Who can’t relate to this poem? Whenever you deal with one problem, something bigger and requiring even more effort to deal with comes along and demands your full attention. In the end we’re left in exhaustion and bewilderment at the problems life is always throwing at us and which we must always be subservient to.
The Oxford English Dictionary is our best friend because looking up even the simplest of words opens up a whole world of possibilities for us to examine Emily’s poetry. For example, she begins the poem with the word “low” which is not unusual in poetry, except that a poet usually uses the word ‘lo’ (as in lo and behold) and means “to direct attention to the presence or approach of something, or to what is about to be said” (OED). Yet here she plays on this standard interjection by not only implying that something is approaching (a bigger problem) but that she has been bent “low” by this problem. Thus not only is she announcing something, she is also expressing how it has power over her. In fact if we consider that she might have been inspired by her father working on some difficult financial matters, he would appear to be bent low over his books with a “busy pencil” as he tries to solve a problem that has “baffled him”.
The next word worth looking up is “serener”. Again, like ‘lo’, this is not an uncommon word to find in a poem, but again she is playing with its multiple possible definitions. For example, while the common meaning is in describing something that is calm and clear, it is also used as an honorific to someone of great importance. Just as with “low” in which the poem begins immediately with the image of someone “bending” under the weight of their problems, “serener” describes this problem as so large, so stately that it overwhelms every other aspect of life the way a king demands loyalty from their subjects. Even the sound of the word “serener” has within in it the sound of the word ‘sir’ which one might use to address someone who outranks you.
And rank is important here because the word “check” in line 5 is doing more work than Emily just looking at her “busy pencil” as it works across the page because “check” is a term used in chess when the king is in danger of capture. And this is an interesting image because she is not just implying that her problems have her in check, but that she is attempting to use her “pencil” to attack her problems and possibly put them in check. In other words, the act of writing the poem is an act of fighting back thus line five could be read as “I check [my problems with] my busy pencil”. Thus she (or her father) work on figures in their books, yet they “file away” the way a soldier in their ranks down when they march off to war (or in defeat after battle). Over and over she is using words which imply military action: “serener” as in the person in charge, “check” as in a military attack and even the checkered pattern on a herald as one would see in medieval warfare, and “file” which describes the formation of the soldiers doing battle against the problem.
Yet in the end her “fingers” are like soldiers fleeing from a battle that has been lost and thus she is in even greater confusion as to how to deal with her problems now than before she began. This is a wonderful image because if we look at this poem as her writing about the process of writing a poem, she is successful in expressing the difficulty of the artist in capturing the thought or thesis they had set out to express and how very often the problem can’t be solved and the poem might be left unsolved. Yet she is able to solve the problem even though the poem ends in total confusion – a trick on Emily can pull off by saying one thing and doing the exact opposite, a talent she uses even in her careful word selection, especially with simple words such as “low” and “check”.
It is also worth mentioning that as this poem appears in her fifth fascicle from the summer of 1859, she might also be expressing the anxiety of a nation that was dealing with a highly uncertain future. The American Civil War would officially begin in fewer than two years, and so she might be combining the image of her father at his books trying to keep his finances in order as war looms, with that of the many people who were writing in the newspapers at the time trying to deal with the looming problem of a possible war on the horizon, with her own issues to create art in troubled times. In each possibility, there is the image of people writing: her father in his books, the journalists and essayists in the papers, and the artist in their journals, and all of them dealing with a looming problem that outweighed all others and would outweigh all others to a degree nobody had yet imagined – except perhaps Emily whose poem express a tremendous anxiety for a future that does not seem to see a solution to these problems.