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Emily Dickinson's "If recollecting were forgetting"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Introduction and Text of "If recollecting were forgetting"

It is widely known that Emily Dickinson had read and studied widely in history, science, and philosophy, and this little poem could likely have happened after she happened upon the discourses of Aristotle’s Organon.

While her speaker seems to be employing, however creatively, the premise of the syllogism, her language choices are so direct and simple that she makes her position quite clear without engaging in the jargon of philosophical logic.

If recollecting were forgetting

If recollecting were forgetting,
Then I remember not.
And if forgetting, recollecting,
How near I had forgot.
And if to miss, were merry,
And to mourn, were gay,
How very blithe the fingers
That gathered this, Today!

Reading of “If recollecting were forgetting”


The speaker is exploring the nature of meaning as it intrudes upon the engagement of the human mind and heart with sorrow and mourning.

First Movement: Musing and Meaning

If recollecting were forgetting,
Then I remember not.

The speaker is musing on the nature of meaning, employing the "if/then" structure: "if" one event occurs, "then" another event follows. She first employs what appears to be a paradox, rendering one act the opposite of itself.

She inverts hypothetically the literal meanings of "recollecting" and "forgetting." She is playing both a word game and a meaning game: if the opposite of one act is, in fact, its opposite, then what will happen?

The speaker specifically claims that she would not "remember," that is, she would not be "recollecting" if remember meant "forgetting." Ultimately, this seemingly confusing turnabout simply emphasizes her strong determination not to forget.

She does not offer any clue regarding what she might remember or forget, but such information is not necessary to this complex philosophically juxtapostional cogitation.

The delineation regarding the definition of opposites renders thought both wavy and stationary. The "if" clause introduces the meaning trade-off, while the "then" clause states a definitive claim.

The mind weaves in considering the "if" clause that reverses the meaning of the terms involved but then returns to a stationary position in order to accept the "then" clause.

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Second Movement: The Emphasis of Reversal

And if forgetting, recollecting,
How near I had forgot.

In the second movement, the speaker continues her musing on transference but in reverse. Interestingly, this "if" clause juxtaposition does not result in the same event as when the very same two terms were first offered in opposition to each other. Instead of a stationary claim, the speaker now asserts that she merely got close to "forgetting."

As readers refer back to her original claim in the first movement, they are struck by the fact that she is saying she prizes remembrance over forgetfulness—unsurprising that this speaker of minimalism would make such a choice.

Of course, in the pairs of opposites that drive the world living under the delusive spell of maya, one of the pairs is nearly always a positive for the good while its opposite is usually considered negative, representing the opposite of good. In the pairs of opposites focused on here—to forget vs. to remember—the obvious positive of the pair is to remember.

The complexity of the second premise does lend itself to the difference that the speaker has infixed in the contrast she had created between the first two movements. That she nearly forgot, but did not completely forget, demonstrates her favoring the positive peg of the pair of opposites, forgetting and remembering.

Thus, if she recalled, which is actually forgetting, she approached that state but did not enter it as she did in the first movement when remembering was actually forgetting.

Third Movement: Missing and Mourning

And if to miss, were merry,
And to mourn, were gay,

Having resolved the issue of forgetting and remembering, the speaker moves on to a new set of opposites which are not of the same paired quality as those with which she began in the first two movements. She is now simply reversing the traditionally accepted nature of missing and mourning.

When an individual is missing a loved one, that individual mourns. When the human heart and mind mourn, they are anything but "gay," that is, happy or cheerful. But then the speaker makes it clear that she intends to follow the same line of thinking that she has explored in the two opening movements, the "if/then" structure.

But the "then" part of the structure has to wait to be expressed in the next movement because the speaker has now focused on two encompassing acts, not merely word meaning.

If missing someone were considered a happy, cheerful situation instead of "mourn[ing]" that loss, and if mourning the loss, or missing someone were considered also happy, cheerful, then what happens?

Instead of an exact tit-for-tat, that is, meaning for meaning, the speaker has offered two negative acts as representing a positive, setting up a mystery as to how this situation can be resolved.

Fourth Movement: Nullification or Homogenization

How very blithe the fingers
That gathered this, Today!

Finally, the speaker concludes the implied "then" clause with the excited utterance—"How very blithe the fingers / That gathered this, Today!" If all that went before were the actual situation instead of being their opposites, then those "fingers" responsible for "gather[ing]" this philosophical pastiche would be proven to be mindlessly unimpressive.

"Today!" placed with an exclamation mark heralds the excited notion that turning things upside down in order to look at them from a new position in the present, instead of accepting the pain and anguish of the past and dealing with it. This bizarre heralding impels the mind to stiffen like "blithe . . . fingers." Fingers that are heedless, indifferent, and uncaring represent the mind that drives the fingers.

Quite obviously, fingers cannot gather, think, move, or do anything without the mind first engaging with an idea that will drive the activity. Thus, it is the mind that is blithe working through the fingers.

The philosophical result of the four movements concludes that while the positive may be chosen by the masterfully thinking, moving mind, a simple juxtaposition that renders one quality its opposite may rearrange the very atoms of the brain that then will create a world that does not exist and never can.

The push for dominance of one pair of any pair of opposites will result in the nullification or homogenization of any blinkered philosophical stance.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 24, 2020:

Umesh Chandra Bhatt--I very much appreciate your kind words. Emily Dickinson's poems are always amazing pieces, always showing such insight, variety, and an intelligent view of existence. One can learn much from her in many areas of learning because she studied widely in various fields of knowledge--science, history, education, as well as the creative wring areas of poetry, novels, and philosophical treatises.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 24, 2020:

Hi, Louise, nice to hear from you. Oh, yes! Everyone needs Emily Dickinson's poems. I suggest Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson--the cover is featured above.. He restored her original forms; other versions have changes that interfere with her nuances of meaning.

Thanks for commenting. Always love to hear from you . . . Blessings!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 24, 2020:

Well analysed. Well explained.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 24, 2020:

I really need to buy a book of her poems, I do love her poetry.

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