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21 March 2018

It struck me — every Day —

It struck me — every Day —
The Lightning was as new
As if the Cloud that instant slit
And let the Fire through —

It burned Me — in the Night —
It Blistered to My Dream —
It sickened fresh upon my sight —
With every Morn that came —

I thought that Storm — was brief —
The Maddest — quickest by —
But Nature lost the Date of This —
And left it in the Sky —
                               Fr636 (1863)  J362

We are eased into this intense poem by Dickinson's ambiguous opening lines. "It struck me" is a common way of introducing an insight or new idea. A particularly brilliant insight might come as if by a stroke of lightening. And so we might begin reading the poem in expectation of one of Dickinson's knifing epiphanies or surprising twists on ordinary wisdom. But we soon realize the strokes of lightening as bolts of sheer pain. technique here impresses me. Through the first stanza I'm excited by the lightening and its Fire. The dash ending the stanza carries suspense across the stanza gap and into 'It burned Me'.  Whatever the lightening might mean, it suddenly seems painfully piercing. We experience a bolt of understanding just as the first line promised and just as the stanza descends into horror. Fire blisters to the speaker's dreams as if they were tangible entities scorched and disfigured. This happens every night. And every Morn her sight is 'sickened', withered, I imagine, as a lightening-struck tree.

The poem ends with no closure. I think it might be read, "I thought that Storm would be brief" and the worst part would be over soonest. Experience and convention lead us to that belief: pain must ebb: the intolerable fade to the tolerable, whether in sickness, love, or war. But Nature is not natural here. Nature 'lost' track of the situation, left it looming in the sky.
        Dickinson leaves no doubt about the source of her pain. It comes from above, it is fire waiting for a slit in the clouds, it is lightening day and night. The realm of sky – heaven – is not one she can control. The gods forge the lightening and Jove hurls it. The Christian god punishes and blinds, perhaps to force a truth, as with Saul of Tarsus (New Testament, Acts 9: 3-16).
        In a somewhat similar poem, '"Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch',  Fr425, written a little over a year earlier, the intense 'Agony' ends 'When God – remembered'. In the current poem God is not there and Nature has forgotten.

In other commentaries, this poem is considered to be about Dickinson's eye problems.  In the same year as this poem, 1863, Dickinson wrote to Thomas Higginson that 'I had a terror since September – I could tell to none' (L261). In 1864, Dickinson stayed in Boston for eight months of therapy with a prominent ophtalmologist. Reflecting on the experience in an 1865 letter to Joseph Lyman (friend of the family and a near-suitor for sister Lavinia) she wrote:
Some years ago I had a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble. It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul – BOOKS. The medical man said 'avaunt ye tormentors.' He also said, 'down, thought, & plunge into her soul.' He mmight as well have said, 'Eyes be blind, heart be still.' So I had eight months of Siberia.
But while the poem might draw upon the pain and dread Dickinson's eye afflictions caused her, I think she intends it more generally. There are piercing pains that never go away. There are also times, glimpsed in other Dickinson poems, when like for Saul, Divine knowledge assaults and flays, as in 'He Fumbles at your Soul (Fr477when God's 'Imperial Thunderbolt' / … scalps your naked soul'.

Sometimes I feel that Dickinson hurls poems like bolts across the ages.


  1. Thanks for this amazing work that you've been dedicated to!

  2. Lyndall Gordon would cite this as one of the evidences of seizures. It is a convincing read.

    1. Do you know if he did cite it? It seems easy to read the poem as a description of a chronic physical affliction.

  3. How to know which one is right, I see another version that is:
    It blistered in my dream;
    It sickened fresh upon my sight
    With every morning's beam.

    1. What version?
      Some older ones were 'adjusted' by the editors to improve rhythm, rhyme, and spelling. So 'beam' rhymes more strictly with 'dream' in your version -- vs. the slant rhyme of 'dream' with 'came'. Slant rhymes weren't much accepted when Dickinson was writing.
      Christanne Miller's 'Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them' has the version I include. You can also go look in the Emily Dickinson Archives as they would have any true variants.

  4. The idea of pain that should pass but endures reminds me of the poem F629, where "As legions of Night/ The Sunrise scatters -- These endure -- enact -- and terminate"

    The legions of the night, like what "burns me at night" here, persist in the day, into tomorrow.

    Yes, hard to know if this is physical, spiritual or emotional. All can be searing.

  5. The complete quote is “I had a terror since September [1861], I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.” ED writes poetry to ease the terror.

    When depression starts it may feel like nausea, especially on waking in the morning:

    “It sickened fresh upon my sight —
    With every Morn that came —”.

    Without medication or ameliorative diversion, that nausea can become psycho-physical pain, long-term insomnia, and numb terror:

    “I thought that Storm — was brief —
    The Maddest — quickest by —
    But Nature lost the Date of This —
    And left it in the Sky —"

    Hopefully, writing this poem helped ED ease her pain.

  6. The poem might be about reliving traumatic memories. Their intensity doesn’t diminish over time. They are always there, as if behind a cloud, ready to strike.

    1. Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

      Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
      Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
      Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
      Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event