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15 September 2012

Her smile was shaped like other smiles—

Her smile was shaped like other smiles—
The Dimples ran along—
And still it hurt you, as some Bird
Did hoist herself, to sing,
Then recollect a Ball, she got—
And hold upon the Twig,
Convulsive, while the Music broke—
Like Beads—among the Bog –

A happy lip—breaks sudden—
It doesn’t state you how
It contemplated—smiling—
Just consummated—now –
But this one, wears its merriment
So patient—like a pain—
Fresh gilded—to elude the eyes
Unqualified, to scan—
                                                            F335 (1862)  514

We know the faces and expressions of those dear to us and so it is that we can often discern pain and suffering behind an otherwise unremarkable smile. Dickinson vividly describes such a smile in this poem. She begins as if telling a story: “Her smile was shaped like other smiles,” with its dimples on either side. Yet rather than pleasure, this smile brought pain to the knowing eye. Dickinson describes this pain as something we might experience if we watched a bird singing, perched on a small twig, and then being shot. As the bullet, or “Ball,” hits it the bird convulses and its song breaks up “Like Beads—among the Bog.” It’s a powerful image. We see the friend’s smile as precarious as that bird’s hold on its perch with a bullet aimed its way. The image of the song as beads scattered in the mud is particularly vivid.
            Dickinson implies by this imagery that the friend is artistic, full of the love of life. To see this person smile with such trauma facing it is painful.
The smile that's hard to see: 1st Lady of South
Carolina,  Jenny Sanford, smiling through
the news of her husband's infidelity
            In the second stanza Dickinson contrasts the real smile with the brave, false one. The truly happy smile “breaks sudden”—it springs naturally from delight or joy, is “consummated” on the spot. The observer sees a spontaneous action. The false smile, however, is “contemplated.” The smiler decides to smile. The “merriment” is worn patiently and “gilded” on the face as if it were a painting. Dickinson pairs the wearing of such a smile with pain: both are “patient” rather than spontaneous. The false smile is a mask so that the pain is not seen by those “Unqualified” or not a close friend.
            Dickinson effectively uses alliteration in the first stanza: “the Music broke / Like Beads—among the Bog.” Those Bs pop out of the poem as the bullet that killed the singing bird.


  1. Thank you, I couldn't understand the action in the first stanza, not knowing that Ball meant bullet.

  2. What a journey the mind makes when reading an ED poem. The first reading I am often quite puzzled. Sometimes I am dismissive. Nothing here, I think. But then something pulls me in, usually something I don't quite understand. And that little hook pulls me further in. What does she mean by ball? Why is the eye unqualified? And then that will lead me to other questions, dozens of them, and slowly the grammar of the poem will unfold for me. This one, I confess, I mostly didn't guess, until I came here and a master preceptor showed me how the master poet got to her point. And even then, I have to go back and read several more times, to find the sense of the sense for myself. Once you get the tricky syntax of the second stanza, it unlocks the imagery of the first. I still don't know what those beads are, but I have to think blood right? It's odd the bird would hold the twig after being shot. Maybe that's part of the point, that in reality it wouldn't, it would fall "spontaneously". The mind reels. And I'll read it again, and more will come, I'll start feeling it. Feeling the break, both ways.

    There is a double break in this poem. First there is the breaking of the music, which seems to have a double meaning itself, the bird broken by the ball, and the bird breaking out into song. (Along the lines of a sister ED poem, "Split the lark and you'll find the music") And then there is that other breaking, the "breaking sudden" of the spontaneous smile. One is a breaking into death, and song, and the other is breaking into joy. (The "push of joy" -or alternatively "pain of joy"- of the previous poem in the fascicle.)

    I love fresh gilded as a description for a smile, painted on like gold.

    Your illustration here is so good. Thank you for that and for opening up this amazing poem for me. To think that I ALMOST dismissed it, and, likely, without your gloss, would have.

    If you have not read "White Heat" yet, I highly recommend it. Wineapple is another master preceptor.

    1. Thank you for this and your other insightful ruminations. I so agree with your method of entry into the poems. I read one through and then look at where I get stuck. I do a bit of Google but so many poems have really no free online commentary that a reader is left to herself ...

      In this poem I too am a bit stuck on the bird and ball. I still wonder why it is the bird recollects the Ball ... as if perhaps the bird had just been wounded. She remembers it, clutches the twig and drops her song like blood beads into the bog below. I'm just now getting this image in my head but I think it fits. The person who has been hurt will be in a normal situation, remember the hurt and then be unable to keep that gilded smile.

      Yes, I enjoy White Heat quite a bit! Great project.

    2. Just reading in "White Heat" that when Frazar Stearns was killed, just prior to when this fascicle being put together, early in 1862. ED wrote about, "his big heart, shot away by a 'minie ball'." So maybe this is what the bird is recalling as it is about to sing. Recollect a ball, SHE got, perhaps because she is "feeling" the loss of Frazar.

  3. Coming back and seeing this poem all over again. It’s heartbreaking. And yet you are left with a smile. And yet…

  4. An interpretation:

    The poet’s smile was like other smiles, dimples on each side. But even you, reader, noticed her wince when she began composing and suddenly remembered how she felt when Wadsworth abandoned her. Her string of carefully chosen words broke like a string of pearls and fell in random disorder.

    A happy poet erupts with words but doesn’t say how it happens, it just happens in a flash. But this poet pretends merriment so well, behind her painfully gilded façade, that without empathy, you, reader, will never feel her pain.

  5. I’m surprised the third “Master” letter hasn’t been brought up here: “If you saw a bullet hit a Bird--and he told you he was'nt shot--you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word”. I must admit I haven’t read the letters yet; I only remembered your quoting them in the interpretation of Fr 190 and there seems to be some connection.

    Some time ago I commented on Fr 679 “When Night is almost done –“ (January 16, 2024) and pointed out that to me there seems to be something wrong with having to “get the Dimples ready – .” As I am not a native speaker it is rather difficult to express my thoughts accurately, but you formulate it clearly in your interpretation here:
     “The truly happy smile “breaks sudden”—it springs naturally from delight or joy, is “consummated” on the spot. The observer sees a spontaneous action. The false smile, however, is “contemplated.” The smiler decides to smile.“ I couldn’t agree more. The topic also brings to my mind these lines from “I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —“:

    To simulate — is stinging work —
    To cover what we are
    From Science — and from Surgery —
    Too Telescopic eyes
    To bear on us unshaded —
    For their — sake — Not for Ours —

     And finally, the words “while the Music broke—/Like Beads—among the Bog - “ remind me of the following lines from „I felt a cleaving in my mind“:

    But sequence ravelled out of reach
    Like balls upon a floor.

    1. Or rather: But Sequence raveled out of Sound