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Publication is the Auction by Emily Dickinson: Analysis & Meaning

You could only think of a handful of poets who are as revered and read as Emily Dickinson. With her unusual pauses, line breaks, and slant rhyming scheme, she never fails to deliver a powerful message cloaked in words. All her poems convey her beliefs, and her emotions and Publication is the Auction is exactly that. 

In the poem “Publication is the Auction”, Dickinson gives quite a controversial opinion, and that too in a very strong way. This poem is all about what Dickinson thinks of publishing one’s works, and why it is morally wrong to do so. On the surface, this looks like a simple, 4 stanza poem, but there’s a lot to unpack here. 

Let’s get started with the meaning, analysis, and literary devices used in the poem “Publication is the Auction” by Emily Dickinson. The name of the poem, just like every other poem by Dickinson, has been taken from the first line of the poem since the poet rarely gave a title to her poems. 

Publication is the Auction

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It's Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –

Meaning and Summary of the Poem

If we were to condense the entire meaning and summary of Publication is the Auction, it would be this; Emily Dickinson thinks that publishing one’s work for a price is auctioning something very sacred, something very precious. It is like auctioning one’s breath, one’s soul. She believes that putting a price on the literary works humans can craft is very base and demeaning as it is God who is speaking through us. 

This is quite a controversial take, especially when writers, authors, and poets survive by selling their work for the world to read. It must be noted that Dickinson did not say anything about writers publishing their work for the world to read. The poem is a blunt and direct jibe at putting a price on someone’s work. Perhaps at different publication companies?

The second stanza addresses the question of sustainability, of how writers are supposed to make money if not by publishing their work. The answer to this question is the reason why this poem is very harsh. Dickinson says that it is better to meet our creator by dying in our “garret”, which is an attic or a small room used to signify poverty. 

The poet says that it is better to die poor than to sell something so pure and a gift of God. The central theme of the poem is that a writer’s work is a gift of God that should be cherished and revered, not auctioned off and sold at a price, no matter how high the price is. 

In the end, Dickinson says that rather sell your breath, the breath that keeps you alive than sell something that represents God’s gift. The poem can be a little difficult to understand on the first read and it is mostly due to the structuring of the stanzas. The use of enjambment is not very clearly visible and hence gives the poem an incoherent feel. 

Let’s look at the detailed analysis of the poem to understand every stanza of the poem more clearly. 

Analysis of “Publication is the Auction” 

Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Poverty – be justifying

For so foul a thing

The first stanza should be read as one, as the entire stanza is speaking about one thing; how terrible publication can be for the morality of a writer. Dickinson says that publishing what you write is not only the publication of your sacred work but is also the publication of your mind. It means that you as a writer and your literary work are not different. You are auctioning yourself. 

The only justification for doing such a foul thing could be poverty, and nothing else. This line also says that unless you do not possess enough money to survive, do not put a price on your mind, on your work. The first stanza says “publication is foul”

Possibly – but We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

The second stanza then destroys a portion of what was said in the first stanza. While publication can be justified for someone who is very poor, it is still better to die living poorly in a small attic or a room than to sell your soul, to sell something that is given to us by our creator. 

Some words that can confuse readers in this paragraph are; “White Creator” and “Our Snow”. “Our Snow ”, here refers to our soul, while “White Creator” is the creator of this white soul. Snow is used as a metaphor to represent the human soul.  

Thought belong to Him who gave it –

Then – to Him Who bear

It’s Corporeal illustration – sell

The Royal Air –

Now we get to know why Dickinson thinks it is so morally wrong and base to sell your words. She says that thought is something that God gave to use, to communicate, and to spread His word. We are like vessels through which God speaks. Our thoughts are His thoughts. How can one sell it? 

Our thoughts are not our thoughts, but God’s to bear. Any written work that a writer writes using thoughts is a corporeal illustration. So what one might send to the publication to publish is not his to own, but God’s thoughts and words. Hence it is immoral to put a price on such a divine and sacred thing. 

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Of the Heavenly Grace –

But reduce no Human Spirit

To Disgrace of Price –

To understand this stanza properly, one should read it along with the third stanza, as an extension of it. Starting with “Sell the Royal Air in the Parcel, Be the Merchant of the Heavenly Grace”, this line means that one can consider selling the very air that they breathe in, this “Royal Air of the Heavenly Grace”, pack it in a parcel if you want to be the merchant of something so sacred.

But do not reduce the human spirit, the human mind where the thoughts of God reside, do not disgrace it by putting a price on it. What Dickinson is saying is do not sell God’s gift, something so sacred, in the marketplace with inferior things. 

Literary Devices in the Poem

One of the things that makes Emily Dickinson’s poems so unique yet so familiar is the use of literary devices. From impactful metaphors to the subtle use of slant rhyme, here are all the literary devices used in the poem.

Metaphor: It is very clear and easy to see the use of metaphor in the poem. The examples are:

The Auction of the Mind of Man – Publishing one’s literary works and thoughts

From our Garret go White – Die while being poor and living in modest ways

Unto the White Creator – White creator represents God

Than Invest our Snow –  Snow represents our soul

It’s Corporeal Illustration – Literary works are the representation of God’s thoughts

The Royal Air – Our breath

Alliteration: Here are the examples of alliteration used in the poem:

Of the Mind of Man –

For so foul a thing

White – unto the White Creator –

Symbolism: Some words used as symbolism are:

White: To show purity, divineness

Snow: Represent snow, fragile and easy to melt away

Garret: To show poverty

Royal Air: To show the importance and value of the air that we breathe in

Caesura: Caesura is the intentional breaking of lines in a poem to emphasize the importance of the preceding line or word. Some examples of caesura in this poem are: 

Publication – is the Auction

Poverty – be justifying

Possibly – but We – would rather

White – unto the White Creator –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Enjambment: People who have previously read Dickinson’s works know that the poet does not shy away from using enjambment. Here are the examples from this poem: 

Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Possibly – but We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Of the Heavenly Grace –

But reduce no Human Spirit

To Disgrace of Price –

Consonance: Consonance is the use of similar sounding words in a single line. Example are: 

Publication – is the Auction

White – unto the White Creator –

Rhyming Scheme: Like Dickinson’s other poems, this poem also has slant rhymes where the words do not rhyme perfectly but sound similar. The rhyming scheme of the poem is: 

AABB ABAB ABCB ABCD

Why did Dickinson Write this Poem?

While it might seem hypocritical that Dickinson, herself being a published poet, is reprimanding writers who choose to publish their works. But the reality is quite the opposite. Most of Emily Dickinson’s works were published posthumously, i.e., after she had died. She did not like publishers, as publishers deemed whether a poem or a literary work was fit for publication or not. 

These publishers were the ones who put a price on thoughts, and this is what made her despise them. This poem is not for the writers and poets who want the world to read their works, but it is for the publishers who stand as a barrier, moderating what people should read and what they shouldn’t. 

If seen from this perspective, one can understand her point very well. A book that does not seem profitable will never see the light of day or will reach the hands of the readers who might love it. This gatekeeping is what upset Dickinson and perhaps was the reason why she wrote this poem.

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