Unless we’re toiling away in an English PhD program, most of us don’t pause in our daily lives to read poetry — to read anything closely, really. We might scrutinize a job offer or rental contract, or devour a Facebook feed. Seldom, however, do we allow ourselves to pause over a verse, to wade into a line of poetry or prose and stop, feeling the chill, or the sting, or the pleasure of a series of words, before moving on.
Every month, “Versing Clio” will feature a poem from the American canon that integrates gender, history, and medicine.
This series is less about figuring the “meaning” of a poem — of cracking open a poem’s shell to find a juicy moral that might be hiding inside — than about locating and considering moments of interest or ambiguity that might come to bear on our understanding of gender, history, and medicine.
In their roles as caregivers and as childbearers in a world of maternal mortality, women have historically confronted loss disproportionately, or at least differently, than men. Although women were by no means the only people who suffered from and wrote about grief in the colonial period and the Early Republic (see, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s heart-wrenching reflections on the loss of his son Waldo), these themes inspire a notable volume of output from women writers. I’ve already written about Anne Bradstreet’s elegies for her grandchildren, three of whom died as infants and young children.
This month, I want to focus on a more abstract and philosophical approach to despair, as imagined by Emily Dickinson: a poem that begins “We grow accustomed to the dark.” Although Dickinson’s poem doesn’t explicitly confront gender or medicine, both affected women’s relationship to loss in the 19th century (and they continue to in today’s world).
It is worth beginning by simply reading Dickinson’s poem in its entirety. While many of Dickinson’s lines do have their own poignancy worth scrutinizing, I think the poem functions most beautifully as a whole — as a single extended metaphor with multiple and complex levels of meaning.
This poem begins with a distinctly 19th-century image of nighttime in a world without electricity or television to distract us after sunset. Dickinson writes,
I imagine a woman leaving her neighbor’s house after a nighttime visit. The neighbor holds a lamp on the front porch to “witness her good bye,” and to provide her with some light. Off goes the woman, at first rather blindly making her way down the path home. As she walks, however, her vision adjusts to the midnight darkness, and she is better able to trace the familiar path.
After presenting this quite literal scene, Dickinson zooms out and asks us to stretch our brains a little further in service of the primary metaphor of the poem: Darkness. She continues,
We understand the physical concept of “darkness” (the absence of light) — but what are “larger Darknesses”? We can imagine a nighttime setting — but what is an “Evening of the Brain”? These images play on familiar phenomena, and create entirely new and pleasurable meaning. I can’t tell you exactly what an “Evening of the Brain” is, per se. But as soon as one reads that line, one knows internally and instinctively exactly what it feels like “When not a Moon disclose a sign- Or Star- come out- within-”. Dickinson seems to suggest a depression, a grief, or simply a foggy, hopeless, or disappointing episode, in which the light at the end of the tunnel fails to appear, or to illuminate any path forward, whether literal or metaphorical.
The penultimate stanza emphasizes the difficulty of these Evenings of the Brain. Mental darkness isn’t easy to cope with, Dickinson seems to know all too well. Even the bravest struggle, “grop[ing] a little” and “sometimes hit a tree.” And what if you’re not the bravest? A lot of courage is needed to move forward without light (internal or external, metaphoric or literal), and this degree of courage is often not easily summoned. Dickinson’s signature dashes further emphasize this “groping,” the dashes constantly interrupting our reading of the poem to create a lurching sensation. It’s scary, Dickinson suggests — even for the bravest among us.
I think about grief when I read this poem — something about the sudden darkness, the groping for guidance, and the necessity of readjusting to a new normal has always struck me as a potent meditation on sorrow and heartache. In fact, it’s so potent that sometimes I can hardly stand to read this poem aloud (a practice that, by the way, I would strongly recommend for all poems). But of course, this poem rings true for all sorts of “Evenings of the Brain” — from depression, to sadness, to lethargy. Even social, cultural, or geographic shifts often require an acclimatization. For instance, our brains (or at least the brains of my generation) have largely accustomed themselves to digital communication via social media. Californians are “growing accustomed” to new normals for water usage in the midst of a drought. And the millions of refugees flowing out of Syria surely grow accustomed to their diasporic life, learning to adjust to harsh living conditions and dangerous routes to safety.
Which brings us to the final stanza of the poem. Once the darkness falls, does the darkness itself lighten up, Dickinson asks? Or does something within us change that allows us to see once again — to continue “almost straight” down our path? Most would agree on the latter: darkness itself doesn’t alter, but rather our brains know how to make slight adjustments that help us calibrate. At first thought, this recalibration seems like an ingenious mental trick. Our brains enable us to persist, to stay on course even in moments of deep darkness and despair. And of course, to a degree, this subconscious adjustment is necessary — otherwise, how could we go on?
But when I read the final stanza of this poem, I see more than a simple celebration of our capacity for perseverance and ingenuity. Instead, I also detect a lamentation of a lost world of daylight that may not return the next morning. The slant rhyme in the final stanza (sight and straight) gives us a clue that something is a little bit off — not everything has returned to its normal, happy, pre-darkness state. And so the mental recalibration toward which Dickinson points is bittersweet — we can celebrate our ability to adapt to a new, darker world, while still recognizing the sadness of the darkness having descended, perhaps irrevocably. Do we really want to live in a world of darkness? Of grief and loss? Of drought and diaspora? Often we don’t have a choice, and, as Dickinson suggests, we can and do grow accustomed to whatever reality we are dealt. But this poem affords its readers an opportunity to imagine a path forward without neglecting to reflect on what was lost as the darkness descended.