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10 January 2015

The difference between Despair

The difference between Despair
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.


  1. This poem reminds me of the pivotal moment in Paradise Lost when Satan says "farewell hope and with hope farewell fear" – the statement that leads to his tragedy, even the image of wreck echoes the fall (and you mentioned Oedipus the King, the fall of a great man). Dickinson can be said to be exploring the moment in tragedy when possibility (hope) changes to unrelenting destiny (despair).
    Additionally, the second simile echoes Adam and Eve (whose story for Northrop Frye is the quintessential tragedy): when they eat the fruit, their eyes "open", which, of course, is a illusion: when they eat the fruit, their senses fall, become imperfect, actually they have become blind.
    I am a regular reader of your blog. Your analyses helped me a lot when I started reading Dickinson. I would like to thank you.

    1. Thank you!
      Self blinding, or preferring some form of blindness has been rich literary material. (I have no idea how common it is in 'real' life.) Dickinson seems to think it helps her inner eye and allows her to not see what would deepen despair (the wreck, the pit, etc.). You mention Milton -- I wonder how he felt about his blindness.

      The Satan quote sounds like the despair Dickinson writes about: without hope and fear leading us or driving us on, what is there to keep us from despair? I would think one option would be love, but so far in Dickinson's poems I've only seen her write about intense romantic love -- and it's intense ups and downs.

  2. Dickinson has a unusual approach to the word "despair". In "There is a certain slant of light", she refers to the "seal despair" as an "imperial affliction." And in "I cannot live with You --" she calls despair that "white sustenance".

    I am not sure that each of these poems addresses the same or similar emotional experiences. The subject of this poem is death (the "wreck" is the wreck of the lifeless body, the eyes of the marble statue are like the sightless eyes of the corpse). Here despair is a release from fear; life is a storm and death the calm (contentment) that follows the storm.

    1. I hadn't read the poem's subject as death, but it makes sense. It reminds me of Dante's Hell: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." That is surely a definition of despair (the unforgivable sin).

      However, I think the despair in this poem is more kin to the 'quartz contentment' discussed above, the sort of reduced existence Dickinson details in "I tie my Hat -- I crease my Shawl".

      She describes the corpse life in a few poems and, in support of your reading, the mindful dead do seem to experience a flat, affectless sort of contentment.

  3. Hi Susan, thanks for your commentary. I think the reversed order of the placement of the words 'despair' and 'fear' and the subsequent mismatch with the order of their concomitant similes is a conscious stylistic choice on the part of Dickinson, reflecting the subject matter of the poem. This reversal/discrepancy can be seen to imitate the turbulence and oscillation of a ship tossed hither and thither in a sea storm. This turmoil is further enhanced by the enjambment in lines 1 and 2 and the dash after 'fear' which interrupts the flow of the line and further evokes a sense of chaos/disorder. I do also think you are correct in thinking that the mismatch in the order of the two nouns and their accompanying similes implies that our emotions as human beings overlap, and can never be completely categorised.
    In the second stanza, in the aftermath of the wreck, the pace is slower and more 'balanced'. The image of the bust certainly evokes the emotional numbness and inertia experienced in despair. The reference to the statue's lack of sight possibly alludes to a sailor visually maimed in the wreck. In metaphorical terms, the image may suggest that in our despair, we no longer envisage fear; we have already been ruined by tragedy. And furthermore, the numbness of our despair has shut down our capacity for mental sight as well as our sensory visual faculties. The image of the bust carries the suggestion that in our despair, we become but a frozen effigy of our formerly alive and dynamic selves.
    Furthermore, in its timeless and immortal state as a work of art, the image of the bust also eerily suggests that there may be no end to our despair.

  4. Most wrecks take weeks or months or years, like health or marriage going south, not “instant” like a car crash. Who can count emotions going down? Fear is only one. Resourceful souls draw on reserves and gradually move on. Less healthy souls founder, frozen bust-like with despair. They, perhaps like ED, use years to repair, if they can. Does her mind seem “smooth”? Not to me, but she’s the one who knows.

    Sorry, Susan, biography again.