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19 February 2013

The first Day's Night had come –

The first Day's Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing – 

She said her Strings were snapt –

Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn – 

And then – a Day as huge

As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes – 

My Brain – begun to laugh –

I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho' 'tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still. 

And Something's odd – within –

That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?
                                                                 F423 (1862)  J410

In 1858, Dickinson wrote “I never lost as much but twice” (F39), where she grieves for two deaths that put her “a beggar / Before the door of God.” This poem also speaks of two griefs.  The poem begins in the past, with first one tragedy and then another. It ends in the present with the poet reflecting on the psychic aftermath of those calamaties, wondering if she is mad.

       The first line of the poem recalls the Biblical book of Genesis, where the chronicler details the beginning of the cosmos: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness e called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5).  Dickinson pulls from that cataclysmic event the thread of tragedy. Surely there was cataclysm when God created light; who but Emily Dickinson would see the potential for horror. With a sudden onslaught of light, something very catastrophic may well have happened.
        Likewise, there had been a cataclysm in her own life. She was “grateful” to have gotten through the day, but night proved little better. She told her “Soul to sing” – and once again we have the division between the conscious Self and the Soul – but the soul’s strings were “snapt” like those on a violin after rough tratment. But it wasn’t just the strings on the violin, but the bow, too, was destroyed: blown to bits so completely that only its atoms were left. Nope, no songs left in the soul’s violin. The Self was willing and able, however, to cope: mending the soul was her “work” throughout that dark night.
Humor and madness and death
        But then disaster struck once more. The new tragedy was “as huge” as the previous one – doubly bad, in fact. It “unrolled” in front of her, a terrible image as if watching a train wreck. This time, however, there was no patient mending of the soul, no putting the strings and bow back to rights. Instead, the speaker responds completely inappropriately: she laughs and mumbles. Today we understand that laughing at a funeral, for example, is a normal response to the stress of grief and uncertainty. Helen Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) notes that in this fourth stanza “hysteria replaces language” (195).
        Yet the last line of that stanza brings us to the present tense. The speaker’s brain is still “giggling.” This leads to the poignant last stanza. These events changed her. She does not feel like the same person she was before. The last line, “Could it be Madness – this?, is carefully  constructed not only to mirror her sense of not being quite right, but to emphasize her internal sense of madness. Dickinson fractures the syntax and leaves the pronoun hanging. The reader must fill in the referent for “this,” and what we come up with is the giggling, the hysteria, the snapped strings, the never again feeling like the same person.

The effect is sad, the voice referring helplessly to the upheaval in her heart and soul.  As far as rhyme – the predictable (but satisfying) rhyme of “thing” and “sing” in the first stanza give way to an unrhymed ballad form. We expect more rhyme, but Dickinson is out to show mental disruption and lack of coherence. After all, the strings are snapped. And so she offers only the slant rhymes of  “fool” and “still,” and “was” and this.” To a giggling mind, rhymes must all be slant.


  1. This is one of my favorite of ED's poems. I particularly like the reversal of the normal convention of day representing safety and night fear and danger. Here, the day is "terrible" and night is cause for rejoicing and healing.

    I don't think that the poem refers to two griefs -- or even to grief at all, except perhaps as grief is a focusing of the pain and impermanence that life represents. Day is a symbol for life and night, death or sleep where the rational mind relaxes. The poem considers the circle of pain that life represents.

    The fourth stanza is magical. It is here where the mind transcends convention and breaks through to a way of perceiving that is not limited to self and things that are impermanent. It is similar to the moment when the "plank in reason" breaks and the mind opens to a more profound understanding.

    The moment is years ago -- the poem recalls an epiphany, perhaps where ED woke to her calling as a poet and first experienced poetry that can transcend convention and convey what is ineffable. The description of that experience is joyful, humorous and humbling (I "mumbled -- like a fool").

    She is without reference point in that moment and questions whether this is madness -- and it is from a conventional point of view. But I expect she would find it the type of madness that is also "divinest sense".

    I love your blog -- but I had to comment on this poem. I am astonished that you think that this is a poem whose "effect is sad" and I don't see where you find "helplessness" in facing "upheaval of the heart and soul". There is nothing helpless about the writer of this poem. The poem is all about transcendence and joy.

    1. Thanks for this insight. Re-reading the poem I see your point about the fourth stanza. It can indeed be read as an epiphany. I also agree that "helplessness" is not the right word. Dickinson may well be pointing back to an epiphany as the beginning of her "divinest sense" of poetry as you suggest.
      Yet I do find a depth of grieving for the torment, the snapped strings and blown bow of the soul. I take her at her word that things were "terrible" and that a further "horror" befell.
      I am reminded of "The Soul has bandaged Moments" ( where after a brief escape the soul is recaptured:

      The Soul's retaken moments—
      When, Felon led along,
      With shackles on the plumed feet,
      And staples, in the Song,

      The Horror welcomes her, again,
      These, are not brayed of Tongue—

      So perhaps there weren't two griefs in the sense of episodes, but simply times of torment or existential horror. Dickinson's poetry emerges and transcends -- and people like us all over the world read it and read it and read it.

    2. Thanks for replying. I am certainly one of the people who turn to ED. She opened me up to poetry altogether.

      Again, thanks for this blog. I appreciate the discipline and your willingness to share insights. You have helped me to break into a number of difficult poems. I now have you on my "favorites" page and look forward to reading more!

  2. Some how this poem doesn't speak to me

  3. Dickinson is speaking in the voice of the eternal. Perhaps it takes joining her there by summoning up your own deep experiences with death to respond to her own voice from the grave.

  4. Why is the word ‘Soul’ starting with a capital letter

    1. There are lots of capitalized words in the poem and I don't know that the capitalization of 'Soul' means anything different than the others. That begs the question of why so many of the nouns are upper case. It might be more interesting to look at the nouns that aren't capitalized.

  5. Usually, when ED says such-and-such is true, I believe her. However, if she wanted to protect someone she loves from unwanted identification, I wouldn’t put it past her to lie. The pain expressed in this poem feels too immediate to have occurred “∙∙∙∙∙Years ago – that Day –”.

    I suspect the two painful events happened September 1861 when she first learned that Wadsworth was considering moving to San Francisco (L261 to Higginson, 25 April 1862, “I had a terror-since September) and June 1, 1862, when Wadsworth sailed from New York. During that interval she tried to come to terms with her loss by increasing physical seclusion at Homestead, dedicating her life to poetry, and wearing only white as a symbol of her faithfulness to him, whom she never expected to see again in this life.

    ED's neighbors were convinced she had sunk into madness, and she wonders if maybe they’re right.