Suffering and Growth
Emily Dickinson's poems often express joy about art, imagination, nature, and human relationships, but her poetic world is also permeated with suffering and the struggle to evade, face, overcome, and wrest meaning from it. Many of her poems about poetry, love, and nature that we have discussed also treat suffering. Suffering is involved in the creative process, it is central to unfulfilled love, and it is part of her ambivalent response to the mysteries of time and nature. Suffering also plays a major role in her poems about death and immortality, just as death often appears in poems that concentrate on suffering. Her poems on this subject can be divided into three groups: those focusing on deprivation as a cause of suffering, those in which anguish leads to disintegration, and those in which suffering — or painful struggles — bring compensatory rewards or spiritual growth.
When Emily Dickinson's poems focus on the fact of and progress of suffering, she rarely describes its causes. Looking back at the love poem "I cannot live with You" (640) and the socially satirical "She dealt her pretty words like Blades" (479), we find passages about specific suffering, but this is not their central subject. However, the evidence that she experienced love-deprivation suggests that it lies behind many of her poems about suffering — poems such as "Renunciation — is a piercing Virtue" (745) and "I dreaded that first Robin so" (348). In "Renunciation — is a piercing Virtue" (745), Emily Dickinson seems to be writing about abandoning the hope of possessing a beloved person. However, she is more abstract here than in her poems where a lover is visible, and she is not clear about the final meaning of her painful experience. The first four lines present renunciation as both elevating and agonizing. The alternating line length gives the poem a slow, hesitating movement, like the struggles of a mind in torment. The speaker hopes that her renunciation will be rewarded and the use of "Not now" for "but not now" emphasizes her effort. The eyes that are sunrise resemble the face that would put out Jesus' eyes in "I cannot live with You," but this passage is more painful, for the force of "piercing" carries over to the description of eyes being put out and suggests a blinding not so much of the beloved person as of the speaker. She is drawing back, she claims, from the sacrilege of valuing something more than she values God, a person who is like the sunrise. In the last seven lines, the speaker is struggling to develop and express her ideas. She chooses something which she does not want in order to justify herself — not to others (such as God) but to herself, and this striving for justification is done less for the present moment than for some future time. "Larger function" means a clearer scheme or idea about existence — one which explains the meaning of mortality — in which her present, selfish desires will appear small. When she is dead, she will finally understand the limitations of her present vision. At the conclusion of the poem, she is still staggering in pain, and the whole poem shows that she has only partial faith in the piercing virtue of renunciation. Her all-encompassing suffering remains a mystery.
The image of piercing which we have just examined resembles Emily Dickinson's typical image of Calvary, which appears in "I dreaded that first Robin so" (348), where the speaker's description of herself as Queen of Calvary suggests a suffering stemming from forbidden love. But this can only be speculation, and Emily Dickinson seems to take pleasure in making a lengthy parade of unspecified sufferings. Her dread of the first robin shows that her bereavement occurred before spring came, or that it was endurable during winter. Now she fears that the contrast of spring's beauty and vitality with her sorrow will intensify her pain. The poem refers repeatedly to her earlier anticipations. She feared that the bird's song and the blooming flowers would torture her by contrast to her situation. Her thoughts of the grass and bees are a bit different, however, for she says that she would want to hide in the grass, and though she implies that the bees liveliness would be a threat, her reference to their "dim countries" is envious. Her having rehearsed her anticipations helped her face spring's arrival. The last two stanzas are somewhat lighter in tone. The failures of creatures and flowers to stay away gives her some pleasure, for she now makes of them her own mournful parade. The image of Queen of Calvary is a deliberate self-dramatization. The creatures and flowers, she insists, are indifferent to her pain, but she is able to project enough sympathy into them to make the experience almost rewarding. She seems aware of the posing dramatized in her lifting childish plumes. The poem expresses anger against nature's indifference to her suffering, but it may also implicitly criticize her self-pity.
