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05 September 2014

Did Our Best Moment last —

Did Our Best Moment last —
'Twould supersede the Heaven —
A few — and they by Risk — procure —
So this Sort — are not given —

Except as stimulants — in
Cases of Despair —
Or Stupor — The Reserve —
These Heavenly moments are —

A Grant of the Divine —
That Certain as it Comes —
Withdraws — and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms –
                                 F560 (1863)  J393

This poem shares some of the bitterness of one of her early poems about the painful transience of the divine encounter. There, Dickinson complains that "For each extatic instant / We must an anguish pay" [F109]. Here, the cessation of divinely-granted "Heavenly moments" induces something like opiate or cocaine withdrawal. Coming down from her great high, the "dazzled Soul" finds herself back in her "unfurnished Rooms". 
Dickinson makes the parallel to drug use quite explicit. There is a risk to partaking in divine bliss; only "A few" manage to obtain it. God, or "the Divine", well aware of the danger, doles these moments out. They are only given "as stimulants" when the seeking party is suffering from "Despair" or "Stupor". The Divine grants these moments and always withdraws them. The danger of addiction is mentioned in the first two lines. If these heavenly moments weren't cut short they would come to seem better than heaven itself. Real earthly life isn't a bit like heaven, so such addictive thinking must be kept in reserve.

We can chart these swings from peak to valley in Dickinson's poems. There are poems of Despair, those of stupor or numb paralysis. But there are numerous poems where Dickinson describes bliss, ecstasy, transport, and rapture. Would modern students see evidence of bipolar disorder? Perhaps, but regardless of what engendered these episodes, Dickinson explored them as terra igconita and used them as touchstones for poetic truth. 
Who else could conjure the coming down from a divine high as a "dazzled Soul" finding herself alone in "unfurnished Rooms" as if she had been soaring in high places only to wake up in a drab and deficient habitation of flesh and blood. Such paucity of the flesh is implied, such parsimony of the divine – and such irony in how much emotional force is delivered in a poem that until the last lines reads as an extract from a Catholic or social studies text. 

Sherlock Holmes – who enjoyed cocaine
Dickinson would have some familiarity with the effects of narcotics. During her lifetime, the British Empire was vigorously promoting opium use in China. Cocaine and opiates were famously used by such prominent writers as Thomas De Quincy (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Poets Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Shelley were known to take laudanum on occasion; and Gabriel Rossetti's wife Elizabeth died of a laudanum overdose a year before Dickinson wrote this poem. Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most famous fictional cocaine addict, was also a Victorian creation. Scottish writer and doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first started writing about him in the 1880s.  
But while these figures may have hoped drugs would help deepen their perceptions and provide an altered state, Dickinson tastes "a liquor never brewed" and is an "Inebriate of air … / [a] Debauchee of Dew" [F207]. Indeed, she finds something "Transcending ecstasy" in a simple "summer's noon" [F104].


  1. Excellent essay! The drug reference is interesting in the context of a poem that speaks of divine inspiration. ED was about 13 years old when Marx published his Critique of Hegel's Philosopy of Right (1843) calling religion the "opium of the people". But here, the metaphor of addiction is in the context of an intensely personal experience and not a critique of society or religion.

  2. I don't read bitterness in this poem, wisdom, certainly, expressed from personal experience and poetic eloquence, but more matter of fact, like a scientist describing a studied phenomenon.

    1. I can read it that way, too, now that you mention it. In fact, I prefer your take.
      The poetry-reading voice in my head has a lot of influence in the tone I pick up in a poem.

  3. From the Catholic perspective here - the last two lines of the poem follow exactly what God asks us to do. Sacrifice ourselves on the altar, die to ourselves, be an empty vessel, so that we may than be poured full of Holy Spirit.

    Before her encounters with the Divine, her rooms may or may not have been furnished. But the encounters change her, wipe her slate clean except for the bedazzling and for knowing God.

    I've been recently exploring Dickinson's poetry to follow her language of spiritual consolations and desolations.

    1. That's a very interesting approach. I've been taking it more and more myself -- and wishing I could go back and re-write a lot of my write-ups. But my journey started at poem 1 and I've been learning more and more -- and getting older and older -- as I go.

  4. Is there any chance that Emily did some experimentation with opium, cocaine, or other drugs?

  5. Many have described such mystical experiences. No matter we are low or high, these moments give us faith that “Life is Good”. ED calls them “Our Best Moment”:

    “A Grant of the Divine —
    That Certain as it Comes —
    Withdraws — and leaves the dazzled Soul
    In her unfurnished Rooms –”

    Sig Olson (1961) calls them “The Singing Wilderness”:

    “The singing wilderness has to do with the calling of the loons, northern lights, and the great silences of a land lying northwest of Lake Superior. . . . I have heard the singing in many places, but I seem to hear it best in the wilderness . . .”

    “I have heard it on misty migration nights when the dark has been alive with the high calling of birds, and in rapids when the air has been full of their rushing thunder. I have caught it at dawn when the mists were moving out of the bays, and on cold winter nights when the stars seemed close enough to touch. But the music can even be heard in the soft guttering of an open fire or in the beat of rain on a tent, and sometimes not until long afterward when, like an echo out of the past, you know it was there in some quiet place or when you were doing some simple thing in the out-of-doors.”

    Olson, S., 1961, ‘The Singing Wilderness’, pp. 5-7

    St Paul (Saul) described his “Moment” on the road to Damascus:

    "3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

    4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

    5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest . . . .

    6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do."

  6. Such moments happen once in a lifetime, if we're lucky, several times, if we're really lucky. Searching for them is fruitless, self-defeating, as ED says:

    “And still within a summer's night
    A something so transporting bright
    I clap my hands to see—

    “Then veil my too inspecting face
    Lest such a subtle—shimmering grace
    Flutter too far for me —"

    ‘A something in a Summer's Day’ (F104)