‘He ate and drank the precious words’ by Emily Dickinson is an uplifting poem. It celebrates the joys of reading by describing one man’s experience.
This is one of three poems that were later included in a short book of poems that was published with young children in mind. The poems are illustrated with images that connect to the three poems in the volume. The other two ‘There is no Frigate like a Book’ (the title poem) and ‘A Drop fell on the Apple Tree’.
Explore He ate and drank the precious words
The poem details, quite simply, the joy of an old, poor man who is freed from the bonds of his life through reading. He has been given “wings” by a book, likely one of poetry, and is now able to dance, feel, and experience life like he used to.
‘He ate and drank the precious words’ by Emily Dickinson is a short eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow Dickinson’s traditional rhyme scheme of ABCB changing end sounds in the second four lines. This is known as a ballad stanza. It also makes use of iambic tetrameter. Iambic tetrameter refers to the number of syllables, or beats, per line and where the stresses fall. One metrical foot, or set of two beats, in this poem, is made up of one unstressed and one stressed beat. There are a total of four “feet” per line.
Dickinson’s use of Capitalization
The use of dashes and seemingly random capitalized letters is one of the features of Dickinson’s poetry for which she is best known. Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation and capitalization mean. In this particular poem, Dickinson does not use the dashes which are so frequently featured in her other poems. But, in regards to the capitalized letters, there is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘He ate and drank the precious words’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, anaphora, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “precious” and “poor” in line one and three as well as “danced,” “dingy,” and “days” in line five. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment.
It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines six and seven.
Dickinson also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, the use of “He” at the beginning of three of the eight lines. These all begin with simple statements that use accessible diction, allowing a child who is reading the poem or listening to it being read, to understand it.
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
In the first four lines of ‘He ate and drank the precious words’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. This is often the case with Dickinson’s poems as she left them unnamed. Few were named by editors and publishers but generally, they are known by their first line or a number. The lines refer to an unknown “He”. This man is older, with a frame that is “dust”. Despite this fact, he “ate and drank the precious words” and forgot about his physical state. The “words,” whatever they may have said, allowed him to escape his reality.
As with other poems in this short collection, such as ‘There is no Frigate like a Book,’ the speaker argues that reading is the one true escape. It is the only way one can genuinely move beyond their circumstances and into a better world, or at least a better state of mind.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
In the second half of ‘He ate and drank the precious words’, the speaker describes how this old man was reenergized by his exploration of books. She uses alliteration with the words “danced,” “dingy,” and “days” to describe the man’s pleasure in a perfectly rhythmic way. The book brings his “liberty” or freedom from his world. It was the words of the book, likely a book of poems, that gave him wings. These lines are meant to encourage young readers to find their own wings through reading.