Cleaving the Mind: A Dissection of Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Perception of the Brain
Hannah K. Felfe
English 190: Emily Dickinson
University of California, Berkeley
Emily Dickinson’s poems on the brain provide sharp insight to both her varied emotional states as well as her curiosity surrounding religion. Delving into the mind, Dickinson explores specific psychological occurrences that are chilling in their accuracy. With acute perception of psychology before Freud even began his studies, Dickinson metaphorically connects her environment to the previously indescribable inner workings of the brain. She received lessons on both religion and human anatomy at Mount Holyoak Seminary, which she attended from the fall of 1847 until August of 1848 (Baumgartner, 55). In her anatomy class, Dickinson studied Dr. Calvin Cutter’s Anatomy and Physiology: Designed for Academies and Family (1847), which provides strict tips for the hygiene of the brain as well as the physical workings of the nervous system. Cutter sees the mind and the brain as a part of a whole, where the brain sets down the regulations of life and the mind follows suit. His textbook discusses situations mirrored in Dickinson’s poetry, yet she manipulates the variables of his studies in order to understand his harshly worded text. Dickinson observes from personal experience rather than relying on the words of others to gain knowledge.
The facets of emotion in the physical and abstract are explicated in Dickinson’s poetry. Seeing the brain as the central focus allows the mind, self, and soul to be seen as separate but connected entities. Discussing advances in the fields of “psychology, medicine, biology, physiology, and geology…in the nineteenth century,” Baumgartner states that the progress “challenged traditional, dualistic understandings of the mind and body and raised questions about the soul and its relationship to the emerging notion of the self: was the soul a transcendent, ethereal essence or part of the material reality of the body that resided in the brain?” (Baumgartner, 58). Dickinson furthers this thought in her poetry, honing in on her personal psychological experiences and making the exact feeling clear through metaphorical process.
Dickinson’s psychological poetry does not limit itself to scientific thought. Many of her brain and mind poems refer to God. Though recognizing God as the backbone of the Christian theory of creation, her poems often question his authority especially in the theory for design. Dickinson explores her knowledge of Jonathan Edwards and the theory for design, which coincides with her love for nature. By separating the physical brain from the immortal soul, Dickinson is able to contrast their relationship to emotions and thought. Her religious beliefs are woven into her poetry with the information about human anatomy she gained from schooling. The poems centered on the brain show heightened sensitivity to Dickinson’s own thought process in relation to her self-expression and belief systems; while her numb emotional state, present in a lot of her poetry, is understood in poetic context, she also connects to feelings of dissociation caused by religious torment.
In September 1847, Emily Dickinson enrolled in Mount Holyoak Female Seminary. Through her single year at the college, there was intense pressure to keep hope in the Christian faith. The women were categorized as those with Christian faith, those with hope for future faith, and those with no hope for faith. In other terms: the saved, the hopeful, and the damned. A potential beginning to her denial of the Christian faith goes back to 1846, when Dickinson was in close correspondence with Abiah Root, a close friend. At this time, Dickinson had only just turned fifteen. During these heavy religious discussions between Dickinson and Root, young women were returning to the basics of American religion, New England Puritanism. They began to read the historical heated sermons of the Puritans, such as Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Root had previously brought up her improved life since devoting her faith to God. Dickinson writes to Root: “Friends…told me of the danger I was in of grieving away the Holy Spirit of God. I felt my danger was alarmed in view of it, but I had rambled too far to return and ever since my heart has been growing harder and more distant from the truth…I feel I am sailing upon the brink of an awful precipice…” (Johnson, 31). Dickinson was trapped in the middle of a religious revival. She remained certain; she was a woman without any hope at all.
