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17 August 2019

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –

Beauty — be not caused — It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides –

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow — when the Wind
Runs his fingers thro' it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it –
                              J516, Fr 654 (1863)

Dickinson begins by presenting Beauty as an essence, something drawn from Plato's Forms, timeless and unchangeable. Our mortal senses, part of the physical world, recognize and respond to it, but we cannot create it, neither can we grab hold of it or otherwise own it. As Dickinson puts it, Beauty Is. The capitalization in 'Is' matters.

In Plato's Symposium, Socrates links love to our response to beauty and traces its evolution: at first, love is a response to the beauty of a particular body; it then becomes more generalized, seeing and loving beauty in all bodies. As we mature and become more wise we recognize the beauty in more abstracted things: Souls, laws and institutions, knowledge, and finally we recognize and love Beauty itself in its ideal form.

Some have also seen the first stanza as hearkening back to Keats' "Ode on a Grcian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  But I don't think Dickinson is making that point. If she is channeling anyone besides Plato (whose writing and philosophy would have been familiar to her, if not from her academic studies then from lectures and discussions), I think it would be Emerson.
        It is Emerson the transcendentalist who seeks the still center where beauty abides, who writes, " within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related …" ("The Oversoul", 1841). Even more to Dickinson's point, he says that Beauty "cannot be handled. … It instantly deserts possession and flies to an object in the horizon" (The Conduct of Life, 1860).
        But perhaps most in tune with Dickinson here is his depiction of Beauty as "hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky" (The Conduct of Life).

Having pretty much condensed the notion of ideal Beauty into three lines, Dickinson writes a pivot line, isolating it between the first three lines, preventing an initial quatrain, and the following quatrain to which it is linked by both grammar and sense.

However, cleave ultimately as it may to the second quatrain, "Overtake the Creases" is initially grasped as linked to the opening lines by means of the perfect rhyme of "Creases"with "ceases" and also because "Overtake" seems a continuation of chasing. But then we read on and find ourselves on a gusty day in a meadow creased by the fingers of the Wind. We might, for the sheer joy of it, for the beauty of it, try to overtake the Wind, but a "Deity" will make sure it never happens.

In isolation, "Overtake the Creases" is a wondrously ambiguous and mysterious phrase. What are the Creases, one wonders. I immediately thought of seams, of liminal space between one thing and another – between the physical and the ideal, the chasing and the not chasing. But then I meet the meadow and meaning wobbles. I've been pivoted from the third to the second person. I've moved from the abstract to the Real. I've come from the Ideal world into one with a Deity who might be the Christian God or who might be a casual symbol of the laws of nature.

If I look at the poem on the page, my attention is drawn to that isolated imperative: Overtake the Creases. What I read are two reasons not to: first, because Beauty disappears when pursued; second, because it is impossible to ever catch it. What is Dickinson really suggesting we do? Try to overtake? Or let it be? I think she is saying 'both' – or somehow just implanting the notion that sometimes, some critical time, we should go for the creases.


  1. Wonderful analysis.

    The exact rhymes wreck this poem for me -- particularly the last three lines.

    1. The last two lines are rather snappy relative to the rest. It's almost a wave of the hand dismissal. That's an interesting angle to follow.

  2. Great read-through of the poem. I wouldn't have thought about Plato, but you make a very convincing case. The quote from Emerson is right on the money, too. She almost certainly would have been familiar with those ideas. And I love your point about the way the poem moves from abstract to concrete, pivoting you from third to second person.

    The rat-tat-tat of the final rhymes works for me. It's pretty rare for Dickinson to write three full rhymes in a row like this, which makes it conspicuous. And besides the end-rhymes, she even adds an "it" in "Deity," so we hear that word four times in three lines. It's a bit numbing. In fact, I think Dickinson is exhausting the beauty of the rhyme, repeating it until it approaches nonsense, or at least until it has a cloying effect. It demonstrates the poem's whole point about the way beauty evades our grasp. The more we try to catch it (as in rhyme), the more it evades us.

    But you're also right, of course, that Dickinson wants it both ways (which is rather typical of her). She wants to say that beauty is evasive, but (as a poet) she's always chasing it anyway, hoping to grab it.

    1. Your point about her writing as a poet makes me think that trying to overtake the wind-blown meadow creases is her metaphor for writing poems. That over-rhyming ending, then, is a capstone. Beauty/Deity (a rhyme I hadn't noticed) somehow cannot be caught.

      I also noticed the five its in the first stanza. That plus that 'it' in 'Deity' (thanks for that catch) – to say nothing of the three 'it' end rhymes – lends a bit of archness to the poem, I think. I wonder if the stand-in quality of the pronoun is meant to be akin to the stand-in quality of what we can actually see and capture of Beauty.

      Thanks for the post!

  3. Thank you for posting this and for your analysis. I love it. I have been meditating on this notion of beauty that "is" lately, so your analysis of this poem by Miss Emily is timely for me.

    "Overtake the creases"

    Intrinsically linked with the celebration of beauty is the desire to possess. To me that is a tension in love. Celebration and worship, yes, but possession - to have and to hold - also.

    Beauty, like that of a sunset or a meadow, simply is - we cannot add to or take away from it. And yet, in the case of romantic love, the desire to possess the beauty of the beloved is powerful; as Song of Songs says "love is stronger than death".

    Although the wind runs his fingers through the hair of the meadow - that kind of ongoing expression and experience of intimacy with beauty is something that slips through our grasp just as we lay hold of it. Such is the comedy/tragedy (the only difference between the two being the length of the fall, so I've heard) of life.

    Below is a poem I recently wrote about this beauty that "Is" that feels parallel:


    Beauty of situation

    There is a temporal beauty
    Humans design and create
    Craftsmanship and skill bear their fruits
    In symmetry, alignment, and other pursuits
    But there is another kind time wraps around
    It is not constructed or assembled but found
    It is not built but rather discovered
    A confluence of elements multi-colored
    A beauty of situation.

    1. Ah, and it is probably just that wanting "to possess the beauty of the beloved" that seeds the demise of love. I've been reading Kahil Gibran today and he says of marriage (snippet of the poem):
      "Love one another, but make not a bond
      of love:
      Let it rather be a moving sea between
      the shores of your souls.

      And of Beauty, he writes (snippet):

      People of Orphalese, beauty is life when
      life unveils her holy face.
      But you are life and you are the veil.
      Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mir-
      But you are eternity and you are the mir-

      You idea of situation beauty is interesting -- we have all sorts of words for it: felicitous, charmed, fortuitous, etc., but perhaps 'Beauty' would be even better for those confluences that result in uplift and discovery.

    2. Fascinating quotes from Kahil Gibran. Thanks for that :)

  4. This is simply amazing. I adore her poetry. Thank you for your post.

  5. I think you’re right in that the last “it” that you will never do is “overtake the Creases.” As a person of an advanced age, I can’t help but look at all my “creases” and be glad for permission to not chase beauty, since it is impossible to catch, just like it’s impossible to catch the wind.
    BTW, Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece, though I’m sure Sophocles had a lot to say about beauty too.

    1. Thanks for the Sophocles catch and telling me! I changed it right away. Shucks.