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!
- F180 (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.
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.