In these series of religious revivals, Dickinson learned to ground herself. Gilpin, in Religion Around Emily Dickinson, notes, “In a striking way, the ‘claims’ of the world more thoroughly roused Dickinson to introspection than did the conventional interiority of revival…As cited above, her letters frequently spoke of choice and decision. At the same time, the letters also described skeptics who, attending a revival, were ‘melted’ by religion’s power” (Gilpin, 27). Dickinson’s poetry expressed her thoughts on religion and God. The poem “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” centers itself in the brain’s idea of fathoming, a thought process that exceeds the bounding line of physicality (F598). The first stanza reads,
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside – (F598)
She first generalizes the idea with the word “the” rather than personalizing it to herself as she has in other poems centered on the mind. The choice of second person “you” reaches out directly to the reader, making it personal to the reader though it is still relatable to everyone. Her use of “You” in the first stanza separates the person from the brain, saying “You” will be “beside” when you put “them side by side.” This distinction suggests that the physical body is not one with the brain. Rather, they are separate. Perhaps Dickinson sees the mind as living in a different realm than the earth-bound body. By comparing the brain to the sky and the sea, she explores it as a place of idea where the mind can roam, a vast entity of ideas. She feels that the brain is “wider than the Sky” because “one the other will contain / With ease – and You – beside –.” The variant for “contain” is “include.” The use of the word “include” is less constrictive, while “contain” makes it seem that the brain latches on to the sky without it ever being able to escape. This refers to the brain’s ability to fathom ideas, such as the vastness of the sky. The second stanza forms a similar argument to the first, saying, “The Brain is deeper than the sea – / …The one the other will absorb – / As Sponges – Buckets – do –.” The idea here is that the brain holds the sea again because it can a physical object such as the sea. The only things that exist for the mind are what the brain can fathom.
Dickinson stabilizes God as a character of her poems, but not necessarily as a being of power. The third stanza questions the immaterial. Dickinson writes,
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound – (F598)
The dashes at the end of each line force the reader to pause and let the message sink in. Dickinson suggests that perhaps, in this comparison, God only has the weight that the brain allows Him. Nothing can weigh more than the brain because the brain cannot fathom anything past its fathomable abilities. God is so great because the brain gives Him power, but “they will differ” if a certain brain does not give God all of that power; then, the God and the brain will be a part of a whole. The word “if,” especially between the dashes surrounding “if they do,” gives yet more power to the brain. The mind is what decides how much authority God has on the person, contradicting Christian thought. Dickinson recognizes God, yet does not give him power over her queries.
During Dickinson’s life, the theory for design was popular in the Christian faith. The theory for design is a biblical idea explored by Jonathan Edwards and his contemporaries that “the entire physical universe was ‘designed’ by God to be ‘a resemblance and shadow’ of the spiritual world of human redemption” (Gilpin, 143). Every manmade object has a design, and therefore must have a designer. Christian belief plays off of this, seeing that natural objects have specific designs as well. It serves as evidence for a human designer, such as God. Edwards “compiled instances from study of the Bible and from observation of nature in which natural objects were emblems, types, or figures for spiritual things’” (Gilpin, 143). There were many religious factors in Dickinson’s environment that pressured her personal beliefs.
In relation to the mind, the theory for design contrasts with Dickinson’s portrayal of questioning creation. Robin Peel writes, “The mind, according to Juhasz’s reading of Dickinson, is a tangible place that can be enclosed or expanded in a very real, experiential sense” in reference to her poem “The brain within it’s Groove” (Peel, 192) (F563). This poem explores the process of the brain through metaphor, comparing it to rivers running through hills. Dickinson would have known about the physicality of the brain in Cutter’s anatomy textbook she studied at Mount Holyoak Seminary. The textbook reads, “The pia mater is a vascular membrane, composed of innumerable vessels, held together by cellular membrane. It invests the whole surface of the brain, and dips into its convolutions” (Cutter, 335). Perhaps there is a correlation between the knowledge that Dickinson would have acquired at the seminary paired with her poem “The brain within it’s Groove.” She writes,
The Brain, within it’s Groove
Runs evenly – and true –…
To put a Current back –
When Floods have slit the Hills – (F 563).
