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30 August 2013

When I hoped, I recollect

When I hoped, I recollect
Just the place I stood —
At a Window facing West —
Roughest Air — was good —

Not a Sleet could bite me —
Not a frost could cool —
Hope it was that kept me warm —
Not Merino shawl —

When I feared — I recollect
Just the Day it was —
Worlds were lying out to Sun —
Yet how Nature froze —

Icicles upon my soul
Prickled Blue and Cool —
Bird went praising everywhere —
Only Me — was still —

And the Day that I despaired —
This — if I forget
Nature will — that it be Night
After Sun has set —
Darkness intersect her face —
And put out her eye —
Nature hesitate — before
Memory and I —
                                       
                                      F493 (1862)  J768

Dickinson recalls three important days each characterized by a different emotion. She may be outlining the chronology of a narrative: first hope, then fear, then despair. But there really is no need for a single narrative. Each emotion may have its own distinct story. Each one is granted two quatrains (although Despair's are formatted together for a single, double-length stanza, no doubt to intensify it).
       The last stanza is difficult, so I tried to work out a paraphrase as a springboard.

I remember just where I was standing when I had hope. It was at the west window. The rough, cold air felt good. Neither sleet nor frost made me too cold. It was my hope that kept me warm, not some wool shawl.

I remember the very day when I was afraid. The sun was shining on all the world, yet somehow Nature was freezing me. Icicles prickled blue and cool upon my soul. Birds were singing in praise everywhere. It was only me that was still.

And the day that I despaired? I am as unlikely to forget that day as Nature would be to forget that night follows sunset, that darkness covers the sun's face and puts out her golden eye. Nature will pause before my memory does.


The final dash leaves us in an unending loop of painful memory. We've seen in earlier poems that Dickinson finds despair the most crippling and paralyzing emotion (most recently in F484, "From Blank to Blank").  The violence of the last stanza is rather staggering. In the poet's despair, night isn't just the darkness that follows day, but darkness putting out the eye of the sun and intersecting her face as if slicing it away. It's as if every night the sun suffers a violent eclipse. Perhaps Dickinson is projecting what or whoever caused her despair onto the sun that is so punished.
   
photo: Alina Rogers
    After that last stanza, the prickling icicles of fear don't sound so bad. Those lines, "Icicles upon my soul / Prickled Blue and Cool" is wonderful. There is the physical sensation of cool prickling, the visual image of blue icicles, the apt analogy of fear to icicles – and then the sound of the words. The whole poem is trochaic, but the trochees beginning these two lines are particularly effective, emphasizing the ice and the prick. The quick sound of "Prickled" is followed by the long, slow sounds of "Blue and Cool." That's interesting in itself, for prickling is a quick sensation, while something blue and cool suggests a more static environment.

Nature reflects and responds to the speaker throughout the poem. The poet's hope is able to protect her against cold and sleet. Nature uses her fear to turn a hot day freezing cold. Nature re-enacts her despair every night be obliterating the sun. It is a comment, perhaps, about how consuming emotions are.

2 comments:

  1. Great analysis.

    This poem like other of EDs poems reflects on powerful emotions from a temporal distance. It is a meditation on emotional experience as powerful, but ephemeral and illusory.

    Hope and fear are both emotions that take place in the present but where the mind is preoccupied with the future. ED emphasizes this preoccupation by contrasting the internal emotional temperature with the external weather at the time of the experience. Because the poem looks back on the experience, hope and fear take on an illusory quality. We aren't told the outcome of the traumatic event, whether the hope or the fear was justified. Instead we are left simply with the contrast between the emotional experience and the natural, external world.

    Despair is different. Despair is a letting go; it has a timeless quality. ED contrasts despair not with a sensory experience but with the moment in the natural world when time stops -- when the sun is extinguished.

    In other poems that deal with despair (like "From Blank to Blank" or "After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes") ED describes the present experience with original, powerful language ("threadless way", quartz contentment", "white sustenance") that emphasizes disorientation and numbness, with an element of indulgence. Here, because ED is recollecting from a future point, we know that the experience has passed and the experiencer has "survived". But the insight -- the memory -- is now the present. The despair, which seemed timeless, is now in the past. The poet assures us that the memory --the insight, at least, is permanent. Do we believe her?

    The images of the last stanza particularly are very powerful. This is a great poem.

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    1. Thank you -- lovely and insightful commentary. The thread of numb paralysis and timelessness weaves through a surprising number of the nearly 500 Dickinson poems. You add that there is an "element of indulgence" and I think, after musing about that for some days now, that's very apt. Sometimes there is a conscious stroking of the memory of despair, the holding up the darkness of it to the light; it is not the bird that presses its breast against the thorn to sing, but the near-victim of freezing to death recalling and recalling the stupor.

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