Emily Dickinson and Truth

Camille and I tackle a short, brilliant Dickinson poem this week. What is truth? How can it best be told? How do we learn and understand it? These are the questions on the poet’s mind, and she has answers.

The poem is conventionally understood one way. Camille takes that path, though I believe far more creatively than most. I come at the poem from a very unconventional angle.

How do you see it?

 

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Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

 

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Sandy Kress –

 

I must push back – in certain ways – on the conventional understanding of this poem.

Many read Dickinson to be suggesting that all the truth should be told, but not necessarily at once, and certainly very carefully. This is so, these commentators say, because the truth is too hard to take straight.

They point for support to the verses that suggest that truth is “too bright” and that it requires, as does teaching lightning to children, to be “eased” and delivered with “explanation kind.” If truth dazzles too suddenly, it will “blind.”

I do not want to argue altogether with this explanation – at least at the surface level. But I think the poet has a deeper intention in mind.

She is saying, I think, that truth is complex, profound, and incapable of expression in its fullest “truth” in simple and easy motions. It comes at its best with “superb surprise,” and especially from many directions. It comes at “a slant.” It comes mostly from round and round; “success in Circuit lies.”

Our fragile capacity to be enlightened requires that truth often be revealed through indirection and in a spectrum of colors, not because we can’t handle it “too bright.” Rather we get it better and truer that way. I have no better evidence for my view than Dickinson’s poetry itself. Unlike many other poets, she tells “all the truth,” but tells it “slant.”

The world often seems to us “as Lightning to children.” It’s not that we can’t take the truth or need it watered down. It’s just more felicitous to know what it really is, not just what it appears to be on first impression. Our sense of truth, for example, can be “eased” when a “kind” poet cares enough to share her hard earned understanding so that we get that understanding, too.

Truths, such as those Dickinson tells, do indeed “dazzle gradually.” This is not because they would blind us if we tried to get them straight or quickly. Rather she is saying we may remain blind to Truth if we do not get it as It best comes.

 

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Camille Kress –

 

Like lighting, four words strike me in the first line. Let’s deal with them in a flash.

Tell: We are charged with a bold instruction.
all: not some, not mine, but all.
truth: it’s not capitalized, something to watch for when reading Emily Dickinson.
slant: Knowing that Dickinson often equates truth with light, the poet’s choice of the word “slant” evokes, for me, a prism in which refracting surfaces at an acute angle separate white light into a spectrum of colors.

It should be noted that poetry that does not perfectly rhyme is called slant rhyme, or approximate rhyme. Perhaps the poet is asking us to remember that truth begins as approximate. But, in that it emanates from something Whole, it can become more fully known.

We sense this trajectory in the next line when we see classic Emily capitalization – “Success in Circuit lies.” Success, here, suggests accomplishment, the creation of a Circle, a full circumference containing, not approximate, but “all the truth” – the Truth.

Can you imagine Light hitting you from such completeness? The shear bolt would, indeed, be “Too bright for our infirm Delight.”

“As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind”

When children are afraid of lightning, we admit to them its startling and frightening side, but we also tell the truth through the rest of the story – its likely distance, its beauty, its science.

So, how is Truth told?

It “dazzles gradually,” she says. If it did not, “every man be blind,” as if struck by unrefracted Light.

Looking through the prism of this poem, I see all kinds of ways we tell truth with slant: poetry, parables, myths, proverbs, folktales, nature, and the like.

It is in the best of them that we find our Delight through Truth’s “superb surprise.”

 

Emily Dickinson and the Brain

This week Camille Kress and I look at, and write about, Emily Dickinson’s provocative poem, The Brain.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

S.Kress

The little brain is wider than the whole, great sky?

Upon first impression, it sounds preposterous, which makes us pay attention, and it gives the beginning of the poem a nice kick forward. Yet, when we think about it deeply, we understand the assertion to be true. The brain is wider than the Sky in that it can comprehend it…and much, much more.

This insight must have been a source of joy for the brainy poet who understood the scope and power of nature so brilliantly.

Is the “You” in the poem, God? If so, the brain can comprehend both the natural and the Divine. I like that and agree.

If, instead, by “You,” she means any possible “you,” including all readers of the poem, I like that, too. This “my brain-You” relationship, also, makes me think of Martin Buber’s I-Thou formulation. My brain can understand and help me live properly with You.

The brain is deeper than the sea. The brain can absorb of the sea, as can a sponge or a bucket. The seawater in a sponge or bucket is representative of the whole of the sea, as is my brain’s grasp of it.

The last stanza powers up, as did the first. There is little actual “weight” to the brain, as there is none to God. Yet, we understand the underlying truth. Both are among the heftiest “things” that exist in the world. Not sure the Brain and God differ really (perhaps since one knows the Other and the Other knows the one intimately), the poet leaves us with an astounding metaphorical comparison.

God is the Sound for which our brain can understand and form but a syllable, a fragment of human language, which gives a bit of verse to the song. But it is our syllable, and it is a syllable that beautifully and aptly fits the Tune. Our brain, thus, brings us right into the flow of the great Sound.

C.Kress

Let’s start with what we know – the tangibles:
Width.
Depth.
Weight.

Dickinson has led us to concepts of measurement. She compares the small human brain to the vastness of the sky, the depth of the brain to a plunging sea, and the weight of the brain to the weight of God. Absurd, is it not?

