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Interpretation of an Emily dickinson poem, “Unto my books”

I have discovered the poetry section in our local library at Dougherty Station. It has quite some selection. Yesterday I started reading Edward Hirsch’s book, “How to read a poem” — my reward for suffering through a terrible week on wall street last week. Any American poetry book starts out with glowing perspectives on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

According to the book, Emily Dickinson’s biographer Richard Sewall loved the poets she read and found herself amongst them. Emily apparently called her poets “the dearest ones of time,” “Kinsmen of the Shelf,” “enthralling friends, the immortalities.” I wanted to find the context of of these poems.

So I started with the most interesting phrase here: Kinsmen of the Shelf. And I found this poem:

UNTO my books so good to turn
Far ends of tired days;
It half endears the abstinence,
And pain is missed in praise.

As flavors cheer retarded guests
With banquetings to be,
So spices stimulate the time
Till my small library.

It may be wilderness without,
Far feet of failing men,
But holiday excludes the night,
And it is bells within.

I thank these Kinsmen of the Shelf;
Their countenances bland
Enamour in prospective,
And satisfy, obtained.

“Kinsmen of the shelf” refers to books and not poets. Its close, but there is a difference. Emily’s love are books and she personifies them as kinsmen

Even in the worst of times, those far ends of tired days, it is good when I turn to my love, these books. You may call this abstinence from the rest of the world, but it is a endearing experience for me. Lost in the praise of these books, I do not have any of the pain of giving up what others consider joys of the world.

I am attracted to the wise books like retarded guests are cheered by the flavors of food from the banquet. They keep the nonsense chit chat in hope that they will eventually get to savor the food. Similarly, the spices of these books keeps me alive in the the wasteful time that I spend out of my library.

The wilderness of my library might be far from the paths of those men who have failed in love of books. They do not recognize that the holiday I get in this wilderness does not have a night, and in this holiday bells of ecstasy are ringing from within.

The outer appearance of these books — these siblings of mine and the shelf — might be bland. But I am hopeful about the prospective of their company and am satisfied when I have it.

This is how Emily sings her love for books and her library, her Kinsmen of the Shelf.

Nov 4, 2012 – I found another explanation of this poem that includes the civil war reference in this poem that I missed in my earlier assessment. Here it is:

Perhaps “Unto My Books…” was written during one of these times, since the house is full of “retarded guests” from whom she flees to find introspection and seclusion among the “bland countenances” of her “kinsmen of the shelf”.   The sober personality she attributes to the books for which she has such comfortable affection are in contrast to the animated, wine-flushed faces of the real kinsmen the reader is drawn to imagine are visiting the household.   In this poem, she seeks sanctuary inside a crowded house from the lavish banquet with all of its exotic flavors and spices in favor of the “abstinence” of her “small library”.   This poem is a thankful reference to the refuge from the world available within the pages of books, particularly during the holidays, or “tired days”. Dickinson objects to holiday feasts, parties and all of the “bells within” when the outside world is practically falling apart due to the civil war.   She seems to find it in poor taste to celebrate when the outside world is “wilderness” in which there are suffering soldiers far from home whom she sympathetically refers to as “far feet of failing men”.

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