And Fear, is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been —
The Mind is smooth —
No Motion — Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust —
That knows it cannot see —
F576 (1863) J305
Dickinson has explored the numbness of despair in earlier poems. Here she depicts it through contrasting similes. The difference between Despair and Fear is like the difference between a wreck and its aftermath. The reader must expend thought on the wreck and its aftermath to determine how to assign Despair and Fear for she introduces one set in seemingly the reverse order of the other.
At least that was the conclusion my first reflection on the poem led me to: fear is like the terror at the "instant of a Wreck"; despair is like the deathly-still water that swallows and conceals it, a state of mental depletion and paralysis. To continue with Dickinson's second simile, despair is like a stone eye that knows it cannot see, something like the "Quartz contentment" that follows the "great pain" depicted in an earlier poem ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes", F372).
Yet further reflection led me to also appreciate the similes in the order Dickinson presents them. Perhaps the moment of wreck is like a moment of despair when all hope is lost. Perhaps the aftermath is like the unrelenting and underlying fear that catastrophe might strike again. The mind retreats from seeing, blindering itself as one blinders a skittish horse. Knowing it cannot see the smash-up and debris, the mind stills into a motionless state. Dickinson says it is "Contented" but qualifies that contentment as that of the self-blindered: it is like the eye of a statue, but one that knows it cannot see, knows it would be even more fearful if it could.
|Bust of Sophocles, whose famous|
protagonist blinded himself
Yet earlier poems, such as F372 mentioned above, support a reading of the poem that likens fear to the wreck and the aftermath to despair. In "From Blank to Blank" [F484], the mind is likewise "smooth", the narrator likewise taking some comfort in blindness: "'Twas lighter to be blind". In "I lived on Dread" [F498], Dickinson presents fear as a useful state, one that stimulates the soul, urging it on whereas "To go without the spectre's aid / Were challenging Despair." Together, the three poems (and there are others) depict despair as a state of being "numb – and vitalless" (F498).
Ultimately I think Dickinson chose aesthetics rather than strict parallelism in her ordering of Despair and Fear. Leaving "Despair" at the end of the first line leaves a sadness hanging in the air; one pauses at it; white space follows it. There is an assonance with "Fear" in the second line that balances it. Further, it establishes one of her typical meters: lines one, two, and four in iambic trimeter; line three in iambic tetrameter.
The poem is composed as two stanzas put together (Johnson has them split). Dickinson does vary the meter in the second stanza for emphasis. "The Mind is smooth" is only two poetic feet; the first part of the next line, "No Motion", metrically goes with it. Breaking up the line forces us to focus on that image of smoothness. It isn't right. The mind seems lobotomized. The long-vowel spondee of "No Motion" further emphasizes the wrongness of the image.
I don't think this is Dickinson's most memorable poem on Despair but it is particularly effective in using the unconstructed simile of a wreck and its aftermath to convey emotion. Each reader must fill in just what it means to experience and outlive catastrophe.