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20 September 2012

I like a look of Agony

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true --
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe --

The eyes glaze once -- and that is Death --
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
                                                                  F339 (1862)  241

It’s easy to read this poem and feel sort of aghast. Really, Emily? You like the agony because there is more truth in it than in the insincere smiles of the neighbors passing by on the street? And isn’t it a bit, um, harsh or at least dismissive to call the sweat of death agony “Beads upon the Forehead” that are strung by “homely Anguish”?
The dying convulsions and throes as the body gives up the battle (we’re not talking about a quiet passing in one’s sleep here) are a badge of authenticity. And then the capper—one cannot “feign” the glaze of death. Maybe you could fake a lot of other stuff, but not that.
Painter Joanna Boyce just after death, by
Rossetti, 1861
                  Yet I think back on some of Dickinson’s earlier poems about death. Yes, I got impatient with her always wanting to be there when people died so she could help their transition from one energy phase to the next, but it was evident that she truly felt that the journey after death was the greatest, grandest, most important journey ever.
                  In “A throe upon the features,” Dickinson says that after the throe there is “An ecstasy of parting.” It is as if a butterfly has fought its way out of a cocoon. It is exhausting and perhaps painful, but then the beautiful thing is free and airborn. Likewise, we all suffered in birth. The path from womb to tomb isn’t an easy one, yet it is essential.
                  And so in this poem I think that Dickinson is making the point that great pain at death can bare the soul to an honesty not easily attained in the day-to-day world. It is this level of honesty that is most needed in the rebirth from mortal to immortal life. Additionally, I think that Dickinson is saying that this honesty and mortal death is somehow uplifting and beneficial to the observer. Yes, Virginia, there is a bitter truth—perhaps a triumphant truth, but certainly the plain and unavoidable reality of death. The deaths that come complete with convulsions and agony simply make the point more clearly.
                  Still doubtful? Think about Mel Gibson’s famous and acclaimed movie about the death of Jesus, The Passion of Christ. The movie was also accused of being a sadistic wallowing in the agonies of death. Perhaps Gibson was channeling a bit of Dickinson. I imagine that Dickinson had an image of crucifixion in her mind, too, as she wrote this poem.


  1. My own experience of an intimate, drawn out death helped me see the appropriateness of pretty much everything you say about the beads along the brow line. It was also very helpful to me at that time, kind of mystified by what all I felt, to recall a distinction between mere happiness and "joy." "Happiness" is of the surface; joy of the true depths, hence inevitably tinged by the presence of (make that awareness) of its opposite. Calling it an "ecstasy of parting" stretches it pretty far (poetic license?) so I'll go with "joy"--the awe and wonder at being present in a profoundly significant moment, honestly lived (and, I want to add, not requiring belief in a supernatural afterlife.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I suspect the Victorians would be prone to stretching such things a little far by our modern sensibilities; plus Dickinson has a taste for the Gothic – an aesthetic that can thrill at intimations of death and the macabre.

  2. A poet friends with a new collection, "Oddly Beautiful," uses as an epigraph a sentence that may apply well to ED and which serves as a kind of correction to my own bent. It is this, from someone named Christian Wiman (sounds like a nom de plume if ever there were one): "It is the beauty of the world that makes us more conscious of death, not the consciousness of death that makes the world more beautiful."

    1. Dickinson does reflect this insight -- it makes a lovely and concise way of expressing both her delving into death/after life and her sense that there is almost an overabundance of beauty and wonder in this life. However, I personally don't think it is an either/or proposition. Both are true, though one route may be less traveled by in this stage or that.

  3. I wonder if this is also a comment on all the young men killed in the Civil War and her ability and willingness during a contemporary horror to be (and express) intimacy with them.

  4. Maybe this reflects Dickinson's own experience with major depression and the agony that cannot be feigned. The agony before the ecstasy reflects the shifting emotional states of many great prophets and artists, in which case the agony preceding delivery to a higher state needs to be embraced as a profound part of the spiritual journey to reach sublime points of unity and the peace that transcends understanding. Agony enables entry into the divine realm.

  5. I think, too, that something in Dickinson (and in all poets in varying degrees) hungered for and implicitly longed for bringing the ethereal into reality; accessing the sacred in the secular. That was in a lot of her poetry. Here, not that death is itself beautiful, but in all its horrific aspect, there is some beauty in it (as you mention Susan) that is not accessible in most other modes of life. It is that that she "likes" - not in a sadistic way, but in a longing, hungering way, hungering, as Thoreau put it "to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close..."

  6. What is your opinion on the theory of her “throes” and “convulsions” and “volcanic eruptions” being evidence of a seizure disorder/epilepsy? (Lyndall Gordon)

    1. I don't like the theory because it reduces the poetry. I don't believe the theory because it goes against ED's letters and the recorded memories of friends and family. That being said, although I've read about Gordon's book I haven't read it.

  7. I’ve always interpreted this poem as watching a man orgasm. It’s an emotion/action that cannot be faked.

  8. That ED experienced mental illness of more than garden-variety mood swings of depression/elation is virtually unquestioned by modern scholars and astute readers of her poetry. Hypotheses of its nature vary as much as interpretations of her poems. She attached vague names to it: “terror” (L261) or “palsy” (L265). Psychiatric science was in its early gestation, Freud first published in 1884.

    “In 'Me from Myself-to banish' (F709, last half 1863) she bemoans the impossibility of relief from her condition ('"I Had a Terror": Emily Dickinson's Demon', Archer, S. Southwest Review. 2009, 94:2, pp. 255-273):

    Me from Myself-to banish
    Had I Art-
    Invincible my Fortress
    Unto All Heart-

    But since Myself-assault Me
    How have I peace
    Except by subjugating

    And since We're mutual Monarch
    How this be
    Except by Abdiction
    Me- of Me?

    (By "Abdiction" she means abdication.)”


  9. Given ED’s familiarity with bouts of agony of a psychological nature (L261, L265,F709, and many others), Line 2 probably states a fact from her personal experience as well, perhaps, as from watching death happen.

    While Lines 5 and 6 clearly refer to death, “Beads” and “Anguish” in Lines 7 and 8 may refer to “Agony” in Line 1, not to death. For example, common symptoms of panic attacks include trembling, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, and dizziness. (