When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
F156 (1860) J108
In one of her most clever and incisive poems, Dickinson uses standard ballad structure (alternating tetrameter and trimeter) with a very regulated trochaic meter. It makes the poem memorable – and in fact I find myself repeating this little poem now and again just for fun.
Part of the fun of the poem is the notion of Life as the “Culprit,” beating beneath the surgeon's knife. Normally we’d think the culprit would be the disease, bullet or tumor that the doctor must incise, so the image is startling.
|The Agnew Clinic, by Thomas Eakins, 1889|
One might also see the poem as a metaphor for other operations. In Dickinson's case, there were plenty of "surgeons" willing to take the knife to her poetry: both Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Samuel Bowles – men she revered and sent poems to – not only encouraged her to smooth out her diction and rhyme schemes, but actually edited her poetry to that end. In retrospect, and as Dickinson suspected, they took a bit of life out of the poems in doing so.