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28 March 2014

One Anguish — in a Crowd —

One Anguish — in a Crowd —
A Minor thing — it sounds —
And yet, unto the single Doe
Attempted of the Hounds

'Tis Terror as consummate
As Legions of Alarm
Did leap, full flanked, upon the Host —
'Tis Units — make the Swarm —

A Small Leech — on the Vitals —
The sliver, in the Lung —
The Bung out — of an Artery —
Are scarce accounted — Harms —

Yet might — by relation
To that Repealless thing —
A Being — impotent to end —
When once it has begun —
                       F527 (1863)  J565

The poem uses two analogies to talk about suffering. The first stanza introduces the terrors of the individual person or doe: One individual's anguish shouldn't seem so bad: what is one sufferer among many who suffer not? The pain of one person amid a crowd can seem a "Minor thing" – perhaps there is an acceptable ratio. Dickinson then pivots to the image of a terrified doe, and while the two images are not parallel – the doe pursued by hounds seems nothing like an anguished human amid a crowd, I think Dickinson means us to see an anguished person as one set upon by metaphorical dogs of torment. The focus of the first stanza is on the terrorized human, not the doe.  
        The second stanza provides the analogy: the terror of this onslaught of torment is like that of an army, "the Host", suddenly attacked by a much greater force. The army is panicked and overwhelmed. The attacking soldiers, the "Units", are like the individual dogs in the hunting pack. The pack, the Legions, the "Swarm" are comprised of individuals, too, but these act en masse. The word "Swarm" is terrifying in itself here. One pictures the doe being pulled down and covered by the attacking bodies of dogs. One imagines a single army surprised, outnumbered, and likewise being cut down and covered by the swarm of attackers. One then sees the individual being cut down by invisible woes.
A Deer Chased by Dogs,
by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1725
The third stanza moves to the physical human body. Like the army host, it can be overrun by swarms of harms. They might be minor –  a leech set on a patient by a physician, a small fault in the lung, or blood that no longer clots properly. The "Repealless thing" of death begins for most of us with these small physical failures. By themselves they are "scarce accounted – Harms – ", but inexorably they add up. There is nothing we can do about it either. As some would say, we begin the slide to death at the moment of birth.

I don't particularly fancy this poem. The progression of images doesn't quite work. The overall idea of swarms of harm leading to misery, terror and death, isn't made new or fresh. Perhaps a reader will have a more interesting take on this poem.


  1. I think she expresses the vulnerability of a violated woman within a culture reticent or unable to deal with the consequences of violence. Of course, I'm not suggesting that the poem is autobiographical. Rather that her profound empathy finds voice for the victims.

    1. You may well be right. I can certainly read it that way -- the pathos moves in the right direction.