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14 May 2014

It might be lonelier

It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness —
I'm so accustomed to my Fate —
Perhaps the Other — Peace —

Would interrupt the Dark —
And crowd the little Room —
Too scant — by Cubits — to contain
The Sacrament — of Him —

I am not used to Hope —
It might intrude upon —
Its sweet parade — blaspheme the place —
Ordained to Suffering —

It might be easier
To fail — with Land in Sight —
Than gain — My Blue Peninsula —
To perish — of Delight —
                                      F535 (1863)  J405

Dickinson presents two contrasting states of being in this paradoxical poem. One is a difficult status quo and the other is an imagined state of union with the beloved.
The status quo doesn't seem very appealing: the speaker has a small room, dark and filled with loneliness; like a cell in a strict and austere convent, it has been "Ordained" by its occupant to be a place of suffering. In the last stanza we see her at sea in danger of drowning but within sight of land. 
        Each of these conditions has its possible opposite, and the speaker ponders these potentialities. Instead of "Loneliness" – her "Fate" – she might have "Peace". This peace, however, seems contingent upon the presence of "Him" – a beloved person, potential lover, or perhaps a godly lover. The paradox is that loneliness has become such a real presence that "It might be lonelier" without it. The peace radiated by the beloved's presence would disrupt the darkness of her "little Room"; additionally, his presence has a holy, sacramental quality that would crowd the space. Finally, "Hope" with its "sweet parade" might "intrude", even "blaspheme" the lonely suffering. 
        In the last stanza the beloved is seen as a sort of paradise, a "Blue Peninsula". To gain it would be death by "Delight". The beauty of this last image conjures up not only Paradise but the perfect lover. 
        The beauty of the poem as a whole is that it may be read as a struggle against the seductions of religion – Christianity with its heaven and the man/god Jesus, as well as the seductions of a human beloved. Ultimately, the poet would rather have the struggle than the fulfillment.

        Much of the language is Biblical and Christian: American readers of any era know "Cubits" only as the unit of measurement used by God when specifying the dimensions of the ark to Noah. The language of sacrament and blasphemy is also Christian. A nun is considered a bride of Christ, and the speaker presents herself as nun-like. And finally, in previous poems, Dickinson has used the imagery of the sea as the soul's journey to the distant shore of heaven (e.g., "On this wondrous sea – sailing silently" [F3]). Here, the speaker would rather go down with heaven in sight than surrender to its all-encompassing possession. That reminds me of F533 where Heaven entails "too difficult a Grace – / To justify the Dream".
        She has also used the sea as a metaphor for passion (e.g., "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!" [F269]). We might read, then, her "Blue Peninsula" as a beloved man whose very presence is paradisical. To be joined with him would be to deny everything she has come to be; it would be a death of sorts, although a blissful one. A poet might well prefer the dark canvas of loneliness, to press her breast against the thorn to sing (can't remember whose image this was – Shakespeare or Pope?) to a parade of hope and a room crowded with the profound love she considers would be like living with a sacrament.

The tone of the poem is as ambiguous as the imagery. It might be read as bitter irony or a haunting sadness; it might just as well be read as an honest and contemplative assessment of her choices and decisions. After all, Dickinson did indeed opt for the small room over either Christian salvation or marriage.
The tone is developed through the quiet statements that seemingly introduce an element of doubt: "It might be lonelier", "It might intrude upon", "It might be easier". These prosy constructions introduce and contrast with the imagistic states of being: a little dark room, lonely or crowded; a sacrament, a parade of hope that is "sweet" but also blasphemes, a blue peninsula.
I like the poem's harmonics. I like how it builds to that achingly beautiful last stanza.

8 comments:

  1. This poem reminds me a little of "I can Wade Grief" (Fr. 312).

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  2. thank you for your blog - I read her regularly, and really appreciate your analysis.

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  3. Thank you for your readings, Susan. Astute and insightful, they make a fine companion to Emily's poems.

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  4. In the second line, Without the Loneliness, suggests, to me, the writing about being lonely makes it less so.

    Reminds me of someone who would choose the familiarity of their own pain over the unknown and the possibility (and the risk) of overcoming it, achieving, as it is here, delight. That is, I see this poem reflecting most human's propensity to stay with the status quo of suffering than to dare what lurks (or waits) beyond it.

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    1. Yes, striving and hope involve a certain amount of daring and risk. Oddly, Dickinson refers to Peace as the alternative to Loneliness and suffering. Peace is probably not a spur to writing, so perhaps Dickinson is thinking of that creative impoverishment.

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  5. I accidentally read the last word as Daylight instead of Delight. I agree with you that it works either religiously or romantically but I would lean toward the religious meaning. The peace, delight, and joy inherent in the "religious" faith would be too much and crowd out her own spiritual journey that requires the elements of loneliness, darkness, etc. There is also something about the "sweet parade" of religion that is blasphemous to her small, contemplative space that is "ordained to suffering."

    On a side note, is there an easy way of looking up my comments without having to remember which poems I have commented on? As I go through the poems, I forget those that I left comments on. Thanks and thank you for the blog!!

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    1. not an easy way within the blog search function. But I could send you a list. Use the contact form to give me your email and I'll do so.

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