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12 August 2014

There is a Languor of the Life

There is a Languor of the Life
More imminent than Pain —
'Tis Pain's Successor — When the Soul
Has suffered all it can —

A Drowsiness — diffuses —
A Dimness like a Fog
Envelops Consciousness —
As Mists — obliterate a Crag.

The Surgeon — does not blanch — at pain
His Habit — is severe —
But tell him that it ceased to feel —
The Creature lying there —

And he will tell you — skill is late —
A Mightier than He —
Has ministered before Him —
There's no Vitality.
                     F552 (1863)  J396

I wouldn't place this poem in the top two tiers of Dickinson's work, despite the interesting assertion that post-pain languor or lethargy is "More imminent than Pain" and the quite wonderful second stanza. It's the last stanza that kills it for me.

The poem begins in familiar Dickinson territory: the numb legacy of grief, treated notably in earlier poems in phrases such as "The Feet, mechanical, go round – / A Wooden way" [F372] and "From Blank to Blank – / … / I pushed Mechanic feet" [F484]. Here, Dickinson delves into the foggy, dampened mental state that is "Pain's Successor". 
Once the Soul has endured as much as it can, a certain diffuse drowsiness sets in that dims the once raw pain. Much as a mist can mask a craggy mountain top, consciousness becomes submerged in a fog-like state where the crag of pain no longer dominates the psyche. Counter-intuitively, Dickinson claims that this dull, languid state is more imminent – more pressing and closer at hand – than the pain. It is a type of death, enervating and enveloping. 

She switches then to the surgeon who doesn't hesitate to wield his scalpel despite the pain it causes. That pain tells him his patient and her survival instinct are alive. But if the patient is so numb that she has "ceased to feel", he realizes it's too late for his skills. There isn't any vitality there to save. 

The last line seems limp and dead to me (no pun intended). I'm not sure whom the "Mightier than He" refers to – perhaps the mightiness of pain – or, heretically, God who deals blows to his Creatures. "Ministered", then, would be ironic. Woe to her who suffers such ministrations!

By Dickinson's time trepanning and bloodletting were becoming rarer, although bloodletting was not uncommon. So I think her bringing in the Surgeon to close the poem is just a way of saying that while the scalpel might cure the body, there is no cure for a broken and lifeless spirit. 


  1. I like the inversion of conventional expectations in this poem. We normally think of a doctor or a surgeon as working to relieve pain. Here, pain is life and vitality. Absence of pain is death and relieves the surgeon of purpose.

    There is, as you point out, also tension in the concept of "imminent languor" -- an urgency behind dullness that is interesting. This kind of death doesn't end pain -- it obscures it. There is a sense of active ignorance or avoidance that means that the pain is never really obscured.

  2. There is a valid physiological basis to this poem. The body responds to pain by releasing natural neurotransmitters and then the endorphins
    that will seem to reduce the sensation of pain, and other responses that produce a languor in some cases.

  3. On re-reading the poem it seems clear to me that the "Mightier than He" refers to God who according to Christian doctrine, takes people from life as he will.

  4. Wouldn’t Occam ask, Why suspect God, when ED’s other lover, Death, specializes in excising “Vitality”?

  5. The premier ED lines presaging “A Drowsiness” (F552, 1863) chill my spine:

    “This is the Hour of Lead —
    Remembered, if outlived,
    As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
    First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”

    ‘After Great Pain’ (F372, 1862), as Susan K said.