Among Emily Dickinson's less popular poems are several about childhood deprivation. Here she is explicit about the sources of suffering, but the poems are less forceful than her general treatments of suffering, and their anger against the people they criticize is weaker than the anger in "What Soft — Cherubic Creatures" and "She dealt her pretty words like Blades." In "It would have starved a Gnat" (612), Emily Dickinson seems to be charging that when she was a child her family denied her spiritual nourishment and recognition. The pervasive metaphor of a starving insect, plus repetition and parallelism, gives special force to the poem. Something as tiny as a gnat would have starved upon what she was fed as a child, food representing emotional sustenance. The phrase "live so small" converts the idea of spiritual nourishment into the idea of a self compelled to remain unobtrusive, undemanding, and unindividual. The image of hunger as a claw shows the natural strength of the child's needs, and the analogy to a leech and a dragon, using Emily Dickinson's typical yoking of the large and the small, dramatizes the painful tenacity of hunger. In the third stanza, she is explicit about the denial of individuality, and she adds a twist to the gnat comparison by showing that the tiny insect's freedom gives it a strength (and implied size) which is denied to her. The envy of the gnat's self-destructiveness, as it beats out its trapped life against the windowpane, suggests a suicidal urge in the speaker, and the poem ends on an unfortunate note of self-pity.
In "I had been hungry, all the Years" (579), Emily Dickinson shows one possible result of the kind of upbringing which she described (probably an autobiographical exaggeration) in "It would have starved a Gnat." Here, the symbolic meaning of food remains indeterminate. The first two stanzas contrast food seen through windows which the speaker passed with the spare sustenance which she could expect at home. The third stanza implies that she has been dining less at home than with the birds, who probably represent the world of imagination and art as well as the world of nature. She finally finds herself inside another dwelling where she is offered an abundance of food and drink. This image probably represents a warmth of society denied to her at home. Her character, however, has been formed by deprivation, and her description of herself as ill and rustic, and therefore out of place amidst grandeur, shows her feelings of inferiority or insecurity. However, the pleasure she has taken in sharing crumbs with birds suggests that there is something distinctive and valuable in her character. In the last stanza she finds the world of social abundance to be artificial and not capable of delivering the kind of food which she needs, and so she rejects it. However, she is probably aware that it is an exaggeration to say that her hunger disappears when food becomes available. Several critics have said that the yearning here is for affection and sexual experience, but no matter what the underlying desires, Emily Dickinson is expressing a strange and touching preference for a withdrawn way of life; this is a variation on the fervent rejection of society in poems such as "I dwell in Possibility" and in a few of her love poems.
In the rarely anthologized "A loss of something ever felt I" (959), a deep sense of deprivation and alienation is expressed rather gently. In the first two stanzas, Emily Dickinson recalls a childhood feeling that she had lost something precious and undefinable, and that no one knew of her loss. She lived very much apart even as she associated with people. In the last two stanzas, she describes her situation with a tender and accepting sadness that implies a forgiveness for those who have hurt her. The "delinquent palaces" are the ideal conditions or loving relationships which she never found, but her calling them, rather than herself, "delinquent" suggests that they, and not she, are responsible for the failure. The speculation in the last stanza is a further clue to the psychology of her deprivation. If she is searching for the kingdom of heaven, she wants something that was never available to her in childhood or adulthood. This contradicts her implied accusations against others and indicates both that she forgives those who hurt her and recognizes that her expectations were impossibly high. In everyday terms, the mental formula would be: why should I blame you for not giving me what really isn't available on this earth? — a formula which can contain much repressed anger.
Among Emily Dickinson's poems in which anguish goes on indefinitely, or is transformed into protective numbness, are two fine epigrammatic poems. In treating this subject, Emily Dickinson rarely hints at the causes of suffering, apparently preferring to keep personal motives hidden, and she concentrates on the self-contained nature of the pain. However, close examination sometimes reveals possible causes of the suffering.
