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08 February 2012

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I've heard the Hunter tell –
'Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And "you're hurt" exclaim!
                                                - F181 (1860)  165

Just a couple of poems ago, To learn the Transport by the Pain, poem 178, Dickinson wrote in paradoxical juxtapositions. Here she uses the technique again but to different effect. It is an interesting paradox that a violence engenders liveliness. The shot deer makes a tremendous leap before falling dead in the bushes (“the Brake”).  The “ecstasy of death” the poet calls it, and maybe it is, as if all the remaining life in the animal gathers itself for one final fling. Better, perhaps, than floundering on the ground.
            The “smitten rock” comes from Moses who was told by god to strike a certain rock so that the Israelites, thirsty after wandering for days in the desert wilderness without water, might not die of thirst. The steel trap lies quietly in its place until a bear or fox (or child) “tramples” it and then its deadly jaws spring shut.
Chain Mail
            The “Hectic” refers to a severe fever, tuberculosis, or other serious illness. But where the Hectic “stings” the cheeks take on the same ruddy glow as they do after a healthy walk in the cold.  Just as the leaping deer might seem to signal high spirits and strength while it is really about to die, so the consumptive flushes as if restored, only perhaps to lapse into a coma or worse.
            In the fourth stanza Dickinson brings the paradoxes closer to the personal. “Mirth” protects the anguished from being spotted and pitied, just as chain mail protects the knight from injury. It is easy to apply this last analogy to our ordinary lives. When we’ve been hurt by someone or some event, we often put the brave face on and go out smiling and laughing. We are too proud or even too vulnerable to let others see “the blood.”
            The poem is vivid not just because of the dramatic examples, but because of the strong verbs, nounds, and adjectives. The verbs, for example, include leaps, gushes, springs, stings, Arm, spy, and exclaim. Adjectives include wounded, smitten, trampled, and cautious. There aren’t any extra words or phrases to slow the poem down and so it seems to race to a screeching halt at “Mirth is the Mail of Anguish” – which is a beautifully turned aphorism and which suddenly makes the list of paradoxes hit home.


  1. Great Job, Thank you for doing this project

  2. Hnnggg, thank you for elevating my appreciation for this one.

  3. I would like to offer an alternative reading of that wonderful line, "Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –"

    According to Webster's 1850 dictionary, "mail" is defined as "to put on a coat of mail or armor; to arm defensively." This more clearly communicates the brave face you mention. Once again, Emily Dickinson finds a word that so perfectly expresses a thought through both sound and sense.

    1. I agree -- and thought I'd communicated that with " “Mirth” protects the anguished from being spotted and pitied, just as chain mail protects the knight from injury." It is a wonderful line; it's a good one to trot out from time to time among friends.

  4. Replies
    1. Anguish cautiously arms itself with Mirth -- a great image but Dickinson is not using standard English or sentence structure. The key is that "Arm" is a verb and not a noun here.

  5. Ηοw do we know it is a verb? Is cautious placed as an adverb? Does "it" refer to anguish?_(Thanks for the answer above).

  6. Mail is an armor -- one arms oneself in mail (and/or weapons). "Cautious" is an adverb -- proper English would be 'cautiously' -- with the adverbial 'ly' ending. "It" refers to 'anguish'. That's my thinking. It just wouldn't sound as good for her to have written "in which it cautiously arms itself".

  7. Hi! A visitor from Macedonia here, love your project! I was wondering, can you explain the following contrasting lines wider to me,
    "the smitten rock that gushes,
    the trampled steel that springs"
    I know their meanings, I just don't see how the God's smitten rock is a trampled steel.

    1. The two images are not linked except that each exemplifies the idea of a wounded deer leaping highest. It is a rock that is hit that gushes; it is a steel trap that is trampled by an animal that snaps (springs) shut.

  8. May I ask for your help once more! Do you happen to have a clue as to whether the word "freeze" in poem 640 (I can not live with you) is a verb _the word "you" next to the word "freeze" to be guessed_ and what exactly it could possibly mean in that case?

    1. Ah, now you made me read ahead. But it's a poem I love and am familiar with. In the stanza you refer to, the speaker is saying that she couldn't bear for her beloved to die first -- to go into the frozen coldness of the ground (it freezes where Dickinson lived) while she is denied Death's privilege of frost. So, yes, 'freeze' is used as a verb. The corpse is supposed to have frozen in the ground.

  9. Brilliant stuff, thank you for doing this!

  10. This is very helpful. Love your project. I’m studying one a day, and I’m learning a lot.

  11. Do you think E made a grammatical mistake? Isn't 'it' the subject of the verb 'Arm' and since 'it' refers to 'Mirth' and therefore singular, shouldn't the verb be 'Arms'? Maybe she took some poetic license but I think that poets shouldn't take with a grammatical rule so foundational to English.

    1. Yes, proper grammar would demand 'arms' -- but I think Dickinson is calling on the subjunctive here. More importantly, at least to a poet, 'arms' doesn't have the force, soundwise, as 'arm'. I'm with Dickinson on this one for that reason. If you want to be grammatically precise, you would pick at 'cautious', too. 'Cautiously arms itself' would be correct but I for one wouldn't prefer it!

      The short iambs in "In which it cautious arm" slows down the reading and gives a more cautious feel. The elisions cause the reader to pause in reading and that draws attention to the line. It's an important line and warrants the attention.

  12. We read poetry for both its sound and sense, and it’s difficult to imagine a greater density of both in only 62 words. To hear the sound, it’s helpful for me to first see the sense in simple words:

    Inner pain begets great poetry -
    I’ve heard it said -
    It’s only me dying
    Before silence sets in!

    Miracles like gushing rocks
    And trampled steel that rebounds
    And healthy-looking red cheeks
    Help hide tubercular pain!

    Humor masks that inner pain -
    Protects me from inquiring eyes,
    That might observe my bleeding wound
    And publicly exclaim, "you're hurt"!