The way Dickinson mirrors the actual “convolutions” of the brain shows her grasp of the physicality of creation rather than focusing on the spiritual aspects as she does in other poems. Here, she questions what happens when the brain goes off course. Perhaps “Floods” are the thoughts of others, as she recounts the difficulty of returning to an original state of “put[ting] a Current back – / When Floods have slit the Hills.” Dickinson focuses on the exploration of the mind in relation to a natural occurrence. Her poetry plays with the far reaches of the brain’s imagination.
Dickinson compares religious thought to scientific knowledge of the natural world, furthering her connection to human anatomy. Her poem “This is a Blossom of the Brain” explores the theory for design as parallel to another possible way of creation, “happening” (F1112). The poem is exceptionally structured with only one variant between “Chambers” and “Lodgings,” without any converse lineation, and in common meter (4a3b4c3b). The rhythmic element of normalcy allows focus on the subject of the poem: the means of creation. She only has one dash in the middle of the line between “small” and “italic.” This dash before “italic” allows its stress to be further pronounced as if the word itself were in italics. There is only one other dash that is not at the end of the stanza. After the first line of the poem, the dash after “Brain” gives emphasis and forces a pause on the reader in order to let the subject of the poem to sink in. The other dashes at the end of each stanza serve as ellipses, giving rise to a questioning tone throughout the poem. Dickinson shows that “this” blossom of the brain exists, yet has an unknown process.
Between the beautifully structured lines, Dickinson provides an analysis of how one questions creation. She begins her poem with “This is a Blossom of the Brain,” suggesting that she will begin a discussion on her action. The stress on “This” allows for emphasis concerning the actual act of writing. She refers to her poetic composition as a “Blossom of the Brain,” where “the” generalizes the activity. The extended metaphor is continued with a description of “A small – italic Seed.” “Italic” suggests a metonym for the title of a poem, which is written in quotations, possible because Dickinson is discussing her writing. The brain is now associated with a “seed,” closely related to the term “seed of thought.” It happens to be “lodged by Design or Happening,” two contradicting ideas of creation. Here, the Design Theory thematically sets up the rest of the poem in its contrast to the idea of creation as a form of happening, or randomness. Dickinson uses the word “Spirit” to describe what happens to this seed once it is fructified. However, she uses the term “Brain” for a reason. Here, she closely correlates the words “brain” and “spirit.” She does not connect the two as similes, yet describes them as grown from the same seed. Stefan Schoberlein, in his article “Insane in the Membrane,” discusses his own analysis of the relationship between the brain and the soul: “The brain, in Dickinson’s poem, creates and sustains the soul; the soul, in turn, is a natural growth clearly dependent on the brain” (Schoberlein, 58). Schoberlein’s analysis denies the immortality of the soul. If the soul is immortal, it has no beginning or ending. However, this poem appears to refute the soul’s immortality, describing the flower as “a closing Soul” in the last stanza. The second stanza reflects thought on nature in description of the “Flower of the Soul.” The final thought of the stanza, “It’s process is unknown,” is similar to the idea that creation is unknown, showing that Dickinson perhaps does not hold Christian beliefs to heart. The last two stanzas discuss the possible discovery of creation. They contrast in their beginnings, “When it is found” versus “When it is lost.” This is possibly a reference to the biblical verse about repenting. The Lord says, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just person, which need no repentance…Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7, 10). The Lord discusses lost sinners that come to repentance and have found Christ through their once jaded sinful perceptions. Ironically, Dickinson places “found” before “lost” rather than the other way, as if the person who repented is going back into sin. She writes,
When it is lost, that Day shall be
The Funeral of God,
Opon his Breast, a closing Soul
The Flower of Our Lord – (F1112)
Strangely, the word “his” is not capitalized, as if Dickinson is renouncing God’s power. Dickinson uses her biblical knowledge of the soul and pairs it with her knowledge of the brain. She abandons God’s grace in an act of denial, using the brain and the soul as separate entities that were created from the same seed. Dickinson’s exploration of the Design Theory paired with knowledge of human anatomy shows the intense thought behind her poetic words.
