To learn the Transport by the Pain
As Blind Men learn the sun!
To die of thirst – suspecting
That Brooks in Meadows run!
To stay the homesick – homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore –
Haunted by native lands, the while –
And blue – beloved air!
This is the Sovereign Anguish!
This – the signal woe!
These are the patient "Laureates"
Whose voices – trained – below –
Ascend in ceaseless Carol –
To us – the duller scholars
Of the Mysterious Bard!
- F178 (1860) 167
Dickinson has employed these paradoxes and contrasts before, most notably in F112: “Success is counted sweetest,” where she says, “To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need.” Similarly, in F120, “As Watchers hang upon the East,” she sketches beggars reveling at an imaginary feast and on a tired desert traveler hearing a brook too far away to reach. In that poem she concludes that heaven will be the brook for the thirsty, the feast for the beggar. In the former poem, “Success,” she makes the point that it is agony that most clearly achieves awareness of success and even life.
In the current poem Dickinson explores the idea further. The “Sovereign Anguish,” the ultimate pain, is to know the full extent of the good by way of full experience of the bad. It is not enough to understand light because of its opposite, dark, when we turn out the light or close our eyes. To truly “learn the sun,” the poet claims, you must be blind. Only the desperately homesick can fully appreciate the homeland.
Dickinson is saying that there is an equivalence: utter darkness is light. Ecstasy (“Transport”) is pain – and vice versa. In fact, learning Transport through Pain results in a greater understanding of it. Those who master this paradox – that by denial and deprivation comes salvation born of “Sovereign Anguish” (that is why the anguish is “Sovereign”) – are the saints whose prayers are heard in heaven. They are “patient ‘Laureates’” [victors crowned with laurel wreaths] and the rest of us are unable to hear or even understand them. That is why saints can sing at the stake or radiate joy in the most terrible circumstances (or so some of the books on saints and suffering that the Dickinson’s owned would lead a person to believe).
God is “the Mysterious Bard” – and that is a very interesting way to describe the God of the Old Testament (and New) for a Christian in the mid 1800s in Puritan New England. It implies a musical harmony – the singing of the Bard and the “ceaseless Carol” of the suffering/sublime saints. We dull scholars never even hear the music. It is “Inaudible, indeed” to us.
|Hildegard receiving a vision|
and transcribing it.
Most of the poem is written in iambic meter. The exception is the key third stanza where Dickinson uses trochees to make the lines ring out: “This is … / This – … / “These …”. The stanza runs on into the last one without a period so that the poem crescendos to the final words: “Mysterious Bard.” It lends a sense of triumph to the poem that otherwise might seem full of pathos. No, the poet means to say that there is a divine song and those who suffer most are singing with God.
I can't help but think of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-Century nun who became a noted composer, abbess, and Christian visionary. Her visions are often thought to have had their inception from within the deep pain of migraines. Under her direction, these visions were painted by an artistic monk. Her musical compositions are known for their soaring melodies and almost trancelike qualities.