It is often helpful to have know when Emily Dickinson’s has touched on a subject in her other writings, when analysing her poems and seeking to establish her meaning. For instance, she declares her view that human consciousness is awe-inspiringly greater than the senses, in a letter (c. 1881) to her friend T.W. Higginson: ‘It is solemn to remember that Vastness – is but the Shadow of the Brain which casts it.’ This poem, written c. 1862, takes for granted that the brain is greater than the physical world and rather explores the relationship between human consciousness and the very nature of God. Can God be greater than one’s comprehension of him? Dickinson says no – the two differ only in small respects.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside — Humorous and surprising use of the second person.
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets do — The meaning of his line defeats me utterly!
The brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound — ‘Heft’ is an Anglo-Saxon word – used elsewhere in Dickinson’s poetry e..g. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light‘ where it appears as a noun. Here, the core word describes a basic ‘rough and ready’ human activity – and its unexpected use, in a contemplative piece, is not only humorous but also shows a certain casuality towards the divine!
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound — The alliteration helps to lead us into considering the similarities and differences between syllable and sound. One difference is that all syllables are sounds but not all sounds are syllables. A syllable is either part of, or a complete word. We might remember that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1). Also, syllables also convey meaning even when they are not whole words; for instance, poets craft their writing with accented syllables to provide a rhythm that draws out meaning e.g. look at the iambic ‘And they will differ if they do’, which has a very different meaning from any other permutation of accented syllables. However, it is also true that it is not only syllables that can have meaning – non-syllabic sound can, and often does, have meaning too e.g. when conveying pain or suffering. The simile draws out the meaning that the differences between the human mind and God are minute, despite seeming very different.
I hope this commentary and the annotations will help you to develop a sustained critical response to this poem. Do have a look at my Dickinson main page for recurring structural and language features, which appear in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
Please go to the Dickinson tab for the drop-down menu on her poems A-Z or click on the following: