Darkness is a recurring image in literature that evokes a universal unknown, yet is often entrenched in many meanings. A master poet, Emily Dickinson employs darkness as a metaphor many times throughout her poetry. In “We grow accustomed to the dark” (#428) she talks of the “newness” that awaits when we “fit our Vision to the Dark. ” As enigmatic and shrouded in mystery as the dark she explores, Dickinson’s poetry seems our only door to understanding the recluse. As she wrote to her friend T. W. Higginson on April 15, 1862, “the Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly”(Letters 253).
In this musing, she acquiesces to a notion that man remains locked in an internal struggle with himself. This inner conflict is brought to light through a metaphorical darkness that pervades many of her poems. Evidenced by the sheer breadth of her poetry she penned throughout her life, it is clear Dickinson indulged and withdrew often into the inner realm of her own mind. The darkness is an interesting metaphor because it represents a dichotomy between an internal and external. Poem 428 illustrates both as the darkness acts as a barrier against understanding, while at the same time a limitless passage to potential knowledge.
As a poet, Dickinson meticulously fashions her poems. Each word, each capitalization, each rhyme scheme – the dash – is a device carefully calculated and chosen. The dash is rarely reflected on since Dickinson tends to utilize the punctuation in every poem. However, in poem 428, the formatting is essential to the meaning. What do the dashes mean? The punctuation – dash – has the power to immediately interrupt the flow of a sentence. Dashes indicate pauses – ends – places to wait – sometimes nothingness. Nothingness is what the darkness contains. Isn’t nothingness an unknown?
As we read the poem we pause at every turn, commanded to do so by the dash – indicative of inner conflict. Our minds subconsciously repeat this action after ever pause – every dash. The words it is used on highlight the dark. The dash is used after lines directly referencing darkness itself and its incarnations (line 6’s “night,” line 10’s “Evenings,” line 11’s “Moon,” line 19’s “Midnight”) half of the time. In other lines, darkness is not directly referenced, yet evoked through certain associate terms. The power of darkness to hinder understanding and arbitrarily change are used fter such words (line 2’s “away,” line 4’s “bye,” line 11’s “sign,” and line 17’s “alters”).
The darkness also could represent an inner conflict, such as the turmoil “within” (line 12) is exclusively mental. The line is indicative of the inner search for truth. The superfluous use of dashes in this specific line emphasizes the feeling of hopelessness that plagues the search. This trend continues in line 13 as the subject, “the Bravest,” still always have darkness that lies ahead which they must “meet… -erect-” (line 8) and overcome. After doing this, the brave can “see” (line 16) and reach the deeper enlightenment they’ve sought.
What about the words that lack a dash? These lines emphasize the sworn enemy of darkness- the light. To begin, line 3’s “lamp” illuminates the darkness. Light is used often as a metaphor to show knowledge that lies ahead or paths to understanding. Therefore, line 5’s “step” and line 20’s “straight” lack a dash since they show a direction. In darkness, there exists nothingness and no place to tread. In line 14, “tree” is indicative of light’s other meaning – to shed light on something. A realization of a truth may be revealed in light. This connection causes light to be intrinsically linked to wisdom.
Thus, in a poem so immersed in emotional darkness, wisdom would void it. As far as line 18’s “sight” is concerned, no dash is present because without light a visual cannot be seen and will remain in (a physical and mental) darkness. In these lines without a dash, darkness is not acting as a barrier. In this poem, a rhyme scheme doesn’t seem to exist at first. Few of the lines rhyme, except for lines 14 and 16 and lines 18 and 19. However, the poem has fluidity despite its apparent scarcity of rhyme. After examining the alteration of syllables in each line, a pattern is revealed in this poem concerning darkness.
The first nine lines alternate between 8 and 6 syllables. These lines are concerned, as any narrative is, with exposition. These lines set up darkness as an internal conflict to come. The conflict intensifies in lines 10 and 11 as we are bombarded by an explosion of 8 syllables in each line. These lines present the conflict within one’s own mind at its most desperate. After this climax, the syllables in the last nine lines resolve the conflict presented. In these lines, Dickinson presents us with an archetypal figure that is faced with a conflict: the “bravest” hero.
These lines present the resolution in lines that alternate between 6 and 7 syllables. Just as the syllables decrease, the falling action presents us with a final insight. This insight discusses how darkness is an insurmountable entity that, like the hero, we must face to continue “straight” through “Life” (line 20). The next seemingly arbitrary decision is Dickinson’s capitalization. The capitalization at the beginning of the sentence must be capitalized; therefore, we’ll focus on the capitalizations that lie within each sentence. In this poem, each of these words is a noun.
Past this simple reading, what may we deduce from these capitalizations? Each stanza presents a different set of capitalized objects which lend themselves to the interpretation that darkness is a barrier. It is no mere coincidence, that like the darkness they reference, these objects are not easily read. The poem presents itself as a narrative, but when you want to seek a connection between these capitalized objects, you feel you’ve hit a wall – an impasse. In poem 554, Dickinson presents us with another frustrating statement when she asserts “I had not minded – Walls –”.
In a similar way, this poem Dickinson is satisfied with the elusiveness that the darkness presents. She takes delight in contradiction and abstraction. In a letter sent to T. W Higginson on June 8, 1862, Dickinson states that she “[has] no tribunal” (255). Dickinson, like her poetry, is a paradox. In her house she was Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, yet in her poetry and letters takes on the form of the enigmatic “Your Scholar” or “E. Dickinson” (Letters 263-278). However, without seeming too presumptuous with a direct correlation to the poet, these objects remain impenetrable.
