This pendulum of snow

A clock stopped—not the mantel’s;
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing
That just now dangled still.

An awe came on the trinket!
The figures hunched with pain,
Then quivered out of decimals
Into degreeless noon.

It will not stir for doctors,
This pendulum of snow;
The shopman importunes it,
While cool, concernless No

Nods from the gilded pointers,
Nods from the seconds slim,
Decades of arrogance between
The dial life and him.

~Emily Dickinson
Image credit: Amar Saleem via Pexels.

It always throws me a little when a Dickinson poem seems straightforward, as this one does. The poem is a riddle of sorts–the speaker tells us a clock stopped, but not the mantel’s. Though she never tells us explicitly what the clock actually is, the meaning is clear. This is (gasp!! surprise!!) a Poem About Death.

What’s enticing about this poem, to me, is the gorgeousness of Dickinson’s language. “Quivered out of decimals / Into degreeless noon” is a lush and lovely description, and evokes so much feeling through the poet’s choice of words. Quivering implies so many emotions and states of mind–fear, indecision, trepidation…and “degreeless noon” is equally evocative.

There’s also some wonderfully Dickinsonian contradiction. In the final stanza, the pointers are nodding, the seconds are nodding, but the clock has stopped–motion vs. motionlessness. The stilled clock parts are sending a message via their motionlessness, and Dickinson describes that message as a motion, a nod. And then there’s the contradiction between seconds and decades.

I love it when I feel like I understand one of Dickinson’s poems and can then really dig into the language and fully appreciate it. So often I read her poetry and am left scratching my head. This one is a nice exception.

a certain Slant of light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.

We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.

White Martyrdom

To learn the transport by the pain,
As blind men learn the sun;
To die of thirst, suspecting
That brooks in meadows run;

To stay the homesick, homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore
Haunted by native lands, the while,
And blue, beloved air—

This is the sovereign anguish,
This, the signal woe!
These are the patient laureates
Whose voices, trained below,

Ascend in ceaseless carol,
Inaudible, indeed,
To us, the duller scholars
Of the mysterious bard!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem is an interesting contrast to yesterday’s, in which the poet argues that something attained is worth less than it was before–that when a starving man finally gets food, that food loses its deliciousness simply by being available. This poem, on the other hand, argues that to never be able to reach something longed for is torment–“the sovereign anguish,” “the signal woe!”

Which one is it, Emily?

She is a study in contradictions. I’ve read I don’t know how many mentions and discussions of the paradoxes within Dickinson’s poems, but her whole body of work is rife with contradiction between one poem and the next, too.

I don’t know what to do with this poem, but I know that, aside from the infernal paradoxes, what intrigues me most is the second stanza. The speaker gives the example of someone far from home, longing for familiar places. She repeats the word “homesick” for emphasis, an interesting choice in a short poem that makes me wonder if this is really what this poem, at its heart, is all about.

Of course, because this is Dickinson, this is all liable to be heavily metaphorical and probably has a lot to do with death. But what it reminds me of is the concept of white martyrdom.

It seems that there is some disagreement over whether it is properly labeled “green” or “white,” but I’m going with “white” since that’s how I first encountered the term. In the lives of saints, martyrdom is typically bloody–“red martyrdom.” People die for their faith in spectacularly gory ways. But the desert hermits and many of the Irish monks pursued a different kind of holiness-through-suffering. They left behind the familiar, the beloved, and struck out for new and forbidding terrains, where landscape itself served as a reminder that this world is only temporary. Giving up your life and ascending to everlasting reward is one thing. Giving up your homeland and living out your days in separation from home is another. There is pain and privation in both, and while death is the ultimate sacrifice one can make in this world, the giving-up of home is a more prolonged suffering.

When Columcille and his monks set out in their curraghs for what would come to be called Skellig Michael, they were pursuing white martyrdom, leaving behind the green hills of Ireland for an existence eked out on a barren rock in the sea. Their experience must have been nearly identical to what Dickinson describes in this poem–except that they chose their lot, while the tone of the poem seems to suggest otherwise.

delight // pain

Delight becomes pictorial
When viewed through pain,—
More fair, because impossible
That any gain.

