I know she’s writing about how an ordinary person in life is now distinguished in death, but this poem is prescient in that it could apply to herself and her work: in life she was mostly unremarkable but now is considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I wonder how much of her own ambition is embedded in this poem? Did she know how good she was? I think she did.
The poem begins with a device she often uses in that she uses apostrophe to turn both “Ambition” and “Affection” things that have their own agency. Here “Ambition” seems to be searching for “him” while ambition’s companion, “Affection” has no idea how “many leagues of nowhere” are between them and this “him”. The question to ask here is why is “Ambition” looking for “him”? “Affection” looking for “him” seems obvious if we consider Emily is contemplating someone whom has died and her “Affection” goes out to them but they have no idea how far “Affection” must go for it to reach them. “Ambition”, on the other hand, implies action; the OED defines this word as “The ardent desire to rise to high position” (OED). Is “Ambition” looking for the vehicle with which it can use to rise to this high position yet is unable to do so and thus both “Ambition” and “he” remain in obscurity and without “affection”?
I think what is going on in this poem is more than just a eulogy for some unknown person who has died. I think what she’s writing about is her own work, her own “Ambition” and her own “Affection”. Consider if “he” might be referring to the poem itself yet “Ambition” – the desire to rise to a high position – cannot find the poem, as if there is a gulf between the words on the page and whatever it is that is required for those words to transcend the ink on the paper into something greater: as in a work of great art. And no matter how much “Affection” Emily has for this poem, they have no idea how “many leagues of nowhere / Lie between” themselves and greatness. In other words, she might be asking what is it that makes a poem great, at what point does “Ambition” find a poem and turn it from something “undistinguished” into something that is “Eminent Today”?
The line break between the two stanzas represents these “leagues of nowhere” in which the transformation takes place, but she is unable to describe the process and is only able to describe the results: what was once “undistinguished” is now “Eminent Today”. How this process took place is unknown, but perhaps the clue is in the fact that by merely writing the poem she has served as a bridge between the states of being “undistinguished” and the one of eminence. Through the act of creating art and by pouring her affection into it, she is able to transform mere words into a “mutual honor” for eternity (“Immortality”).
I think what is buried here in the poem is not a person, but her own insecurity and dilemma with her art. She wants “Ambition” to come to her, but her “Affection” – her heart – has no idea how to cross that gulf which lies between herself and “Ambition”. Yet she wants “Immortality”, she wants her art to live on – which it has – but she is troubled by the process, perhaps because while sometimes she can see the greatness in her work, other times she lacks the confidence – the “Affection” – to believe that what she is doing is in any way distinguished. I think she is worried about being vain, an issue she explored in “For every Bird a Nest“. She seems to be held back by some grip of modesty in that she, on the one hand, knows how talented she is, but on the other does not want to impose or seem vain in the eyes of others. I truly get the sense she is highly conflicted about how she sees herself and because she is so filled with “Affection” for others, she is willing to put aside her own “Ambition” in order to allow other to be glorified, which is what this poem is initially about if we consider she is writing about someone whom she knew who has died.