"Pain — has an Element of Blank" (650) deals with a self-contained and timeless suffering, mental rather than physical. The personification of pain makes it identical with the sufferer's life. The blank quality serves to blot out the origin of the pain and the complications that pain brings. The second stanza insists that such suffering is aware only of its continuation. just as the sufferer's life has become pain, so time has become pain. Its present is an infinity which remains exactly like the past. This infinity, and the past which it reaches back to, are aware only of an indefinite future of suffering. The description of the suffering self as being enlightened is ironic, for although this enlightenment is the only light in the darkness, it is still characterized by suffering.
"The heart asks Pleasure — first" (536) appears to be simple, but close study reveals complexities. The first of its eight lines deals with the desire for pleasure, and the remaining seven lines treat pain and the desire for its relief. This proportion may at first suggest that pleasure is being sought as a relief from pain, but this idea is unlikely. The rapid shift from a desire for pleasure to a pursuit of relief combines with the slightly childlike voice of the poem to show that the hope for pleasure in life quickly yields to the universal fact of pain, after which a pursuit of relief becomes life's center. Such relief is pursued in four stages. To ask for an excuse from pain means either to dismiss it or to leave it behind, like a child asking to be excused from a duty. Anodynes (medicines that relieve pain) are a metaphor for activities that lessen suffering. The hesitant slowness of the phrase "deaden suffering" conveys the cramped nature of such case. The cumulative "and then" phrases imitate a child's recital of a series of desired things. The child has doubts about the procedure being described and the adult speaker knows that it will fail. The hope that sleep will relieve pain resembles advice given to unhappy children. The Inquisitor stands for God, who creates a world of suffering but won't allow, us to die until He is ready. He is being compared to the torturers of the medieval Inquisition, although it is also possible that the Inquisitor represents a sense of guilt on the part of the speaker.
"The heart asks Pleasure — first" takes a passive stance towards suffering, but it also criticizes a world that makes people suffer. Such attitudes are shown more subtly in "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (341), Emily Dickinson's most popular poem about suffering, and one of her greatest poems. As are the two poems just discussed, it is told in the third person, but it seems very personal. The speaker watches her suffering protagonist from a distance and uses symbols to intensify the psychic splitting through the images of the nerves, heart, and feet. The pain must be psychological, for there is no real damage to the body and no pursuit of healing. The "formal feeling" suggests the protagonist's withdrawal from the world, a withdrawal which implies a criticism of those who have made her suffer. A funeral goes on inside her, with the nerves acting both as mourners and as a tombstone. Reference to the stiff heart, whose sense of time has been destroyed, continues the feeling of arrest. Since Emily Dickinson capitalizes words almost arbitrarily, one cannot know for certain if "He" refers to Christ. The grammatical reference is more continuous if "He" refers to the heart itself, although it may refer to both Christ and the heart. The heart feels so dead and alienated from itself that it asks if it is really the one that suffered, and also if the crushing blow came recently or centuries earlier. Time feels dissolved — as if the sufferer has always been just as she is now.
In the second stanza, the protagonist is sufficiently alive and desirous of relief to walk around. She walks in a circle as an expression of frustration and because she has nowhere to go, but her feet are unfeeling. Her path, and her feet as well, are like wood — that is, they are insensitive to what is beneath and around them. Almost from its beginning, the poem has been dramatizing a state of emotional shock that serves as a protection against pain. As the second stanza ends, this stance becomes explicit, the feet and the walking now standing for the whole suffering self which grows contented with its hardened condition. "Quartz contentment" is one of Emily Dickinson's most brilliant metaphors, combining heaviness, density, and earthiness with the idea of contentment, which is usually thought to be mellow and soft. "The hour of lead" is another brilliant metaphor, in which time, scene, and body fuse into something heavy, dull, immovable. As does "quartz contentment," this figure of speech implies that such protection requires a terrible sacrifice. The last eight lines suggest that such suffering may prove fatal, but if it does not, it will be remembered in the same way in which people who are freezing to death remember the painful process leading to their final moment. In reality, however, they could not remember the moment of letting go which precedes death unless they were rescued soon after they slipped into unconsciousness. Perhaps Emily Dickinson is depicting the feeling that rescue, for her, is unlikely, or she may be voicing a call for rescue. But a sense of terrible alienation from the human world, analogous to the loneliness of people freezing to death, pervades the poem. The last line is particularly effective in its combining of shock, growing insensitivity, and final relief, which parallels the overall structure of the poem. The varied line lengths, the frequent heavy pauses within the lines, and the mixture of slant and full rhymes all contribute to the poem's formal slowness. This labored movement of the lines reinforces the thematic movement of the poem from pain to a final, dull resignation.