The mountain at a given distance
In amber lies;
Approached, the amber flits a little,—
And that ’s the skies!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I don’t know how much I have to add to this. It’s so true! When we’re suffering, all the good times appear “pictorial.” All the possible connotations fit. Something that is pictorial is not only lovely, but also unreal–a picture, after all, is not the real thing. In times of pain, delight seems not only lovely, but impossibly so.

The second stanza elaborates. When we’re at a certain distance from happiness, mired in the morass of our own misery, that happiness is tinged with different colors–colors that the real thing doesn’t possess. This poem is a tightly-constructed and well-thought-out mini-meditation on the nature of suffering and what it does to our experience of happiness.

सगरमाथा (Sagarmatha)

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet, 5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!

Power is only pain, 10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,— 15
They ’ll carry him!

~Emily Dickinson
Mount Everest image via Pixabay.

Today’s post is going to be a footnote of sorts. I love this poem, and there are all kinds of things to say about it, but I think it also speaks for itself, so I’m going to have fun getting into the weeds a bit instead.

I fell down a rabbit-hole with this one. First I had to Google “Himmaleh.” Turns out it’s Himalaya, but closer to the Sanskrit word. This word is actually two words combined, and they mean “winter house,” which is completely lovely. The Himalayas could very well be winter’s home base.

Then, of course, I had to look up the true name of Mount Everest. It annoys me when people rename places that don’t belong to them, and “Mount Everest” is a prime example. It is decidedly not a “Mount Everest.” Its name is Sagarmatha, which means “Peak of Heaven” and is a vastly preferable and more evocative name.

I think about this kind of thing often–how we call places by the names some white explorer gave them, and not by their true names. I’ve often wondered why we can’t just call countries what the people living in them call them. What is it, this need to rename things in our own image? Does it make them more understandable? More accessible? More easy to fit in a box? Why is Deutschland “Allemagne” in French and “Germany” in English?

Why can’t we just call things by their names? I like that in this poem, Dickinson uses “Himmaleh.”


YOU left me, sweet, two legacies,—
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain 5
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

~Emily Dickinson

On Thursday night, I wound up in the emergency room. I’ve had my share of ER visits, all of which were scarier than this one. This time, my back gave out on me and the pain was so intense I passed out. My G.P.’s after-hours doctor said that I needed to go to the ER, so I went. It’s nothing life-threatening, nothing super-serious–but it’s the most blindingly, breathtakingly awful pain I’ve ever experienced.

I’m doing much better now, out of pain and taking it easy as my back heals. Of course, I’m thinking about pain, and disposed to take Dickinson’s words on the subject quite literally.

My ER diagnosis is sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This is pretty common, apparently, particularly among women. The first cause listed on my discharge instructions? Pregnancy. I cannot think of a more visceral link between pain and love.

I’m about 200% sure that this Emily Dickinson poem is not about having children and the love and pain that are inextricably alchemized through that process, but right now, that’s where I’m at with this poem–that’s what it holds for me in this moment. And I don’t think it really matters–what Dickinson’s getting at is that pain is part of love, that pain and love are equally products of our relationships with one another. There can be no love without the possibility for pain, and I’ve never heard of a pain-free relationship that was worth anything.

The griefs

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long, 5
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try, 10
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled—
Some thousands—on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse 15
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love. 20

The grieved are many, I am told;
The reason deeper lies,—
Death is but one and comes but once,
And only nails the eyes.

There ’s grief of want, and grief of cold,—
A sort they call “despair”;
There ’s banishment from native eyes,
In sight of native air.

And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly, yet to me 30
A piercing comfort it affords
In passing Calvary,

To note the fashions of the cross,
Of those that stand alone,
Still fascinated to presume 35
That some are like my own.

