Search This Blog

20 April 2012

It is easy to work when the soul is at play –

It is easy to work when the soul is at play – 
But when the soul is in pain – 
The hearing him put his playthings up
Makes work difficult – then – 

It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind – 
But Gimblets – among the nerve – 
Mangle daintier – terribler – 
Like a Panther in the Glove – 
                                                            F242 (1861)  244

The two stanzas of the poem open in parallel fashion: “It is easy…” and “It is simple.” One stanza describes the ability to work in happy versus painful, unhappy times. The second contrasts the suffering of common pains such as broken or bruised bones and surface wounds versus internal pain. The strength and originality of the imagery create two very vivid scenarios.
            In the Work stanza Dickinson uses a child as a metaphor for the soul. When the child is playing the work flows as if partaking in the joy. But when the child is in pain – “play” and “pain” are very successful slant rhymes here – work is “difficult.” Any parent would tell you the same. The question implicit in the stanza is what helps the soul play? More than a diet of holy scripture and good works, the poet implies: the soul wants delights. Delight your soul: whether it be through meditation, music, poetry, or time with loved ones. That, Dickinson implies, will help your work.
Imagine this gimlet drilling
into your nervous system!
            The idea of pain is picked up again in the second stanza. This time, however, it isn’t the parental body trying to cope with the soul’s pain, but a person’s ability to cope with excruciating pain in the nerves – which is to say, brain, heart, skin, everything. Dickinson contrasts this nerve pain with the aches from “Bone” or “Rind”: think of bone breaks versus wounds to the flesh (rind of the body). Those body aches are “simple”: they are confined, predictable, and susceptible to healing. The image Dickinson uses for the nerve pain, a gimlet (“Gimblet”) reminds me exactly of the many hours I’ve spent at the dentist. A gimlet is a tiny drill. Imagine it drilling “among the nerve” much as the dentist drills into the nerves of your teeth. If the anesthetic has been insufficient you will know exactly what Dickinson is talking about when she says that having a gimlet drilling into your nerves mangles them. The mangling is more dainty – and more terrible by a long shot – than one of the “simple” injuries.
            I find the image of a panther in my glove a rather comical one, but then I grew up with a gas company advertising slogan of “Put a tiger in your tank.” But the image should make you vicariously feel what it would be like to have your hand shedded and ripped – mangled – while the nice glove you are wearing seems unscathed.
            Both stanzas speak of hidden pains. No one can see the hurt soul. No one can see the “Panther in the Glove.”


  1. The pain stanza may also be a reference to the seizures some think Dickinson may have suffered from. This could explain the Panther in the glove--a panther prowls and in an instant, strikes.

    1. I hadn't, believe it or not, considered "glove" as a synecdoche for the whole body until your comment. Yes, what you say makes sense, whether seizures or migraines or something else.

      But I think she is contrasting physical damage to something even less physical than seizure or migraine -- some attack within the psyche affecting the entire body as if the panther of dread or anxiety or despair should suddenly bite or swipe its paws and shut the body down. But I still have trouble with the Gimblet and the Panther being conflated, and the Panther's damage being dainty.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. "play" and "pain" don't rhyme; "pain" and "then" make up a slant rhyme, the same way that "nerve" and "glove" do to form an XAXA scheme.

  3. ED claims a playing soul makes work easy; but a soul in pain, difficult. Further, she says it’s simple to work when bone or skin ache, but deep psychic pain makes work well-nigh impossible.

    During 1861-62 some unidentified mental trauma tested ED’s mental stamina to near breaking, e.g., Poem F193 and Susan K’s explication, ‘Speech – is a prank of Parliament’. However, as data below show, during 1861-1862 ED’s poetic floodgates opened wide. Feelings and reality often aren’t well connected, and this may be an example:

    Distribution of poems by year

    1850 …..1
    1852 …..1
    1853 …..1
    1854 …..1
    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


  4. Whatever gimblets tortured nerves, her pen, mechanical, kept going round a wooden way of ground or air or ought, growing quartz contentment, like a stone, during her hour of lead, remembered, if outlived, as freezing persons recollect the snow (‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, F372).