The objects could be interpreted as external entities, yet each when internalized represents a concept inaccessible. For example, in poem 428, we find the “Moon” and “Star,” objects present in darkness of the sky, not characterized in the usual way we symbolically represent them. The “Moon” doesn’t represent an omen – “sign” – and the “Star” is found “within” reach instead of far away. This is further evidenced when the “Bravest” in relation to the “Tree” do not act how we expect. We expect figures exemplifying courage to undergo immense – not “little” – obstacles and to always – not “sometimes” – encounter them (as represented by the tree).
But what of all the poems that argue the opposite, that the darkness represents a potential limitless portent to freedom? Indeed poem 428’s metaphorical darkness could be interpreted as a veil that covers a deeper hidden truth. In fact, darkness takes on a myriad of manifestations, such as shadow, in Dickinson’s poetry. In “Presentiment – is that long shadow – on the Lawn” (#487), Dickinson uses a “long shadow” in apposition with a “presentiment”. A presentiment is an intuition about the future (usually of something evil). In this instance, a limiting of light presents us with an indicator to further wisdom.
In another poem, “In Ebon box, when years have flown” (#180), the darkness that covers the “box” is manifested as “velvet dust / Summers have sprinkled there! ” A mere “wiping away” is all it takes to unlock what’s hidden inside. In these poems, darkness is never directly referenced – only alluded to. However, in Dickinson’s poetry, darkness need not solely be alluded to. In “Through the dark sod as education” (#559), the deeper theme of darkness explicitly leads to potential knowledge. In poem 559, the “Lily” is an entity known to thrive in the light of day (and perhaps even Dickinson herself).
Then, why is the image of the “Dark Sod” brought in? Dickinson certainly could have chosen to utilize night, a period that flowers encounter every night. However, through this uncommon embodiment of lawn, Dickinson exposes darkness as an omnipresent force. Even for a “Lily,” darkness is a commonplace occurrence. However, here a head on confrontation with an omnipresent force doesn’t block the pursuer from realizing a deeper meaning. Thus, the “Lily” needs the darkness for redemption. Poem 559 presents darkness as a metaphor we shouldn’t have “trepidation” or “fear” for.
In the second stanza, Dickinson advances her exploration of darkness. In the “meadow,” the “Lily” acknowledges the darkness that it faced by reflecting on its recent “Mold-life”. The “Mold” in the garden-variety setting of the poem has the destructive power to devour and delineates passing of time. However, to ignore the first part of the hyphenated expression, the word “Mold,” would be to ignore the power of darkness’ influence. Mold itself could refer back to the process of forming (both physical creation and the mental process undergone throughout life by the mind).
In this poem, the “Lily” undergoes a transformative process that leaves it forever in “Extasy”. Ecstasy here is an interesting consequence when we consider Dickinson’s own thoughts on the matter. On their first meeting, Dickinson said to T. W. Higginson, “I find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy itself” (Letters 264). (Therefore, if we conclude that ecstasy is an effect of darkness, then we could deduce that Dickinson believed it vital element since life is comprised of birth and death. ) The flower in the poem is mutated and enhanced through the period of darkness it experiences.
This poem could be seen as a musing on the human condition that befalls us all. A matter relatable and universally understood that life is a never-ending struggle which we all engage. The individual will emerge from the hardships, like “Dark Sod,” once they come to the realization that light cannot exist without its antithesis, darkness. Just as light cannot exist without its opposite, a discourse on metaphorical darkness in Emily Dickinson’s poetry would not be complete without an inclusion of metaphorical light.
However, light is such a commonly used word, that expressions expounding its revelatory nature have become cliches. To go beyond these two analyses, we must reveal the destructive nature underlying light. In “There’s a certain slant of light” (#320), Dickinson explicates light in a novel way. In this poem, the setting is a “Winter Afternoon. ” From the very first line, the poet maintains a bias against the light. In the season of winter, it is expected for light to rarely appear. As a New England resident, Emily Dickinson knew this fact well. This poem, unlike many of Dickinson’s poetry, does not extol nature or light.
Unlike its usual connotation, Dickinson presents a light that contradicts what we expect and that instead exhibits a complicated nature. Interestingly enough, the light at work in this poem is found to be oppressive, despite nature superseding its position. Why then is light oppressive? The answer to this query is arrived at if we carefully decipher Dickinson’s diction choice. In this poem, we can argue that change is epitomized by the “certain Slant of light” as a turning point for transformation. This slant of light is oppressive, but this is no simple, purely negative oppression.
Rather, like darkness, it is both hard and worthwhile. The diction is heightened in the third stanza, when the poem 320’s speaker states how light cannot “teach” a lesson. An experience of painful transition is deemed more important. This experience is characterized by the stress placed on the word “Any. ” The word both ends the physically written line and limits the expounded experience. Further explored, the turmoil disclosed is revealed not as a collective one by the diction choice an “imperial affliction. ” It is almost as if a privileged group can only experience the transformation.
In one word, Dickinson refashions light from universal emblem of revelation to a symbol of an exclusive human experience. However, taking light metaphorically where we never thought it could, Dickinson shows how easily transmuted these externals – light and dark – (which we’ve internalized and thought we knew) are. In Dickinson’s first letter to T. W. Higginson on April 16, 1862, she asked him, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? ”(253) The irony lies in the fact that Dickinson’s verse is so alive that Emily Dickinson continues to rewrite the traditional modes of literature convention past her own lifetime.