Dickinson separates the similar entities of the brain to contrast the physical, mental, and spiritual. She uses words such as “self,” “soul,” “consciousness,” “brain,” “I,” and “mind” to describe what lies beneath the skull and beyond through thought and imagination. Each of these words possesses its own connotation, specifically chosen to describe a certain facet of thought. In the section of the physiology of the nervous system, Cutter writes, “The brain is regarded by physiologists and philosophers as the organ of the mind…The brain is the seat of the will” (Cutter, 347-348). This idea is seen in Dickinson’s poetry as the brain is the physical place where thought and emotions occur, seeing the mind as a part of the physical brain. As Cutter states,
…the mind and brain are closely associated during life, the former acting in strict obedience to the laws which regulate the latter, [and] it becomes an object of primary importance in education, to discover what these laws are, that we may escape the numerous evils consequent on their violation (Cutter, 859).
Cutter sees the mind as “acting in strict obedience” to the brain. Perhaps Dickinson sees herself as a part of the “numerous evils consequent to their violation,” as she manipulates the relationship between mind and brain to get a better idea of their true meanings. Dickinson notes the difference between the words “brain” and “soul” in “If ever the lid gets off my head” (F585). She describes an instance where
If ever the lid gets off my head
And lets the brain away
The fellow will go where he belong –
Without a hint from me (F585)
Her tone is playfully musing with the description of the top of her head as the “lid” that keeps her brain inside hers skull. She separates herself, “me,” from her brain, seeing it as a disconnected object from the self that is meant to be elsewhere, or “where he belonged” as if the brain is trapped by force inside her head. This hints that Dickinson does not always see the brain as having a purely physical existence. The second stanza suggests that there is a connection between the brain and the soul, even if they are slightly varying in idea. She writes, “…Will see how far from home/ It is possible for sense to live/ The soul there – all the time.” In this poem, the soul is seen as an eternal and ubiquitous object, where the brain is something that exists in one place that does not have to be inside the head. The soul and the brain are each a distinct entity of being, yet again they appear to connect at the roots.
There are multiple accounts in Dickinson’s poetry where she connects the brain to nature, especially with birds. In these instances, the brain is closely related to the place where thought occurs and takes flight. Some of these moments express uplifting emotional states, almost whimsical. She describes her garden with loving care, showing positive associations with nature. Dickinson writes,
And He [my dog] and I, perplex us
If positive, ‘twere we –
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity – (F370)
Dickinson internalizes the garden into her own brain, questioning reality through “curiosity.” At the end of the poem, she realizes that it is reality because her dog, Carlo, refers her to sensations of the hummingbird other than sight. With another instance, Dickinson is internally uplifted yet feels oppressed by her environment. In “They shut me up in Prose –,” she recalls the feeling of being a “little Girl” when she was not taken seriously, expelling her suppressed emotions out into poetry:
Still! Could themselves have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound – (F445)
She connects her brain, which she equates to her thinking mind, to a caged bird. This suggests the entrapment and claustrophobia that Dickinson felt as a child. She wishes that her oppressors could have “seen [her] Brain – go round –,” or rather that they could have understood that she has an imaginatively working brain inside her head; Dickinson feels that her brain is as innocent and alive as a bird. The idea that these oppressors “Could themselves have peeped” to see her brain shows that Dickinson believes that the brain is a physical thing of the mind that is veiled by the skull. Gilpin, in Religion Around Emily Dickinson, remarks, “Dickinson summarized the contest between social comportment and solitary creativity by contrasting the sober life of prose to the imaginative life of poetry…Late in 1862, Dickinson shaped the contrast into a poem of imaginative freedom overcoming constraint,” in reference to “They shut me up in Prose –” (Gilpin, 84). Dickinson sees the brain as a thoughtful thing that possesses both the innocence and the flight of a small bird.
