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24 May 2013

The Outer — from the Inner

The Outer — from the Inner
Derives its magnitude —
'Tis Duke, or Dwarf, according
As is the central mood —

The fine — unvarying Axis
That regulates the Wheel —
Though Spokes — spin — more conspicuous
And fling a dust — the while.

The Inner — paints the Outer —
The Brush without the Hand —
Its Picture publishes — precise —
As is the inner Brand —

On fine — Arterial Canvas —
A Cheek — perchance a Brow —
The Star's whole Secret — in the Lake —
Eyes were not meant to know.

                                                                                   F450 (1862)  J451

What our eyes see is only the visible manifestation of deeper, more fundamental truths. In terms of humans, our inner truth is a living spirit, a “Brush without the Hand.” Our outer selves, our looks and personas, are the canvas on which the spirit expresses itself.
         Dickinson begins with moods, however. Dukes and dwarves exemplify them. On a Dwarf day one feels much less powerful and confident than when one is feeling Duke-ish. As an order of “magnitude” the Duke is much more expansive and pre-eminent. It isn’t the persona who drives this, however, but some inner “mood,” as if moods have their own singular identity.

The next stanza uses the wheel as a metaphor for inner strength and integrity. It is the axis that holds the wheel together on its revolutions. Those “conspicuous” spokes spin about flinging dust all the while. They might look flashy but without the “unvarying” and regulating axis, they would fly apart and go nowhere.
         The final stanzas develop the metaphor of artist and canvas. The unseen artist lives within, painting the outer self on “fine – Arterial Canvas.” As life goes on the outer work of art mirrors precisely the inner self. Dickinson calls it the “inner Brand.” “Brand” here would have multiple meanings: a burned mark of ownership, spiritual essence, identity, and a property label. Over time, Dickinson is saying, our physical selves reflect the work of that unseen inner artist. She may also be suggesting that we are internally branded: a heavenly hurt that leaves no scar, or perhaps the deity’s not-so-gentle mark of ownership.
         Either way, the cheek that we see, the brow that indicates character and personality, become indicative of the true individual just as the star’s reflection in a lake reveals the star itself. The lake represents the eyes (located as they are between cheek and brow). The burning brand of the inner self might be discovered there – except that “Eyes [other eyes] were not meant to know.” 

        While eyes have been called the window to the soul, it is a rare person who can look into another’s eyes and see that soul. As in a wind-ruffled lake, we see distortion – the Duke or the Dwarf, perhaps, or spokes, or the various smokescreens we all hide behind – but not the secret of the star that burns its brand deep within. It is a true poet who can read that lake.


  1. Beautiful commentary. I did not immediately see the metaphors of the lakes as the eyes -- but you are right, of course.

    "Arterial canvas" is a wonderful phrase. It is also nice how "magnitude" in the first stanza ties to the metaphor of the star in the last.

    This poem, more than some of EDs poems and suited to its subject, has a very regular rhythm and rhymes that are "perfect" or near perfect. The poem also has a symmetry that is masterful. The first two stanzas have metaphors based on science and technology. The first stanza begins (as science does) from the outer and moves to the inner. The third stanza begins (as art does) with the inner and moves to the outer. The word "fine" in the second and fourth stanzas help create the symmetry.

    I find this poem less interesting than poems that deal with more difficult, less straightforward subjects where the sounds of the poem reflect and evoke emotion, discordance or a less rational level of experience.

    1. Yes, I had a hard time wanting to dive into this poem, so kept putting it off. Thanks for your excellent points – which made me more interested in the poem!
      I think the regularity of rhyme and rhythm (why do those dissimilar words share such an odd sequence of letters?) coupled with the short lines give the poem a certain childish quality. At times Dickinson uses this to deliver a stroke of devilish irony, but not here.
      BTW, I was originally going with "lake" as the artist's color as in crimson lake or madder lake. It was only when I realized that Dickinson had hemmed the lake in between cheek and brow that I started reading it as eyes.

    2. Good astronomical observation! Dwarf would play into that also, as does the spinning of the wheel flinging dust.

  2. I've been studying Emily's poetry and find your blog very helpful. Even though I took a number of collegiate english courses, I find her poetry difficult.

  3. ED loved riddles. Both her inner and outer lives are riddles. Her poems are riddles.

    She shrouded her entire life in secrecy, not meant for our eyes. We know almost nothing solid about her relationship with Susan Gilbert before her marriage with Austin. We know almost nothing about her relationship with Charles Wadsworth. Ditto with Samuel Bowles. Speculation rules much of her life’s history, providing job security for both academics and brazen amateurs.

    ED tells us in ‘The Outer — from the Inner’:

    “The Star's whole Secret — in the Lake —
    Eyes were not meant to know.”

    All we know is what she chooses to tell us, maddening, yes, addicting, yes, sublime coquetry, yes.

    Poor Judge Otis Lord, ED’s late life suitor, asked her to marry him, or at least share his life for his remaining years. Here is her answer, “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer – dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?” That’s what we get too, when we delve too deep.

  4. “Arterial”, used as an adjective to describe an artist’s canvas, is an ED original, intentional or unintentional. She used the word in poems only once, here in this poem, possibly as word play.

    The OED defines the adjective “arterial” only in the medical sense, in the American-English sense, “arterial road”, or as a color, “arterial red”. Likewise, ED’s Webster defined “arterial” only in the medical sense. Even the ED Lexicon defines “arterial” first in the medical sense, second in the figurative sense as “living; animate”, and only third as word play on the word ‘art’, artistic.