No. I see what you’re doing here, Emily. You use tangibles but intend something very much beyond. Human thought is limitless, reaching beyond the sky. A thinking mass, just 140 mm wide, has the power to grow and change, not in size, but in the immeasurably expansive “You.”

In the next stanza, we are to compare – “Blue to Blue” – the brain and the sea. Our “Brain” is not only deeper than the sea; it can “absorb” it.

It’s about here that I begin to see a pattern in the words Dickinson chooses to capitalize, as if she is using Letter scales, measure for measure. She’s also got me wondering why other poets often select the loftier word “Mind” to express human thought, but she goes with “Brain.” And then there are “Sponges” and “Buckets.”

Again, we have tangible things that express the Intangible. Look down. You’re knee deep in Dickinson now.

“The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—”

How does she expect us to equate a 3-pound organ with God?

“And they will differ—if they do—As Syllable from Sound—”

That third stanza is a hard one, so let’s tackle it with tangible things:
Vowels.
Consonants.
Language.

These are what give sound human understanding. We hear the rush of wind blowing through sky, the crashing waves of the sea, and our gray matter gives sound meaning. She seems to be saying, Syllable and Sound may differ, but they carry the same weight, they share an agreement – a covenant – to make sense of life.

But how can the Brain weigh the same as God?

Some scholars note Emily Dickinson’s rejection of conventional religion, speculating that the brain is equal to God because humans have created the idea of God. But Emily does not strike me as a lazy rejecter. She may have lost patience with convention, but her poems pulsate with an urge for the Divine.

Here’s my twist on an insight of Professor Evan Thompson. The Hebrew word, kavod, means “honor” or “glory.” Interestingly, it also means, “heavy” or a difficult burden to carry.

I know the heavy weight of God in my own brain. Like Emily Dickinson’s, my spiritual journey has not always been full of light metaphors and poetry that rhymes. My cortex carries conflicting signals of faith and doubt. Thoughts have substance. If “honor” and “weight” are interchangeable, perhaps my burden is, as was hers, a glory.

Emily Dickinson and Hope

My wife, Camille Ware Kress, and I are big fans of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Frequently, we’ll put life aside and devote an hour to the wonderful work of reading, discussing, and coming to an understanding of one of her poems.

We buy all sorts of editions of her work. We travel to other cities to see exhibits about her. And, of course, when a film such as “A Quiet Passion,” comes out, we’ll rush out to see it.

As you might expect from zealots such as ourselves, we are embarking on a little summer project to highlight this extraordinary poet. Every week or so, we will pick a poem, study it, write a short blog on our take of its meaning, publish it in various social media, and invite study and further comments from our friends.

Here’s the first.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

By Emily Dickinson

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

 

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

 

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

 

C. Kress: According to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, the poet uses the word “thing” 115 times and with seven different meanings in her poems. She also often employs birds, land, and sea as metaphor, turning nature into human-nature.

So what sort of thing is Hope?

In the first stanza, we learn it is a winged thing, a feathered thing, a thing that “perches in the soul.” Dickinson could have named Hope in these beginning lines, simply calling it a bird. She does not. Rather, she hints of something that dwells within us capable of flight.

This thing “sings the tune without the words.” Perhaps, this is the poet’s way of saying that there is a greater mystery in melody, rather than defined lyrics – and where there is mystery, there is humility. Isn’t it true that our deepest hopes can’t be expressed or described in words? At times of both joy and pain, the thing renders us speechless. Hope is ineffable.

The last line of the first stanza is Dickinson’s most optimistic. She seems to assure us that hope is everlasting. “And never stops – at all” It appears we are a spiritual species with a direct flightpath to the Eternal!

Not so fast…Leave it to Emily Dickinson to show hope contested by howling winds. She is not fond of over-confidence and tidy plans. In stanza two, we are left to wonder if this thing within us will survive. There may be a “sore” storm that could “abash” it.

Here, Dickinson uses the name Bird for the first time. In her strange style, she capitalizes certain words, putting the reader on notice: Pay attention.

Will the thing with feathers fall to its death? Are there some hopes that simply can’t survive?

Maybe. But she has told us that it “never stops – at all.” Further, it’s heard “in the Gale” and is its “sweetest” there.

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea.” Dickinson knew the death of loved ones up close and personal – “the chillest land.” Rarely leaving her parents home as an adult, she was thought by some to be an odd recluse. Perhaps, but she probably dealt with the isolation – “the strangest sea” – that comes with a persistent melancholy, what we often call depression today. “Hope” may, for her, have been a Bird, forever threatened, but always singing a sustaining song.

“Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.”

In a life in which our wise and sensitive poet felt that much was asked of her, it’s lovely to see that that which served her best asked nothing of her at all.

In closing, she leaves us, not with certainty, but with a sense of gratitude for the mystery of Hope. Even when we call out in desperation – “in Extremity” – it seems to be there, perched in the soul, singing without words…waiting to take flight.


S. Kress: I believe this is one of the most purely optimistic, “happy” of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

I love the thought of a songbird and its beautiful melody as the metaphor for hope. A songbird perched in the soul, and one that never stops – at all – is a very strong hope!

Even more, a hope that still lives in the midst of storm, well, that’s real hope. How true it is that the storms of our lives – and all that bring them on – have as a first aim the destruction of hope. Yet, in the midst of real hope, how “sore” it and they must be that they can’t abash the Little Bird. (By the way, do the capital letters for little bird connote the idea that God is there in the hope, too?)

What a lovely ending. And how true: hope is there, with its warming song, even in the most difficult times, and it never asks anything in return from us.