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Dickinson Review

Updated on April 28, 2016

In the poem I felt a Cleaving in My Mind, Dickinson’s desire to find her thought causes her to lose perception of time. The first stanza introduces the image of pain in Dickinson’s head, and sets the over-all tone for the entire poem: “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -- As if my Brain had split --". A steady sense of time is felt through the set the rhyme scheme which alternates between iambic tetramer, and iambic trimeter. In the first quatrain, each line ends with a dash which also reveals a steady flow and sense of time. The first line introduces Dickinson’s “Mind” feeling a “Cleaving.” The second line uses a metaphor for her “Brain” being split. Dickinson uses craft to emphasize "Brain" and "Mind" through capitalization. The third line is the beginning of her tension as she tries to find her thought: "I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam -- But could not make them fit--." She uses sewing vocabulary to create the image of her attempt to sew her brain back together, or gather her thoughts. Emily uses repetition to create a seam visually and mentally. She emphasizes "--Seam by Seam--" through capitalization and the surrounding dashes represent a visual seam creating a pattern. She stresses the idea that her brain feels “split” by using end rhyme: But could not make them not fit—(4).”


Emily Dickinson likes to build her poems around a single event. The next line reveals the single event that changes the pattern through craft; "The thought behind, I strove to join." Not only does this line leave out the repetitious dash, but it also includes the only comma in the poem. The line begins with initial consonance "th," and ends using the assonance of the "o" sound. This line reveals the peak of the poem-- Dickinson's struggle to find her missing thought. One can also imagine the thought as a seam that is not easily threaded behind another seam. The pattern resumes stressing the idea of sewing and going over a seam again; "Unto the thought before-- (6)." A this point, the reader feels an altered perception of time which is simply confusion. The reader feels like Dickinson, unable to find the thought and unable to find the pattern: "But Sequence raveled out of Sound." The "S" is capitalized again and repeats the “S” consonance; however, the craft only uses a dash at the end. Perhaps, the sound represents the noise of a sewing machine falling out of sequence. This is a metaphor for the thought disappearing. The final line ends with "Like Balls--upon a Floor--" which shows the image of yarn balls unravelling and that time cannot be found. The pattern of thought has also changed the tense from “present, present, past present” to "past, present, past, present." By changing the tenses, Dickinson has created a different pattern: a new sequence. By finalizing the poem with a dash, Dickinson shows that through time she will continue to struggle to find her thought.

Dickinson plays with brains and dashes again in Pain -- expands the time. Dickinson wrote this poem in the position of a soldier who is feeling pain after being shot. The first stanza represents life. Dickinson refers to time expanded and uses craft through dashes to show pain physically expanding time: “Pain -- expands the time --.” Perhaps, she is referring to how long time can feel when one feels physical pain. The next line refers to the soldier’s reflection: "Ages coil within The minute Circumference,” by being grouped together ages are generalized creating the image of one life, a continuous routine, or eternity. The idea of one life and one time is emphasized by the final line: "Of a single Brain-.”

The second stanza refers to time lost when the soldier is shot; Pain conracts --the Time-- Occupied with Shot." Dickinson uses craft with dashes to show time contracted (--the Time--). She also capitalizes “Pain,” “Time,” “Occupied,” and “Shot,” which can imply time stopping when one is shot. "Gamut’s of Eternities" adds a third dimension with the final line "Are as they were not--" which not only creates a contradiction, but also reveals time is not over through the dashes.

In The Heart Asks for Pleasure –first-- Dickinson uses dashes and lines to express time and pain. The first stanza reveals the hearts initial desire for pleasure, but pain arrives in the second line causing the need for relief. Perhaps, the body is taking pills to ease the pain inside. Dickinson uses her signature split dash and capitalization to show the heart’s desires: “The Heart asks for Pleasure – first --”, “And then –Excuse from Pain--, “And then—to go to sleep--.” The assonance of “ea” and the capitalized letters emphasize the initial desires “Heart” and “Pleasure.” The rest of the poem takes on a darker tone. By repeating “And then--“ Dickinson creates repetitive sense of time that moves through each line. She expresses the pills that cause a loss of suffering. These lines include only one dash which could represent that the pills are not what the heart desires, but from an outside source.Dickinson creates a twist by adding in a new character “The will of its Inquisitor” which is the only line without dashes. By not incorporating dashes, one can assume that the Inquisitor intefered with the heart. The overall poem remains in iambic pentameter except for the lines about the “Anodynes” and the “Inquisitor.” These two lines are in iambic tetrameter. There capitalization and repetitive meters reveal that they are connected. Perhaps, the Inquisitor is the body. The body is taking the pills to relieve the pain; however, the reaction is causing the heart’s desire to escape and die. She uses the “p” consonance to show the time line through “pleasure” followed by “pain,” “sleep,” and “privelege.” These lines all include split dashes up until “The privilege to die--.” The heart did not desire death, yet it wanted an excuse from pain. The final line ends with Dickinsons signature dash which shows that time goes on after death.

Similarly, Dickinson uses dashes to express life after death in Because I could not stop for Death --. In this poem, death is a courteous gentlemen while life is stress full of labor. Death is civil, and invites Dickinson on a journey through time in his carriage ending with eternity. Dickinson refers to life as negative and death as positive.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes is set after death and pain. Life comes in to question as pain lessens. The sense of time is lost: “And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?” Dashes reveal the character’s feeling of death, and have no pattern in time. The third stanza reveals feelings of remorse toward the person who died. Dickinson uses split dashes on the final line: “First—chill—then Stupor—then the letting go-.” The final line appears to be a summary of the entire poem, and ends again with a dash to show that time will move on.


© 2016 Natalie Wheeler

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