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15 November 2015

If any sink, assure that this, now standing —

If any sink, assure that this, now standing —
Failed like Themselves — and conscious that it rose —
Grew by the Fact, and not the Understanding
How Weakness passed — or Force — arose —

Tell that the Worst, is easy in a Moment —
Dread, but the Whizzing, before the Ball —
When the Ball enters, enters Silence —
Dying — annuls the power to kill.
                                                  F616 (1863)  J358

Dickinson, as one who "Failed like Themselves", offers encouragement to the despairing. The worst part is the dread, she says; once the whizzing is over and the bullet hits, things improve, or at least stabilize.
        She has covered this ground before, most particularly in "'Tis so appalling – it exhilarates"   (F341) where "To know the worst, leaves no dread more—", and "Looking at Death, is Dying".  In the current poem she adds rather gnomically that dying "annuls the power to kill". If you have, for example, been laid low dreading the death or departure (or abandonment) of a loved one, once the event happens there is a "Silence" in place of the incapacitating despair.
        Other poems explore aspects of the same process. In "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (F340), "Silence" joins the poet following an excruciating and mind-numbing experience. In "I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl" (F522she describes the "scrupulous exactness" that keeps her going even though "existence – some way back – / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through". This ability to endure reflects the "Force" that follows the "Weakness" Dickinson describes in this poem.

In the first line of the poem Dickinson refers to herself as "this", as if she is gesturing to her body rather than her Self.  The body, nonetheless, was conscious that after its failure it "rose" as its "Weakness passed" and "Force – arose". The body, now erect, doesn't understand the process; it only knows the "Fact" of weakness passing, strength increasing. Notice the word weaving and associations here. There is the pairing of "rose" and "arose", suggesting the Resurrection. The body is standing but without Understanding. The poem's speaker recounts this as if an observer – the aware Mind – were watching its own life.
        The second stanza provides a metaphor to help the failing (and the reader) understand the first. A life of dread or despair is like the subjective infinity of hearing a bullet speeding towards you. That "Whizzing" is the worst. Once "the Ball enters, enters Silence" – an effective use of chiasmus (reversal of grammatical structure) that provides a clue as to what allowed Force to arise. Without the foreboding sound that presages catastrophe, silence like a cocoon allows some measured healing to accur. The killing bullet, the catastrophe itself, both rips and anneals the wound at once. The nerves may be dead, but the body will stand again.

The somber nature of the poem is underscored by longer lines than Dickinson usually uses: pentameter and tetrameter rather than the ballad form of tetrameter and trimeter.


  1. This is a difficult poem.

    The exact rhymes in the first stanza seem to me, at least, to go from immediate experience in the first two lines -- "standing" and "rose" to reflection on experience "understanding" and "arose". Then, what is the Weakness that passes? And what is the Force? I may be projecting my own view, but it seems to me that the poem inverts the conventional view of life and death. Normally we think of "life force" and succumbing to death as weakness. But here, dying is falling into indestructibility -- annulling the power to kill. In the same way that a bomb cannot destroy space, dying is to be beyond death. So, Weakness is life, and Force is death.

    The Worst is the transition -- the pain of clinging to hope and fear -- to what is solid and impermanent. The metaphor in this second stanza bothers me. ED is usually an astute observer and scientifically accurate. But a bullet travels at about twice the speed of sound; the whizzing does not arrive "before the Ball". But it is the metaphor that makes this a Civil War poem. ED would have read accounts of deaths from the minie-balls fired by sharpshooters on the battlefield.

    1. I hadn't thought of reading it as life/death; weakness/force. But it makes sense, particularly when taking the second stanza more as an example than as a metaphor. Thanks!

  2. Correction. Based on some Civil War websites, the minieball was subsonic -- so a Civil War veteran would remember hearing the sound before the impact.

  3. I find the note on the meter - the pentameter and its affect on the tone of the poem - especially valuable. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the help to understanding this poem, it is very difficult to translate it, especially because of the pronouns (; to me it's hard to determine who's who in the poem. I assume that there are two sides: Any/Themselves (i.e. the soldiers at the battlefield) and this/it (the poet's body?).
    As for ball/whizzing I understand that being subsonic or not the most important thing is the metaphor: one should not fear death, instead we should be prepared to hear the what dying "sounds" like; and besides, she says, it's better to die than kill.
    Well, this is my reading, and based on that I translate.

    1. I don't see soldiers in the first stanza. The second refers to being hit with a 'ball' -- which because of the Civil War occurring at the time remind us of soldiers. But more broadly, I believe Dickinson is saying that Dread is the worst; that someone experiencing such Dread can have hope: once the bullet strikes you die -- and Dread is over. This metaphor suggests that once the worst happens life gets better. One who has sunk will again rise.