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09 December 2014

Give little Anguish —

*Note: the following poem is out of Franklin order because I inadvertently omitted it earlier.

Give little Anguish —
Lives will fret —
Give Avalanches —
And they'll slant —
Straighten — look cautious for their Breath —
But make no syllable — like Death —
Who only shows the Marble Disc —
Sublimer sort — than Speech —
                               F422 (1862)  J310

In this wisdom poem Dickinson claims that people will fret over small problems but after suffering an avalanche of anguish will, once over the initial shock, respond with deathly quiet. Dickinson considers this muteness a "Sublimer" response than "Speech". We don't use forms of "sublime" in this way today and so it is difficult to know just what she is getting at. Among the eight meanings of the word in the Webster's Dictionary of Dickinson's day, the Dickinson Lexicon considers "Fearful; terrible; awe-inspiring" to be the sense of it in this poem (you must register at the site to get the poem references; the definitions are available to all).
        When a person dies, only a gravestone remains to speak directly for the corpse, and even that "Marble Disc" has few words. It is the silence of the grave that is terrible, that opens our imaginations to the most fearful conjectures. When someone is struck by some terrible woe, they will stagger but (for the sake of this poem) "Straighten" again. They check their breathing as if it might have stopped. But they do not speak. They become like a gravestone, their bodies markers for the silenced spirit. It's a fearsome thing, Dickinson is telling us, when words can't come.

        The next poem chronologically, "The first Day's Night had come" (F423), anatomizes the avalanche aftermath from a first-person point of view. The day after a terrible event, the poem's speaker tells her soul to sing, but "She said her Strings were snapt – / Her bow – to Atoms blown".  Perhaps that explains the silence in this poem.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. The first four lines might be considered two tetrameter lines divided into shorter lines for emphasis. The rhymes are so slant as to be subliminal, with the exception of Breath and Death – a classic pairing. Instead, Dickinson chooses strong, interesting words throughout, densely packing meaning. The assonances of Anguish and Avalanches are enriching and strengthen those already strong words; the use of "Lives" rather than "people" or "men" sets up a resonance with "Death" in its surprise appearance later in the poem. The alliteration of "slant", Straighten", "syllable", and "Sublimer"  slides the simile of numb anguish to death into the last of that string of "s" sounds, "Speech" – a harsh-sounding word (like 'screech') that stops the poem just as speech itself stopped.  


  1. great sorrow can stupefy mind. whitman stopped being a great poet after witnessing the horror of the civil war. a penultimate death.

    1. Yes, he did great service -- but at such cost.

    2. He wrote some amazing poetry after the war, including "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d"

  2. Perhaps useful? (Schmit, J, 1993, ‘I only said—the Syntax—’, Style, Vol 27: 106-124)

    "I can wade Grief-" (F312) bears a strong resemblance to "Give little Anguish-" (F422):


    Give Balm-to Giants-
    And they'll wilt, like Men
    Give Himmaleh-
    They'll carry-Him!


    Give little Anguish
    Lives will fret
    Give Avalanches
    And they'll slant-
    Straighten - look cautious for their Breath-

    A comparison between the giving of relief and pain achieves the same result in each case: relief brings wilting and fretting while a heavy load brings strength and straightness.”

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  4. OED Definition 10.1.B:

    “The sublime is an important concept in 18th- and 19th-cent. aesthetics, closely linked to the Romantic movement. It is often contrasted with the beautiful and the picturesque in the fact that the emotion it evokes in the beholder encompasses an element of terror."