Adjusting to Darkness in Dickinson’s Poem
In Emily Dickinson’s 419th untitled poem, more commonly known by its first line, “We grow accustomed to the Dark-“, the speaker describes two distinct situations in which people must gradually adjust to “darkness”. The first portion is fairly lucid, using concrete images to portray a simple nighttime farewell that describes the time it takes for eyes to adapt to a lack of light; however, though the final stanzas comment on the same theme of reorienting oneself amid obscurity, this last portion is ensconced in symbolism and conspicuous abstraction. Only by examining the similarities and differences of both can a clear message be extrapolated from the poem. Utilizing the ease and palpability of the poem’s first two stanzas as a foundation, Dickinson makes the metaphorical analogy that people need time and courage to adjust not only to the physical darkness of night, but to the emotional darkness of the mind, as well.
The poem begins with two stanzas containing concrete, perceptible imagery that establish the mood, theme, and basis for the message that the poem will build upon. It begins with broad strokes (“We grow accustomed to the Dark -/ When light is put away”) and continues to describe how we “fit our Vision to the Dark -” as the “newness of the night -” requires. In these few commonplace observations, the speaker immediately establishes a communal point of view, thus implying a collective importance to the act of adjusting to the darkness. By using the word “dark”, the speaker foregoes more sweet and somber synonyms such as “night” in favor of a word that has massively negative connotations, ranging all the way from sadness to evil and even death. The capitalization intensifies the power and absoluteness of the word – an effect that is compounded by the phrase “light is put away.” The verb phrasing of “put” implies that light, and therefore darkness, is beyond our control. “Dark” also suggests feelings of isolation (a lack of light correspondingly implies a lack of people), as well as dismal skepticism (we cannot be sure of much without our sight). Both of these emotional connotations are amplified by the specific scene Dickinson creates. “The Neighbor holds the Lamp/ To witness her Goodbye – / A Moment -” and unadjusted to the dark, “We uncertain step.” Like the darkness, the goodbye forces the literal isolation of “We” and makes that same collective markedly timorous.
The trepidation and gloom created by the diction and imagery of the first two stanzas is reinforced by their structure. The stanzas have no rhyme scheme at all; such a form would detract from the anxiety and unrest found in other parts of the poem. The repeated use of dashes in the poem at line breaks and in the middle of phrases creates a frantic slant to the narration (such as in the line, “A Moment -/ We uncertain step”). When read out loud the dashes create an intriguing choice for readers: to speed up in breathy haste and ascribe a frenetic nature to the speaker’s uncertainty, or to leave a disquieting pause and contribute to the tremulous mood and overall dismal feel of the poem. The dashes also create halting moments in an otherwise steady rhythm and meter of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Yet this raises an interesting question: why utilize such a strict meter when it betrays other facets of the poem? The answer is two-fold. The speaker says we “meet the Road – erect -“, implying that there is a relatively well-worn path out of physical darkness and courage to call upon for the journey. Following this, the steady march of the iambs could be used to mimic the simple steps one can take to leave physical darkness; just put one foot in front of the other. But there is also a simpler option: it was made to be broken.
In the final two stanzas of the poem, the structure undergoes several key changes indicating not only that different “larger – Darknesses” are being discussed, but also helping to elucidate key facets of these new nights. Generally, the form begins to interact with poetry on a sensual level. When the speaker describes how some attempt to leave the darkness “And sometimes hit a tree / Directly in the Forehead”, meter and rhythm mimic these tactile interactions. There are multiple stresses on top of each other in “sometimes hit” so that the sound upon pronunciation is noticeably harsher – as if an actual hit has taken place. The symmetry of “Directly in the Forehead” actually looks like two objects about to knock into each other and the difference in meter between its iambs and the previous lines’ flawed stresses – as well as having five short syllables preceding two long ones – makes the line positively arresting. Both of these formal points emulate the actual content of the line, creating a heightened connection between poem and reader which indicates that these darknesses are of a much more sensual, personal nature.
Rhyme is also used to symbolize aspects of the adjustment to these new darknesses. The second line in stanza four, ending in “Tree”, actually synchs in rhyme to the fourth line, “But as they learn to see -“. The second and third lines of the last stanza also rhyme: “something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight -“. These rhymes indicate the closeness to realizing true sight; in the first example they are learning to see and are one line apart; in the second example adjustment is achieved and the lines create a couplet. Yet the role of the last line in this new pattern creates an added dimension to the reading: “And Life steps almost straight.” If life is stepping straight, one would expect a rhyme to go with this happy ending – yet there is none. Instead, despite the suffix “ight” being repeated in the last line as in the previous two, there is no rhyme. It is strikingly close to, but not quite, a rhyme – just as life can “almost” step out of the darkness.
The form of the final stanzas indicates that the new darknesses within the poem are of a more intimate and tragic nature, but to ascertain their exact composition as mental darknesses one must unpack the abstract images Dickinson uses to describe them. For example, the concept of plural “darknesses” that are “larger” – more painful, more gloomy – than the “Dark” described previously is an invaluable characterization. The darknesses are also characterized as “Evenings of the Brain”, and when “The Bravest” try to escape them, they end up getting hit in the “Forehead”. The metaphor to “Evenings” as well as the plurality of the darkness suggests that these darknesses recur regularly, and the use of two cerebral nouns, “brain” and “forehead”, indicates that they occur in the mind. This reading of darknesses is supported by the following lines: “When not a Moon disclose a sign – / Or Star – come out – within -“. The moon and star, possible solutions to physical darkness, are converted to an indefinite nature and used as metaphorical solutions to the many evenings of mental darkness. The fact that the potential solutions could be internal in nature also speaks to the mental aspect of the darknesses.
Dickinson’s poem utilizes an amalgam of form, rhythm, and imagery which are all based on the varied connotations of the word “dark”; however, marked distinctions within those areas ultimately reveal a metaphorical analogy between a literal, physical darkness and metaphorical, mental darknesses that are ultimately more personal and more tragic. The exact composition of that cerebral gloom remains ambiguous, forcing readers to make a personal connection to their own problems – those recurring evenings of mental darkness that are impossible to step away from – while at the same time encouraging them to recognize the collective importance of working against such events.
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