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06 December 2014

It knew no Medicine —

It knew no Medicine —
It was not Sickness — then —
Nor any need of Surgery —
And therefore — 'twas not Pain —

It moved away the Cheeks —
A Dimple at a time —
And left the Profile — plainer —
And in the place of Bloom

It left the little Tint
That never had a Name —
You've seen it on a Cast's face —
Was Paradise — to blame —

If momently ajar —
Temerity — drew near —
And sickened — ever afterward
For Somewhat that it saw?
                           F567 (1863)  J559

Dickinson presents a disturbing account of the effect of glimpsing 'Paradise'. She begins the poem with a mystery. Some condition, the "It" of the first stanza, is causing a wasting decline in the subject. The affliction doesn't respond to medicine; neither does it require surgery. Consequently both illness and pain are dismissed as causes. The second and third stanza describe the symptoms: hollow cheeks, weight loss, and the gray pallor of a corpse or plaster cast. In the final five lines Dickinson tells us the afflliction took place after a glimpse of Paradise. 

Is Dickinson really suggesting that a vision of heaven is sickening, or is Paradise here a metaphor for some earthly parallel – a lover, perhaps, or the chance of fame? I can imagine that a glimpse of a desired but unattainable situation might leave one depressed or even despairing. But although Dickinson earlier wrote numerous poems about a paradise with crowns, angels, glory, and happy maidens dancing, she also spent a lot of time facing what she sometimes referred to as an abyss or a pit [F515, F508] – and sometimes as despair. In "There's a certain Slant of light" [F320] she claims the "Seal Despair" is "An imperial affliction /  Sent us of the Air". Paradise can deliver its searing "Heavenly Hurt" in a shaft of autumn light. No, Dickinson wrote most powerfully of heaven when most heretical, and so I think she means this "Paradise" as Paradise (or at least that which awaits in the hereafter).
        The poem reminds me of one Dickinson wrote a year earlier –  "It was not Death, for I stood up" [F355]. That poem also describes an existential affliction through negative propositions: "It was not Death, for I stood up"; "It was not Frost …"; "Nor Fire…". What the poet does tell us in that poem is that what she experienced was "like Chaos – Stopless – cool – / Without a Chance, or Spar – / Or even a Report of Land – / To justify – Despair." While we don't know what the subject in this poem experienced when the door to Paradise stood temporarily ajar, we do know the outcome – a sickening "ever afterward".
        It is almost tempting to read this poem as one of a gentle death. The subject wasn't ill or suffering any pain. He or she, or most likely the poet, somehow had the opportunity to see Paradise after which began the downward spiral. Perhaps the glimpse created an irresistible longing for the eternal Home. But Dickinson doesn't allow that interpretation. The soul had great "Temerity" – audacity or persistence" –  in seeking out its vision. But once achieved, there was no resultant rapture, no giving over this life for a better one hereafter. Instead, the subject "sickened" as if the vision carried some infection, some deadly " internal difference ".

Perhaps most interestingly, Dickinson asks if Paradise is to blame for this soul's affliction. Perhaps it is the persistent visionary who is to blame. If a private door is open and you dare to approach and look within, who is to blame for any resultant shock? 
        But this is the poet's and the visionary's risk. It is she who must dare to look, to face both Paradise and the abyss or, as Dickinson implies, to face that which is both at once. As she wrote in F230, "For this – accepted Breath".


  1. What a strange, disturbing poem.

    But anyway, Susan, what a pleasure to be able to read your thoughts on Dickinson again.

  2. This is a poem about death. There is no pain or surgery or sickness -- just the wasting away of the body. "Moved away the Cheeks" is a very Dickinsonian phrase. Cheeks evoke life and health -- the "Bloom" of rosy cheeks. In its place is the pallor of death -- evoked with a powerful image and rhyme "Cast's face" that reminds us of the death masks that used to be common in and before ED's era.

    The last six lines of the poem end with a profound question. Do we experience mortality by contrast to what is immortal and unchanging? Is Paradise "to blame" for death? In the paradise of Eden before the Fall, before the experience of the the tree of knowledge, was there death? The Bible says no -- and ED is testing that and asking what caused death to come into the world. A conventional answer might be Eve's "temerity" to eat the fruit of the tree -- like a poisoned apple that sickens the one who eats it. But ED asks whether it is really paradise itself -- seen with the eyes of knowledge of comparison -- of this and that -- that is to blame.

    Interestingly, ED does not say that the mortal saw "something" that sickened her -- instead she uses the more ephemeral word "somewhat". I find this the most interesting word of the poem. Paradise is not a place or a thing. It doesn't have qualities. It is beyond thought and speech and is in the realm of awe. ED knew this and chose her word because she knew that mortality is not the opposite of immortality -- it arises from a perspective that comes from a drawing back into the self after seeing the infinite.

    I may be reading too much into this poem -- but I find it provocative. I do think the Genesis story is a key part of the poem.

    1. Fascinating -- That tree of knowledge was part of Paradise; the kernel of death flourishing within its bounds. And a serpent there to boot. By your reading, the "sickened – ever afterward" might mean the disease and death humanity is subject to ever since expulsion. Yes, Adam and Eve did see into the Divine with a bite of that fruit.

      It may well be that Dickinson is drawing on this story. It is disturbing when contemplated, and we know she was one for contemplation. Why wouldn't anyone who drew too near suffer as Adam and Eve did.

  3. The poem is not so disturbing! "it" is "the green apple". Replace "it" with " the green apple". Your question would be solved.

  4. interesting, by replacing "it" with "this feeling inside my heart" then the lover analogy fits, as in wanting something you can not have-causing all else to pale or cast by comparison. A strong feeling can be stirred "somewhat" or to some extent by the thought of or glimpse of a paradise out of your reach.

    1. The poem is an apocriphal version of "Paradise Lost" by ED. God did not create green apples. At sight of the apalling snake, apples grew pale. ED blames God of unsecured invasible garden.

  5. In a moment of temerity ED peered into the heart of Paradise, or, if you will, the heart of Darkness. Several times when she peered she saw all-consuming mystical images, but she never could resurrect those mystical feelings by searching. That was frustrating.

    But, more importantly, in another moment of temerity ED initiated an infatuated correspondence with an older, married, charismatic minister, Charles Wadsworth, an impossible love that led her to heartache and pain. That impossible love robbed her of her lively face and youthfulness.

    Was Paradise to blame? No, she accepts the blame for her brash decision to peer into Paradise, even if it sickened her forever. Would she peer again, given the opportunity? I think she would.