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03 April 2013

I found the words to every thought

I found the words to every thought
I ever had – but One –
And that – defies me –
As a Hand did try to chalk the Sun

To Races – nurtured in the Dark –

How would your own – begin?
Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal –
Or Noon – in Mazarin?
                                                           F436 (1862)  J581

We’ve all found ourselves trying to communicate something that we don’t have words for. We end up using analogies and figurative language or groping about inarticulately. Eliot’s Prufrock grapples with his inability to articulate some “overwhelming” question, concluding, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” There are limits to communication, to language, and even to knowing. 

Cochineal pigment

         As a great poet, though, Dickinson finds words for what she means through thoroughly original techniques. She tells the truth “slant.” She lassoes a word into her own meanings such as “circumference”; scholars are still discussing her idiosyncratic use of that word. She can be allusive, suggestive, and often maddeningly  opaque.
Mazarin blue
         But in this poem she confesses that there is a thought that she simply lacks the words to express. It “defies” her as if it were a wild animal she has tried to tame. She spends the rest of the poem using art as an analogy. 
          How can one create a convincing likeness of the sun, she asks, to a people who have grown up in darkness? Can the sun’s blaze or the noon sky be really communicated using even the most expensive pigments?
         The answer might be “yes” if the viewer were familiar with sun and noon. But if those phenomena had no meaning in experience, paint could only provide a hint of their light. Likewise, Dickinson’s inexpressible thought. She has not the mazarin or the cochineal to make it real. 


  1. This is a favorite poem of mine -- one of a few of EDs poems I have memorized.

    The images are so vivid. I love the word "chalk" -- so tactile that you can feel and hear the act of writing -- and its slant rhyme with "Dark". Defies is also wonderful -- how she uses that word and then in the next image creates a "Hand". The meaning bleeds over so that the hand is defying the mind of the artist -- and what artist doesn't know that frustration?

    The last stanza, I think, broadens from the initial subject of artistic creation so that the artist's struggle becomes a metaphor for a profound statement about the human condition (the word "Races" signals this expansion of scope). For me, the stanza evokes Plato's cave and Plato's metaphor of the sun -- the sun being a domain where "truth and reality shine resplendent" that becomes obscured when the mind inclines toward the world of "becoming and passing away". This puts the poem squarely among the more profound of EDs poems -- addressing the ultimate issue of birth and death.

    The final lines with "Blaze" and "Noon" and "cochineal" and "mazurin" are sublime.

    1. Thank you - this broadened my understanding of the poem and deepened my appreciation.

    2. I read the Platonic commentary above and didn't really understand it, but then I re-read it a second time through because of your appreciation of it, Susan. I am so glad I did. What a stunning insight.

  2. Thank you for the photos of Cochineal and Mazarin. That helps make the poem not only understandable but more vivid. I appreciate the work you've put into finding many images that enhance our understanding of the poems.

    1. Thank you! I've learned a lot just from searching pictures.

  3. Thank you! The way you have brought out the analogy-it's impeccable. I have been reading Emily Dickinson's poems and your blog is of much help to me.

  4. This poem captures the poet’s frustration with the limitations of language. Thank you for this blog and your insights. I appreciate the pictures too!

  5. Obrigada! Sou do Brasil. Seu trabalho é muito importante para mim! Beijos!

    1. Google translates sweetly from Portuguese:

      Thanks! I am from Brazil. Your work is very important to me! Kisses!

  6. Thanks for this analysis. I am a beginner when it comes to reading poetry. I now know what "slant rhyme" means.

    The poem itself reminded me immediately of me asking a blind guy to describe me how it is not to see anything. He responded with asking me to describe to him how it is to see... An excellent example of what Emily Dickinson means here. Simply undescribable using language.

  7. Lovely comments, all, especially “The poem itself reminded me immediately of me asking a blind guy to describe me how it is not to see anything. He responded with asking me to describe to him how it is to see”. That’s a keeper.

    It is a bit hard to imagine ED ever had a thought she couldn’t immortalize in poetry, but for the sake of this thread, we can accept her word for it. However, given the closing of the preceding poem, F435:

    “Might some one else – so learned – be –
    And leave me – just my A – B – C –
    Himself – could have the Skies–”

    maybe she intended a second level of meaning.
    In their correspondence or conversation, ED apparently offended Rev. Wadsworth, or thought she did (Draft of Master Letter 2, “early 1861”):

    “Oh, did I offend it- [Did'nt it want me to tell it the truth] Daisy - Daisy-offend it-who bends her smaller life to his (it's) meeker (lower) every day-who only asks-a task- [who] something to do for love of it- some little way she cannot guess to make that master glad-

    “A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart-pushing aside the blood and leaving her faint (all) and white in the gust's arm-”

    Also, F250, (“second half of 1861”):

    “The Court is far away –
    No Umpire – have I –
    My Sovereign is offended –
    To gain his grace – I’d die!”

    Given ED’s proclivity for independent thinking about Christian dogma, she probably said something that questioned Wadsworth’s firm religious beliefs. Perhaps she intended F436 to express her doubts that God would damn all “Races – nurtured in the Dark” (Pre-Christian era). How would your [their] own – [religion] begin?

    Wadsworth would likely answer with some comment about Ham and his descendants that ED couldn’t accept. In short, ED may be searching for reasons why Wadsworth’s departure for the West was better for her than his remaining in the East with its unresolvable conflict. At least by leaving, he has resolved ED’s conflicting commitment to write poetry versus her hopeless pursuit of a relationship with Wadsworth.