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

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

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

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 Holy Bible, and both Eastern and Western religious philosophical texts expound principles that the Divine Creator created His children in His image. Emily Dickinson possessed a great depth of knowledge of the King James Version of the Bible. Undoubtedly, as she composed this poem, she quite obviously 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 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. Emily Dickinson’s mystical ability allowed her to interpret and expound on religious issues that would have likely labeled her a heretic in her own time as well as in many twenty-first century circles which would call her a kook instead of heretic. Truth has a way of outing itself, however, despite current mores, values, and atheistic drifting.

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/mind with the sky, the sea, and God; it is informed by the biblical claim that the Belovèd Creator formed His offspring in His very own image. That the "Brain" is wider, deeper than physical entities may bring no argument when well-understood, but "just the weight of God" might cause some concern and difficulty until the exact text is explicated accurately.

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.

That the brain can hold the sky reveals that the "Brain" is, indeed, a metaphor for "mind." It is the mind, after all that, entertains the thought that is labeled "sky." And while the mind is thinking "sky," it also has the marvelous ability to retain thoughts of "you," the reader, listener, audience—whoever might be hearing this lyric.

It will also be noted that the mind—"Brain"—possesses the ability to range even farther than the sky as it is "wider." The width of the sky is not known; it is unlimited, thus the "mind" is even beyond unlimited—it being "wider." Such a quality must give one pause as one considers the possibly of possessing an instrument that can range beyond the limits of visual acuity. And this speaker is equal to the task of offering many instances that give the reader pause for thought—in order words, to exercise that mighty Brain/mind.

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/mind.

If sponges can absorb buckets of water, they must be very large sponges and/or very many of them. The speaker is asserting again a vastness that is unlimited, even as sponges sucking up buckets of water might be. But because she does not say two buckets, four buckets, etc being absorbed by twenty or forty sponges, she has again allowed an unlimited number of items to come to mind. As the sky is limitless, those sponges and buckets must remain limitless as well, if their metaphorical likeness to the brain/mind is to remain operative.

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, as elucidated in the following section, "God Is Not Limited," 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 Belovèd and Father of All—is rightly considered to be vastly greater than all His creations. The human brain/mind 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 that the brain/mind and God are the exact same; she is concluding that the brain/mind 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 massive—seemingly cosmic in their proportions to other earthy creations—yet the brain/mind can conceive of them as ideas, which means that the brain/mind can hold them–that is, it can hold the ideas of those enormous entities.

As the speaker makes her claim that the brain/mind and God are close in essence, she expresses the reality that they do differ–they differ one from the other as a "syllable" differs from a "sound." That difference is a solid one because there is a definite difference between a syllable and a sound. The sense of the term "if"—in "if they do"—then becomes more accurately interpreted as "since" or "because." She is offering the actual difference which negates the dual property of "if."

However, because the aim of her speculation is to celebrate the significance as well as vastness of the brain/mind’s capabilities, the speaker avers that the brain/mind and God are similar. After all, it is the brain/mind that conceives the notion of God. Still, God remains greater than the brain/mind because while the brain/mind is a "syllable," God is "sound"; thus, the brain/mind becomes a perceivable symbolic representation of the ineffable God, as a syllable is a representation of sound. The difference is real, and ultimately, it is immeasurably more vast as the sky and ocean.

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.