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"We Grow Accustomed To The Dark" - Emily Dickinson

by Jough Dempsey
14 October 1999

Dickinson's Uncertainty Principle

Read the poem: "We grow accustomed to the Dark—"

Emily Dickinson would not likely survive a contemporary poetry workshop.  She rarely follows the contemporary maxim "show, don't tell," and her poems are sometimes vague and often do not contain many specific images.  She would be criticized for her seemingly arbitrary use of capitalization and her odd punctuation of exclamation points and hyphens.  Dickinson defies the modern "rules" of poetry, often creating metaphorical linkages and unlikely comparisons by simply thrusting two disparate concepts together. She didn't title her works, with only a few rare exceptions, and often left stanzas and poems hanging by ending them with a dash—

As a contemporary poet and critic who is not a specialist in Dickinsonian studies, Emily Dickinson's interpretation of her own poetry is immaterial to me.  Perhaps someday I will revisit her work with the intent of understanding it in her context, rather than my own.  Right now it is imperative that I find a meaning of Dickinson's poetry for myself — someone who is living at the end of the twentieth century.

Postmodern methods of reading poetry do not shed much light Dickinson's work, however, because her often elusive work defies strict intellectualization.  Whenever I think I've pinned her down, she resists the three-count and surprises me with yet another possible interpretation. Like any piece of fine art, Dickinson's poetry affects the reader as an emotional experience rather than a rational one. Always smart, her poems rarely feel overworked – they seem to flow deftly from one idea to another.

Her poem "We grow accustomed to the Dark—" (Johnson #419) is no exception to her maverick style.  Fifteen out of twenty lines end with a hyphen, she capitalizes odd words, and she forces bold connections of ideas and images.  She doesn't, thankfully, employ any exclamation points in this poem.   Maybe she wasn't in an "exclamation point" mood that day.

The poem begins indicting the reader in what is to follow.  By beginning with "We" Dickinson automatically draws a metaphysical connection between the speaker and the reader.  The line ends with a dash.  Of course it does.  I am never sure how quite to read her dashes.  Is this merely a longish pause, did she like the look of the dash on the page – as I do – or were her dashes meant to suggest an uncertainty, perhaps something like Heisenberg wrote about.  Perhaps Emily Dickinson's position and momentum cannot be known at the same time.  Whatever the reason, I read her dashes as a long pause – slightly longer than a usual end-stop, and perhaps a bit longer when the dash comes at the end of a line, and then even longer at the end of a stanza.  When one comes at the end of a poem, I don't know what to do.  I usually just cry.

The first image in the poem comes at the third line, when we can "see" a neighbor holding a lamp.  Both the "Neighbor" and the "Lamp" gain a significance in the poem due to their capitalization.   The fourth line tells us that the neighbor is holding the lamp "To witness her Goodbye."  The "her" here could be the "Light" from line two, since the neighbor wouldn't be holding a lamp for her own departure. Of course, if Light is indeed the one leaving, then what is being emitted from the neighbor's lamp?  The "her" could also be someone else entirely that is never mentioned again, although if the neighbor is holding a lamp for someone else's departure then how would the light be "put away?" Would the neighbor put the light away when the neighbor left?  Why use that image?  I was under the impression that Dickinson meant that the light from the neighbor's lamp was slowly disappearing in the night – meaning that the neighbor would have to be walking away from the speaker.  The stanza ends with a dash and I take a breath before continuing.

The second and third stanzas are a bit more obtuse.  The fifth line begins with an evanescent "Moment" – which I love – then continues with the syntactically confusing segment "We uncertain step / For newness of the night—" Are we to have made an uncertain step, or are "We" uncertain, and making a step?  I am uncertain.   It appears that "step" is the only verb, and therefore is the action being performed.    Does this come in a single moment?  It appears that this uncertain step both follows from and is captured in the "Moment" of the fifth line.

Like many of Dickinson's poems, the "Dark" of the first line works as an extended metaphor, if we may return to the beginning of the poem again.  I believe that the "Dark" is the darkness of the spirit, and this poem uses the metaphor of night descending to depict our psychic journey from life to death – or at least some other metaphoric dark place which would be known only to the author.

Now returning to the second stanza, the "newness of the night" would make sense metaphorically.  We would (certainly) make an uncertain step towards death, since we don't fully know what may be waiting for us after life.  Then fitting "our Vision to the Dark," we would eventually adjust to death as our eyes would the darkness.  The "Road" would be our road to the afterlife.  The word "erect" is displaced by dashes, and in this case would mean something akin to "with good posture," rather than "a penis engorged with blood" – enacting a pride and fearlessness that Dickinson's dying and unafraid speaker seems to embody.

The last word of the ninth line is also suspended with dashes, and is a problematic word for me.  I can understand darkness.  If I turn out the lights – voila!  But how can there be multiple, plural darkness?  Darkness is an esemplastic blanket over everything that isn't lit.  It is the base state of the universe.  Without light – there is darkness; a single, unified darkness.  How can there be "Darknesses "?  If there's a darkness over here, could I point to a different darkness somewhere else?  No.  These "darkness" objects would have to be distinct to be plural, and would need something other than darkness as a boundary in order to be able to separate one darkness from another.