Dickinson also separates the different sects of psychological being in order to express emotional distress. Robin Peel explores the aspect of Dickinson’s personal bewilderment in relation to the mind, writing, “Loss and disorientation bring the subject nearer to truth, and that is the virtue of these experience. This is particularly evident in the poems of loss, pain, and disorientation such as… ‘I felt a funeral in my brain’ (F340; J280), in which reason collapses” (Peel, 340). In this poem, Dickinson writes,
I felt a Funeral in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –… (F340)
Dickinson pairs the idea of a funeral with the feeling of emotional numbness. She uses the words “Brain,” “mind,” and “Sense” to describe what is going on in her head. The action of the mourners walking back and forth mirrors the sound of a drum, which is similar to the sound of a heartbeat. The use of the word “seemed” expresses the possibility that “Sense” could have broken through, yet in reality it had not, for her “mind was going numb.” Dickinson uses the connections between the brain and the mind to understand the physical paired with the dull emotional state of the speaker of the poem.
There are patterns of psychological relation through Dickinson’s poetry that lands in a state of emotional haunting. In “One need not be a Chamber,” Dickinson sees the brain as a place where emotions and thoughts are held (F407). Describing the haunting of the mind compared to a physical horror, Dickinson explains, “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – / …The Brain has Corridors – surpassing / Material Place –.” This continues Dickinson’s idea that the brain can be of multiple substances, with “corridors” serving as the physical as well as the thought that the brain can “[surpass]/ Material Place.” There are two different variants of the last stanza, where “the body-soul dichotomy is made more explicit, and the threat of the internal crisis made more powerful” (Peel, 350). The first version reads, “The Prudent – carries a Revolver –” where the second version states, “The Body – borrows a Revolver –.” Dickinson uses the word “Prudent,” usually an adjective, as a noun in this first version of the poem. As a synonym for someone who carefully thinks about the future, “Prudent” works as a psychological manipulation of the self. The planning ahead is fixed in the word “carries” instead of the latter “borrows,” which suggests that the “Body” does not own the “Revolver.” The word “Body” as a variant works in an entirely different spectrum, distracting from the narrator’s sense of persona and focusing on separating the physical “body” from the emotional “brain.” Dickinson’s dissociation from the self and the body epitomizes emotional instability.
Dickinson examines the feeling of emotional numbness and takes it to a new level of poetic thought. She connects her emotional state to physical symptoms in the poem “I’ve dropped my Brain” (F1088). According to Peel, the poem leaves “no room for self-pity, or self-expiation…the speaker mercilessly records her own mental paralysis” (Peel, 342). “I’ve dropped my Brain” describes an emotional state where despair is no longer in existence; a state of mental debilitation has set in. She begins, “I’ve dropped my Brain – My Soul is numb –.” The dashes after “Brain” and “numb” act like speaker is slowing down her words by pauses in her speech as if she is actually losing the functions of her brain. Again, with the connection to the words “Brain” and “Soul,” Dickinson personalizes the poem with first person narrative. She connects herself personally to the poem and becomes the narrator as the one who feels numb and lost. Her acute description of this feeling comes from the roots of her slight background in anatomy, as she writes “The Veins that used to run/ Stop palsied – ‘tis Paralysis.” Without running veins, Dickinson is dead, which she equates to her emotional numbness. Her use of past tense in the words “dropped” and “used to” show a contrast between the “Breathing Woman” she was “Yesterday” and the numb soul that she is today. The second stanza hints towards religion, as the living woman she was had been “endowed with Paradise.” This expresses the idea that she used to be saved and endowed with the Paradise of Heaven as if God was her father giving her the dowry of perfect happiness in her wedding ceremony. Now, she is the opposite, possibly hopeless or even damned. This goes back to her days at Mount Holyoak when she announced herself as hopeless in gaining faith and later becoming saved. At this point in the poem, Dickinson’s psychological state points to even deeper than despair.
