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16 January 2012

Ah, Necromancy Sweet!

Ah, Necromancy Sweet!
Ah, Wizard erudite!
Teach me the skill,

That I instill the pain
Surgeons assuage in vain,
Nor Herb of all the plain
Can heal!
                                    -F 168 (1860)  177

At first read it seems as if the poet wants some serious revenge on someone, as if she’s asking the “Wizard erudite” for a really strong voodoo or poison potion. But then on second reading I’m pretty sure that she doesn’t so much want to “instill the pain” as she wants to “still the pain” or “instill the remedy” for an otherwise incurable pain.
Crystal ball for
scrying the dead
            I don’t really think much of this poem. It has awkward rhythm and a varied line length for no apparent reason.  The poem seems, rather, as a call of heart-deep pain. Surgeons and medicines can’t cure it so she is flattering the necromancer “Sweet” and the “Wizard erudite” in hopes they will teach her how to relieve what bothers her.
            It is also likely that she is appealing to God as Necromancer in Chief. Since necromancy involves communication with the dead, it is likely that the pain comes from the loss of a loved one or else from her dread of the future. The dead, according to necromancy, can step in and out of time and so may be consulted about the future.
            The most Christian interpretation would be that she is asking God to heal her pain. 


  1. I thought this might be about the pain of love and loss but the use of 'instil' confuses me in all of its definitions.

    1. Me too. Maybe she does want to cause someone unrelievable pain.

    2. This gives pause but there is an inner text. Her necromancy is to address some great deceased writer, a dead master who was a wizard erudite, possibly her great master Shakespeare. The pain she wishes to instil is of course the hunger for true identity and self-knowledge which great art alone can accomplish. Her message is folded lest she seem a boaster.

    3. Oh thank you, Geoffrey! That makes great sense to me. I wonder if the great pain, however, isn't the pain from great art -- the tragedies, the pain of the human condition the great masters bring to light.

  2. For such a poem that is not highly thought of, we have three very insightful readers who all have three different interpretations! Is that not one characteristic of great art?

    Here's a fourth. Necromancy is not only the ability to converse with the dead, but also the ability to see the future. I think she has hurt somebody and wants to see if there is some way in the future that the pain she has instilled can be relieved? Possibly pain she inflicted on her mother?

    1. Thank you for the comment. BUT - I was inspired to use the ED Lexicon to see what they say about 'instill' in the dictionary of Dickinson's day. Here is the entry:
      Infuse slowly; add gradually; receive in small quantities; [reflexive] sip; partake of.

      With this in mind, perhaps the poet is asking for the ability to take in pain in small, slow quantities. Moderate the intake. The purpose might be either to regularize the pain so that it is never overwhelming, or else to take pain in -- as the thorn is to the bird who presses her breast against it to sing.

  3. If that was ED'S reference to instil, which I have to assume it was, then yes, she is trying to ease the pain. But then what is the use of Necromancy, and what was the pain. She is a riddle and conundrum.

    1. She has to turn to wizards and necromancy because surgeons and medicinal herbs have failed to reduce her pain. That's my thinking, anyway. At the moment.

  4. We know that ED suffered repeatedly from three kinds of pain, the first being the loss of her intimate relationship with Susan after she married ED’s brother. Many poems describe her lifelong attempts to re-establish some semblance of that lost love, usually without success.

    Second, ED experienced recurring migraine-like episodes, often accompanied by painful vision that was partially relieved by darkness, a common symptom of migraines. She spent two lengthy visits to Boston receiving treatments from a vision specialist. She took a prescribed medication based on glycerin, which is now considered ineffective. In several of her poems she implied that she had been to the gates of heaven, which I take to mean that the pain of a migraine is so intense she feels she has died.

    Third, she and her family suspected she had epilepsy, a syndrome not mentioned in public, especially when it concerned women of a marriageable age.

  5. If there were a delete button, the comment of 11/23/22 would vanish. My error was not trusting ED. When she says “instill the pain”, she means “inflict the pain”, not “still” the pain. Of course, the “pain Surgeons assuage in vain / nor Herb of all the plain can heal” is the pain of unrequited love. That is the pain she would like to inflict on her former lover.

    Apparently, Susan’s courtship and marriage to Austin (July 1, 1856) ended their intimate relationship, and ED’s budding venture as a poet screeched to a halt. And, also apparently, she discovered an efficacious anodyne was composing more poems, lots of them:

    Year Poems
    1850 1
    1852 1
    1853 1
    1854 1
    1855 0
    1856 0
    1857 0
    1858 43
    1859 82
    1860 54
    1861 88
    1862 227
    1863 295
    1864 98
    1865 229
    1866 10
    1867 12
    1868 11
    1869 11
    1870 28
    1871 48
    1872 35
    1873 38
    1874 38
    1875 34
    1876 31
    1877 42
    1878 23
    1879 35
    1880 26
    1881 25
    1882 27
    1883 34
    1884 42
    1885 13
    1886 2
    ???? 104

    Total 1789