When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –
A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –
And so of larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –
The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –
Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.
F428 (1862) J419
This is one of Dickinson’s most accessible poems, I think. The first stanzas discuss how we adapt to night after the light of day or lamps. Her image is of leaving a neighbor’s house at night. The neighbor holds up the lamp as she bids farewell. It then takes “A Moment” for our eyes adapt to the dark. At first our steps are “uncertain,” but then we see better and can walk along the road confident and “erect.”
I feel a bit sad reading this for despite the many benefits of electricity, we have lost most of our darkness and with it the wonder of the night sky – as well as the ruminations that seem to blossom in the dark. For most of us night is not dark until we lie down to sleep.
In the third stanza Dickinson introduces the other half of the metaphor. Just as the day has both light and dark, so too do our hearts and minds. We have evenings of intense darkness where the moon and stars are occluded by clouds. Likewise, there are “Evenings of the Brain,” uncharted territory not illuminated by what we have been taught or what we have learned. There is nothing there we recognize as familiar signposts to tell us what to think or feel. Elders and self-help books typically advise us to shun thoughts that run this way and instead turn to practical or happy thoughts, or perhaps to read from the Bible or other book of guidance.
But then something happens – either the inner sight adapts to the dark or, more interestingly, the Darkness adapts to us. And just as the friend leaving the neighbor’s light can soon walk “erect” on the road, so too the explorer of the dark can walk “almost straight,” can learn to come and go safely – and can still function well enough in daily life that while others might find them eccentric or “touched,” they don’t find them mad.