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23 September 2014

The Brain, within its Groove

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly — and true —
But let a Splinter swerve —
'Twere easier for You —

To put a Current back —
When Floods have slit the Hills —
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves —
And trodden out the Mills —
                           F563 (1863)  J556

The verbs in the last stanza dramatize the impossibility of a brain ever going back to its comfortable groove or, if you will, rut, once derailed. The first stanza begins calmly, both in language and image. The brain is running "evenly – and true" in its accustomed channel. It encounters some setback or glimpses some new truth or vision, but nothing cataclysmic. It is a "Splinter" not a logjam, not a stick of dynamite. Dickinson's insight is that sometimes a splinter is all it takes to set a life, or at least a mental life, careening out of control.
The second stanza looses the calm current of the millrace. The floodwaters "slit" the hills, an image managing to be surgical, violent, and yonic at the same time. A turnpike has been "scooped" out of the earth as if a giant trowel has been wielded against the landscape. The last image is that of the mills and factories "trodden" into oblivion. It is wild nature against the careful constructs of man. Such a flood can never again be tamed to its small channel.

It depicts perhaps part of the poet herself and helps account for the energy beating against the bounds of language in her poetry.


  1. The power in this poem hinges on its physicality with splinters in the brain; floods slitting, scooping and treading. I can't help seeing a dissection going on here. Or are brains a bit like trains: on the track they run smoothly, but once derailed - look out!

  2. In all her fear of the world, even amidst the fear, she was a fearless inner voyager. Her naked look at herself continually awes me.

  3. Be careful;
    the whispers in your ears
    And what:
    Whisper back,,,

    Once heard,
    Admist the whispers lie.

  4. Makes me think of Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book “The Swerve” - explaining the altered courses of history!

  5. Thank you for this great blog. It helps me a lot.

  6. I want the figure of speech of this poem, please??

    1. My best advice is to look up 'figure of speech examples' -- and when you get a good notion of what the term means you should have no problem finding it in this poem. Also, you could read my explication ...

  7. You sent me to the dictionary on this one. I thought "yonic" must be a misprint for something - until I looked it up and discovered that it fits your meaning exactly. Wonderful explication of this powerful little poem.

  8. Pilpul in the previous poem, yonic in this one. Talk about a liberal education! Thanks Susan.

  9. A tiny splinter can kill if it harbors tetanus bacteria, Clostridium tetani, AKA lockjaw. Prevention requires previous vaccination that stimulates the immune system to make antibodies. Without protection C. tetani kills horribly, or, if survived, makes its victim want death. ‘The Brain, within its Groove’ is about ravages of a metaphorically similar disease, powerful but impossible love in an unvaccinated, extremely vulnerable brain.

    At age 25, when she first heard Reverend Charles Wadsworth preach in Philadelphia, that kind of splinter infected ED’s incredibly susceptible brain. She survived with her life, but scars remained in poem after poem until she died. Would she have been the poet she was without those scars? I doubt it.

    This poem describes some of those scars.