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
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.