Emily Dickinson and the Brain

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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.

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