It’s hard to escape the pull of Emily Dickinson here in the Parlando Project, and I keep finding that her poems ask for that unheard music in them to be made audible. So much is remarkable about Dickinson. She’s so original in poetic expression, and yet she’s kept a substantial audience of readers from the time of her first posthumously published collection in the late 19th Century.
Here’s yet another striking fact about her: she wrote over a thousand poems, the majority of her poetic work, roughly around the time of the American Civil War, in a burst of creativity less than a decade long. Can one even imagine what that might have been like? For this means that, on average, over twice a week a new Emily Dickinson poem, a new and unprecedented type of poetry, emerged from her pen.
She shared them somewhat, some of them anyway, with family and friends. She informally bound many of them into little booklets. But did she know what she was accomplishing? What faith drove her creativity?
Today’s words are drawn from a Dickinson poem she wrote halfway into that burst. Unlike some Dickinson poems, the “plot” of the poem is easy enough to follow, and it concludes with a moral, like a conventional poem of moral uplift might. However, like a lot of good art, the experience and meaning of it changes as you bring your own time and times to it.
“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” starts off in that pre-electric outdoors that we last talked about with Frost’s “Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening.” On a new moon or overcast night, that old dark is darker than any we routinely experience in modern urban America. Yet, then or now, eyes indeed adjust, and make better use of what weak light may be present. Dickinson next changes the scene and speaks of “Evenings of the Brain” where even moon and starlight are extinguished. Other than Dickinson’s near, but not quite, “slant rhymes,” this is a conventional poem up to this point. But wait there’s a small warning that she’s not going to develop this conventionally. Those evenings inside the brain are a larger thing than the whole of the outdoor night.
Her next metaphor is not Victorian sentiment, but outright slapstick farce. Moving forward in the dark earnestly, the nobly brave—smack! Faceplant into a tree trunk.
This brings ambiguity to her concluding moral. Is becoming accustomed to the dark a good thing? We think we’ve adjusted. We think we’ve steeled ourselves to “Brave”—or maybe we’ve just added that outer darkness to our brain, and we agree to pretend it’s normal. “Life steps almost straight” she concludes. Somehow, at least this week, as I watch our dark world, I don’t think Dickinson intends this as a consolation.