Although most critics think that "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" (280) is about death, we see it as a dramatization of mental anguish leading to psychic disintegration and a final sinking into a protective numbness like that portrayed in "After great pain." But the poem is difficult to interpret. In "After great pain," the funeral elements are subordinate to a scene of mental suffering. In this poem, the whole psychological drama is described as if it were a funeral. This funeral is a symbol of an intense suffering that threatens to destroy the speaker's life but at last destroys only her present, unbearable consciousness. The poem offers no hints about the causes of her suffering, although her self-torment seems stronger than in "After great pain." The fourth line is especially difficult, for the phrase "breaking through," in regard to mental phenomena, usually refers to something becoming clear, an interpretation which does not fit the rest of the poem. If "sense" is taken as paralleling the "plank in reason" which later breaks, then "breaking through" can mean to collapse or shatter. The formal and treading mourners probably represent self-accusations strong enough to drive the speaker towards madness. But she is slow in getting there. The service continues, the coffin-like box symbolizing the death of the accused self that can no longer endure torment. Now the whole universe is like a church, with its heavens a bell. Unable to escape from her terrifying consciousness, she feels as if only she and the universe exist. All sounds pour into her silence. This is a condition close to madness, a loss of self that comes when one's relationship to people and nature feels broken, and individuality becomes a burden. At last, the desired numbness arrives. Reason, the ability to think and know, breaks down, and she plunges into an abyss. The worlds she strikes as she descends are her past experiences, both those she would want to hold onto and those that burden her with pain. Then she loses consciousness and is presumably at some kind of peace. The poem's regular rhythms work well with their insistent ritual, and the repeated trochaic words "treading — treading" and "beating — beating" oppose the iambic meter, adding a rocking quality.
Many images and motifs from "After great pain" and "I felt a Funeral" appear in varying guises in the less popular but brilliant "It was not Death, for I stood up" (510). The first two stanzas describe a terrible experience which is composed of neither death nor night, frost nor fire, but which we soon learn has qualities of them all. The bells are like those in "I felt a Funeral." The frost resembles the freezing in "After great pain," and the standing figures resemble the funereal ones in both those poems. Next, the speaker likens herself to corpses ready for burial, paralleling the deathlike images of those poems. In the third stanza, she describes a figure robbed of its individuality and forced to fit a frame — perhaps the standards of others. The mention of midnight contrasts the fullness of noon (a fullness of terror rather than of joy) to the midnight of social- and self-denial. In the fifth stanza, she compares her situation to a deserted and sterile landscape, where the earth's vitality is being cancelled. In the last stanza, she switches the simile and shows herself at sea — a desolated and freezing sea. Her condition here is worse than despair, for despair implies that hope and salvation were once available and now have been lost. She has no hope; her terrible feeling extends backwards as well as forward into emptiness. But although the self is oppressed and at the mercy of warring emotions and torments, the experience seems distanced. The ritualization of how the world persecutes her, the symbolizing of her suffering by landscape and seascape, and the analytical ordering of the material suggest some control over a suffering which she describes as irremediable.
"Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch" (414) is an interesting variation on Emily Dickinson's treatment of destruction's threat. This poem employs neither the third person of "After great pain" nor the first person of "I felt a Funeral" and "It was not death"; instead, it is told in the second person, which seems to imply involvement in, and yet distance from, an experience that almost destroyed the speaker. The speaker appears threatened by psychic disintegration, although a few critics believe that the subject is the terror of death. For analysis, the poem can be divided into three parallel parts, plus a conclusion: the first two stanzas; the second two stanzas; the fifth stanza and the first two lines of the last stanza; and then the final two lines. In each of the three major sections, the speaker — who addresses herself with a generalizing "you" — is brought to the brink of destruction and then is suddenly spared. In the first section, her torturer is a murderous device designed to spill boiling water, or to pull her by the hem of her gown into a cauldron. The experience, however, turns out to be a nightmare from which she awakens. In the second section, the torturer is a goblin or a fiend who measures the time until it can seize her and tear her to pieces with its beastlike paws. She reacts stiffly and numbly — as in other poems — until God forces the satanic torturer to release her. God seems to act by whim — just barely remembering a task that ought to greatly concern him. In the third section, the torturer is a judicial process which leads her out to execution. The "luxury of doubt" in which she had been imprisoned is luxurious because it, at least, offers some hope of freedom from a miserable condition. But the prison from which she has been led cannot be the same thing as the forces that have been threatening to destroy her. Probably the prison is experienced as a realm of conflict, and the torturer — executioner who appears in three different guises is the possibility that her conflicts will drive her mad and kill her by making her completely self-alienated. In the last section, she is offered not freedom but a reprieve, implying that the whole process may start again. That is why she cannot tell if I) being destroyed and leaving her suffering behind, or 2) going on with a life which faces constant threat, causes the greater anguish. This poem probably treats the same kind of alienation, lovelessness, and self-accusation found in "After great pain" and "I felt a Funeral."
"I read my sentence — steadily" (412) illustrates how difficult it can be to pin down Emily Dickinson's themes and tones. The poem fits the category of suffering for several reasons: it provides a bridge between Emily Dickinson's poems about suffering and those about the fear of death; it contains anxiety and threat resembling that of several poems just discussed; and its stoicism relates it to poems in which suffering is creative. Although the sentence delivered to the poem's speaker appears to be death, this interpretation creates difficulties. First, few of us have any clear idea of when we will die. Second, the poem's mockery of the judicial formula accompanying a death sentence is hard to connect to anything except a criminal's execution. Third, the soul's increasing familiarity with the inevitability of death and its tranquility do not go well with the anticipation of a definite time of death. The apparent pun on "matter" in the final line is troublesome, for if the word refers to the body as well as to the trial, the first meaning contradicts the indication that death is passing her by for the time being. These problems can be partly solved by seeing the drama as being dreamlike. In this view, the sentence to a specific time and manner of death may symbolize death's inevitability, and the temporal confusion at the end may represent the double-time of a dream, in which one lives on past an event and then continues to expect it to reoccur. The crime of the speaker would be merely having been born, and the mocking would be directed against an inexplicably cruel God. This interpretation is reasonable but makes it hard to account for the speaker's understated stoicism.
An alternate view is that the sentence is to a living — death — its date immediate, its manner her present suffering, and its shame the result of her feelings of unworthiness. Her scorn of the jury's piety suggests her anger at the notion that mercy could mitigate her suffering and shame. Knowing that all she has left is death, she comforts herself with the thought that its final stroke will not be novel. She and death need no public show of familiarity — she because of her pride and stoicism, and he because his power makes a display unnecessary and demeaning. They are equally cheerful and cold. This interpretation may not seem plausible on an initial reading of the poem; however, it accounts for more of the details than does a more conventional interpretation.
