Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems Summary and Analysis
"Some -- Work for Immortality --"
This poem opens with the declaration that while some people work for immortality—that is, fame and recognition that last beyond one’s death—most people (“The Chiefer part”) work for their hourly compensation (“for Time –“). Those who work for money are compensated immediately (“He – Compensates – immediately –“), while those who work for immortality are only given “Checks” that can later be traded in for “Fame,” but in the mean time are meaningless.
These “Checks – on Fame” are very slow in coming (“Slow Gold”), but once they do, they are “Everlasting.” The cash (“The Bullion of Today –“), then, when contrasted with this eternal compensation (“Contrasted with the Currency / Of Immortality –“) comes to seem very meaningless indeed.
Those who choose immortality over money are few (“Here and There”), and because of this choice, they become “A Beggar,” as they cannot use their compensation in this life. However, poor though they may be, they show intelligence beyond that of the stockbrokers and other rich men (“Is gifted to discern / Beyond the Broker’s insight –“), because they can see that one is only money, while one has “the Mine”—that is, the treasury—behind it, and it is not just any treasury, but the treasury of immortality.
“Some – Work for Immortality –“ can be read in two different ways. The primary reading is that this is another of Dickinson’s poems musing on fame and success. Unlike most of her poems that deal with this theme, here fame is, in a qualified way, presented as a good thing. In this reading, working for immortality - that is, working to create great work that will live on after its creator is gone - is presented as what the “gifted,” the “insightful” do. The key assumption is that this kind of work will not achieve immortality if it is created without talent and insight, just with a view for fame.
The alternative is to work for money, and the symbol for this in the poem is the stockbroker, someone who makes money by working with money, whose work is highly ephemeral and certainly does not cast its performer into the immortal realm. He gains wealth, certainly, but it is only “The Bullion of Today,” and will have no value after death, either in terms of fame or in terms of any judgments in the afterlife. The “Beggar” who knows better—perhaps the poet—works for something greater, something more lasting, but it is a work that gives its performer nothing until after their death.
In fact, in this poem the moment of pay off for the “Beggar” figure is upon death—that is when he can cash his “Checks – on Fame –,” thus this fame can only be postmortem, guaranteeing that he is not using his art for more shallow gains. Were the fame to occur during life, then the poet would be no different from the stockbroker, working for an immediate payoff rather than the “Currency / Of Immortality –,” which can only be paid in the afterlife.
In the alternative reading of “Some – Work for Immortality –,” the stockbroker stands in for anyone whose aim is for pleasure in this lifetime only, with no thought for the duration of that pleasure, or for what comes after death. The “Beggar,” on the other hand, forgoes pleasure in this world for the promise of “Immortality,” for the “Slow” and “Everlasting” “Gold” of the afterlife. In this reading money and fame are only metaphors for either earthly pleasure or eternal reward.
This second reading is clearly a very Christian one, and more dogmatic than Dickinson’s religious poetry tends to be. Yet it is not so surprising that this would be a place where her vision coincided more closely with the Church’s. She gave up essentially all other earthly pleasurable pursuits to concentrate fully on her poetry, which resulted in her writing almost 1800 poems, for which she never gained any recognition on Earth during her lifetime. The idea that her poems could be appreciated after her death, or her way of life be rewarded in an afterlife, was sure to give great comfort at the least, and possibly great motivation.
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