There is a break in thought when Dickinson forces her reader in the exact direction of thought that she wants him/her to go in. She says, “Not dumb – I had a sort that moved – / A Sense that smote and stirred – / Instincts for Dance – a caper part – / An Aptitude for Bird –.” Dickinson recognizes that there is a part of her that is not completely dead. She calls it a “Sense,” an “Aptitude for Bird,” as if she were about to burst into flight. Finding this separate portion within is important for Dickinson, because she has found some power to go against her emotional instability. By internalizing, she learns more about herself. She demands to know “Who wrought Carrara in me,” or rather who made her body out of marble. This either speaks directly to God in rhetorical question, or is a question to the world asking who damned her into her state of mental paralysis. In the final stanza, Dickinson continues her statement from the previous line, “I’ve still a chance to strain/ To Being, somewhere – Motion – Breath –.” “Motion” and “Breath” are properties that the brain consciously controls, which Dickinson would theoretically be able to do by “strain[ing]” herself “To Being.” In the end, she will “shiver, satisfied,” knowing that she has come to life again by her own potential. Her emotional numbness has now withdrawn.
Dickinson recognizes her dissociation and metaphorically plays with the feeling of detachment. Emotional separation from the self is apparent in her poem “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” (F867). The poem reads,
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam
But could not make them fit –
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence raveled out of Sound –
Like Balls – opon a Floor – (F867)
The disconnect in the word “cleaving” provides a harsh understanding of how Dickinson experiences emotional detachment, similar to her feelings of numbness in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and “I’ve dropped my Brain” (F340, F1088). Dickinson’s poems on the brain are understood based on each other. This particular poem has intense feelings of lack of control and numbness, pulling together the more complex brain poems into a conglomeration that helps the reader comprehend precisely how she is feeling. Here, Dickinson attempts to pull herself together: “The thought behind, I strove to join / Unto the thought before –.” However, due to her lack of composure, she is unable to collect herself. Seeing this episode as a psychological breakdown, Peel accounts, “The poem records the very breakdown of reason itself…Science might not disturb the emotions as experience could, but it was the source of intellectual discoveries that could administer powerful intellectual shocks, with emotional repercussions” (Peel, 67). It appears that there are three subjects of the poem as the speaker and the two different parts of the brain. This forces the feelings of separation and dissociation. “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” is the essence of Dickinson’s psychological frustration; the poem is meticulous in detail yet vague in her personal confusion.
Dickinson’s use of comparisons in relation to her religious outlook heightens the poems’ awareness of what is going on inside her brain. Upon further exploration of Dickinson’s poems that use the word “brain,” it is apparent that the brain is a physical entity that holds the knowledge of the mind and the secrets of the soul. The religion in her psychological poetry forces self-questioning. It expands thought rather than pinpoints it, using the brain as the tool to widen the mind such as in “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” (F598). Dickinson sees the world as it exists only in the brain; the world is held within rather than being an external factor. Thus, God only exists as much as the mind allows Him to. All of the religious knowledge that Dickinson gained through her studies, interactions with friends, such as Abiah Root, and her family funnel into her poetry. The brain therefore becomes a thing with wings, such as a bird, or a natural creation that can outweigh even the vastness of the sky. The mind has the capability of exploring the entire world even when the body goes nowhere. In Dickinson’s mind, the mind imagined God Himself into creation. The poet is the one who decides how abstract the poetry will be.
Moving slightly away from the intensity of the brain’s power to produce a God-like figure brings Dickinson into the theory of creation. Her poetry shows how she feels lost in a world where everyone, including her family, is being converted in a religious revival. Rather than questioning her own salvation, Dickinson explores the idea of hope as well as where the thought of God may have come from in reference to “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” (F598) as well as “This is a Blossom of the Brain” (F1112). Her constant questioning strays from relying on the voices of others to feed her information. Rather, she turns towards herself. Emily Dickinson’s internal exploration gives rise to psychological knowledge that cannot be learned through a science textbook. Though her psychological experiences jump from one extreme to the next, she is able to grasp the meaning behind them all. She understands her emotional states extraordinarily well, especially through her willingness to be open in her poetry. Dickinson’s poetry thrives in her curiosity about the inner workings of her mind as she strives towards more certain answers to age-old questions.
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