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Expanding Horizons: Emily Dickinson's Poetic Exploration of the Human Mind's Infinite Capacity

Emily Dickinson's poetry remains remarkably relevant in contemporary times, transcending the temporal boundaries of the 19th century. Her exploration of the human psyche, the complexities of emotions, and the enigmatic facets of existence resonates with modern readers. In an era defined by rapid technological advancements and evolving societal norms, Dickinson's keen observations on the human condition, individuality, and the mysteries of consciousness continue to strike a chord. Her ability to distil profound insights into concise, thought-provoking verses provides a timeless perspective on the universality of human experience. As we grapple with the complexities of our own lives, Dickinson's poetic legacy serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring relevance of introspection, resilience, and the enduring quest for meaning. In other words, don’t overlook poetry! It can help us appreciate things on a deeper level. Take for example, Dickinson’ “The Brain - is wider than the Sky”.

Despite the fact that Emily Dickinson’s career succeeded that of some of the most prominent Romantic poets, her poetry still remains an astounding contribution to the Romantic understanding of the world. With its interest in imagination, nature and mysticism, Romantic poetry seeks to understand the everyday, mundane objects of life through visionary insight. In, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky”, Dickinson does exactly such a thing, comparing the human consciousness and experience to features of the physical world around us, in this case, the sky or the sea. Essentially, the goal of this poem is to prove the remarkability of the human mind to its reader, doing so by using a multitude of poetic techniques and devices. This article seeks to identify and explore the specifics of Emily Dickinson’s poetic choices, and how they contribute to their desired goal of proving the power of the mind.

Given the compactness of this poem (consisting of only three quatrains), Dickinson immediately begins by emphasising the sheer magnitude of the human brain. For instance, the poetic techniques used within the first line of “The Brain - is wider than the Sky”, run parallel to the meaning behind the words themselves. Notably, a sense of expansion and breadth is created through the assonance used in phrases such as; “wider than the sky.” Within this construction, the vowel sounds promptly draws out the sentence, reinforcing the connection between vastness and the human brain. Moreover, the caesuras in the form of dashes demonstrate the same detail - that of the magnitude of the mind. Similar to the aforementioned assonance, the caesuras also expand the lines out even further, making them appear longer than what they are in actuality. In fact, the dash used after one of the first words of the poem: “The Brain –,” establishes the central metaphor of the poem, visually indicating the enlargement of the brain. When placed at the end of lines, these same dashes suggest a certain burst of energy by propelling the reader’s eye down the page. Considering that the lines are both simultaneously lengthened yet rush quickly through ideas, a sense of both spaciousness and momentum are created. Ultimately, the speaker captures the capacity of the human mind for greatness - both through metaphorical size and vigour. Just as the poem implies that the human mind exceeds its own physical barriers to imagine the infinite, the dashes enact this same sense of boundless potential - the poem’s own words cannot be restrained by form. 

Furthermore, Dickinson’s poetic voice is so profoundly confident, concise and clear within this poem that her relatively nonconformist argument has the ability to hold considerable weight. In fact, her style of writing is so precise, so fine and moves so closely in union with her mind, that she continually strikes out aphorisms across her writing. In regards to this poem, the use of tangible and quantifiable measurements used to describe metaphysical concepts adds a certain level of legitimacy to Dickinson’s poetic claim. For example, values like width, depth and weight used respectively in each quatrain add a certain sense of logic and accessibility to the argument. Using one’s own earthly perceptions, the reader is instantly able to discern the brain’s ability to absorb extensive natural phenomena in its fullness, using familiar approaches (namely, width or depth). Similarly, the self-assured poetic voice is once again present through the use of anaphora amongst the stanzas. As the same grammatical structure of, “the brain is…” repeats through the poem, not only is the logical argument further built upon; but the mind’s limitless capacity to perceive the surrounding world is emphasised. Even the ballad meter employed adds to this calm, asserted tone as the alternation between iambic tetrameter and trimeter gives the poem a predictable quality. Typically found in Christian hymns, this type of meter was traditionally used to pass down stories from generation to generation. Subtly, Dickinson could thus be implying that her poetic finding is too a fundamental truth, worthy of praise across the ages. 

Despite the importance of the first two stanzas, they arguably exist to set up the climax of the poem - the final stanza. In this quatrain, the concept of God is introduced, investigating the relationship between the brain and the divine. Unlike the last two stanzas, the brain isn’t depicted as being greater than, simply “just the weight,” of God. The distinction between the two forces (the mind and God himself) lies within the last simile: “they will differ… / As Syllable from Sound.” It is within this penultimate line that the human mind is finally elevated to the most extreme extent. Essentially, the speaker is claiming that both the brain and God are equal creators, albeit in different senses. Whilst God has constructed nature and everything in it (thus being sound), human beings ascribe meaning to this sound/nature through their own construction - syllables. As the speaker turns attention from the previously physical world to the transcendent reality of God, she inadvertently demonstrates the mind’s ability to exist beyond corporeality. In other words, Dickinson affirms that by means of the human pursuit to understand the surrounding world, each individual brain is a worthy creator in their own way. In fact, this blasphemous claim is suggested from the beginning of the poem. For example, unnecessarily capitalised words like, “The Brain,” “Sky,” and, “Sea,” elicit comparisons to the always capitalised, “God.” In treating these words with the same level of grammatical respect, Dickinson suggests their equal importance and value. 

In conclusion, Dickinson’s pursuit is to essentially make sense of the human experience through art or literature, rendering it just as treasured and transformative as God’s initial pursuit of creation. Samuel Coleridge aptly explains this Romantic pursuit, describing the role of imagination: “The Primary Imagination I hold to be… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.” Albeit an obscure explanation, Coleridge is attempting to discern that in the human’s interpretation of the surrounding world, one recreates God’s pursuit of forming the universe. Dickinson’s, “The Brain - is Wider Than the Sky,” is a testament to this belief, emphasising the potential of the human mind.

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Tags: Literature poetry Emily Dickinson romanticism


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