Emily Dickinson's "My wheel is in the dark!"

Updated on April 13, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "My wheel is in the dark!"

Despite the grammatical error in the last line of this poem, the speaker's revelation shines through clearly and offers a unique perspective about the nature of understanding and explaining the ineffable.

My wheel is in the dark!

My wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

My foot in on the Tide!
An unfrequented road —
Yet have all roads
A clearing in the end —

Some have resigned the Loom —
Some in the busy tomb
Find a quaint employ —

Some with new — stately feet —
Pass royal through the gate —
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "The wheel is in the dark!" is making a statement about knowing without sense perception.

First Stanza: Vision by Implication

My wheel is in the dark!
I cannot see a spoke
Yet know its dripping feet
Go round and round.

The speaker reports that she is capable of knowing that the spoke on a wheel moves in a circular motion as it drips water even though there is no light on the wheel. She is revealing that she, as all human beings are, is able to infer information without direct sense perception that might otherwise reveal such knowledge.

Human beings prefer to rely on what they can "see" or "hear." But sometimes seeing and hearing are not possible. For example, human beings are convinced that love and hate both exist, even though they cannot see the concepts to which those nouns refer.

The ultimate argument ensues from the issue of whether God exists. Some will argue that because he cannot "see" God, then God must not exist. The argument runs further as the atheist insists that he also cannot hear, feel, taste, or touch God—and what cannot be experienced through the senses, therefore, does not exist.

The speaker in "My wheel is in the dark!" thus counters such an argument by demonstrating that not only is metaphysical knowledge based on intuition and inference but also simple knowledge about things like wet wheels that go round and round in the dark.

Second Stanza: An Uncharted Path

My foot in on the Tide!
An unfrequented road —
Yet have all roads
A clearing in the end —

The speaker continues with her comparison stating that she is walking an uncharted path, but she knows, again by intuition and inference, that this road will eventually lead to "a clearing." Despite the danger, such as would be experienced by having one's foot "on the Tide," the speaker can with fairly great certainty be assured that all the danger and complexity of the road she walks will end, and all will be understandable when she moves into that landscape which features clarity.

The speaker places that clarity at the end, which is at the end of her life, a time at which she will come to the end of the path and enter the "clearing." Her "unfrequented road" is unique as is each road each soul must frequent as it passes through life on the physical level of being.

Third Stanza t: Resigning the Loom

Some have resigned the Loom —
Some in the busy tomb
Find a quaint employ —

The speaker now reports that others have left this world. She indicates that departure by referring to their occupation while alive. She colorfully claims that some of the folks who have died simply "resigned the Loom." But she does not offer catalogue or list of what resigners have resigned. By mentioning one earthly occupation only, she implies that that "Loom," not only refers to the occupation of weaving, but also to the fabric that exists as life itself.

Thus those "some" that have "resigned" from the fabric of life find a different way to engage their time and effort "in the busy tomb"; she claims that they "find a quaint employ." The speaker is reporting that she intuits that after death the soul will continue its engagements, even though its engagements after leaving the physical encasement will be different. They nevertheless will be "quaint," an obviously optimistic claim.

Fourth Stanza: Remaining Mum in the Afterlife

Some with new — stately feet —
Pass royal through the gate —
Flinging the problem back
At you and I!

Those souls who will remain busy with quaint engagements however are not the only class of souls that the speaker intuits. In addition to those who engage in the those quaint pursuits, there are those who will become similar to royalty. They will possess "stately feet," and the enter the kingdom of heaven on those stately feet.

The speaker then returns to the world, but without any definitive answer about what the real differences are between life and afterlife. When those of the royal, stately feet pass through that gate into paradise, they will not reveal their new experiences, they will simply be "flinging the problem" into the faces of the those left watching for wheels in the dark and walking on the Tide.

Only those who have actually passed through that heavenly gate will understand what that experience offers. Thus, we—"you and I"—will continue to speculate about that experience, as the speaker has done in this poem and the many more that are to come.

Dickinson and Grammar

As Dickinson's readers soon discover, the poet often misspelled words and left her grammatical constructions a little cockeyed. Thomas H. Johnson, the editor of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, who restored her poems to their near originals, has revealed that he did correct some misspellings. And it remains unclear why he left the inaccurate grammatical construction, "At you and I!"

Of course, the correct pronoun form in that prepositional phrase is "me" instead of "I"—the objective case is required after a preposition. A reason for leaving such an error could be to complete a rime scheme, but that is not the case with this. As a matter of fact, by inserting "me" instead of "I," a partial rime would be achieved: "feet" would become a partial rime with "me."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Nevertheless, this problem remains a slight one. No meaning is lost despite the grammatical error. Such errors may interfere with the total enjoyment of a poem, but we need not fuss about them unless they interfere with understanding. Luckily, this error does not confound meaning, and comprehension of the poem remains clear and unobstructed.

Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Source

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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