How much does God weigh?–Emily Dickinson and her quizzical answer

Today is a hot, sunny, beautiful day of summer, when the sky and the ocean are both full of blue ecstasy, and that makes it just right for a little ditty of a post on the natural world, so that I can return to it as soon as possible and leave the air conditioning and the computer to their own devices (yes, I’m getting lazy in the summer heat, you guessed it).  So, I chose a short three-stanza poem by Emily Dickinson, who is the perfect poet when images from nature come into question, as so many in her huge corpus of short poems have images and a figurative lexicon drawn from nature and its seasonal languages, even when the subject is death, or the departure from the world of nature.  This poem (#632 of her poems), however, includes some of her homey domestic images as well, the images of a woman used to keeping house and dealing with household implements.  But the real “kicker” about this poem is the way it goes along so very, very simply only to hit us with a real conundrum of an image at the very end.  Here is how it goes:

“The Brain–is wider than the Sky–/For–put them side by side–/The one the other will contain/With ease–and You–beside–/

The Brain is deeper than the sea–/For–hold them–Blue to Blue–/The one the other will absorb–/As Sponges–Buckets–do–/

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–”

There is something a bit sly and even coy about the way she leads us into her   transcendent world, which while using simple everyday images, sensations, and experiences makes such astounding transitions to experiences beyond this world.  She starts easily enough, by observing that the brain can contain both the image of the sky and the experience of seeing it, as well as the self.  “Well, okay, Emily D.,” one is bound to say, “I think we can accept that for starters.”  Then, she passes on to another apparently limitless thing the senses encounter, which curiously enough is less big than the sky, when it seems that it might otherwise be more poetically ordinary to start with the smaller of the two items (the sea) and build up in the next stanza to the larger (the sky).  But then, we find that her quirkiness or perhaps odd sense of humor has assigned a color to the brain (she says of the brain and the sea “hold them–Blue to Blue–” which means to compare the two “blue” items).  This makes us forget for the moment our previous quibble about relative sizes of infinite or quite large things, and leaves us, bemused, to go on to the last stanza.

Here, in the last stanza, Dickinson is asking us to perform another and even more daunting task, really quite impossible even for the believer in God, and certainly more than impossible for the questioner or doubter.  Not that it’s been easy up until now:  so far, we’ve put the brain and the sky side by side, we’ve held the brain and the sea up to each other for comparison, at least mentally, and been asked to imagine the brain soaking up the sea as a sponge would a bucket of liquid.  Now, we are being asked to “heft” the brain and God, to judge whether or not she is just when she suggests that they are of a similar “weight” and “differ–if they do–” and here the problem comes in.  Now, we are no longer being asked to judge of something which can at least be visualized with a great deal of imagination:  now we have to guess what the difference might be, if there is any, between “syllable” and “sound.”  The one is presumably the visual or physical or mental notation of the second, which proposes a more sophisticated relationship than between the items in the other two stanzas.  If one reads the items in order and assumes that the brain is the “syllable” and God the “sound” (and there is really no assurance that this is the correct “formula,” except that “sound” seems slightly more mysterious, as God would probably be thought to be), then the first, the brain, records or notates the second, God, and the second is the fulfillment of the first.  But it’s a stretch.

Perhaps the useful thing to end this post with is the observation that Dickinson, in many if not all of her poems (and yes, I do want to assure you that my curiosity was once pronounced enough to take me through the whole volume), likes to play “riddle me this” with images and concepts.  She finds in so many instances that the natural world speaks to her of what is beyond it, yet retains its own quiddity and essence, partaking of the “great beyond” without being any less literal and precious as what it is on earth.  Even the experiences of imagining death use homey and everyday images and pictures drawn from the natural world, because death is the great riddle of our existence, yet is a part of the natural world as well, and Dickinson was well acquainted with its appearance in nature.  And now that I have paid my tribute both to one of the greatest American poets of all time and to the lovely and perplexing world of nature that inspired her, I’ll quit writing, and go off to be inspired by the summer day myself (for so at least one always hopes to be).  Goodday to all my readers, and here’s hoping that even if you aren’t in the middle of summer where you are, that you find something in the natural world to make you happy today.

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4 Comments

Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews

4 responses to “How much does God weigh?–Emily Dickinson and her quizzical answer

  1. Greetings, the weather here is hot, the football is not so exciting today but the blog world mos’ def’ is. ..As ever for a well read person, I haven’t read any Dickinson and so hang my head in shame…but I do hear she is ‘a bit good’ and you have opened my eyes to more wondrous words I have to stick my face into.

    • Ah, and today is another lovely day, though this summer in general is cooler than usual here in the Northeast of the U.S. Don’t worry about the shame of not having read any Dickinson so far, just go about repairing the omission when you can–I promise you won’t regret it. She’s easy to read on the surface, having written poems all of which are rather short, and which use simple words, images and concepts. The difficulty comes in in her infinite frame of reference. Something funny happened to me in an oral exam once. A professor who had done a study of her asked me what I thought the most frequently occurring word in her work was. Based on what I knew of her preferred topics (and she’s often writing about God, infinity, the world of nature as it evidences the larger miracles of life, etc., and death, one of her favorites), I said her most frequently occurring word must be “God.” He had a point to make (in addition to the actual true answer), which was the egoism of students and writers like myself (and Dickinson) and he said, “No. Her most frequently occurring word is ‘I.'”
      Well, I assume that must’ve been true, since he did the study, and it does make a sort of valid point: our most secure entry into the world of the infinite may well be through ourselves. On the other hand, it’s sort of unfair, I think, to make the test case Emily Dickinson, because she was a shy and reserved (not really egoistical) lady who had little self-confidence in her work when it was originally challenged by a male editor, and lived a mostly solitary life, writing of the things she observed in the literal world around her in her house, garden, and small (at the time) town. On the other hand, the professor’s point about students (of whom I was one at the time) may well be true. Me just hopes no one ever starts to counting my words!

  2. Richard Gilbert

    A lovely meditation, worth of this lovely little poem. Thank you, Victoria.

    • Hi, Richard. Thanks for your attention and support; you always make me feel that what I do is valid or interesting, and I never regret hearing from you, just as I have learned so much from you on your own site as well.

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