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06 March 2012

The thought beneath so slight a film –

The thought beneath so slight a film –
Is more distinctly seen –
As laces just reveal the surge –
Or Mists – the Apennine.
                                                            - F203 (1861)   210

Poetry, philosophy, science, and sports announcers all rely on metaphor and simile. Actually, almost everyone does! In an earlier  poem Dickinson wrote that the “Heart with the heaviest freight on – / Doesn’t always move,” effectively portraying the grief-heavy heart as a struggling train. Psychologists talk of a stream of consciousness and we realize that consciousness flows like a river. These are fairly easy examples, and they make the underlying thoughts come to life. Sometimes, however, there is a “film” over the meaning so that the reader has to hold the poem up at a certain angle for the light to shine through it (to employ a bit of metaphor myself). It may be use of simile or metaphor or it may be ambiguous language or a difficult abstraction. But just as the appropriate filter over a camera lens can bring out a visual truth in a picture that might be unseen to our naked eyes, so too the poet couches her truths in images and figures of speech to make them “more distinctly seen. The previous poem is as follows:

"Faith" is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Once we focus on the contradiction between “Faith” and “Microscopes” the underlying thought becomes increasingly revealed. It takes on a more substantial shape than if the poet wrote some little ditty about the role of fact-based knowledge versus received wisdom.
Misty Apennines
            Dickinson then follows up her assertion about the benefit of layering a film over thought with two metaphors: a lovely lace shirt is more revealing of the breasts beneath than the naked breasts themselves would be – no doubt because the observer’s mind is so good at filling in details. It’s why we say “leave a little something to the imagination.” The second metaphor is that of misty mountains. The “film” of mist reveals just enough mountain to convey its essential qualities: power, height, imposing shape, etc. Without the shrouding mist we might just notice a prosaic garden-variety mountain.
            The poem serves as a statement of Dickinson’s poetics: Masking meaning doesn’t negate meaning; rather, it illuminates it.


  1. Super appreciate the website. This poem has been so elusive to me-- I didn't have the patience to sit with it. But your comments reveal the product of hard work! Beautiful poem indeed!

  2. Love this interpretation. Thank you!

  3. I would have never understood this poem but for the help of your interpretation.... Beautiful poem !!

  4. I have appreciated so many of your analysis of these poems. You have awakened and trained a poet's brain I didn't know I had, while also putting me into ED's brain. But this analysis was, for me, one of your best, and I saw the metaphor here before I turned to your analysis. I saw the image of breasts, but didn't appreciate the power of beauty not seen. You brought that out, but that in itself is not what makes this analysis one of your best, it was your writing that delivered it so well, and illustrated the exceptional mind you have. Well done.

  5. Always loved this poem as a gloss on the "gloss" of poetry, but I have to confess I never saw "surge" as a surge breasts before. I always took it as the white lace on the surge of a wave. If she did indeed mean to imply breasts, then it is funny coming just before mountains, and sexy too. All part of the "film" covering the thought perhaps...

  6. Replies
    1. That's funny -- I never would have thought of waves!

  7. Susan, Please add my kudos to those preceding. This explication is sublime, earthy and divine, at the same time.

    Surge sure sounds sexual to me, in several ways, but different strokes for different folks, waves also suffice and feel nice. To hide truth in mist of lace makes poetry powerful, asking us to imagine our own meaning from the same set of words. What more would ED want?

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  9. Thanks so much for your thoughts on ED poems. Every time I get stuck on one, I come to your site and have new doors opened on the meaning. This is one is especially helpful.