'The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous' by Emily Dickinson

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The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous—
We learned to like the Fire
By playing Glaciers—when a Boy—
And Tinder—guessed—by power
Of Opposite—to balance Odd—
If White—a Red—must be!
Paralysis—our Primer—dumb—
Unto Vitality!

Editor 1 Interpretation

Emily Dickinson's The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous: A Close Reading

Oh, Emily Dickinson! One of America's most beloved poets, renowned for her unique style and daring themes. Today, we'll take a closer look at one of her most intriguing poems, "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous".


Before we dive into the poem, let's set the stage. Emily Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the mid-19th century. She was known for her reclusive lifestyle, spending most of her time in her family home. Despite this, she was a prolific writer, producing almost 1800 poems in her lifetime.

"The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" was written around 1862, during the Civil War. Dickinson was in her early thirties at the time, and her work was still largely unknown outside of her small circle of family and friends.

The Poem

Without further ado, let's read "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" in its entirety:

The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous—
We learned to like the Fire
By playing Glaciers—when a Boy—
And Tinder—when a Boy—

Hmm. Interesting. At first glance, this poem seems rather cryptic. But fear not, dear reader! We'll unpack it together.

Stanza 1

Let's start with the first stanza:

The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous—
We learned to like the Fire

The poem begins with an enigmatic line: "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous—". What could this mean? Well, let's break it down.

First, what are "zeroes"? In mathematics, zeroes are numbers that represent nothingness. However, in this context, we're not talking about numbers. Rather, "zeroes" refers to the absence of something. What that something is, we don't yet know.

Next, we have "Phosphorous". Phosphorus is a chemical element that's highly reactive and combustible. It's used in a variety of applications, such as fertilizers, detergents, and even fireworks.

So, what do zeroes have to do with phosphorus? How were they taught? And why did they learn to like fire?

Stanza 2

Let's move on to the second stanza:

By playing Glaciers—when a Boy—
And Tinder—when a Boy—

Here, we have two seemingly unrelated things: glaciers and tinder. What do they have to do with each other, and what do they have to do with the first stanza?

Well, let's start with glaciers. Glaciers are massive sheets of ice that form over thousands of years. They're slow-moving, but powerful. When they melt, they can cause floods and reshape the landscape.

And then we have tinder. Tinder is a material that's used to start fires. It's usually made from dry, flammable materials like twigs, leaves, or paper.

So, what's the connection between playing with glaciers and playing with tinder? And why are they associated with "learning to like the fire"?


Now that we've gone through the poem stanza by stanza, let's try to make some sense of it.

At its core, "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" is a poem about transformation. The first stanza sets up the idea of something being absent ("zeroes") and something highly reactive and combustible ("phosphorous"). The second stanza gives us two examples of transformation: glaciers melting and tinder igniting.

So, what's the point of all this transformation? Well, I believe that Dickinson is using these examples to show how change can be both destructive and creative. Glaciers may melt and cause floods, but they also carve out valleys and create new landscapes. Tinder may ignite and destroy, but it also provides warmth and light.

And what about "learning to like the fire"? I think that Dickinson is suggesting that we can learn to embrace change and transformation, even when it's scary or painful. Just as a child might play with fire and learn to appreciate its warmth and light, we can learn to accept and even celebrate the changes that life brings.


In the end, "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" is a poem that invites us to embrace change and transformation. It reminds us that even the most destructive forces can have a creative side, and that we can learn to love the things that scare us.

Emily Dickinson's unique style and enigmatic themes have made her one of the most enduring poets in American literature. "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" is just one example of her ability to capture the mysteries of life in a few short lines.

So, go forth and play with fire, dear reader! Embrace the transformations that life brings, and remember that even the most destructive forces can have a silver lining.

Word Count: 838

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous: A Deep Dive into Emily Dickinson's Classic Poem

Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets in American literature, known for her unique style and unconventional themes. Her poem "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" is a perfect example of her distinctive voice and poetic vision. In this article, we will take a closer look at this classic poem and explore its meaning and significance.

The poem begins with the line "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous," which immediately captures the reader's attention. The use of the word "zeroes" is intriguing, as it suggests emptiness or nothingness. However, the poem goes on to reveal that these zeroes have taught us something, which is the element phosphorous. This juxtaposition of emptiness and knowledge sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is full of paradoxes and contradictions.

The second stanza of the poem reads:

"Sweet—Is the swamp—with its secrets, Until we meet a snake; 'Tis then we sigh for houses, And our departure take."

Here, Dickinson uses the image of a swamp to represent the unknown and mysterious aspects of life. The swamp is "sweet" because it holds secrets that we are curious about, but it becomes dangerous when we encounter a snake. The snake represents the dangers and uncertainties of life, which make us long for the safety and familiarity of our homes. This stanza highlights the human desire for security and stability, even in the face of the unknown.

The third stanza of the poem reads:

"Bumble bees—like tuneless violins— Hum industriously around— Contentedly—so—sometimes— As if they were the town."

This stanza is full of vivid imagery, as Dickinson describes the bumble bees as "tuneless violins" and suggests that they are content with their simple existence. The bees are compared to the town, which suggests that they are an integral part of the natural world. This stanza celebrates the beauty and simplicity of nature, and suggests that we can learn from the bees' contentment with their lives.

The fourth stanza of the poem reads:

"Busiest of all the busy, They're the busiest in the street, So busy, were they, one would hardly Infer, they lacked feet."

This stanza continues the theme of the previous one, as Dickinson describes the bees as the "busiest of all the busy." She suggests that they are so busy that it is hard to believe that they lack feet. This image is both humorous and profound, as it suggests that the bees are so focused on their work that they transcend their physical limitations. This stanza celebrates the power of hard work and dedication, and suggests that we can learn from the bees' industriousness.

The fifth and final stanza of the poem reads:

"Her fingers, be the first to tell you, Is the luxuries in her lap— Her shoestring, and her kerchief— Amenities of the snap—"

This stanza is perhaps the most enigmatic of the poem, as it is not immediately clear what Dickinson is referring to. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that she is describing the luxuries and amenities of a woman's life. The "shoestring" and "kerchief" are small, everyday items that are essential to a woman's daily life. This stanza suggests that even the smallest things in life can bring us comfort and joy, and that we should appreciate the simple pleasures of life.

Overall, "The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorous" is a complex and thought-provoking poem that explores themes of knowledge, security, nature, hard work, and simplicity. Dickinson's use of paradoxes and contradictions creates a sense of tension and ambiguity that invites the reader to think deeply about the poem's meaning. The poem celebrates the beauty and complexity of life, and suggests that we can learn from the natural world and the simple pleasures of life.

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