Close Reading of Publication is the Auction

Dickinson’s poem “Publication –is the Auction” deals with the speaker’s disdain toward the publication of an author’s works. The speaker seems to regard the act of publishing work as an act of selling oneself short, compromising one’s purity and integrity. In the first line, the speaker conveys the impersonality of publication by comparing it to an auction, something detached and businesslike. The speaker goes on to say that the only acceptable reason for publishing work is if the author is struggling with poverty and needs to publish to survive. Next, the speaker brings in personal experience by stating she would rather turn white because of staying in her attic and, presumably, writing poetry which will never be seen. The speaker also incorporates the concept of a higher being as the creator of thoughts. This higher being then passes thoughts on to the writer, or “Him Who bear / It’s Corporeal Illustration” (10-11). The image of a poem being something that can be bought and sold as a commodity continues throughout the poem.Many of the words in this poem have more than one meaning and function in multiple ways. The word “publish” is used to mean both commercialization (i.e. publishing books for sale) and releasing something to the public non-commercially. The definition of the word “auction” is also interesting, because it mentions that the object being bid on will go to the highest bidder. This definition implies that not only is the object only worth monetary value, but that the monetary value is almost arbitrary. To say that publication is like an auction is to say that the reason for publishing is not even to share something, but simply to make the most profit possible. Many of the other words, such as “parcel,” “merchant,” and “price,” create a very businesslike and cold image. The poem gives no indication that the speaker is anyone but Dickinson herself. The context of the poem is simply a single speaker expressing feelings on writing and publication. Her attitude and the poem’s tone are passionate in an assertive yet non-threatening way. She is angry toward the entire concept of publication and what it does to a person. The diction is a few steps above casual speech, but it is not complicated. The ease of the diction allows the reader to better understand the meaning of the poem. It is also an example of the poem’s message; the diction, just as the author, does not put on airs. The open form of this poem made scansion more difficult. There is a clear rhyme scheme and some classic poetic devices are present, but these aspects are not altogether grouped in familiar ways. The first stanza is composed of two pairs of rhyming couplets, in which the first rhyming couplet is two lines ending in near rhyme with the words “auction” and “man,” thus creating an “a-a-b-b” rhyme pattern. The remaining three stanzas are quatrains with various rhyme schemes and rhythms. The second stanza has a much more obvious rhyme scheme of “c-d-c-d.” In the third stanza, the rhyme scheme is broken up, with a pattern of “e-f-g-e.” This variation in common rhyme scheme is jarring to the reader. The last stanza has the same rhyme scheme as the second, with a pattern of “h-i-h-i.”The prevailing foot of the poem is trochaic, with the actual meter varying from line to line. The first line of each stanza is clearly trochaic tetrameter. The fact that the beginning of each stanza is clearly identifiable provides a stable anchor for the rest of the lines. Some of the lines have an extra beat hanging at the end, which almost allows the reader to carry over the beat into the next line, helping the enjambment. The caesurae and the enjambment that almost always follow are the poet’s tools to control the discourse time, forcing the reader to pause at certain words and think of their meaning not only in the current line, but also the lines before and after the word. There are medial and terminal caesurae in virtually every line, which force the reader to stop and concentrate on certain words or phrases. For example, in the first line of the second stanza, “Possibly –but We –would rather” (5), there are two caesurae. The first caesura disconnects the word “possibly” from the rest of the line. One of the reasons for this, aside from distinguishing the word as being important, is that the actual word “possibly” could link back to the last two lines in the previous stanza in which the speaker says that “Poverty –be justifying / For so foul a thing” (3-4). The addition of the word “possibly” indicates the speaker’s apprehension to even admit there is a good reason for publishing one’s work. The third stanza is almost all enjambment, even carrying its thoughts over to the next stanza with the lines “It’s Corporeal Illustration –sell / The Royal Air / In the Parcel –Be the Merchant” (11-13). This enjambment is paired with syntactic doubling, because a line could easily refer to the line before it or after it.The figurative language in this poem is the most interesting and refreshing characteristic of it. The entire poem is an extended metaphor in which publication is the tenor, and an auction is the vehicle with which the tenor is described. The concept of publication seems cold, impersonal, and very money-driven to the speaker. An auction is exactly that –an object is sold to the highest bidder as fast as possible with the main concern being how much profit the seller will make. The comparison of publication to an auction reveals information about the writer’s feelings toward the subject.Within the extended metaphor of the auction lie more metaphors and imagery. In the second stanza the speaker mentions “white” and “snow.” She says she would rather become pale and die in her attic than sell her “snow.” She says she would rather go pale and go “unto the White Creator” (7), which is presumably a metonymy for God. If the “White Creator” is God and “Thought belong to Him who gave it / Then –to Him Who bear / It’s Corporeal Illustration” (9-11)), then the “white” and “snow” are the poet’s thoughts and poetry itself. This entire reasoning creates an entirely different metaphor.Dickinson’s “Publication –is the Auction” is a speaker’s protest against publication because of what it does to a person’s soul and their thoughts. Publication degrades the human spirit by putting an arbitrary price on it. The speaker feels so strongly about this that she implies she would rather essentially sit in her attic and die than publish her work and allow her mind, soul, and integrity to be compromised.

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