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.
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.