Fame is a fickle food, the title of this brilliant poem is filled with alliteration and that makes the title sound so pleasing and poetic. The poem can sound a little bit confusing because Dickinson is known for using strong metaphorical elements, different meter, and poetic patterns. Not just that, usage of long and irregular pauses makes the poem a lot more difficult to understand, but it also makes it powerful. This is the poem’s Fame is a fickle food summary.
We’ll go for a line-by-line analysis of the poem, understanding the meaning of the poem, it’s implications, and the poetic devices used. But before that, it is important to understand the theme of the poem.
Fame is a fickle food is a metaphorical way of saying how short-lived fame can be. Fame is presented here in the form of food that people can eat.
The poem can be sundered into two different parts. The first part talks about how people and most of society views fame, The second part talks about what fame is. Both the parts when read together show how fame puts people in delusion. This is only because of how society has created this image of popularity.
Let’s move to the line-by-line analysis and summary of the poem. You can read the entire poem here.
Analysis of Fame is a fickle food
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
First let me clarify what “fickle” means here. Fickle means changeable, volatile. These lines show two things about the nature of fame and are very important to understand the poem.
Fame is already fickle, meaning that the nature of fame can change, from famous to infamous, from very famous to irrelevant. This is what fickle means in context to fame. But there’s more. What about the plate?
The fickle fame is served upon a shifting plate. Not only fame is prone to change, but the plate it is served on changes as well. The food (fame) which was once served to someone will lose it soon, as the plate itself shifts.
Fame changes, because fame is fickle. But the plate that it sits on keeps shifting, serving this food to different people, never one.Wordsrum
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.
These lines say the same thing about the nature of fame towards people. It may come to you (the guest) once, but not the second time. Fame comes once, but once it goes away, there’s no coming back.
I think this is the reason why it is so sought by people. The rarity, the once-in-a-lifetime chance of getting fame is the reason why people queue up to get a taste of this fickle food, even if it is not what it seems. And what it is will be revealed later.
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer’s Corn –
We saw why civilized people desire fame, why they want to get the taste of it, hoping that it will last forever and keep them happy. But what happens when an uncivilized animal goes near it?
The crumbs are inspected by the crows and what do they do? They caw, sarcastically, and fly past them. Think about it, crows are the scavengers, the bottom-feeders who eat anything they can get. And yet they reject this food crumbs which is desired madly by men.
The reason why the “caw” is ironic here because crows never miss a chance to eat. Even the crows don’t desire this food, based on their instinct. This they know because their instincts tell them it is poison. But there’s a second part to this.
The crows then fly to eat the farmer’s corn. This is where we get a comparison between the lifestyle and goals we tend to choose. The crows detest the fickle fame’s crumbs and go for the corns. This line is to show that being down-to-earth, humble, and close to nature and people is far more important than the one served on shifting plates.
Dickinson tells that a life that aims to have a better relationship and moments in life is way more preferable than living a fickle life of fame that brings nothing but momentary, hollowed happiness. But this is not how the world works. People want fame, rather than permanent happiness.
Men eat of it and die.
I kept this line for the last to focus on the importance of it. Here dying does not mean a quick death as one would expect from a powerful poison. And men die not because they eat it. They die because of the lack of it, or the desire of it that is never fulfilled.
Fame is fickle and the plate keeps shifting. This means that if one gets it, he/she is addicted to it. But as it is with the nature of fame, it must go away. This absence of fame once people have tasted it makes them seek more. This is the cause of their metaphorical demise.
The other class is filled with people who keep waiting for this plate to be served to them. They wait and wait and turn wilted, but it never comes. This causes another form of metaphorical death. The crows are smart. They caw and ignore it.
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How the poem still works in our time.
This poem was written more than 200-years ago and yet, somehow this poem seems more relevant in our times. Think about it, the world is now connected to the internet. Instagram, Snapchat, etc all force us to be more popular.
Instagram, for example, lets people follow you, and to reach a larger number of followers, people have started living an “Instagram life”. Instead of living in the moment, they prioritize which pictures to take to make their ‘gram look better.
This has led to a world where mental issues have been rampant. Suicide is becoming more common, depression is a huge issue and we need to change things. I find it surprising and equally fascinated how the visionary Emily Dickinson saw this so early.
Don’t chase for the crumbs. Even the crows avoid it.– Wordsrum