You can read the speaker's hunger and inability to eat
literally, so that "I had been hungry all
the years" becomes a poem about anorexia or a poem about poverty and
homelessness. Or you can read hunger metaphorically,
as standing for the speaker's desire for what
she lacks and what others possess; the specific lack may not be not
important. Whichever way you read the poem,
it is a definition poem although Dickinson changes the definition
format a little. She places the word to be defined ("hunger is") at the
end of the poem and uses a past tense verb, rather than the present
tense; look at the last three lines ("hunger was").
The speaker's circumstances changed so that she is able to
However, now that she is no longer hungry, she has learned that the
food she was denied (or denied herself, if you think she suffers from
anorexia) is not as satisfying or fulfilling as she imagined while she
The first line is straightforward and easily understood.
- Why does the speaker describe her abililty to eat as
"noon"? Think of the association between noon and food.
- Why does she say "dine," rather than "eat"? How do the
- What does her "trembling" indicate about her physical
and/or her emotional state?
- Why does she merely "touch" the wine? Is that what most
hungry people would do? Does the word suggest
that it takes a great deal or very little to satisfy? Or is something
else being implied about being satisfied once we
obtain what we yearned or hungered for?
- Curious has a number of meanings: (1) eager to learn
or know, (2) unnecessarily
inquiring or prying, (3) careful, accurate, (4) strange, unusual. In
what sense(s) is Dickinson using the word? Also, is the speaker
curious, or is the wine curious?
This stanza continues an image from stanza one, the table, and
introduces the image of windows,
which reappears in the last stanza. Note how her hunger (lack) is
insisted upon throughout the poem rather than the eating (fulfillment
or satisfaction of the hunger).
- What does the speaker mean that she "looked in windows"? Is
she literally excluded from the buildings whose windows she looks in,
like a homeless person. Or is this is a metaphor for being excluded,
e.g., for lacking fulfillment or possesion? If you don't see this as an
exclusion image, how do you read it? Perhaps she is a voyeur (peeping
- What are the connotations of the word "wealth" which she
perceives others as having? Is there a contrast between their wealth
and her own condition? Does the word "wealth" suggest that, at this
point in her experience, she thinks their condition is preferable to
- She contrasts the "ample bread" which she now possesses
with the "crumb." What is the relationship of a crumb to
bread? Why does she describe the bread as "ample"? (ample:
abundant, more than enough). Is she unable to eat (be
fulfilled) because she does not possess enough of what she lacked? Or
is her inability to eat (experience the satisfaction she imagined or
desired while hungry) inherent in the nature of satisfaction or
- Is "Nature's dining-room" to be taken literally, that she
was homeless, living on the street or
in nature somewhere? or is it a metaphor for the state of not having?
Does "Nature's dining-room"
contrast ironically with the "wealth" she saw on tables looking through
- Are the birds literal, and did she share her little
food with them? Or is Dickinson using a metaphor for how little the
speaker had? Or does it mean
something else altogether?
- The speaker didn't know how different the "ample bread" and
the "crumb" were because she
had never experienced both. Why are they different? Consider the
- Is there a difference between the real and the
imagined? Are the satisfactions or fulfillment of one greater than the
- Is this a difference between the desire and the
fulfillment? Is the fulfillment or possession we desire greater than
the fulfillment or possession can actually provide?
- Has she been hungry (gone without) for so long that
her identity has come to be based on being hungry? If so, then food
would be a threat to her identity or
- Has she internalized the hunger so that the barrier to
fulfillment is now a psychological
barrier rather than a condition imposed by the outer world?
- Can some of the readings suggested above be combined or
are they mutually exclusive?
- Do external barriers increase the appetites or desires they
frustrate? To rephrase this statement, does or can
frustration increase desire to a point where the desire cannot be
fulfilled? Would such a situation be
Her explanation for why the "plenty hurt" is that it is
unfamiliar ("new"). Is this really the explanation? Does the rest of
the stanza support it?
- She compares her feelings about having "plenty" to the
situation of a bush which naturally grew
on the mountain being planted in the road. Is this a good environment
for the bush? Is it likely to
flourish in the road? Planting the bush suggests a permanent change;
should we apply
permanence to the speaker's change from deprivation to plenty? Is
whatever is true of the bush's chances
of survival or flourishing also true for her?
- The mountain bush that grows from the berry is in the wrong
environment, i.e., not in its natural place; in other words, the road
is foreign or alien to it. Does the bush image suggest that plenty is
alien to the speaker's nature? Is her natural place outside looking in
through windows rather than being inside eating at the table?
- The bush growing in the road is separate and isolated. Does
this image continue the idea of the image of the speaker looking in
through windows? Is that too an image of separateness or isolation?
Note in stanza two the speaker uses the word "lone."
- If the bush represents the speaker, does the road stand for
society? or for something else?
The speaker realizes that she is no longer hungry, i.e., she
no longer desires what she
lacked "all the years," now that it is available to her. Based on the
knowledge acquired from the change
in her status, she finally defines "hunger" as
Using this definition, what do you think Dickinson is saying about
desire and fulfillment? about lack and
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.
Does this poem support calling Dickinson the poet of
|Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed,"
"Safe in their alabaster chambers,"
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p.
"It was not death, for I stood up,"
| "A bird came down the walk,"
"I like to see it lap the miles,"
"Pain has an element of blank," p.
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p.
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
| "After great pain a formal
feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society"
"The heart asks pleasure first,"
"I'll tell you how the sun rose,"
"Presentiment is that long shadow on
the lawn," p. 36
| "Success is counted sweetest"
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p.
"I felt a cleaving in my mind,"
"My life closed twice before its
close," p. 49
| "Wild nights! Wild nights!"
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms,"
"Hope is the thing with feathers,"
"I felt a funeral in my brain,"
"I had been hungry all the years,"
|"I started Early--took my Dog--"
"My life had stood a loaded gun"
"Because I could not stop for Death,"
"If you were coming in the fall,"
Sample Midtern and Student
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