I had been hungry all the years;
My noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.

'T was this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own.

I did not know the ample bread,
'T was so unlike the crumb
The birds and I had often shared
In Nature's dining-room.

The plenty hurt me, 't was so new,
Myself felt ill and odd,
As berry of a mountain bush
Transplanted to the road.

Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.


I am changing my approach to this poem, to give you a chance to use your own critical skills in reading this poem. However, I will offer some suggestions and ask what I hope are useful questions.

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 eat. 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 was hungry.

Stanza one

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 words differ?

  • 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?

Stanza two

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 tom)?

  • 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 hers?

Stanza three

  • 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 fulfillment itself?

  • 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 the windows?

  • 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 following possibilities:
    • Is there a difference between the real and the imagined? Are the satisfactions or fulfillment of one greater than the other?
    • 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 psychological survival.
    • 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 ironic?

Stanza four

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?

Stanza five

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

                        a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.
Using this definition, what do you think Dickinson is saying about desire and fulfillment? about lack and satisfaction?

Does this poem support calling Dickinson the poet of exclusion?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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