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10 January 2013

I reason, Earth is short—

I reason, Earth is short— 
And Anguish—absolute— 
And many hurt, 
But, what of that? 

 I reason, we could die— 
The best Vitality 
Cannot excel Decay, 
But, what of that? 

I reason, that in Heaven— 
Somehow, it will be even— 
Some new Equation, given— 
But, what of that?
                                                              F403 (1862) J301 

As Emily Dickinson wandered through her garden, baked the family's bread, and penned her incredible poems, the Civil War increased its carnage. In April 1862, twenty-four thousand men were killed during the battle of Shiloh: 13,000 of 63,000 Union soldiers and 11,000 of 40,000 Confederate troops. There were many other battles that year and thousands of other deaths. Oddly, Emily Dickinson never wrote about the war or slavery, although New England boys were dying daily. New England as a whole was passionately opposed to slavery. The war wasn't going well for the Union, despite Lincoln's best efforts. The war would have been the major topic of discussion in any town and state east of the Mississippi (and west, too, though probably to a lesser degree). 
Battle of Shiloh: Could Dickinson really have ignored this?
         Could Dickinson tune out this cataclysm as she worried about her relationships with Sue, Samuel Bowles, her father, and other figures of interest? Or did the war have a profound effect on her that although not explicitly addressed seeps out in her metaphors, her sense of cosmic justice, her perceptions of human nature? I'm pretty sure that although she retreated from the world she was aware of what was going on. If she chose the garden and the writing desk as quiet refuges from the unfathomable violence around her, it would be a sane thing to do. Walt Whitman, her contemporary, chose the opposite path, throwing himself into the war effort and then into helping at veterans' hospitals. 
          It seems to me that Dickinson instead retreated inward, questioning, always questioning the nature and extent of suffering and death. In this poem she adopts "reason" to say that a person's life is short, full of anguish, and traveling from vitality to decay. This is all more observation than reason, but she is building up to the bitter, even sarcastic, conclusion. Somehow "in Heaven / ... it will be even— / Some new Equation, given," but so what? So what if God gives us a lovely afterlife that rights the wrongs of life, that gives more, say, to those who had less, or some such scheme? That's too little and much too late.

The poem is written the the short and direct iambic trimeter. The first stanza establishes the breezy tone that scoffs at anguish with a wave of ennui. It uses the "t" alliterations, adding a bit of bite: short / absolute / hurt / that. The two "a" words in the second line slow the reader down from this breezy clip—you have to slow down to read "Anguish—absolute." She wants us to focus on that thought. We absolutely are going to suffer in this short life. And then she lobs the ironic afterthought that she repeats in each of the three stanzas: "But, what of that?"
          The second stanza begins and ends the same way, with "I reason" and "But, what of that?" This time she claims that no matter how healthy you are or full of vitality, you are going to decay and rot away soon enough. Thank goodness for cremation, eh? This stanza has assonance, using open vowels such as in reason, die, Vitality, and Decay.
          It is tempting to read the last stanza as proud. If this is what you give us during our earthly life, I imagine her saying to a Creator, then I'm not going to be all grateful and dewy over your Heavenly paradise. When Dickinson writes that the equation will be "even"—that the wonders of heaven will be more than sufficient to compensate for the Anguish of earth—I don't think she believes it.

We've seen this bitter sarcasm before in   F215 :
I shall know why – when Time is over – 

And I have ceased to wonder why – 

Christ will explain each separate anguish

In the fair schoolroom of the sky – 

He will tell me what "Peter" promised – 

And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of Anguish

That scalds me now – that scalds me now!

Dickinson may be referring to some private grief, but I cannot believe that the horrors of the Civil War were far beneath the surface.


  1. I read it a little differently. Her reason concludes all this, the refrain dismisses what reason sees and understands. I appreciate the background violence of the Civil War. I think the question But, what of that? Refers to the absolute unknown that the mind fills in with its reason. She stands for the unanswerable question.

    1. I can't help but read a breezily-phrased bitterness in the poem, though.

  2. I am writing about his poem. Please can I have your email address so I can copy you In. Thanks, Gary (a landscaper from England)

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