A poem I chanced upon, written by Emily Dickinson-a reclusive American poet. Unrecognized in her own time, Dickinson is known posthumously for her unusual use of form and syntax.
Born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson left school as a teenager to live a reclusive life on the family homestead where she filled notebooks with poetry and wrote hundreds of letters. Dickinson’s remarkable work was published after her death—on May 15, 1886, in Amherst—and she is now considered one of the towering figures of American literature.
One of her many works that caught my attention, as follows:
We grow accustomed to the Dark-
When light is put away-
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye-
A Moment-We uncertain step
For newness of the night-
Then-fit our Vision to the Dark-
And meet the Road-erect-
And so of larger-Darknesses-
Those Evenings of the Brain-
When not a Moon disclose a sign-
Or Star-come out-within-
The Bravest-grope a little-
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead-
But as they learn to see-
Either the Darkness alters-
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight-
And Life steps almost straight.
In this poem, the words “dark” and “darkness” seem to refer to the unknown, the many things that are unknown to us in life. These things tend to frighten us but we, as Dickinson suggested, eventually, get used to them and are able to deal with life as it comes.
Dickinson gives us the image of stepping out into the dark and needing to take a moment to get use to it in the second stanza-suggesting we will be able to see more clearly and face the road ahead. I do not think Dickinson is saying this will be easy and at times we will (in a great image) run headfirst into trees in the dark. We will never be completely safe in life because we really do not and cannot know for sure what is coming. However, as we go on, we get used to it and life becomes “almost straight”, like Carolyn Gratton says, “Life keeps happening.”
Dickinson uses darkness here to symbolize uncertainty-the basic uncertainty of life that can so often frightens us as we go along in this journey.
Her writings seems to express a certain darker darkness in itself, portraying the state of mind she was probably trapped in, at that time. She was educated at Amherst Academy (now Amherst College) and the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. An excellent student, despite missing long stretches of the school year due to frequent illness and depression. Though the precise reasons for Dickinson’s final departure from the academy in 1848 are unknown, it is believed that her fragile emotional state probably played a role.
The dichotomy of light and darkness appears already in the Pythagorean Table of Opposites. Generally, people imagined the underworld (Hades, Tartarus) as a chthonic place of darkness, contrasting with the celestial realm of the gods. There can be an unspoken fear found in the dark and its darkness. The dark and its darkness leads to death whereas light brings hope and life.
Most of us will, at the least, try, to shun or flee from things that we do not like, things that threaten and bring fear. How much of a hopelessness can one like Dickinson carry, to formulate somehow, a way of life, to get use and live life that is filled with darkness? Or maybe it’s just my ignorance, oblivious to life, living in my own world of fantasy. Not everyone live to know there is light, there is hope. It’s one thing to know, another, to own. Maybe knowing is not good enough especially when the going gets rougher.
In Genesis 1:3-4 (ESV), and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. And 1 John 1:5 says that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. This is the God who said, “Out of darkness light shall shine…” and the same God, “…who shined in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6).
Let this light be the light that separates us from darkness and this same light will shine in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God.