The tenth line brings more typical Dickinsonian phrasing. "Evenings of the Brain" is a phrase that I could neither begin to understand or explain.  Would these be the "winter of our years?"   Are the "evenings of the brain" old age?  We are given few clues.  The last two lines of the third stanza exist to show us the totality of the darkness – most people aren't accustomed to experiencing complete and utter darkness – without either the moon or stars to shed a little bit of light.   Given Dickinson's lengths to show perfect darkness, she is not distinguishing shades of darkness, but rather presenting a total darkness – one that would not allow plurality. Since she does use the plural "Darknesses" – she appears to be contradicting herself.  Does she contradict herself? Very well, she shall contradict herself.

The fourth stanza brings a rare bit of humour to the poem, where the "Bravest" smack themselves upside the head on a tree.  The idea of brave souls groping anxiously through a pitch-black forest and running their foreheads into trees amuses me.  But the final line of the fourth stanza offers a hope (sans feathers) that there may be a solution; a way out of the darkness, or at least a coping mechanism.

Dickinson suggests at the top of the fifth stanza that the darkness may alter, enabling those lost in the one of the darknesses to see, or else "something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight—"  that would allow the world to transmogrify itself to suit the person wandering in the darkness, or else enable the wanderer's sight to adjust to the darkness. Whichever happens, the lost soul becomes able to "see" in the "Dark", and this enables "Life" to step "almost straight" (but not "erect").  Just as I was getting used to the dashes, the poem closes on a period, which gives the stanza a finality that stops the travel of the "Dark" soul in its place.

The word "Life" in the final line is also problematic for me. Are We "Life?"  We may return to the first line.  We grow accustomed to the Dark.  We get used to it. Dickinson returns to this in the final stanza, suggesting the two ways that we may grow accustomed to the Dark.  Either we adjust to it or it adjusts to us.  Either way, this adjustment is inevitable, and once we adjust, Life steps almost straight.  How does Life "step?"  It proceeds onward?  Life goes on?  We have a problem, but life goes on?  Emily Dickinson is subtler than that, isn't she? Moreover, why not perfectly straight; completely straight?  No, the Life of the poem only steps almost straight.  It presumably steps almost straight on the road once we've aligned our vision to the dark.  What is this road?  If it's the road to death, as I postulated earlier, then that would be (almost) literal.  Life is a road to death.  From the moment we are born we begin to die.

With this regard, I believe that I would like to amend my earlier assertions.  The darkness is not death, exactly, but rather the process of dying.  We're all dying – all the time.   As we travel farther down the road, we grow more accustomed to the idea of dying.  We begin to accept our own mortality.  Now that's an idea worthy of modern poetry workshops.

Of course, it is difficult to evaluate a single poem in Dickinson's body of work.  Just as in television, where advertisements spawn a demand not only for the products that they offer, but also a secondary demand for (and anticipation of) more advertising, Dickinson's poetry also creates a secondary demand for the reading of more of her poems.  I think the reason that her poetry seems shy at times – unwilling to reveal itself – is because her poetry does not reflect reality, but is in a sense a simulacrum of reality – her work becomes hyperrealité – whereby the images in her poems are signifiers of symbolic exchange between the text and the reader.  Is it even possible to read Dickinson anymore without being tainted by the anxiety of influence by those who study her? Dickinson's endo-colonization (a post-facto conquering of thought or conceptualization – a term coined by the father of Deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida) of American poetics and critical theory is almost total.   Because we are inside her web of influence, there may be no practical way for us to read her work without succumbing to the modes of simulation that she establishes.   Simulacra imply absence.  They simulate what one does not possess. Without a method for approaching anything real, simulated imagery gives not only the allusion of reality, but real-world symptoms.  In other words, Dickinson's vagary acts as a catalyst for an image-creation mechanism in me as I read her.  When I read the word "Dark," in the first line of this poem, I can understand the second-level concept of darkness without a first-level darkness object to identify.  Much of Dickinson's poetry contains such simulated imagery – her vagary is not due to shoddy craftspersonship, but rather is borne out of the necessity to provide a model of symbolic exchange.  As in all good poetry, the poem creates its own world and offers its own interface to itself.    To learn how to read Dickinson, one must read Dickinson – nothing else will do.

Emily Dickinson often obfuscates her work to the point of obscurity, but always provides enough information to give way to thought.  Of course, I often feel that I must do work "for" this poem, filling in aspects of the poem that weren't written on the page.  This "unfinished" quality is generally something to be eschewed in poetry, we're told, but Dickinson carries it off well, being cryptic without being off-putting.  Does her poetry carry us to a new and inevitable place?  I am not sure, but it certainly opens up new venues for thought while contemplating it.   What more can one ask of a poem?

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily.  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1955.

Read the poem: "We grow accustomed to the Dark—"


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