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05 February 2015

If ever the lid gets off my head

If ever the lid gets off my head
And lets the brain away
The fellow will go where he belonged —
Without a hint from me,

And the world — if the world be looking on —
Will see how far from home
It is possible for sense to live
The soul there — all the time.
                                                                F585 (1863)  J1727

This poem reminds me of Dickinson's reply to Thomas Higginson when he asked her to define poetry: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," she wrote, "I know that is poetry." She expands on that notion here in this lightly whimsical poem. The brain here is portrayed as her consciousness and thinking self locked tight inside her head. Just as a prisoner might flee for home if the jail doors opened, so might the brain rush away if the lid of the poet's head ever "gets off" her head. 

        There are several aspects of the self that make an appearance in this poem making it a bit ambiguous. There is the "me" whose head it is, the brain who is confined under the lid of that head, the "sense" – which is probably synonymous with the brain, and the soul. That soul seems to exist on a different plane than that in which Emily Dickinson baked bread and tended her father's house. It belongs to some higher realm than that of daily chores. If it could, her sense/brain would fly away to join the Soul leaving the daily Dickinson at home to cope as best she could.

The saying "head in the clouds" gets at something of the same idea, but I think Dickinson is getting at the nature of being a poet. We've seen her soul explore the expanses of the cosmos looking for God or struggling for freedom from the existential threats of a death-haunted world. We've seen her mind searching and processing both inner and outer depths, reporting her findings in poetry in language and imagery so powerful and fresh that her readers' heads are in danger of being taken off. 

The last stanza is a prescient depiction of how the world has come to see Emily Dickinson and her remarkable poetry, for the world has indeed been "looking on". Individually and collectively, readers marvel at just how far from her cultural and familial environment Dickinson's sense and soul resided. 


  1. The meter of this poem is interesting. The first two lines of each stanza have a sing-song quality and a matching internal rhyme in the first line (lid, head; world, world). It is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe ("It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea"; "For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee").

    But typical of ED, she will set a rhythm and then break it if it serves the sense of the poem. The last line, in particular ("The soul there -- all the time."), destroys the meter. The effect is to establish constraint and habit in the meter of the first two lines -- and then to free the poem -- so as the mind is free the meter is free in the same line.

    Your commentary is exactly right. I have a sense from the last line that that the poem is saying that the soul is always free -- the journey from the sleep of convention and habit is a realization rather than a change. The last line is difficult.

    1. Very difficult. I outlined a few permutations based on the various aspects of self presented – and what the "there" might be. Thanks for the Poe -- a tale-telling meter.

  2. I wonder: can the universe expand into the absolute unknown or only into the already determined boundlessness?

    ED's last line suggests an a priori circumference which the "fellow" simply inhabits when "the lid gets off."

    1. Circumference is the game! And I think, without any scholarly research whatsoever, that Dickinson was fearful of your first choice -- although "boundlessness" rather encompasses both dimensions known and unknown. But I think I take your distinction.

  3. Does “sense” mean empirical? Referring to the senses? Or sense, as in common sense and logic? Both can be, at times, at odds with the soul.

  4. I suspect this was written as a kind of love poem to a specific person. Her mind would like to travel where her soul is "far from home". "If the world be looking on" makes this rendezvous feel illicit. "My brain would like to go where my soul is, to you,
    regardless of our present limitations," she seems to be saying. She leaves the "belong" blank though, perhaps because she doesn't want it advertised, but also, I think, because she is leaving it open. It is wonderful to read this poem as if Emily's sense had traveled all the way to the present reading, and that her soul now resides in the reader, in us. This is a powerful way to think about poetry itself, the teeming brain being let out of the physical head and traveling through time and space via the lyric.

    The "If" clause this poem begins with finds its "then" clause in the reading of the poem itself, as we all become, wonder of wonders, the place where Emily "belongs".

    1. Your comments brought Whitman to mind:

      If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
      You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
      But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
      And filter and fibre your blood.

  5. Carlo, away from home, would dash out a door left ajar and “go where he belonged” without a hint from anyone telling him how to get there. ED’s brain lived at “home”, but not the “home” where “he belonged”. The world would be amazed how far from Amherst her brain traveled in that tiny head. It was “going home” all the time (L1040 to C.H. Clark, April 15, 1886).

    By sheer luck, we get to read her travelogue.