As in the previous poem, ‘“Arcturus’ is his other name‘, this is also a poem about empathy, about understanding the situation of another human being but this poem is also asking the reader to be aware of how your own situation, while perhaps more favorable (at the moment, anyway), is not something you should gloat about or lord over somebody with. This is one of those poems politicians would do well to read and take to heart.
It’s hard not to wonder if Emily was thinking about the situation in the American South, particularly slavery when she wrote this. The final line, “Have sometime proved deadly sweet” has an ominous tone to it, as if the person who has to listen about someone’s silver mines in “Potosi” Bolivia, and their collection of “wines” and good food (“viands”) is on the verge of becoming violent and will use violence to improve their own situation.
Another unusual aspect of this poem is that it is not religious, there is no mention of about the riches a person will find in the next life. How many biblical stories are about the meek inheriting the earth, about the glory and riches they will find in heaven as long as they remain obedient in poverty while alive? Emily seems to be challenging this message by saying that you will only make someone more miserable – violent even – if you preach to them about how they should live when they have so little. One wonders if Emily had in mind preachers who were wealthy but taught the virtue of poverty while at the same time taking what little money the poor had before moving on. I don’t know what experience she may have had with such people, but she probably was at least aware that there were scam artists working under the guise of religion.