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05 April 2015

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
                                                                       F598 (1863)  J632

Each stanza of this popular poem provides an interesting metaphor to ponder, each one manifesting the wonders of a three-pound human brain encased in its dark skull. The first two stanzas deftly channel into the final where Dickinson engages cryptically in the ongoing theological question of whether God is created in the brain or the brain is created by God. (By "brain" I am reading "mind" throughout the poem. Dickinson's using "brain" adds interesting contrast: the compact physical thing versus the diffuse and abstract.)
The first stanza goes up and wide, spanning the heavens: the "You", no doubt a generalized reference to the reader, can stare at the sky day and night, experience weather and seasonal changes, and take it all in "with ease" and space to spare. In Dickinson's container metaphor the brain can hold not only the sky but "You" as if it had unlimited storage capacity. 
Next, Dickinson likens the brain to a sponge. It can absorb an entire sea just as a sponge might sop up a bucket of water. The brain here is the limitless blue of sea and sky.

Balance scales; photo by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez 
        So far the brain is wide and deep; it can contain and absorb. The third and final stanza makes the startling claim that its weight is "just the weight of God". We don't think of either consciousness or God as having weight and neither did Dickinson. But perhaps that is her point. Can a brain greater than sky or sea affect on its own the unfurling of a rosebud or the safe return of a soldier to his family? Can God? Is it possible that there is some fundamental unity between consciousness/brain/mind and God, or that more particularly the first engenders the other? I can't imagine Dickinson writing that last stanza without those questions in mind.
But if there is any difference – and Dickinson notably includes an element of doubt – it is what distinguishes "Syllable from Sound". While syllables are always sound (or written representations of sound), sound is only occasionally syllables. Perhaps Dickinson is implying that humans give voice to creation and creation's Source.

I love this thought-provoking poem.


  1. I love this poem, it's so progressive, and it's this train of thought that keeps me reading and celebrating Emily Dickinson.

    "The Bible is an antique Volume -
    Written by faded men"

    Yes, humans giving voice to creation.

  2. It is a masterful poem. I agree with everything that you have said.

    The subject deals with the philosophical problem of understanding the relationship between subject and object -- and the extent to which the two are mutually dependent.

    ED chooses the word "brain" rather than "mind". The comparison in the first two stanzas works better as a measurement between tangible objects. It makes the statements (Brain wider than Sky; Brain deeper than sea) humorous and more powerful.

    The poem is also about the power of poetry -- that a creation of mind can contain and capture the breadth and depth of our experience. As you point out, the last line's "syllable" makes this clear.

    All three stanzas very tightly echo each other. The second line in each stanza ends identically ("side by side"; "Blue to Blue"; "Pound for pound". The end rhymes of the second and fourth lines of each stanza are exact. The third lines of the first two stanzas are exactly parallel ("The one the other will contain"; "The one the other will absorb --"). The third line of the third stanza then varies: "And they will differ -- if they do" --the lines differ as the sense differs -- setting up the heretical open question that ends the poem (how a syllable differs from sound; how the Brain differs from God).

    1. hiii how would the word 'brain' rather than mind work better as a measurement between tangible objects? Isn't the sky intangible so its more like Dickinson is comparing a tangible object with an intangible one.

  3. Thank you - excellent commentary and I particularly appreciate your discussion of the poetics -- which I sadly neglected. Her tight-knit lines are a thing of beauty.

  4. Ditto: her tight-knit lines are a thing of beauty

    and wonder, and brilliance, and an amazing vision of how to twist language and make it palpable and unendingly mysterious.

  5. This stunner immediately follows another such in the fascicle, which also contains the sky and absorbs the sea. You can see the movement of the mind between the poems. Sometimes the poems seem fairly random in the fascicles, but sometimes, as in this case, it feels as if one was written after another.

  6. The Brain is bigger than the sky, deeper than the sea —
    The Brain is just the weight of God,
    And as each syllable is a sound,
    The Brain is God, and the other way round —