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Emily Dickinson's "The Brain - is wider than the Sky -"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—"

Emily Dickinson possessed a great depth of knowledge of the King James Version of the Bible. Undoubtedly, as she composed this poem, she kept in mind the following biblical claim from Genesis 1:26: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

The idea that a human being is made in the image of God was not first conceived by a poet; that claim is found in the ancient text of the Bible. Both Eastern and Western religions expound principles that the Divine Creator created His children in His image.

"The Brain—is wider than the Sky—" (#632 in Johnson's Complete Poem) offers a unique expression of understanding regarding the unity of the Godhead and humankind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

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—

Reading of Dickinson's ""The Brain - is wider than the Sky"

Emily Dickinson at age 17

Commentary

This poem compares and contrasts the human brain with the sky, the sea, and God; it is informed by claim that the Belovèd Creator formed His offspring in His very own image.

First Stanza: Brain Power

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 first stanza contrasts the brain with the sky claiming that the brain is wider because it can think about the sky and at the same time can think about the person who is thinking about the sky, and it can perform this operation easily.

Second Stanza: More Brain Power

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

The second stanza contrasts the brain with the sea asserting that the brain can take in the sea as a sponge sucks up a bucket of water, once again referencing the vast thinking ability of the brain.

Third Stanza: The Ultimate Brain Power

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—

The third stanza contrasts but also compares the human brain to God. This stanza inflicts an interpretive difficulty; certain readers might mistakenly believe that the speaker is making a blasphemous assertion that the brain and God the same. However, such a claim is without merit.

God Is Not Limited

All devout believers contend that God is not limited by or to any one item of His creation. Almighty God—the Divine Beloved and Father of All— is rightly considered to be above and greater than all His creations.

The human brain thus is only one of God's many creations, so to claim that "The Brain is just the weight of God" may at first without due reflection seem as if the speaker means that they are equal.

However, the blasphemy charge can be denied with a closer look at what the poem actually does, especially in the last three lines of the last stanza: "For heft them Pound for Pound / And they will differ if they do / As Syllable from Sound."

The speaker does not claim direct knowledge of God; she is offering her conclusion that the brain and God are similar because of their vastness which she has demonstrated in her contrasts with the sky and sea. The sky and the sea are huge creations, and yet the brain can conceive of them as ideas, which means that the brain can hold them—or at least hold the ideas of them.

As the speaker makes her claim that the brain and God are close in essence, she places forth the fact that they do differ—they differ one from the other as a "syllable" differs from a "sound." The difference is a solid one because there is a definite difference between a syllable and a sound.

However, because the aim of her speculation is to celebrate the significance as well as vastness of the brain's capabilities, the speaker avers that the brain and God are similar. After all, it is the brain that conceives the notion of God. Still, God remains greater than the brain because while the brain is a syllable, God is sound, or the brain is a representation of God, as a syllable is a representation of sound.

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.

Reclusiveness and Religion

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.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

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.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 28, 2020:

You are correct, Audrey! Emily's mind was amazing. She studied the world and its arts and sciences. We are all truly blessed that she left us her little world that she created from her brilliant imagination, insight, and intuition. Some poets are lucky to present a useful rendering of the first--imagination--but Emily's works are resplendent in all three!

Thank you for your response and kind words, Audrey! Blessings for the day . . .

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on May 28, 2020:

A most beautiful tribute to Emily Dickinson! How I admire her! What wisdom, what talent. Thank you for this informative piece...a magnificent presentation. I am surprised by some of the similarities I mirror in my own life. I don't mean her talent - I could never live up to that. I seem to understand her...to somehow resonate with her.

Amazing!

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 04, 2018:

Dickinson's poems always offer some deep, highly stylized rendering of the human experience as it meets the human condition. Her little dramas feature fascinating images that enliven with color and texture her theme of profound importance to existence and the well-being of both mind and heart. At the center is always the soul's omnipresent vision of beauty, love, and truth.

Thank you for your comment, reader! Blessings for the day.

reader on March 03, 2018:

Well done! Nicely explained in succinct manner.

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