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".