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17 September 2012

Before I got my eye put out—

Before I got my eye put out—
I liked as well to see
As other creatures, that have eyes—
And know no other way—

But were it told to me, Today,
That I might have the Sky
For mine, I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me—

The Meadows—mine—
The Mountains—mine—
All Forests—Stintless stars—
As much of noon, as I could take—
Between my finite eyes—

The Motions of the Dipping Birds—
The Morning’s Amber Road—
For mine—to look at when I liked,
The news would strike me dead—

So safer—guess—with just my soul
Upon the window pane
Where other creatures put their eyes—
Incautious—of the Sun—

                                                            F336 (1862)  327 

Much has been made in critical writing of Dickinson’s poor eyesight. In 1862, the year this poem was written, she wrote about a “terror” in a letter to her poetic mentor Thomas Higginson. Other clues about this time suggest this terror involved a loss of sight. To a poet who loved to read, to garden, and to cook—to say nothing of writing in her room by candlelight or oil lamp—deteriorating vision would be terrible indeed.
A few years later Dickinson would travel to Boston to have ophthalmic treatments. Respected Dickinson biographer, Richard Sewall, believed the poet suffered from exotropia—a hereditary disease that causes “eye strain, blurring of vision, difficulties with prolonged periods of reading, headaches, and diplopia [double vision]. … They also might have acute sensitivity to “bright light in general and sunlight in particular.” If Dickinson was suffering from these symptoms intermittently at first, it might account for her occasional sense of being staggered or overwhelmed by the sun or by light.
            While the sun in Dickinson’s poetry often represents spiritual or intellectual illumination, or divinity, she has also used the sun metaphorically as a mighty and inherently dangerous, even downright cruel, godlike figure. Sometimes this figure stands in for an uncaring lover as in “The Daisy follows soft the Sun,” or “The Sun—just touched the Morning.” In “The Love a Life can show Below” she writes of a “diviner thing” that “far abroad on Summer days— / Distils uncertain pain.” This reminds us of that “certain Slant of light” that delivers “Heavenly Hurt.”
            But sometimes the sun brings Dickinson an almost unearthly delight. In her famous poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” she is drunken with sunlight, a “little Tippler / Leaning against the—Sun!”
            In the current poem, Dickinson takes the remarkable position that having only one eye—having the other one “put out” is the melodramatic phrase she uses—is “safer” than having full vision restored. That dramatic opening line, “Before I got my eye put out,” certainly gets the reader’s interest! Yes, she continues, I enjoyed seeing as much as any other creature with eyes. Eyes are how we see the world and understand our place in it.
            In the following three stanzas, however, she contends that being able to once more actually see the world and all its wonders in their full splendor would kill her. In fact, just the information that she would get her vision back would “strike [her] dead.” The problem is that to see is to have. She “might have the Sky.” Meadows and mountains, forests, “Stintless stars,” and noon would all be hers. “The Meadows—mine— / The mountains—mine,” she writes. All of that limitless wonder, “As much of noon, as I could take,” all between her “finite eyes.” If the eyes can truly be considered the windows to the soul, than her soul would be in for a massive delivery of world and cosmos.
            She goes on to say that even the sight of bird flight or the bright amber light of morning on the dirt road would be lethal. She concludes that she would be safer with “just” her soul experiencing the world. The image is that of a soul pressed against a window—and it is an image suitable for a poet. Her soul is open to life and currents of existence around her that those with mere eyes for vision might never see.            But as so often is the case with Dickinson, the last line delivers a twist: “other creatures put their eyes” against the window, “Incautious—of the Sun.” They don’t realize that the bringer of warmth and summer and light is deadly. And with this image Dickinson is also suggesting, I believe, that the poet’s soul, like a creature’s eye, is vulnerable to too much light. We cannot bear too much truth or enlightenment. It’s much safer to see things and to take life in a commonplace way or else, like Icarus whose image I see behind these lines, we too will melt in the sun’s intense heat and fall headlong into the sea.


  1. Susan,

    I just found your site. Thank you so much for helping me to understand and appreciate Emily Dickinson. My heart and soul resonate with her words and images, but my brain can be slow to understand her meaning. You are a wealth of knowledge to assist me. Bless you!

  2. Thank you for the historical context of ED's visual issues, which are surely the leaping off point for her musings and insights into her mystic vision.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, boundless awareness, impersonal, is enlikened to the sky. One has to die to the limited self or the identification with that self in order to embody it.

    I think ED knows this truth and in poem after poem writes out of that knowing. And she expresses the mystic's slant view and the challenge of mystic experience by contrasting the that boundlessness of "my Heart would split, for size of me to the ordinary condition of the the soul opon

    1. I think so, too. Thanks for the comment.

  3. To finish: the window pane, pane being both boundary and pain of that boundary.

  4. I wonder if there is another reading to this poem, one in which Dickinson longs for sights that she has lost by reflecting that, though she used to enjoy visual pleasures, she didn't really appreciate them like she would now (ironically, given her physical inability to do so). It's a fairly conventional take on blindness--as spiritual insight, but yet as a tragic loss of sensory experience. Although it's "safer" not to look at the sun, I take the danger to be not "truly" seeing, not literal danger (and safeness in other Dickinson poems seems to be a state that is scorned, not embraced).

    I'm legally blind, and I am particularly interested in representations of disability & bodily impairment in literature (what my dissertation will be on), so I tend be kind of harsh on or sensitive to negative valences in these kinds of things. And the fear of blindness is so great in our society that I can understand Dickinson's "terror" but also wish that more people thought of it as something that doesn't have to be scary, but simply a part of life (albeit one that requires some adjusting, admittedly).

    Thanks for cluing me in on Sewall's theory about Dickinson's eye condition. Gerald W. Jackson claims it was iritis (which the Emily Dickinson Museum seems to think is the most plausible). I don't know enough about the various conditions to tell which seems more plausible. Your blog in general has been invaluable in helping me think through Dickinson's often mysterious poems.

    Your interpretation makes sense, and I want the poem to reflect that idea along with the one I've gleamed, as often I think conflicting sentiments exist within Dickinson's work. But given Dickinson's "terror" of blindness, it's hard to not to "see" that here.

    1. Thanks! On re-reading the poem I see the killing joy in it. There's a sort of ecstasy in the seeing she describes, but it is piercing (like that first daffodil, I think it is). I'm reminded of how she refused to come greet her beloved Samuel Bowles when he returned from some time abroad. She wasn't angry, just, I think, feeling the joy of his return all to strongly. It was Higginson who said that being with her for an hour or two left him exhausted.