Did Emily Dickinson mean ‘need not’?

I know parallel semantic and syntactic structure is a key feature in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But reading the poem below, I was just thinking that ‘need not’1 might make more sense than ‘cannot’ in the first stanza. What do you think? 

The Gradation of Fire (1939), Rene Magritte

CXXXIII.

You cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,–
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

1I thought of needn’t first but contractions are seldom used by Dickinson apart from ‘t.

14 thoughts on “Did Emily Dickinson mean ‘need not’?

  1. I suppose you *could* construct an argument for 'need not,' but it would have to get pretty complicated. And you'd need to make the same case for stanza two.

    Although, now that I stare at it a while, I'm starting to see it…

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  2. Surely, one *can* put a fire out — a literal fire, at least.

    I was reading this poem last night and I woke up still thinking about it.

    Now that I think of it some more, perhaps the fire is purely metaphorical. (The problem, for me, is that the 'flood' in the second stanza can be interpreted both metaphorically and non-figuratively. That invites a similar kind of reading about the fire imagery — retrospectively.) Dickinson is never completely literal, is she? 'At the heart of Dickinson's imaginative originality is her use of metaphor to guide the direction of a poem', Billy Collins once commented.

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  3. Aaron said: “a fire needn't be a physical object; could take on metaphorical meaning.”

    John said: “I think Emily D knew precisely what she was writing- interpretation 'needn't' mean changing words :)”

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  4. I go back and forth between 'cannot' and 'need not'. Semantically speaking, 'need not' is more cohesive with the meaning expressed in the first stanza: it is not that one doesn't have the ability to put out a fire. Instead, there is no need for one to do so — fires die down themselves, they always do.

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  5. it is not that one doesn't have the ability to put out a fire. Instead, there is no need for one to do so — fires die down themselves, they always do.

    I think you may be missing an ambiguity in the first stanza: “go” can mean to burn out, but it can also mean to continue burning, and a fan can be used to put out a fire or to make it larger. The lines say both “fires die down themselves” and “fires keep burning by themselves”. The effect, for me, is koan-like, and the counter-intuitive first line adds to that.

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  6. On another note, I'm not sure I understand how anything can be “purely metaphorical”. Any metaphor contains a germ of the literal–that's how metaphors work. And nothing is “purely unmetaphorical”, either, not even an actual fire.

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  7. Nicholas, thank you for the perceptive observation about 'go' – I admit I have missed its ambiguity. And true, 'purely' is not the best choice of word there. Indeed, good metaphors often hinge on the negotiations between the figurative and the literal.

    I enjoyed the discussion – thank you.

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  8. Just a passing comment on this debate: To me it seems in the poem, Dickinson is saying one cannot extinguish a fire because it will go out by itself – that makes no sense. It is likely that she means one doesn't need to extinguish a fire because it will go out by itself. Regarding 'go', true, one can associate it with extinguish (as Tammy does) or with intensify or simply continue (as Nicholas does), but if one thinks of basic physics, a fire will eventually burn out for lack of fuel. And if that is what Dickinson meant, her metaphor seems flawed; the analogy of the conceit breaks down because we know it's not true.

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  9. Tammy, thanks.It's been interesting reading your and other readers' interpretations, too.

    Phill, it isn't that I'm choosing to go with the reading of “continue to burn”. I'm saying that both readings operate at the same time. The poem is paradoxical, designedly so. Just read the second stanza–does that make any sense to you, according to “basic physics”? We aren't in the realm of physics. Think, for instance, of the burning bush.

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  10. And there's another way in which “You cannot put a fire out” works. Ever hear the quip “you can't fire me–I quit”? One meaning of Dickinson's line could be that you can't meaningfully extinguish something that's self-extinguishing anyway.

    None of this is to deny that “need not” would make more sense, i.e. be more coherent, digestible. It would be–and that's why it would've been an inferior line. For me, the counter-intuitiveness is what powers the stanza and sets the poem on the course that leads organically to the second stanza.

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  11. And there's another way in which “You cannot put a fire out” works. Ever hear the quip “you can't fire me–I quit”? One meaning of Dickinson's line could be that you can't meaningfully extinguish something that's self-extinguishing anyway.

    I like this interpretation.

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  12. “You cannot put a fire out”
    The way you would – 'put out a cat'

    Playing with the plasticity of language
    would seem to be Dickinson's game

    I suspect she clues us in to this
    With her second playful claim

    “you cannot fold a flood
    and put it in a drawer”

    The artist may sweetly enjoy
    Playfully creating in bliss

    Never dreaming of the deep waters
    That sleep in the depths of the poem

    Dickinson may have known what she wrote
    But maybe she just wanted to be playful

    yamabuki

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