To push, and pierce, besides—
That if the Flesh resist the Heft—
The puncture—coolly tries —
That not a pore be overlooked
Of all this Compound Frame—
As manifold for Anguish—
As Species—be—for name—
F294 (1862) 264
Dickinson’s poems often take pain as a subject: the pain of separation, of dying, of failure, and of existential causes (“heavenly hurt,” for example). This one dissects the experience of anguish. This pain is both heavy and sharp: the poet describes it as a “Weight with Needles.” As the weight pushes the needles pierce.
Worse, if one tries to somehow avoid either the weight (“the Heft) or the puncturing, the torture device “coolly tries” to make sure that not a single pore of “the Flesh” is missed. This intentionality is chilling; something or some entity wants to cause suffering and goes about it “coolly” as if it were either a sadist or a professional.
The pain is not only physical but mental or psychical as well, afflicting the “Compound Frame” that is our body and soul. Such torment seems like something out of a fire-and-brimstone sermon.
|Anguish can sometimes be too much to bear--as we see in |
Shakespeare's Ophelia (Millais, 1851)
The last two lines add even more horror: there are as many ways to feel anguish (all the pores, actual and metaphorical) as there are names of species. The naming of animals reminds us of Genesis where Adam was responsible for naming all the different animals that God had made. There are a lot of different kinds of animals as Dickinson surely knew from her natural history studies. The Genesis reference, reminding us of the Garden teeming with new life and joy, is in sharp contrast to the deliberate anguish portrayed here.
Why was Dickinson writing about such excruciating pain? She wrote this poem in 1862, a year in which she wrote many poems of torment. She also wrote three “Master” letters around this time to a man she passionately loved. One of them, the third, discusses her acute, broken-hearted pain:
“ I’ve got a cough as big as a thimble—but I don’t care for that—I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont hurt me much. … Oh how the sailor strains, when his boat is filling—Oh how the dying tug, till the angel comes.”
Editor and biographer Thomas Johnson thinks Master is Charles Wadsworth, a married minister whom Dickinson seemed to have loved. Other scholars disagree, and the truth may never be known.
But Dickinson was writing of other pains at this time as well, as made clear by poems written earlier in the year (as well as can be determined). In “I got so I could take his name,” she talks about a departed or dead lover” whose letters caused a pain “As Staples—driven through.” In “I should have been too glad, I see,” she scathingly suggest to “Savior” that she be crucified rather than have joy.
The poem is written in hymn form: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter and an ABCB rhyme scheme. Dickinson sprinkles “p” sounds throughout: pounds, push, pierce, puncture, poor. The sound is what linguists call “plosive” and does have a pushing and pounding quality.