As we have seen, several of Emily Dickinson's poems about poetry and art reflect her belief that suffering is necessary for creativity. Poems on love and on nature suggest that suffering will lead to a fulfillment for love or that the fatality which man feels in nature elevates him and sharpens his sensibilities. Similar ideas appear in many poems about immortality. Emily Dickinson's ideas about the creative power of suffering resemble Ralph Waldo Emerson's doctrine of compensation, succinctly stated by him in a poem and an essay, each called "Compensation." According to this view, every apparent evil has a corresponding good, and good is never brought to birth without evil. A version of this idea appears in Emily Dickinson's four-line poem "A Death blow is a Life blow to Some" (816), whose concise paradox puzzles some readers. The "death blow" in this poem is not death literally. If the subject were salvation beyond death, the poem would have no drama. Emily Dickinson is writing about a select group of people whom she observes and who represent part of herself. She is struck by their transformation. The death blow is an assault of suffering, mental or physical, which forces them to rally all of their strength and vitality until they are changed. The first two lines present the basic observation. The second two lines look back at what would have gone on with a living death. Their suffering, therefore, becomes a matter of great good luck. Good and evil are held in balance.
Emily Dickinson takes a more limited view of suffering's benefits in "I like a look of Agony" (241). The speaker is an observer, but the anger of the poem suggests that she may see something of herself in the suffering of other people. She is a person who has been disgusted by artificiality and, therefore, she treasures the genuine. The first line is a deliberate challenge to conventionality. She is willing to praise what people hate in order to express her disgust with the sham that can go with everyday values. People who are truly convulsed are not acting. Several critics take the poem's subject to be death. We disagree — despite the obvious allusion to the crucifixion in the last two lines. The poem seems designed to show mounting anger. The second stanza rushes impetuously from the idea of terrible suffering to the absolute of death, as if the speaker were demanding that we face the worst consequences of suffering-death, in order to achieve authenticity.
Emily Dickinson's most famous poem about compensation, "Success is counted sweetest" (67), is more complicated and less cheerful. It proceeds by inductive logic to show how painful situations create knowledge and experience not otherwise available. The poem opens with a generalization about people who never succeed. They treasure the idea of success more than do others. Next, the idea is given additional physical force by the declaration that only people in great thirst understand the nature of what they need. The use of "comprehend" about a physical substance creates a metaphor for spiritual satisfaction. Having briefly introduced people who are learning through deprivation, Emily Dickinson goes on to the longer description of a person dying on a battlefield. The word "host," referring to an armed troop, gives the scene an artificial elevation intensified by the royal color purple. These victorious, or seemingly victorious, people understand the nature of victory much less than does a person who has been denied it and lies dying. His ear is forbidden because it must strain to hear and will soon not hear at all. Pain lends clarity to the perception of victory. The bursting of strains near the moment of death emphasizes the greatness of sacrifice. This is a harsh poem. It asks for agreement with an almost cruel doctrine, although its harshness is often overlooked because of its crisp pictorial quality and its pretended cheerfulness. On the biographical level, it can be seen as a celebration of the virtues and rewards of Emily Dickinson's renunciatory way of life, and as an attack on those around her who achieved worldly success.
Emily Dickinson sometimes writes in a more genial and less harsh manner about suffering as a stimulus to growth. Two examples of this approach are the rarely anthologized "Revolution is the Pod" (1082) and "Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature" (750). Most of the few critical comments on "Revolution is the Pod" take its subject to be the revitalization of liberty. This is quite reasonable, although in the bulk of her poems and letters, Dickinson gives almost no attention to politics. However, the stress on individual in the first stanza suggests the possibility that Emily Dickinson is thinking about personal renewal as much as social renewal. Also, most of her nature metaphors that represent human activities are about individual growth. In any case, this exuberant poem begins by celebrating liberation and creation, both important values to a poet who chafed against restrictions and ordered her life through her writing. The second stanza continues the central metaphor of a seed-pod and a flower for society and self, and it offers the painful caution that they must undergo death and decay if, as the third stanza says, they are not to remain torpid. The function of revolution, then, like suffering, is to test and revive whatever may have become dead without our knowing it.
"Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature" (750) is a slower moving and more personal poem. It declares that personal growth is entirely dependent on inner forces. External circumstances may reveal its genuineness but they do not create it. The poem praises determination, personal faith, and courage in the face of opposition. The audience that looks on but can offer no help, described in the last stanza, is disembodied, even for Emily Dickinson's mental world. Surely it is a sign that she often felt that she could receive no help from the outside and must find her own way. Nevertheless, the poem seems to distort reality, although its quietness makes this quality unobtrusive.
Although the difficult "This Consciousness that is aware" (822) deals with death, it is at least equally concerned with discovery of personal identity through the suffering that accompanies dying. The poem opens by dramatizing the sense of mortality which people often feel when they contrast their individual time-bound lives to the world passing by them. Word order in the second stanza is inverted. The speaker anticipates moving between experience and death — that is, from experience into death by means of the experiment of dying. Dying is an experiment because it will test us, and allow us, and no one else, to know if our qualities are high enough to make us survive beyond death. The last stanza offers a summary that makes the death experience an analogy for other means of gaining self-knowledge in life. Neither boastful nor fearful, this poem accepts the necessity of painful testing.
"My Cocoon tightens — Colors tease" (1099) is both a lighter and a sadder treatment of the pursuit of growth. Several critics take its subject to be immortality. Its metaphor of the self as a butterfly, desiring both power and freedom, makes us think that it is about the struggle for personal growth. In the first stanza, the speaker is restricted but is faintly hopeful, and she contrasts her present limitations with her inner capacity. In the second stanza, she expresses a yearning for freedom and for the power to survey nature and feel at home with it. These personal qualities and this symbolic landscape represent life and its experiences as much, or more, than the achieving of paradise. In the last stanza, the speaker's hope for growth changes into a state of bafflement. She cannot read in herself, or nature, the formula which will allow her to make the right transformation, and she remains both puzzled and aspiring.
The rarely anthologized "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?' (365) is an unconstrained celebration of growth through suffering, though a few critics think that the poem is about love or the speaker's relationship to God. Addressed to the reader, the poem invites us to see a soul being transformed inside a furnace. When this soul is able to stand the suffering of fire, it will emerge white hot. The purified ore stands for transformed personal identity. At line nine, the poem divides into a second part. Here, the speaking voice is that of someone who has undergone such a transformation and can joyously affirm the availability of a change like its own for anyone willing to undergo it. The blacksmith's forge is described as a symbol, providing a metaphor within a metaphor. just as small villages always have a blacksmith, so every soul has in it the possibility of passing through the fires of rebirth. The last four lines return to the poem's initial exuberance, and as the speaker sees the changed souls rising from their forges, she is thinking once more of her own triumph.
"The Brain — is wider than the Sky" (632) has puzzled and troubled many readers, probably because its surface statements fly so boldly in the face of accepted ideas about man's relationship to God. The three stanzas make parallel statements, but there is a significant variation in the third. The first stanza declares, with a deliberate defiance of ordinary perception, that the small human brain is larger than the wide sky, and that it can contain both the sky and all of the self. Emily Dickinson seems to be asserting that imagination or spirit can encompass, or perhaps give, the sky all of its meaning. The second stanza repeats the theme but lends it a fresh power through the metaphor of sponges absorbing buckets, which may suggest the poet's internalization of reality. The third stanza tries to outdo the earlier ones in overstatement. The "just" comparing the weight of the brain and of God is designed to show that the speaker is not boasting, but that she has taken a precise measure and can present her findings with offhand assurance. This stanza seems to claim for the human spirit equal status with the creative force in the universe, although possibly Emily Dickinson is merely suggesting that all human knowledge comes from God. Emily Dickinson's ideas here may resemble her most extravagant claims for the poet and the human imagination. We have placed the poem with those on growth because its exuberance conveys a sense of relief, accomplishment, and self-assertion.