The Alphabet — the Words —
A Chapter — then the mighty Book —
Then — Revelation closed —
But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld —
Diviner than the Childhood's —
And each to each, a Child —
Attempted to expound
What neither — understood —
Alas, that Wisdom is so large —
And Truth — so manifold!
F531 (1863) J568
Dickinson begins this graceful and difficult poem as if telling a story. Two young people fell in love, indeed, learn "the Whole of Love", exploring each other and revealing themselves in stages as children learn to read. She separates each stage by dashes, slowing the poem's pace so that we linger over the words: Alphabet, Words, Chapter, Book. We imagine looks, gestures, confidences, touches, tears, and laughter. The last line of the first stanza is wistfully final. The book finished, "Revelation closed".
|Engraving by Pierre A. Cot|
They try to make sense of it, talking as children do, or talking to the other as if she were a child (the poem is ambiguous here), but thought and speech no longer suffice. Neither understands.
Among other things, Dickinson reveals the pitfalls of language. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva refers to the "enclosure of language" and its impediment to meaning making. The semiotic realm, to which pre-articulate children, poets, and artists have access, offers by contrast a "heterogeneity of meaning"* – a "manifold" quality of truth. Dickinson writes elsewhere of interiority "Where the Meanings, are" (F320). Even after experiencing the "Whole of Love", the lovers cannot explain themselves either to themselves or to each other.
In a plaintive closing aphorism, Dickinson alludes to the limit of knowledge as well as language: "Wisdom is so large – / And Truth – so manifold". How can we hope to explore all of wisdom's vast domain? And if truth is multiple and diverse, how can we ever hope to congeal it into words?
* Kristeva, "The Subject in Process", 1998.