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15 February 2013

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I could not feel the trouble go –
But only knew by looking back –
That something – had benumbed the Track – 

Nor when it altered, I could say,

For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock –
I hung upon the Peg, at night. 

But not the Grief -- that nestled close

As Needles – ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks –
To keep their place – 

Nor what consoled it, I could trace –

Except, whereas 'twas Wilderness –
It's better – almost Peace –
                                                           F421 (1862)  J584

People love to comfort the grieving by saying “Time heals all wounds,” but hardly anyone believes it. Time may heal some wounds and it may dull others, but – as Dickinson points out in many of her poems – the internal scars remain and the psyche has warped around them. Long after the pangs cease to attack us we still maintain a protective hunch – or perhaps even an aggressive crouch.
         Dickinson addresses the dulling process of time in this poem. She wasn’t aware of the process, just that in “looking back” she realized that the “Track” of pain through her life had been “benumbed.”  I feel this poem is a sequel to “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (F372). In that poem, written earlier in the year, she describes the woodenness of life after grief, how the spirit becomes stone-like, manifesting a “Quartz contentment.” Most disturbing in that work are the last two lines where surviving the “Hour of Lead” is remembered as if by one frozen to death: “First – Chill – then
Stupor – then the letting go – .”  The current poem marks the letting go. She has moved from pain and wilderness to a more peaceful place.
Victorian pin cushion
courtesy: Chantilly Dreams
         She objectifies the grief, first by comparing it to the school dress she wore as a girl and hung on a peg in her room every night. But grief is even more ubiquitous for it was never hung up or put away at night. Like a small child, it “nestled close” to her, never leaving. This small child of grief is still there, but is finally “consoled.” By what, Dickinson doesn’t know.
        The third stanza is quite remarkable. Dickinson constructs the first two lines to read that grief “nestled close / As Needles,” and the juxtaposition of “needles” and nestling is jarring. We are yanked from the image of grief as a nestling small child to one of nestling needles that would pierce and hurt. I picture them piercing a heart. But as the stanza continues it is clear that ladies press the needles into pincushions where they belong. Without the pincushion the needles might be lost.
        The image of a lady pushing the needle of grief into the pincushion of her heart (where they belong!) each night springs from that long English tradition of the nightingale who presses her breast into a thorn to sing. Consequently, her song is born of sadness and pain. In Ovid, it is a rape victim, Philomel, who is transformed by the gods into a nightingale. Shakespeare refers to Philomel’s story in both Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece and in sonnets. Dickinson would have been familiar with these works as well as the famous ode “To the Nightingale” by Anne Finch (early 1700s) which compares the poet’s voice to that of the nightingale:
Most nightingales really don't
need thorns to sing!

Poets, wild as thee, were born,
    Pleasing best when unconfined,
    When to please is least designed,
Soothing but their cares to rest;
    Cares do still their thoughts molest,
    And still th' unhappy poet's breast,
Like thine, when best he sings, is placed against a thorn.

It is very Dickinsonian to turn this classical reference into a homely image of needles and pincushions. And it is very tragically romantic – but appropriate! – of her to place herself in the nightingale lineage.

In the last stanza the image reverts back to the nestling infant, now consoled. But the final lines assert the poet’s final agency. She has been on a journey and recognizes it reflectively as to a wild place far from the sewing table. But now she looks for that wilderness and realizes that she has left it behind her. What is left is “better.”  It is “almost Peace.”  After the earlier torments, this is probably enough.


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    1. ED’s original manuscript version of Stanza 1 read:

      “It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
      I could not see the trouble go –
      But only knew by looking back –
      That something – had obscured the Track”

      Originally, Lines 2-4 made sense whether taken literally: looking back at a real railroad “Track”, or figuratively: a troubled feeling slowly vanished but she only realized it by comparing feelings then and now.

      Later, she considered three alternate words: in Line 2, “feel” for “see” and “Anguish” for “trouble”, and in Line 4, “benumbed” for “obscured”. The summed effect emphasized “feeling” rather than “seeing”, but either choice made sense.

      Strangely, one of her editors decided to change only two words, “see” and “obscured”, leaving Stanza 1 (above) and us with mixed metaphors of seeing and feeling.

  2. Stanza 1 of both F421 (‘It ceased to hurt me’, autumn 1862) and F362 (‘After great pain’, early 1862) deal with deadened nerves:


    “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
    The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
    The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
    And Yesterday, or Centuries before?”


    “It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
    I could not feel the trouble go –
    But only knew by looking back –
    That something – had benumbed the Track”

    My guess is both poems refer to a trauma that occurred September 1861:

    (L261 to Higginson dated 25 April 1862):

    “I had a terror-since September-I could tell to none-and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid-”

    It was at about this time ED began consistently wearing white dresses. Habegger (2002) tells us:

    “Exactly when the poet began wearing white year-round isn’t known. In December 1860, as if putting a stop to rumor, she pointedly asked Louisa Norcross to “tell ‘the public’ that at present I wear a brown dress.” But in early 1862 [Franklin says late 1862] she recorded a poem that speaks of a vocation for white as a sign of singleness and dedication.”:

    (Fr307, late 1862)

    “A solemn thing – it was – I said –
    A Woman – white – to be –
    And wear – if God should count me fit –
    Her blameless mystery –”

    ED continues F421 with Stanza 2, where “it” refers to the pain but could also refer to white dresses:

    “Nor when it altered, I could say,
    For I had worn it, every day,
    As constant as the Childish frock –
    I hung upon the Peg, at night.”

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The pronoun “It” that begins the poem probably refers to “trouble” in Line 2. “It” appears three more times, in Lines 5, 6, & 13; the first two probably refer to “trouble”, but the “it” of Line 13 probably refers to “Grief”.

    As mentioned above in comment dated March 11, 2024 at 3:06 PM, if ED had decided to change “see” and “benumbed” to “feel” and “obscured”, she probably would have also changed the Line 2 word “problem” to “Anguish”, to keep the three changes logically connected.

    Among many other definitions, ED Lexicon (EDL) defines “anguish” as “separation from the presence of God”. We know ED suffered severe separation anxiety (anguish) when Sue taught school in Baltimore during their early 20s. By her early 30s, when she composed ‘It ceased to hurt me so’, she perhaps had realized separation anxiety is dynamic; separation isn’t permanent. God is still in His Heaven, waiting for ED to renew her faith in Him.

    In contrast, ED’s other God, Wadsworth, had departed for San Francisco, a foreign universe for ED, and, to her knowledge, isn’t going to return. Her human God is “dead”, and her “grief” is permanent. She has no idea what consoled her “Grief”, “Except”, possibly, “Wilderness” (EDL: emptiness; hollowness). Her “benumbed . . . Track” felt “almost [like] "Peace”.