I found the words to every thought
I ever had – but One –
And that – defies me –
As a Hand did try to chalk the Sun
To Races – nurtured in the Dark –
How would your own – begin?
Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal –
Or Noon – in Mazarin?
F436 (1862) J581
We’ve all found ourselves trying to communicate something that we don’t have words for. We end up using analogies and figurative language or groping about inarticulately. Eliot’s Prufrock grapples with his inability to articulate some “overwhelming” question, concluding, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” There are limits to communication, to language, and even to knowing.
As a great poet, though, Dickinson finds words for what she means through thoroughly original techniques. She tells the truth “slant.” She lassoes a word into her own meanings such as “circumference”; scholars are still discussing her idiosyncratic use of that word. She can be allusive, suggestive, and often maddeningly opaque.
How can one create a convincing likeness of the sun, she asks, to a people who have grown up in darkness? Can the sun’s blaze or the noon sky be really communicated using even the most expensive pigments?
The answer might be “yes” if the viewer were familiar with sun and noon. But if those phenomena had no meaning in experience, paint could only provide a hint of their light. Likewise, Dickinson’s inexpressible thought. She has not the mazarin or the cochineal to make it real.