in fact, create noisy ‘dust’ that looks impressive, but has no staying power of its own.
  • What we see in the Outer is what we get. It isn’t everything, and we may want to read more into it than is actually there. Nonetheless, the Outer is a trustworthy representation of the Inner.
  • The poem cautions me about thinking I can present myself as a person I am not, especially to gain or keep something I want.
  • It also makes me think that if I look into the Lake hoping to see “the Star’s whole Secret,” I might find instead a reflection of something about me. Whether I like it or not.
  • Finally, it suggests I am fully known by the Inner that paints and powers my Outer wisely, with infinite care, patience and grace.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 October 2016
Photo found at Erik Stensland’s Images of Rocky Mountain National Park