Dickinson: continuation and finality
There is a sense of finality to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –“, but a strange sense. When, in the final line, we see a progression of events—chill, stupor, letting go—we cannot but take the last as indicating the releasing of one’s hold on life. What is the process of freezing (for that is what Dickinson describes)? First there is the feeling of cold, then a numb daze, too enervated even to feel cold, and then the letting go. But this straightforward process is introduced in a curious fashion. Thus far in the poem, Dickinson has described the period after a great pain, which she calls “the Hour of Lead”—a period that, she tells us, is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –“ (emphasis added). That is to say, this letting go, so suggestive of finality, is but a part of how the hour of lead is remembered, and it is only remembered if it is outlived—and where, then, is the finality? Outliving entails continuation, and continuation rules out finality. So there is a sense of finality to the poem, but a finality that must contend with the reality of continuation. Whatever ending there is, it is not a total ending.
The movements of the soul, of which the above poem details one, are mirrored, for Dickinson, in the movements of nature, and so we might look to a poem Dickinson wrote detailing the vagaries of nature, that we might better understand her poem detailing the vagaries of the soul. “I know a place where Summer strives” describes the annual struggle between warmth and frost: how Summer “each year – leads her Daisies back –“, how, later, “Her Heart misgives Her”, and how, finally, “she pours soft Refrains / Into the lap of Adamant”.
That this poem is connected with the first can hardly be doubted, if we consider that two crucial words are shared between each. The transition from summer to winter is captured, in this poem, by the image of the Dew, “That stiffens quietly to Quartz. In the first poem, in surveying the aftermath of a great pain, we see a “stiff Heart” which feels “A Quartz contentment”. How can we not take the co-occurrence of these words as critical? The stiffness indicates death, rigor mortis, while the image of quartz suggests the beauty inherent in this death, which is nonetheless death. What the second poem suggests is that this stiffness, this quartz beauty, is cyclical, for the poem begins by reminding us how summer each year leads back her daisies. There is something impermanent about death.
But we may not rest complacent, for now another poem urges that its voice must be heard, as it, too, wishes a word about stiffness. “I know that He exists” imagines a game, a game of bliss, but a game that proves too earnest, when the glee of bliss comes to “glaze – / In Death’s – stiff – stare –“—then the “jest” of bliss has “crawled too far”. Here all turns on the notion of bliss. Is bliss not our aim? But bliss might come at a high price: stiffness, i.e. death.
Here we may, one last time, look to another Dickinson poem for enlightenment. “Is Bliss then, such Abyss” suggests, once again, finality, in this case because bliss “is sold just once”—that is, pass up the one opportunity, and it is gone forever. But what is interesting about the poem is its final line, which suggests what occurs when we have this choice between finality (bliss) and continuation (whatever our life on this earth amounts to, which is certainly not bliss): “Verdict for Boot!” I cannot convey the power of these lines in a post like this—could I, I would not blog, but be a poet myself—but I hope their meaning, if not their power, is clear: Dickinson (or her avatar) has chosen continuance over the finality of bliss.
And that, I think, is what is fundamental in these poems. There is a sense of finality, of the absolute, but only in a death that is permanent, unending, unsupplanted. Against this, there is a sense of continuance, in just that which recurs annually, which rejects absolute bliss in favor of that partial existence that—with all its ineluctable partiality—characterizes our humanity. I do not claim to have made sense of these four Dickinson poems (could I ever?), but I hope I have at least captured one or two of their themes, and in my relationship with Dickinson, I may count that as a substantial achievement.