~Emily Dickinson

My first thought is that this is an uncharacteristically long Dickinson poem. That makes sense, given the subject matter. This is Dickinson’s jam, this dwelling on pain.

My next thought is that this whole poem is basically riffing on the old saw that “misery loves company.” That’s not it exactly, of course, but I think the poem and the platitude are touching on the same general human tendency. When we’re suffering, it’s a perverse kind of comfort to know that others are, too, and to wonder about the precise nature of their pain.

I am writing this on Day 3 of a particularly nasty head cold. Also Day 3 of my back going out. Also Day 3 since the realization that I am way out of shape and I need to get myself in gear unless I want to continue throwing out my back. Good times. In the vast scheme of things, these are very small sorrows. But they are mine, dammit, and they are eating my brain at the moment.

Dickinson’s poem is a reminder that we don’t suffer alone–well, that we do, but that we are never the only ones suffering. What saddens me about this poem, though, is the sense I get from it that we will never truly understand one another’s griefs, no matter how much we may try.

This is one of those poems that makes me want to go out and defy it. While the speaker doesn’t seem to ever succeed in understanding the sufferings of those around her, it also seems that she’s relying on observation alone–she keeps wondering, guessing–but never once is there a suggestion that she sits down with anybody else and just listens.

So I think, today, in the midst of my own small griefs, that that’s this poem’s lesson for me. Maybe we can’t ever really understand each other–but we’re certainly not going to get there without trying.


Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

~Emily Dickinson

I think Dickinson is speaking here about mental and emotional anguish, but when I read this poem, I think first of physical pain. During the times in my life when I’ve experienced the greatest physical agony–recovering from a car accident, recovering from two C-sections–pain has taken on the character Dickinson describes. It seems endless, and it’s impossible to remember what it really felt like not to hurt.

I’ve read this poem over and over–it often catches my eye as I’m leafing through my copy of Dickinson’s poems. The way in which Dickinson elevates pain–“infinite realms,” “enlightened”–makes it almost a revelatory experience. In some ways, I suppose it is. We learn through pain exactly what we are made of. When I read it, though, I think first of those I know who live with chronic illness. The pains I have felt have always passed eventually, but theirs persist, are eternal. I can only imagine, and look to this poem, to try to understand their realities.

The heart asks pleasure first

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

~Emily Dickinson

My first experience of this poem was not as a poem, but as a piece of music. It’s arguably the most well-known tune in the film The Piano.

When I first saw the film, I loved the music and hated the story. I complained about it to my then-boyfriend.

“This is the worst love story ever. The woman is trapped in this horrible life and her husband is a jerk and so is the guy she falls in love with, and her kid is creepy, and this movie is horrible.”

After politely listening to my rant, my now-husband, who has still to this day never seen the film, said, “The love story isn’t about the guys. It’s about the piano.”


As an English major, I felt incredibly sheepish. How had I missed this?

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. This is an amazing movie.”

I can’t read this poem without its namesake song from The Piano playing on repeat in my head. The tune fits the poem beautifully. Often, song versions of Dickinson’s songs sound too sweet to me. This one, however, seems to perfectly capture the mood not only of the film, but the poem.

‘Tis harder knowing…

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

~Emily Dickinson

I don’t know, Emily…

I mean, I can see what she’s saying. We can become used to the idea of something dreaded via long anticipation. It can become familiar, almost comfortable. There is a difference between the shock of sudden calamity and its long, inevitable approach.

But I don’t know. Is this healthy, this getting used to awfulness? There’s something horribly resigned about the idea. The phrase “had almost made it dear” combined with the repetition of “fitting” makes me wonder if the speaker of the poem is one of those people who loves her grief, who clings to it as if it is loss that makes her who she is. We’ve all known them–those people who love their privation, who boast of how awful things are for them. Is this what Dickinson is saying? Is she speaking for herself? I don’t know.

It’s so hard to know anything, really, about this poet. She died nearly a hundred years before I was born. We know her through fragments–the back of a recipe here, an envelope there. How do you reconstruct a life?