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22 April 2020

Rehearsal to Ourselves

Rehearsal to Ourselves
Of a Withdrawn Delight —
Affords a Bliss like Murder —
Omnipotent — Acute —

We will not drop the Dirk —
Because We love the Wound
The Dirk Commemorate — Itself
Remind Us that we died –
                                                            FR664 (1863)  J379

In this short and powerful poem Dickinson addresses readers directly using the first-person plural. We are all, she implies, familiar with the behavior pattern of rehashing / rehearsing a deep grief or pain resulting from a 'Withdrawn Delight'.
            One ambiguity at the heart of the poem is whether someone else did or caused the withdrawing or whether it was the 'we' who self sacrificed. Neither do we know the least bit about the Delight – what category of pleasure it might belong to, for example; or whether it was something frequently savored or a unique delight interrupted. I don't think any of these questions, however, are germane: Dickinson is more interested in what it feels like and why we do it.

What does rehearsing the Withdrawal of the Delight feel like? A "Bliss like Murder – / Omnipotent – Acute." Okay, so that's a line worth thinking about. 'Omnipotent' is a word associated with the Christian God: All-Powerful. It also might mean 'overpowering' in this context, the biblical deity association adding resonance. 'Acute' here would mean 'intense'. The ED Lexicon adds to that, 'penetrating' and 'sharp'. The 'Bliss', then, would be intense and powerful – sharp and overpowering. Could a murder feel like that? It might, and it might in the exact moment feel like that no matter which end of the knife is involved. It doesn't surprise me that Dickinson's imagination takes her to even this dark place.
            But even if Murder does feel like that, how does simply rehearsing it arouse the same sensations? Her explanation lies in the second stanza. We keep experiencing the Bliss because "We will not drop the Dirk." We keep probing with it because "We love the Wound." We don't want it to heal. If we have one great focus in life, one great love, then to lose it would mean the death of something central to us. With Dirk in hand we can remember the intense moment when what we most delighted in was no longer accessible to us. We can ache with what might have been, what should or could have been. We are truly alive. That is why the Dirk is kept. It keeps the Wound – and us, alive.

The Dirk is not only murderous but a commemoration of the murder. We are introduced to the idea of death by the word 'Murder' in the first stanza. We then meet the Dirk and, finally, in the last line, death. The Withdrawn Delight caused a type of death; reliving the deep pain is like pressing ourselves against the dagger. The pain is real and reminds us not only that we died – but that we live.

The bird that presses her breast
against the thorn to sing
This is the opposite of the 'formal feeling' that comes 'after the great pain' in poem Fr372. There the feeling is like a 'Quartz contentment, like a stone –." I don't know how Dickinson could travel from a 'formal feeling' to a 'Bliss like Murder' in the space of one year, but I am not surprised. She was surgical in exploration of human emotion and response and she didn't hesitate to operate on herself. She may have experienced both or neither of the responses to great pain but it didn't matter because one of her great poetic gifts is to truly see the unclothed self.

I also think that she was imaginatively engaged by material from her books on saints, her Bible, her Shakespeare, classics, and poets. I am very tempted to read this poem as a response to the legend of nightingales that lean into thorns to inspire their beautiful, plaintive songs. While one branch of this legend comes from Persia where the nightingale presses its breast against a rose thorn because of unrequited love for the flower, another comes from Ovid's Metamorphosis (Book 6) where king Tereus cuts off his sister-in-law Philomela's tongue after raping her. The gods ultimately turn her into a nightingale. In Sydney's poem "The Nightingale", which Dickinson might very well have been familiar with, he refers to the nightingale who "Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making."

Just so, the dagger and the Bliss – and the emotions strong as murder to remind us all that we are alive.


  1. Thanks -- for this. "Affords a Bliss like Murder" is a line that will blow anyone's socks off.

    I read this poem as an expansion of the line from Grief is a Mouse: "Grief is a gourmand, spare his luxury." But the gourmand here is unapologetic.

    The grief described in this poem is self-absorbed, self-indulgent. You are right to contrast it to the experience of grief in the poem After Great Pain -- because, in that poem, the poet is describing step by step the passive and immediate experience of grief. Here, the poet is describing an act of manipulation -- a "rehearsal" or retelling. The grieving person is omnipotent in the way that a murderer is omnipotent -- uncaring for others -- free and powerful in a perverse sense. The object of grief isn't even the focus -- just the power and seductive quality of the emotion.

    Where in Grief is a Mouse the poet is discriminating and allows herself to judge -- "spare his luxury" and "Best Grief is Tongueless" -- here, she allows herself to indulge. The third person plural in the last stanza sounds, to me, like a rationale being given by a person who understands what they are doing and that doing it is wrong -- but does it anyway. The use of "we" is like taking refuge in a crowd -- justifying abhorrent behavior as if it were a collective act. I can almost hear in it the voice of the serial killer in the movie Silence of the Lambs: "We begin by coveting what we see everyday."

    There is no getting over this grief -- because it is relived compulsively -- over and over again. It is like being dead (as the last line reminds us) -- because the grasping and wallowing in the "bliss" of the emotion admits no freshness, no immediacy -- no contact.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful commentary. I hadn't read 'Grief is a Mouse until sparked by this.
      The more thought about this current poem the more I felt convinced about the literary angle of nightingales -- how Dickinson might have been struck by the imagery and then let it percolate in her imagination until the thorn became a dirk and so on.

      I certainly tried to put something of a positive spin on the poem, but I think you have the right of it.

  2. Can you imagine another 19th century poet who would write such an honest description of the universal urge to murder that so-and-so who hurt our feelings? Even more unimaginable, and honest, would be to admit the urge to kill and, in the next stanza, admit we love the wound that caused our death because it reminds us we were alive, if only for one brief shining moment.

    In combination, don’t those two urges define masochism or are they just an ordinary failed romantic fantasy, or are those two things the same? At any rate, it sure seems unladylike for ED to leave written evidence she had those thoughts in 1863.

    For a specific example of ED’s mysterious “Bliss like Murder” in ‘Rehearsal to Ourselves’ (F664), see Comment 4 (Feb 8, 2024) and poem interpretation following ‘'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold’ (F658).