Subtle Glutton

Today is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Emily wants to talk about Hope.

#1547, c. 1882

Hope is a subtle Glutton —
He feeds upon the Fair —
And yet — inspected closely
What Abstinence is there —

His is the Halcyon Table —
That never seats but One —
And whatsoever is consumed
The same amount remain —

Emily wrote this poem about 20 years after her famous, ” ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — ” Her sense of Hope changes with age. In her youth, Hope was a light thing, borne on air. Here Hope takes on a low, heavy, disgusting aspect. I hate the word “glutton”. It disgusts me. Calls up all my judgments.

What is a “subtle glutton”? Isn’t a glutton by definition really obvious about what he’s up to? What’s the point of being a glutton if your greed is so nuanced that it might not be noticed by others? Gluttons don’t care about others. That’s what makes them gluttons in the first place.

In her earlier poem about Hope, Emily placed the word in quotation marks, as if she saw it as a concept, not a thing itself. In her later development as a poet she doesn’t dress up Hope with any extraneous punctuation but goes straight for the heart of it. Hope is not a placard, standing in for something else. It is the thing itself. Hope IS . . . a subtle glutton.

The roles of consumer and consumed shift from first stanza to second. In the first, Hope feeds on the fair. That is to say those foolish enough to believe in Hope’s promise. He eats away at us. We are consumed by Hope. The animalistic violence in “feeds” really scares me.

But wait! she says. The word “feeds” works two ways, and it all hangs on that preposition. We are suffering an illusion. Hope does not consume us. Rather hope feeds us, not feeds on us. Hope gives us food at the Halcyon Table. It is paradise to be nourished by Hope, even though at times it can feel like torture. When Hope allows us to want or expect things that are not realized, it may seem as though Hope is tearing at our entrails with the sharp teeth of a predator. We may blame Hope for this agony. But in the end, she says, we are sustained by Hope.

What else is there?

Further, that sustenance is endless. No matter how much Hope we use up, there is always more where that came from. Emily acknowledges the double-edged sword here. That Hope both destroys and creates. Hard to have a peaceful relationship with Hope, when Disappointment is always lurking in the periphery of Hope’s influence.

So today is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Talk about drawing on reserves of Hope. We all hope for better. We have all been disappointed. It could only be Hope that keeps us here now and for this long and so far. Hope that we will be all right. Hope that the federal government will meet its obligation to us. Hope that Nature will be kind. That our lives will settle into some ease and stability. That our city will flourish. Hope eats away at us. We are down to bones and threads. As Hope feeds on us, still paradoxically, it sustains life here in the swamp.

I plan to spend a portion of the day immersed in water, moving in that medium and making an alliance. I’m asking for peace, acceptance and mercy from the water. I hope for that much.


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